HANOI: I first heard about people swimming in the nude at the banks of the Red River two years ago. Nudists in Hanoi, Vietnam’s conservative capital? Bizarre, but true.
"LOVE RED RIVER" CLUB
They’re an eclectic mix of retirees, teachers, labourers, lawyers, students, at least one evangelist, a policeman and an army officer or two. Many of them are already grandfathers, with children and grandchildren in tow. All of them in fantastic shape. The tight community calls itself the "nhung nguoi yeu Song Hong", or the Love Red River club.
The group, strictly men, reached for their clothes when I first arrived, especially the older members. Not everyone liked having a female journalist around when they’re trying to have a relaxing good time in the nude, but after I introduced myself, some of these fine gentlemen let down their guard.
“Swimming naked helps us feel free,” said Lam, 67, a retired mathematics teacher who has been swimming nude for 20 years. His family and friends were disapproving at first; they thought it was a shady activity by deviants who were up to no good. But the critics changed their minds after seeing the health benefits, Lam continued.
“All our illnesses went away one by one,” said Ngoc, a bespectacled 84-year-old gentleman with a full head of white hair. “It’s better than surgery, or any doctor.”
“Look at his shiny six-pack!” someone yelled out, pointing to the tanned torso of a sprightly retiree called Long. Completely naked, Long whipped out his smartphone and put his arm around me for a photo. I smiled politely, careful to keep my hands close to myself to avoid any form of accidental contact below the waist. Long is 60 years old this year and he cheekily invited me out for beer the next day.
I looked around, struck by the glowing skin and bodies. I tried my best not to stare, keeping my gaze on the swimmers’ eyes and faces – there was not a pimple on this beach.
The origins of the club are unclear, but bathing in the buff is not new in Vietnam. The practice is common among ethnic groups in the rivers and streams of the country’s mountainous northwest, but it is still largely considered an oddity in big cities. Nudity is not illegal except in crowded public places, cultural or religious settings, which explains why the Red River nudists have never been bothered by the authorities.
As the sun set, the men put their clothes on and gathered to chat on the beach, a narrow clearing on the river bank reinforced with bricks and sandbags. Some took to the exercise bars, others stuck yoga poses and did headstands. The community spirit was palpable.
But Hanoi’s nude beach is not for everyone. The current here is strong and there have been cases of drowning over the years.
The club also has its share of naysayers. Back on Long Bien Bridge, I met Lan. She was walking home with her granddaughter from another bathing spot in the river where men, women and children swim – clothed.
“It’s hanging all out and just not proper, right? It’s their choice but I’d never go there,” she said.
If you are interested to visit this spot, it is located on an island in the middle of the Red River, a quick motorcycle ride or 15-minute walk from Long Bien Bridge in downtown Hanoi. Ride or walk along the bridge until you see a flight of stairs. Go down and turn left. Views of the bridge are best around sunset.