A little light humour to counterbalance some of the moderately heavy material from the last few weeks - probably something you're already aware of: that kinda cute but slightly daft thing a lot of Vietnamese girls do with two fingers for any nearby camera, with almost terrifying enthusiasm.
Is it a sign they come in peace? Is it a backwards version of the sign for victory?
Please examine the evidence below (figures 1 - 21).
Having considered the evidence and discussed it with various local friends, it seems certain to me now that the contemporary Vietnamese version of the two-fingered signal is a simple visual/linguistic pun. The number 2 in Vietnamese is "hai", which is pronounced "hi", as in the English "hello".
That's right, the two-fingers all those girls are offering the camera are not some sort of off-key reference to anti-war activism, but a simple greeting, perhaps, you might say, a greeting mixed with some sort of low key invitation to enjoy their massively non-edgy sensibilities.
Within those general parameters though, there are a gamut of specific issues - multiple shades of silly, sweet and stylish - that the practiced observer of Asian girl-behaviours needs to pick up on, if s/he wants to fully appreciate the Vietnamese girly-hi.
With the right degree of confidence, I think the Vietnamese girly-hi is straightforwardly hot:
Though clearly adding a whiff of the shrinking violet/wilting daisy is an enchanting, old-fashioned touch too:
In groups, the desired impression seems to be that life is some sort of high school musical:
Which Vietnamese boys, when they're not hitting the piss or moralizing about female virtue, can also create to marvelous effect:
Various problems arise, however.
For example, when one is barely past the mirror stage of the great Freudian adventure, one has to concentrate very hard to differentiate the concepts of twoness, fiveness, whatness and my-it's-my-hand-iness:
Then there is the effect created by giving the hi-signal but forgetting to smile:
Or the anti-effect of hesitating to hi or even refusing to hi when everyone else is wildly cavorting to get their hi into the picture:
(Personally I think the girl in the maroon top who's too shy to hi is the attractive one in this shot: the Asian equivalent of the hot, nerdy girl who brought a novel to read at the footy.)
Clearly, there are more or less inappropriate places to give the hi signal. E.g. in front of Uncle Ho's tomb:
In front of the boys toilets at socialist boot camp:
And (of course) in front of Western anthropologues observing your behaviour at close range:
However for me, and for most Westerners, the real issues arise when the hi-signal gets turned back-to-front and starts to look like . . . an old-fashioned two-fingered salute:
In Figure 14 (below), Wally was apparently too busy explaining his mobile phone to the hot girl from Figure 1 to notice what sort of messages people were giving off in the foreground:
While at the time I took this shot:
I thought the pint-sized cutie in the middle was giving me a backwards girly-hi, which, like its cousin the frontwards girly-hi, means, of course, hi. But the more I examine the photographic evidence (the looks on her friends’ faces), the more I think she was telling me to . . . eth off.
Couldn't get more curious?
More curious still is when Vietnamese girls position their backwards girly hi's in front of their mouths and start pouting or kissing or in anyway . . . licking:
Last but not least, there is the whole issue of Westerners giving the hi-signal.
I'm not going to warn you off too strongly, but let me say the Vietnamese girly-hi is hard to get right, not least because it's hard for big-boned, irony-addicted Westerners to propose to the camera what Vietnamese girls are essentially proposing to the camera when they do the hi-thing: "look how cute I am – doesn’t it make you happy? – it makes me happy”.
The general principle: if done with an absence of blind joy or an excess of mockery, the Vietnamese girly-hi starts to look not just daft, but patently dumb.
This, I think it's easy to see, is a little awkward:
Actually, if you're interested in the upper-tier anthropological issues related to the hi-signal, it's quite useful to take Churchill’s victory-signal as a reference point.
The Vietnamese girly-hi in fact signifies the opposite of a victory over something.
What in the West became a symbol of the successful conclusion of a gut-wrenching struggle with adversity, Nazis, etc has been re-invented in East Asia as a photographic invitation to spontaneous enjoyment of nothing in particular at all.
A little bit funny, no?