This year I decided to take some additional time away from work after the Easter break and travel to Vietnam for the first time. Vietnam is an interesting country full of sensory journeys. It is still closely governed by communism and even though the war between the north and south ended in 1975, remnants of its effect are still visible in the landscape and the people who inhabit it. As far as Asia goes, global perfume companies have been bidding for their attention for over a decade. The Asian population alone is significant enough to drive the industry however their palette for fragrances, like western food is still developing and many western scents are deemed too strong for Asian noses that are calibrated towards the Tommy Hilfigers and Kenzos of the perfume world. In terms of finding out what Vietnamese men smell like, the simple answer is that in general they are naturally scented, their pores emitting a scent that reflects their diet, which is simple and clean. I was hoping to find some residual perfume culture left by the French who colonized Vietnam in the 17th century but my findings extended only to French patisseries and some remaining colonial architecture around Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is known today.
I explored the markets in search of discontinued perfume. Unlike the super malls of Hong Kong and Singapore where only the latest products will sell, the Vietnamese have a more relaxed and practical approach to shopping. So I thought I may have some luck in finding items on my wish list from bygone eras. A local friend explained that in Vietnam there are three types of markets selling perfume. One only sells fakes, another sells perfume that is 50% authentic, diluted with a cheaper locally made formula. And then there are the authentic sellers. Although I came out empty handed it was still a fun experience. Instead of finding local fragrances to add to my collection I was content to draw inspiration from the smells I encountered on my trip. The scent of incense burning on alters, fresh herbs and ripe tropical fruits lining the pavement markets. Understanding the way Vietnamese people use scent in their daily lives was not too difficult. I just followed my nose.
Predominantly Buddhist with minority groups of Christians and Muslims, most Vietnamese focus daily worship on honoring their ancestors. Alters of incense and green mangoes offer respect to their predecessors. It is also standard practice to have an offering of incense burning at the entrance of the house to bless the inhabitants and ward off evil.
Taxi drivers in Vietnam have adopted a more organic way to scent their cabs. Instead of using badly scented sachets or aerosol sprays their solution to odor masking is to keep a pineapple inside the cab. Another option is to place a cluster of shi leaves under the passenger seat. The leaves smell of 2-Iso-Propyl 4 Methyl Thiazole an aroma chemical often used to create the scent of dairy products like butter. Shi emits a powerful odor making you feel like you are seated next to the popcorn stand at the movie theatre.
The other scent I had the pleasure of encountering was on a small detour driving back to Ho Chi Minh City from the resort village, Mui Ne. A fortunate wrong turn put us on a dirt road in the middle of a rubber plantation. It had recently rained and I knew the air would be full of scent. I asked by friend to pull over so I could take in the smell, hoping it would be a live orchestra of Bvlgari’s Black. This wasn’t the case, as rubber trees will not emit the smell of rubber at this stage of production. In the silence of this plantation the air was filled with the scent of wet earth, foliage and a resinous smell similar to that of labdanum. In the sunset it was magical.
Another way I was inspired was by objects that I encountered on my trip. Some were artisanal and others were more functional such as a soda bottle that came with lunch when we had curry from a Saigon mosque. Or the Vietnamese artisans who work with egg shells and lacquer to create faux mother of pearl trinkets for tourists. It made me think of interesting ways perfume could be packaged instead of the often-simple glass houses they are routinely served in.