True Lies: Swimming buffs in the buff call the pollution bluff

By Sen    November 18, 2019 | 10:45 pm PT
True Lies: Swimming buffs in the buff call the pollution bluff
Do Duc Hoang, 47, one of the Red River nudists, enjoys a dip near the Long Bien Bridge, November 6, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey.
Swimming and cavorting in the nude for years, some men insist the Red River water is safe and keeps them virile and strong.

While they acknowledge that the Red River waters could be polluted, they shrug off any impacts it can have on their health. So they continue to swim in the river and play games on its banks, stark naked and completely unabashed.

Their activity is referred to as a fairy shower or tam tien in Vietnamese; a modern take on a legend about fairies with godlike beauty coming down from the sky to swim in a river after having deposited their holy silk dresses on its banks.

These days, the ‘fairy’ swimmers are a group of men who have been bathing in the buff in the Red River for many years, decades even. No one can pinpoint when exactly this nudist "tradition" began or who started it, but its current proponents are proud of what they do. They also assert that they are immune to any reported impurities in the river.

"I don't feel itchy or anything. It really depends on each person's skin," Duong said.

The 33-year-old resident of Long Bien District has swum in the Red River "365 days a year" for years, so much so that any temporary absence from the activity becomes a "longing and yearning for a lover in her absence."

Duong, 33 takes a break and shoots the breeze with his nudist fellows after his swim in the Red River, November 6, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey

Duong, 33, takes a break after swimming in the Red River, November 6, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Both Duong, (one of the younger nudists in the Red River) and the middle-aged swimmers who congregate at their nudist colony are unmarked with the beer belly characteristic of many Vietnamese men these days.

55-year-old Thuan, father of four, says, "we are iron bodies."

The Long Bien District resident was taking a tea break in a ramshackle hut built by the community of nudists after taking a swim in the river.

The swimming area they frequent offers very scenic views of Red River with a clear sky and lush green landscape. The area is part of an eight-km long island stretched out under the Chuong Duong and Long Bien Bridges.

"I swim naked here almost every day, that’s how I’ve produced all boys," Thuan said, re-entrenching the patriarchal and Confucian notions still widely prevalent in Vietnamese society.

Although he didn’t mention the same miraculous reproductive effect that Thuan has enjoyed, Du, 57, who just came ashore completely bare, pointed at his skin.

"There is nothing wrong with our bodies. We swim here and we don't feel sick or have any illness," Du said.

The Ba Dinh District resident has been bathing in the river for at least 10 years, reiterating his naked mates' assertions that there was really nothing wrong with the river water.

Effluent facts

Vietnam dumps most of its urban wastewater into the environment untreated, and the Red River, which flows from Yunnan Province in Southwest China through northern Vietnam to the Gulf of Tonkin, is only one of the many recipients, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

"This is the repercussion of a long history of negligence of drainage water and urban wastewater," reads a statement posted on the ministry's portal in September.

About 30 percent of urban wastewater is pumped into rivers, canals, and lakes in Vietnam, the ministry says.

A report published by the ministry last month showed Hanoi had six operational plants that treat a total of 276,300 cubic meters of wastewater per day, amounting to just 22 percent of its daily discharge.

The city, in turn, has said that work on its new wastewater treatment plants is far from complete, while 12 more are on the anvil. Difficulty in finding private funding for drainage systems is a factor in the delayed progress, it has said.

Sewage pipes discharge wastewater a stream that goes directly to the Red River in Phuc Xa ward, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, November 10, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey

Sewage pipes discharge wastewater into a stream that goes directly to the Red River in Phuc Xa Ward, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, November 10, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

It’s not like the Red River swimmers don’t know about the issue.

Du knows wastewater has been pumped into the river from the sewage pipes located near the Long Bien market.

Behind Long Bien market under the Long Bien Bridge, there is a community with a 300-500 population adjacent to the Red River bank. People have been dumping a large amount of waste on the river bank, mainly because the roads to the residential area are too narrow and long for the city's trash collection company to access. The dumping site has been leaking into the river as a consequence.

The eight-km long island that the swimming area is part of is also filled with trash. Along some sections of the banks, plastic, used bottles, papers, metal pieces wash ashore or gradually make it away to the river.

But Du and many others have not called it quits and have learnt to read the ups and downs of the river.

"I feel the change of the water in the winter, when the water levels get low. In the winter you see a layer of dirt on the water. When the water levels are up, they bring more alluvial soils to this section of the river too," Du said.

The experience brings many health benefits, including fresh air unlike the dust and pollution which lingers in the city. Hundreds go for a swim along the banks of the river every day, according to the nudists.

Their skinny dipping is often combined with other exercises including yoga, meditation, and bag training; all done completely naked except for foot shuttlecock where players wear a pair of sneakers as they play the acrobatic sport under Hanoi's 117-year-old Long Bien Bridge.

Between bouts of exercises, people sit on wooden benches under the hut and chat over a pot of hot green tea, sometimes with curious passersby. Because the nudist swimming area is almost always an all male affair so far, women are usually warned off if they approach the place.

The naked truth

A group of nude swimmers enter the Red River for a dip in Hanoi, November 10, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey

A group of nudists step into the Red River in Hanoi for a swim, November 10, 2019. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Although the nude swimmers are a ubiquitous, normal presence for hundreds of people living along the river island, they are a surprising anomaly in a culture that does not take easily or kindly to nudism.

Women in particular are taken to task for any "immodest" displays of their body, and many models and celebrities have been criticized for this reason by both officialdom and the public, typically citing an affront to Vietnamese culture. 

The capital city only permitted its first exhibition of nude photographs last year. It was considered a "historic" event because it was organized by a government agency, the Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Outside this strip of land, swimming in the nude can be treated as an "erotic, provocative or offensive" sport and subject to fines and temporary suspension from the sport.

The nudists by the Red River have not been disturbed by officials so far, and they feel no one should find their nudity disturbing.

Sometimes his colleagues and friends join him, said 33-year-old Duong.

"There is nothing wrong with swimming naked, it's just what we did when we were kids," he said.

He also mentioned another important quality that the space holds for him and his nudist peers.

"When we're in the city, we have social classes. When we're in the river, we're back to zero, and we can be renewed."

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