'Street ninjas' battle sexism and the sun in Vietnam

They are the face of Vietnam's motorbike culture, a manifestation of an obsession for light skin, and sometimes the target of sweeping sexism.

Every morning before she hits the streets on her bike, Phi Anh wraps herself in a thick hoodie, a face mask, a pair of long gloves, sunglasses and a “covering dress”, a garment akin to a kitchen apron that covers her legs.

However nice her outfit looks each day, whether it’s a beautiful dress or casual jeans and a T-shirt, it will be hidden away until she is safely out of the sun.

“I HAVE to,” the 23-year-old emphasized. “I don’t want my skin to get dark. Besides, it's impossible to bear the sun here, it just burns your skin.”

In the tropical city of Saigon, where the sun is always hazy and most people don’t own a car to shield themselves from the rays, Anh’s driving get-up is a popular choice among sun-exposed motorbike drivers.

In fact, a 2016 survey by W&S, a Southeast Asian market research firm, showed it is the preferred method to avoid the sun in Vietnam, instead of applying sunscreen like their Thai peers or wearing long-sleeves like in Indonesia. Survey respondents said it prevents UV damage - such as skin cancer, sunburn and freckles - and protects their hair and eyes. 

Face masks are a must while commuting in a country where hazardous air pollution is a silent killer.

The culture of whiteness

These multiple layers are an indication of the female obsession with pale skin. Like elsewhere in Asia, light skin tones have long been set as an example of beauty and high social status in Vietnam, so many women put up with the excruciating heat just to keep their skin from being touched by the sun.

An advertisement for a sunscreen product seen on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. “Your skin will remain white, the sunlight will be defeated,” the slogan promises.

The popular explanation for the preference involves Vietnam’s agricultural roots. The poor were usually tanned laborers working under the sun in the paddy fields, while the rich had lighter skin and were often depicted “sitting in the shade, eating from a golden bowl” (ngoi mat an bat vang).

This cult-like fascination can be traced back to the country’s oldest folk tales in which beautiful female characters were usually described as having fair skin. Some even died in the stories trying to achieve a pale look. In Tam Cam, known as the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, the villainous sister is lured into a bath of boiling water thinking it would give her "beautiful white skin" like Cinderella. It remains one of the most famous fairytales in Vietnam and is taught in schools.

A poster for a beauty salon in Ho Chi Minh celebrates fair-skinned actresses.

Nowadays, this preference for being pale is being driven by the effects of foreign cultural waves, from Westernization during the colonial and globalization eras to the recent K-Pop sensation.

One of the biggest winners has been the cosmetics industry. A survey conducted in big cities by Intage Vietnam, a market research company, found that the whitening effect was the priority for the majority of customers, making up 66 percent of their purchasing decisions. 

Profiting second from this frenzy must be the sale of the outfits. Costing from VND70,000 to VND100,000 ($3-4.4), these coats and dresses are sold everywhere in varying patterns, colors and styles.

Typical traffic offenders?

The "ninja" outfits, as wryly dubbed in Vietnam, worn mostly by female motorists have become so dominant on the street that they are more than just an interesting fashion trend or a manifestation of women’s age-old battle for light skin.

German writer Juli Zeh in her travel diary published recently in Vietnam, titled The Land Where Young Women Ride Motorbikes in Floral Coats, compared the swagger to the abaya worn by Muslim women, and called the dressers the peace-keeping force of the "Clash of Civilizations."

Basically, she wrote that suddenly, the Islamic world lost its unique symbol and the Christian world lost its emblem of enemy.

But when stood side by side with Muslim women, the Vietnamese “ninjas” have more in common than you might expect: they have also found their driving ability being questioned, and in some cases condemned, especially on social media.

[Youtube Video] Ninja and their traffic scaring army, link in Vietnamese, by Trang TV, an online viral video producer in Vietnam.

Dash-cam footage of colorful motorists causing traffic accidents have been widely circulating on Facebook and Youtube. They were captured “signaling to turn right before turning left”, recklessly cutting in front of other vehicles, or suddenly pulling over without any signal.

“It must be all the layers and the masks. It blocks them from seeing the road,” one viewer wrote.

The "Ninja Scooter" has become a fictional character with its own Facebook page, where most of the posts are collections of traffic offenses committed by women in ninja-style outfits.

“They are the worst of all. They drive as if they own the road and don't give a damn about other drivers," another added.

The magic of social media has turned the female "ninjas" into an unflattering meme lord and comic character.

“They are depicted as mysterious and full of surprises,” said Bui Dinh Thang, a well-known satirical illustrator and founder of Thang Fly Comics. His comic's Facebook page has over 880,000 followers and features the "female traffic ninja" as one of its main characters.

"Our works are inspired by real-life events." Thang said. "And we illustrate them in satirical cartoons. For the 'ninja' traffic character, we gather material on the internet and draw satirical cartoons of these 'ninjas',” he told VnExpress International.

