Vietnamese attach considerable importance to their appearance and cleanliness. Very few people – however poor – let themselves be seen in dirty clothes and with tangled or matted hair. Even construction workers, who literally live on building sites, shower every day and wash their – albeit very old – clothes. However, some notions of cleanliness and personal hygiene are relative: you may observe such common scenes as modish young women waiting at traffic lights busily excavating unwanted waste matter from their delicate nostrils, or hormonal young men intent on bursting blackheads with the aid of a motorbike mirror… Of course, the positive side to this is that it leaves you pretty free to do the same, should the spirit move you. Note also that Vietnamese society is relatively tolerant of the unshaven look, possibly more so than of fully grown Western beards, in fact: it is usually only elderly men here who sport Ho Chi Minh-style wispy Outcrops that trail from patriarchal chins.
Vietnamese find nothing cool (yet!) about torn jeans, oversized loose shirts or antiquated and world-savvy T-shirts. They just can’t understand how someone who has enough money to travel to foreign countries can be so lacking in self respect as to dress scruffily. They have developed two expressions to designate backpackers: tay ba lo and tay bui (meaning ‘Westerner with a packsack’ or ‘dirty literally dust – Westerner’). Try to stay in the first kind if you want to earn any respect from the local population.