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For Vietnam's Millennials, Sneakers Reflect American Ideals, Self-Expression and Nostalgia

My memories of sneakers date back to when I was halfway through 7th grade, when a pair of Chuck Taylor All Star 70’s was given to me by my parents to commemorate my good end-of-semester results. The shoes felt awkward, but the sensation of having the same sneakers that the cool kids were wearing was comparable to ecstasy.

At that time, 2011 was coming to an end, and Vans’ skate shoes were dominant as another student classic. Endorsed by Vietnamese millennials, sneakers would go on to proliferate as a commodity of American street culture. At the same time, American consumerism would permeate, reshape and, at times, find itself at odds with Vietnamese life as previous generations knew it.

Vietnam was defined by material simplicity until the implementation of the 1986 Doi Moi policy, which, in opening Vietnam’s international trade routes, allowed American consumerist ideals to flow into the country. Vietnam’s first hip-hop dancers and American sneakers — Chuck Taylor’s and Nike Air Forces, according to sneaker aficionado Truong Ngoc Anh — were first spotted around 1991. Anh is the founder of #HNBMG, Vietnam’s oldest and most well-known news website on sneakers and street fashion. It was through his efforts that the term “sneakerhead” became widely known by 2015, though he deems it inadequate to cover both the span of his interest in sneakers and their history in Vietnam.

“In its beginning years, hip-hop and street fashion weren’t so warmly received. To many people, they seemed too bold, too separated from their daily lives,” Anh tells Saigoneer.

Mass media scholar Huong Nguyen argues that as US–Vietnam relations were normalized in 1995, and corporate marketing power was granted more leeway after the 1999 revision of the 1980 Media Law, the occidental term 'teen' became localized and “common in the social discourse” by 2004. The emergence of branding power signaled the proliferation of a crop of high school students and young adults — Vietnamese millennials — who spiritually feed on fashion and consumer culture. Seeing as their choice of garments in school was restricted to uniforms, many embraced the freedom to choose nice footwear. A fresh alternative to old-fashioned Bitis and Thuong Dinh shoes, Converse officially entered Vietnam in 2003 and quickly became a phenomenon among youths. For the first time, sneakers ventured out of Vietnam’s underground landscape and into daily life.

Sneakers become part of Vietnam's youth culture right from within the boundaries of schools. This 38-member class at a high school in Hai Phong decided to wear the same pair of black-and-white sneakers. Photo via 2SAO.

By 2008, when Anh started breakdancing, hip-hop was already taking Hanoi by storm. “Its presence went onward to an all-time high. The ‘masters,’ as we called them, had such captivating moves and a distinctive sense of style, they inspired me to get my own sneakers and dance,” he shares.

Sneakers, street fashion and consumerism were becoming popular as a result of the country’s rapid economic growth. According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s poverty rate dropped from 58% in the 1990s to 10% in 2016, while national income per capita increased from US$110 in 1991 to US$2,170 in 2017. In urbanizing areas where the middle class continues to grow, parents are now willing to spend big on their children. Youth now have the means to covet novelties, inviting foreign enterprise to expand into Vietnam.

Facebook arrived around 2009 and grew rapidly thanks to the same generation that concurrently brought street culture to unprecedented popularity. Vans entered Vietnam in 2011 and, alongside Converse, became as endearing a reminder of student life as uniforms and delightful sticks of after-school nem chua rán. Nike LeBron shoes were seen more regularly, later complemented by Kyrie’s and Kevin Durant’s. DC’s sturdy high-tops and sleek Adidas NEOs were sights to behold and covet. The artistic lot, meanwhile, fixated on Jeremy Scott’s winged designs for Adidas Originals, and by 2015 the brand’s ZX Flux line had already taken Hanoi by storm, along with Nike’s Roshe Run. While Adidas Yeezy and Ultra Boost shoes soared thanks to rapper Kanye West’s reputation, their Chinese counterfeits were widely adopted by those unable to afford the real thing.

Aside from sneakers, Palladium and Dr. Martens boots have also garnered considerable interest. Instagram made a watch from Sweden’s Daniel Wellington a must-have item in 2015, and since then the garments of Gucci and Off-White have become more prevalent. Millennials revel in a diversity of labels, mixing and matching to achieve good looks.

When asked if nowadays there is more awareness of appearances among adolescents than before, Le Cong, who works at a Ma May skate shop, told me confidently in Vietnamese: “Definitely. And bolder appearances too.” Cong, who has been paying close attention to young Hanoians’ Old Quarter outfits for over a year, agrees with Anh on the idea of progress. Vietnamese millennials now believe, more than ever, that not only is a good look crucial, but a look must be somewhat American — whether a T-shirt, an undercut hairstyle, millennial pink, a tanned complexion, or a pair of sneakers — in order to be considered good.

Sneakerheads show off their favorite pair at a Sneaker Fest event. Photo by Chyck Photography via Barcode.

