It has been nearly 25 years since North Vietnam defeated the South, and Vietnam is now at peace—politically speaking, anyway. But when it comes to the beauty pageant craze sweeping the country, the old rivalry between north and south is as heated as ever. While Saigon—now formally known as Ho Chi Minh City—is the nation’s epicenter of all things fashionable, Hanoi, headquarters of the governing Communist party, clings to its reputation as the home of classic Vietnamese beauty. “Hanoi girls have a cultured quality that we value highly,” says Minh Hanh, 38, the country’s premier dress designer.
If so, culture wasn’t enough to cut it with the judges at this year’s Miss Vietnam contest. Held Nov. 5 in Saigon, it was the first nationally sponsored event of its kind ever held in reunified Vietnam—and it was full of surprises. A power outage plunged the Phan Dinh Phung arena into darkness for 15 minutes, and the sellout crowd laughed loudly when two presenters tripped and crashed to the stage. But the biggest—and most welcome for local residents—upset came when hometown model Nguyen Thien Nga, 24, beat out the odds-on favorite, a university student from Hanoi, to become Vietnam’s official reigning beauty. “Was I nervous? Of course,” says Thien Nga, who won a $2,150 prize. “I was 90 percent sure it was going to be me, but you know, 10 percent can change everything.”
Thien Nga can afford to be confident. In the three short years since she began modeling while still a student at the Foreign Commerce College in Saigon, she, along with a few other top models, has become an icon of sorts in a country starved for pop culture. Vietnam’s modeling and fashion industries are in their infancy, but they are beloved by young Vietnamese. Fashion shows and beauty contests tend to be elaborate productions with popular singers, dancers and dozens of models in imported outfits. Scalpers are often the only source of last-minute tickets. “There isn’t much action for young people here, so this type of show is a big night on the town,” says Vietnamese-born entrepreneur Jacqueline Le Trinh, 39, who represents Thien Nga and who lived in San Francisco for 26 years before returning to Vietnam to found its first modeling agency in 1995.
Born just six weeks after the fall of Saigon in 1975 (according to government figures, fully half the population is 25 years old or younger and has no memory of the war), Thien Nga is the oldest daughter of Nguyen Huu Phuong, 56, director of the Electronics and Computer Center of the Vietnam National University of Ho Chi Minh City, and his late wife, Xuan Hong, an accountant with a pharmaceutical firm. “I didn’t understand the new [Communist] system,” says her father, who had no choice but to join socialist-labor projects in the countryside after his university was temporarily closed by the new regime. “But for the sake of my people, I had to believe in it.”
In the years that followed, Thien Nga, her parents and two siblings—brother Minh Hoang, 17, now a high school senior, and sister Thien Trang, 22, a college business major—lived on rationed food in a small house near a noisy marketplace. At the age of 5, Thien Nga was chosen by a friend of the family to perform in a children’s singing group and appeared regularly on Saigon radio. But her parents, fearful that daily rehearsals would interfere with schoolwork, took her out of the group after two years. Slowly, the family’s financial situation improved, and by 1991 they were able to buy the three-story house near the center of Saigon, where they still live with Thien Nga.
Thien Nga was about to begin a five-year course at Saigon’s Foreign Commerce College in 1993 when her mother, at 40, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died two months later. “That changed my life,” Thien Nga says. “I was the oldest, so I had to take care of my sister and brother.”
It also made her take a serious look at modeling when she was approached by an agent at an outdoor festival three years ago. Since then, with her father’s blessing, she has appeared in about 30 fashion shows and on TV commercials and magazine covers, often earning in one hour the $66 that a typical Saigon resident makes in a month.
Even so, Thien Nga, who has admirers who take her to parties and discos, but no steady boyfriend, watches what she spends. She is saving to pay for graduate business school, perhaps in the U.S. or Australia. “For me, modeling is a hobby, part of my social life,” she says. “But an M.B.A., that’s my future.”