A nip here and a tuck there could lead to a better life, if you believe in local folklore.
In the western world, pronounced cheekbones are widely regarded as an attractive feature, but for Vietnamese women the same attribute could mean an untimely demise for their future husbands.
Vietnamese folklore and face reading have long advised men not to marry women with high cheekbones, unless they want to die early.
Ngoc, a 26-year-old Hanoian woman, has had her cheekbones reduced for fear of becoming another woman ‘left on the shelf’.
“Everybody told me it was true, so I haven’t dared to fall in love with anyone,” Ngoc said.
For a full transformation, Ngoc paid a total $8,800, which included double eyelid surgery, a nose job, and chin and cheekbone reductions.
26-year-old Hanoian Ngoc before (L) and after (R) cheekbone reduction surgery. Photo courtesy of Ngoc.
Vietnamese women like Ngoc are increasingly undergoing plastic surgery not just for beauty reasons, but in the hope of a happy love life, a bigger fortune and a brighter destiny. Vietnamese folklore has a big part to play in this, as it deems monolids as fishy, unreliable ‘eel’s eyes’, a physically big-mouthed woman as a gossip and undignified, and beauty marks under the eyes as a bad omen similar to high cheekbones.
Features such as bushy eyebrows, a wide chin, bumpy nose or crooked teeth are considered bad luck, often ‘too manly’ for a woman and simply not attractive, according to Vietnamese standards.
According to one common folklore: “Big-mouthed men are classy, but big-mouthed women ruin the family.”
Though hundreds of these centuries-old sayings are no longer popular, many are still lodged in Vietnamese people’s minds. Double eyelids, a slimmer nose bridge, cherry lips, a V-shaped chin and lower cheekbones are particularly favored, as they portray a harmonious and auspicious look.
And if getting rid of the bad luck was not enough, women can now create their own dimples not only to look cute, but also to attract wealth.
A rosy industry
Plastic surgeons across Vietnam have extensively made use of these traditional beliefs as marketing tool, extolling its virtues with advertisements saying “straight nose for fortune”, or “change your destiny with double eyelids”.
Demand for surgery soars as Lunar New Year nears. In December, beauty clinics across Vietnam reported double or even triple revenue, with many women looking for a new nose or fuller lips just in time for the New Year, which falls in mid-February.
“Nose jobs, chin reductions, breast augmentation and fat removal are popular,” says Hang Bui, a consultant at a beauty clinic that’s been open for two years in Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
This close-knit relationship between face-reading and plastic surgery is shared widely across Asian countries such as South Korea, home to the world’s biggest plastic surgery industry, and China, its fastest-growing market. And though Vietnam is not a plastic surgery haven yet, it was crowned the cheapest country in the world for plastic surgery by the Beauty Price Index last year – with a nose job costing just under $1,000 and breast augmentation for only $2,000.
But discount prices always come with risks. In October 2013, a woman in Hanoi died during a liposuction and breast enhancement procedure. Her surgeon was sentenced to 19 years in jail in December 2014 after dumping her body into a river.
Last December, Nguyen Thi Loan, a spa worker in Ho Chi Minh City was half-blinded and paralyzed after having a non-surgical nose job with injectable fillers.
This January, Huynh Suong, a 22-year-old from the southern province of Dong Nai, also suffered a similar fate after undergoing double eyelid surgery at a spa.
Vietnam has over 100 licensed plastic surgeons in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but thousands of unlicensed practitioners are operating across the country, according to local health departments.
But these accounts of plastic surgery disasters haven’t stopped Vietnamese women from going under the knife. To achieve the right look to find a partner and a happy life, many are willing to go the extra mile.
Huynh Tien, a restaurant manager in Saigon, had her first surgery when she was 22. In last August, the 30-year-old had already undergone 13 procedures and spent a total of nearly $9,000.
“I thought I was ugly, and that was why guys left me,” Tien said about past relationships. “Then I became obsessed with plastic surgery, thinking my love life would change.”
Nguyen My Linh, another 30-year-old who has had five nose jobs, was frustrated with the failed procedures – but admitted her life has changed for the better.
“We should know when to stop and spend time on learning and life skills, because women are the most beautiful when they have both a beautiful soul and appearance,” Linh said.
Like many other women, Ngoc, the 26-year-old Hanoian who had her cheekbones reduced, will continue riding her luck.
“Since the surgery, my job and love life have progressed,” Ngoc said. “Next, I’m going to get breast implants.”