Everyone in Saigon is completely batshit crazy over taking selfies. It’s rampant. At shopping centers, in front of product placements at the store, standing in front of movie posters at the theater, standing in the middle of the street.
I recently met the Vietnamese girlfriend of an expat friend of mine (yes they compliment each other age-wise; I’ll broach that fascinating topic of age appropriateness another time). I had been told she was a model and quite beautiful – and indeed she was stunning. She sat down next to me at dinner and before introducing herself, she snapped a selfie, handed me her phone and said, “Don’t I look pretty?”. To which I replied, “Uh yeah, you’re sitting right next to me, I can see for myself”. It’s all very weird to me, because other than the occasional random one with friends, the act of taking a selfie is really not all that interesting to me.
At first I thought this phenomenon was kind of strange, but now I think I know why. Until last year, the Vietnamese government blocked access to (I believe) most if not all of social media, but then suddenly they made Facebook available – and now every single person I’ve met has a Facebook account. So I’m guessing that with this newfound freedom, smartphones are more and more accessible. You can’t walk down a city street, even a calm one if you can find it, without having to come to a sudden stop and practically knock down the person in front of you because the person in front of them has stopped to take a selfie or eighteen of themselves.
The other phenomenon I’ve noticed is people paying photographers to take professional looking pictures of themselves. When I first got here, I saw a few really nice looking girls all dressed to the nines with what appeared to be a professional photographer taking pictures of them. They too like to stop traffic, or stand in the middle of a busy sidewalk so you have to zigzag around them to not walk through their picture. I must have unwillingly photobombed at least 50 of these set ups, and I’ve only been here a little over a month. Initially I thought, How great! Vietnam, as an emerging market, has a ton of really beautiful models, and they're making money! But the truth is, everybody does it. Yesterday I was at the gym which overlooks a walkway stretched between two buildings. Suddenly appeared three slender girls wearing heels so high I’ve no idea how they were actually walking, and a photographer-type dude, who immediately sent them down the walkway one by one so he could capture it all on film. Unbeknownst to them, I’m also unwillingly photobombing those pics, so they’ll have to get them redone I’ m sure. Talked about it to a British guy I met yesterday who laughed and said, “Yeah everyone here does it. I’ve got ‘professional’ pictures of myself done too. It’s just what people do here”.
It’s a little bit like running the gauntlet. Every 10 feet down a sidewalk someone has stopped to take a selfie or someone is getting their picture taken, so it takes you twice as long to get anywhere because of the obstacle course. That’s if you can find a sidewalk to actually walk on, one that’s not overtaken by motorcycles, scooters, people lounging about in small plastic portable chairs, and food vendors. But I’m not complaining. I find these little pockets of subculture fascinating. The Vietnamese are the most gracious hosts I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and I’m grateful for the time I get to spend here. I just don’t want to be in anyone’s selfie.