Over the weekend, a photo of three teenage girls smoking while wearing áo dài – the nation’s proud traditional dress, also used as uniforms for female students in many high schools – upended the Internet in Vietnam. A few hours after its upload, the photo had garnered more than 3,000 likes on Facebook and hundreds of comments and shares.

Source: http://ngoisao.vn/

Source: http://ngoisao.vn/

The incident appears likely to wind down quickly after the initial furor, as such things do here. But the several reasons behind such an outsized response from Vietnam’s social media are worth mulling over.

Reason 1: They’re females
The response to the photo has not primarily been one of concern for the three girls’ health. Almost exclusively, it’s been a response to the fact that these are young women. Like it or not, Vietnam remains a highly patriarchal society, and the social media outcry reveals much about the state of gender equality in the country. For Vietnam’s Internet users, neither the act of smoking nor its proven health hazards are as worrisome as the gender of these smokers.

On kenh14.vn, arguably the most visited site for Vietnamese teens and young adults, a majority of comments from both sexes reveal sourness. A reader with the alias +_+PoKeMon+_+ claimed that he felt “allergic” to such a scene, while Huynh, another reader, said he was “really disappointed about girls today.” Many males shared similar sentiments, but female commentators showed little if any more tolerance.

Under the name Khanh T, a Facebooker proclaims: “Many girls think smoking proves a strong and dare-to-be-different personality, but most guys actually prefer a ‘good’ girl over one that blows smoke. [no pun intended] This is just off putting.”

Fewer guys approved of the girls’ action, perhaps in the name of gender equality. Facebooker Duy Hai commented: “That is their right. If guys can smoke, why can’t girls do so?” A number of young women even struck back. Thuy Dung, for example, replied to one comment: “Normal? Would you call it normal if it was your girlfriend who is smoking, or if you saw your mother smoking with your father? This is not prejudice; it’s called civilization.”

At the other end, those who do not find the girls’ gender problematic raised their voice in a nonchalant fashion, a lot like how Leonard argues against Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory” – not arguing exactly, more like whining before succumbing.

Reason two: They’re wearing that dress:
The áo dài. It is to Vietnamese what kimonos are to Japanese, or Sari to Indians. It is a symbol of almost everything Vietnam most prizes in its people. In other words, it’s kind of a big deal.

If the girls had been wearing jeans, the drama would barely have been barely noticeable. Yet in áo dài, the act of smoking becomes an unbearable offense to Vietnam’s traditional values, which, in tight relation with Confucianism, dictate that a “good” woman should be hard working, nourishing, gentle, modest, self-sacrificing, and earnest. In fact, many of the online commentary about incident were put under the tag “bad behavior” or “misconduct”. The photo speaks of rebellion and self-indulgence, thus, destined for condemnation.

While the gender issue alone evoked contradicting opinions, the Internet community seems united in agreeing that the áo dài makes this is an act of shame. “They are exhausting all values of an áo dài,” writes Yunjaeminchunsu on Facebook. Similarly, many lament that the scene debases Vietnamese women, as it depicts only frivolity, corruption, and perversion. Another Facebooker named Doãn Chi Bình even went as far to call the girls “skanks.” Some like doll_fallinlove and Pluie D’Hiver confessed that while Western female smokers do not make them raise their eyebrows, it is unsettling to see Vietnamese girls do so. “Take the áo dài away from cigarettes”, Pluie D’Hiver demanded.

Reason three: The timing
The posting of this photo came, perhaps not coincidentally, three days after a new government decree against smoking went into effect on May 1. That decree prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from smoking or purchasing cigarettes, and also determines appropriate places for smoking, amongst other things. To which most of people give a cold shoulder, despite the fact that the new law also sets considerable fines for violations. Well, habits die hard, and if you have lived in this country for a while, you must have seen people smoke almost everywhere, including hospitals.

Men smoking in hospitals despite warning signs – Source: vov.vn

While a few commenters drew a link between this “outrageous” photo and the new decree, others showed either little awareness or recognition of it. For instance, a teenage commenter under the nickname Heoboo said, “I only know of this law now. I’ve been buying cigarettes for my Dad but seen no change.”

Teens seem largely oblivious of the new decree, and adults skeptical. Newspaper articles published on 1 May on the new law garnered comments – if any – that mostly express either cynicism or denial. On vnexpress.net, Vietnam’s most read news site, Mad Chickiez put it: “Let’s be honest. Can the cops and those officials be sure that they themselves would not smoke [in accordance with the new law] while forbidding civilians?” Many expressed a concern that the law puts an unreasonable financial burden on some of Vietnam’s poorest citizens. As Thanh.adam noted, “How can you make motorbike taxi guys pay VND 500,000 [$24 USD] for smoking?”

The law is understandably deemed unenforceable in a country where many people’s jobs and lives are on the street, where the line between public and private space is blurred. The great majority of the population  is in the working class — also the most populous smoking group — and the proposed fines for smoking in banned venues, including many public areas, can represent up to 15% of the average monthly income.

One week after the law enforcement, Phan Thi Hai, M.A., Deputy Chief of Vietnam Steering Committee on Smoking and Health, told an Infonet correspondent that no case of fines had been recorded. According to the World Health Organization, with 15 million smokers (48% of the male population and 1.4% of the female), Vietnam ranks among the 15 countries with highest rates of cigarette smoking in the world

While many may say health concerns over the act of smoking remain the more legitimate issue for debate, this little scandal reveals an interesting examination of the shifts (or the lack of them) in gender equality and social norms in Vietnam.

-Written by Mai Huyền Chi