“Interviewer: Could you share some tips on how to never be late for work and make everyone give way to you? 'Ninja': Wear this outfit!”

“It’s April Fools. Should I signal left and turn right as usual, or surprise them by signaling left and actually turning left?”

Screenshots of "Ninja' story by Thang Fly Comics circulated on Facebook.

Explaining why this portrayal of covered female scooter drivers has become so popular on social media, Nguyen Minh, a Vietnamese researcher majoring in semiotics in media studies, believes they have become the scapegoat of growing traffic presure in the big cities.

"While we are not sure how frequently these women break the traffic laws in real life, they have become an easy online scapegoat for people to vent their anger about bad driving in general," he said.

When you think about cities in Vietnam, you think of motorbikes,” he said. “And when you think of motorbikes, the image of the faceless women driving down the street every day springs to mind.

"Their presence is ubiquitous but at the same time they have no identity. Being anonymous makes them the perfect target for reckless jokes on the internet,” Minh added. 

He also noted that this notorious depiction has only emerged in recent years.

"Compared to when the word 'ninja' was first used as a funny way to describe women all wrapped on their scooters in the early-2000s, the current depictions on social media are getting more cruel and sometimes out of line," said the researcher. 

Others believe the portrayal spirals from a so-called confirmation bias.

“When people tell you about a certain type of 'bad driver', you tend to selectively remember whenever you are cut off on the street by women wearing a similar outfit in order to confirm the theory, overlooking men who don’t fit the description,” said Hoang Linh, founder of the Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality. "This has resulted in what I call a mass shaming campaign as we have seen.”

Linh said she herself has witnessed how this happens first hand.

“My Photoshop instructor once produced a series of posters degrading the ‘Ninja Scooter’ and showed them to the class. He explained that after hearing the ‘legends’ of the Ninja Scooter, he finally encountered one on a rainy night in a traffic collision. The instructor concluded that he was 'not discriminating against anyone, but these women really are the brainless creatures we've been told about.'"

“He needed only one experience to prove the point,” Linh said, “and then spent time and effort to discriminate against a whole group of people.”

A victim of sexism?

In a darker turn, the "Ninja Scooter" comics and videos have become a place for people to express their concerns about women drivers.

“This may be a bit defaming to women in general, but it’s a crime to sell motorbikes to them,” reads one of the most-liked comments on the Traffic Ninja page.

“Selling gasoline to women is an act of crime,” another wrote.

When asked about those remarks, Dinh Thang said he believes they "mean no harm.”

“They are harsh but I think people only say them for fun,” he said. “I have seen women’s driving skills being mocked elsewhere in the world, even in the West. They have certain limitations compared to men. It’s a universal thing,” the artist said.

While Thang added that he doesn't think anybody has the intention of banning women from driving, some think such jokes and their following comments have a more sexist fallout than thought.

“The problem of the 'ninja scooter' jokes is that they have drifted away from the original issue of the funny outfit and evolved to target women and eventually condemn their driving skills as a whole,” said a representative of Jokes Had Better Be Funny (Dua Thi Phai Vui), a Vietnamese Facebook page that addresses gender discrimination by exposing sexist comments and behavior online. 

Comments such as it is a crime to sell gasoline to women are just plain sexist, over-generalizing and branding all female riders as negligent drivers."

Experts noted that the scathing attacks on social media show the prevalent gender prejudices in Vietnam. As women are largely considered inferior in society, their mistakes on the street are more vulnerable to harsh and even unfair criticisms.

And while traffic offenders can be anyone, regardless of sex or age, a few women who happen to share the same appearance have been hand-picked for a public smearing campaign.

Hoang Linh, whose NGO is working to promote gender equality among the younger generation, added that this baseless but harmful portrayal of female drivers online can make it harder to change people's attitudes. "This kind of discrimination can only inculcate the current gender stereotype. And without anyone raising their voice, it will fall into a vicious circle," she said.

Jokes Had Better Be Funny concluded: "In the bigger picture, this atittude derives from a sexist mindset and gender discrimination that if allowed to continue, might lead to more severe consequences, including tolerance for domestic violence and rape.”

When asked whether her face mask and coat somehow hinder her view of the road as many suspect, Phi Anh denied it. “If that is the case, why is nobody complaining about full-face motorbike helmets?”

The outfits sometimes serve another purpose other than shielding them from the sun, she added. On days when they wear short skirts, Phi Anh and her friends have to wear them at night to stop men from groping or even slashing them with razors, which is reported once in a while in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I see these bashing threads as something entertaining,” said the young freelancer. “In this country, you can’t expect people to understand how much they discriminate against women.”


Story by Nhung Nguyen

Photos by Quynh Tran

By Nhung Nguyen