This adherence to an American look testifies to the power of American ideals in Vietnamese life, albeit only to a certain extent. In other variations of consumerism, adolescents and adults recite the lyrics of Eminem, watch every Marvel movie, and swarm malls during weekends. Teenagers gossip about Taylor Swift’s latest feuds and the misadventures of the Kardashian family, while children grow into the comforts of smart electronic products. Parents pay huge sums of money for consulting services and standardized tests so that their children may have the privilege of studying in American universities. In Vietnam, the American Dream lives on.

Vietnamese life itself — saturated with an emphasis on personal success and style — is already vastly different from what it was before Doi Moi. Consumerism is taking over material simplicity day by day, incentivizing young Vietnamese to stand out, rather than conform. Starting with a pair of sneakers, fashion embodies their materialism and drive for idiosyncrasy. So long as nostalgia persists, this emblem of Vietnamese modernity will not escape its antithesis — an insistence on preserving past traditions. But perhaps there is a way to ease the conflict.

In 2008, an image of a bundle of water spinach (rau muống), an essential for many Vietnamese meals, was rendered on a T-shirt in the first-ever design from BOO, a fashion company which evolved from one of the first skate shops in Vietnam. It quickly gained favor from students in Hanoi and was followed by numerous other designs, featuring the familiar bowl of bún chả, the pre-reform toad fan (quạt con cóc) and the iconic One Pillar Pagoda. The concept of merging Vietnamese cultural images with American clothing was a breath of fresh air that worked flawlessly. BOO’s sales skyrocketed through 2015, launching the company’s reputation to the levels of Vans and Converse’s.

After BOO’s success came the proliferation of local brands — new Vietnamese fashion labels that start out humble, aim for originality, and in time, garner a sizable community of followers. Entering people’s lexicon around 2012, the term local brands embodied the national spirit of innovation and creativity, at the heart of which lay a fervent desire to feature Vietnamese traditional images in one’s products.

Minimalist renderings of patterns on prehistoric Dong Son bronze drums, for example, appear on the soles of Da Nang-based RieNevan’s skate shoes. Meanwhile, when it comes to sophisticated embroidery on the re-imagined áo dài, Saigon-based artist Tran Duong has pioneered this craft since 2012. Moreover, as a successor to BOO’s legacy, Hanoi’s up-and-coming Tired City label has recently collaborated with some of the capital’s most renowned graphic designers. The results, t-shirts and hoodies bearing Hang Trong and Dong Ho folk paintings or illustrations of a skateboarding Confucian scholar, are hailed as ingenious expressions of Vietnamese culture on these articles of American clothing. Though small in number, these successful attempts prove that instead of relegating or replacing Vietnamese culture, American consumerist and individualist notions can be used to raise it to new heights.

BOO's Vietnam-specific designs with the rau muống design (No. 7) and more. Image via Facebook page Bò Sữa by BOO.

“You can see this already happening in different areas of art and entertainment,” says Anh, referring to a recent wave of independent music artists such as Vũ., Ngọt and Le Cat Trong Ly, who have gained nationwide attention by bringing cà phê sữa đá, adolescent love within crumbling apartments and the mellifluous sound of the bucolic flute (sáo) into their rock songs and ballads.

In well-known book cafés such as Tranquil and Bluebird’s Nest, adolescents escape from modern hassles and tuck into the comfort of Hanoi’s reading culture, as the cafés themselves preserve culture by hosting events memorializing Trinh Cong Son’s music or introducing publications on Asian cultural linkages. Located within Hanoi’s Royal City mega-mall, the recently established Vincom Center for Contemporary Art shares aspects of both traditional and daily Vietnamese life with the masses, while the city’s Six Space and The Factory Contemporary Arts Center in Saigon are sanctuaries for artists who re-contextualize Vietnamese culture in myriad colors, materials and textures.

“What we’re witnessing at the moment is a degree of diversity and creativity like never before, not merely in fashion but in fields. The Vietnamese youth have an undying hunger for new things, and the world is devoting more attention to Asian cultures more than ever,” Anh adds, citing Vietnamese rapper Suboi’s recent collaboration with 88rising, a renowned US-based music label primarily for Asian artists, as an example. Another fitting illustration would be the sheer number of videos featuring Asian and Asian-inspired food on social media — matcha, bimbimbap, hand-pulled noodles, bánh mì, phở and even the famously questionable phở pizza.

“The conditions are ripe for Vietnamese cultural products to shine, for our designs to become global forces,” he continues. To successfully weave Vietnamese traditions into commodities of Western cultures is a tremendously difficult task, one that requires sensitivity and an unwavering commitment to refinement, but the fruits, cultural and generational reconciliation, shall be the sweetest of all. Starting with a pair of sneakers and its late-1990s introduction in Vietnam, American consumerism and individualism are already and will continue to be vehicles for Vietnam to show its cultural merit.

Prospects of success lie ahead for Vietnamese millennials, and so does an exciting future for Vietnam.

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