If you’ve holidayed anywhere in Vietnam, you’ve seen them. They travel in packs, drawn to each by their distinctive, bright and flashy appearance, which combined in a large group, creates the appearance of a huge, garish technicoloured monster, ready to swallow all earth colours in sight into its vortex of red, yellow and joy. I’m talking of course, about people who wear those tropical fruit shirts and shorts that are sold by everyone and their mother across Vietnam.
There’s nothing too objectionable about bright repeated patterns on shirts. Hell, I’ve been known to rock a few floral tees here and there, some have even told me it’s kind of my brand, which is weird to hear for someone with the fashion sense of a 1990s British footballer. But when hordes of people, both Vietnamese and foreign, wear these shirts and shorts together in some sort of coordinated attempt to blind anyone within 500 yards, it does leave me scratching my head. How did these clothes suddenly become so popular? Why does everyone have to wear the same thing? And isn’t there better food-related fashion out there?
Tran Minh Thuy owns a clothing shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter that stocks the tropical fruit garb, and she makes sure they are always front and centre of her displays. Though the shop at 62 Ma May Street has only been open for two years, Thuy reckons the fruit-inspired clothes really started to take off three years ago. She explained that the shirts feature prominently as they are her most popular item among locals and foreigners, even more so than the God-awful elephant pattern trousers that anyone who studied psychology and spent a week in Thailand discovering themselves wears.
This may suggest the tropical fruit-inspired garb has replaced the elephant print as a symbol of the cultured, well-travelled 20-something back in the West, or – as Thuy speculated – they’re simply popular as the shirts are fun, colourful and cheap.
Either way, the shirts are so ubiquitous in this part of the world it has become something of a cliché to wear them. Luckily though, for anyone who cares about being a cliched foreigner in Asia, there are other ways to express your love for food through fashion.
Bo Sua is a youth-focused fashion brand, and its offices look exactly how you would expect. Situated in Hanoi’s Creative City, a hub for the arts and youth culture, the sprawling space features bean bag chairs, casually-dressed young people and pictures featuring ironic plays on words on the walls. The brand by Boo, a fashion trading firm established in 2003, has been around for nine years now and has firmly established itself as one of the most popular brands among Vietnamese youths, and food fashion plays a large role in that success.
Nguyen Van Hieu has been a designer at Bo Sua since the brand was founded in 2009. In those nine years some of the most popular shirts have featured food, from instant noodles to wordplays on the fruit ô mai. Hieu explained Bo Sua (which translates as cow milk, something a lot of their designs play on) creates clothing which reference anything popular among Vietnamese youths, with food one of many ways to do this. “Food is one of the most exciting subjects.”
While this may be true, Bo Sua’s older collections focused on traditional Vietnamese food a lot, with morning glory, bun cha and other staples featuring heavily. Tradition doesn’t normally meld well with appealing to kids, and Hieu said the company works to ensure their designs don’t get stale. “There are so many ways to make it (traditional food) fresh. Creativity is one of our key values, so we try to do things in a new, fashionable way. In the past maybe we used more simple designs, now we mix trendy things in.”
As for the popularity of the lower-end tropical fruit shirts, Hieu admitted he had noticed their popularity, but didn’t see it as any sort of sea change towards food starting to dominate the fashion world. “It’s a trend that’s come back now, from around twenty years ago.”
While the shirts you can buy everywhere from Hanoi’s Old Quarter to Phu Quoc Island may not say much about Vietnam or its food, other than it looks good, Bo Sua is more tasteful, according to Hieu. He explained how Vietnamese pride is another of the firm’s core values, and it doesn’t take long to realise he and his compatriots are justifiably proud of their food. “It’s something to be proud of.”