Helmets are a fashion must-have in Vietnam; the law says so

Thao Pham walks in her pink high-top sneakers along a row of motorcycle helmets at the eVo shop on Hai Ba Trung Street. Her current helmet, with a “Funny Love Pucca” cartoon character pattern, is so yesterday. And there’s a sale, 30% off.

The 21-year-old tries on a winged “Snoopy in Car” model, a red-and-white ladybug helmet and the “Monokura Boo,” featuring a black-and-white pig, before wandering off. So many helmets, so little time.

“I wear different ones depending on my mood,” says Thao, an office worker. “My pink one is a bit dated. Since my boyfriend gave it to me, I’ll continue wearing it. But I need something new.”

With motorcycles outnumbering cars by 10 to 1 in Vietnam, among the highest ratios in the world, the communist government spent years ordering riders to wear helmets. But its warnings, celebrity entreaties and grainy pictures of people drooling from head injuries just unleashed angry protests by riders, who dubbed the hot, unsightly helmets “rice cookers.”

So in December 2007, Hanoi decreed that riders caught without helmets would have their motorbikes seized.

As fast as you can say “chin strap,” people were diving for headgear. And it didn’t take long for vibrant Vietnamese consumers to make a virtue of necessity.

The traditional full-wrap motorcycle helmet has been streamlined and equipped with cooling vents to more closely resemble a bicycle helmet, then adorned with all manner of decorations. In a land that once relegated everyone to frugal, androgynous apparel, what better way to strut your stuff than to turn the humble necessity into a raging fashion statement?

Of course, with most helmets costing less than $10, it’s not clear how solid their safety credentials are, even if they bear the requisite certificates. And then there’s the foldable helmet with air pockets in the ribbing that inflate and deflate like travel pillows to better fit in a purse or briefcase.

“People didn’t wear them before because they looked stupid, a bit like Gazoo in ‘The Flintstones’ on their smaller Vietnamese frames,” says Ralf Matthaes, managing director at Ho Chi Minh City-based TNS Vietnam, a market analysis firm. “Now the helmets are personalized, with stickers, you name it. It’s a really good indication of what’s happened with youth culture here. People really want to stand out in a crowd.”

And stand out they do, with zigzag patterns, plaids, all manner of cartoon characters and matching designs for couples. (What better way to say you care?) Some are made to look like floppy hats, and there are even a few with mounted cameras to shoot video of the chaotic dance of two-wheelers unfolding before your handlebars like a bobbing, weaving school of tropical fish.

Nguyen Thi Truc, 22, has been working at eVo for only six months, but she’s already seen a couple of helmet fashion generations fly by.

“In recent months, ‘Pooh Bear’ has edged out ‘Funny Love Pucca,’ but ‘Happy Day Snoopy’ is also selling well,” Nguyen says. “Some people own several, just to make sure they’re always wearing the latest.”

With so many motorcycles on the road, more than half of Vietnam’s 13,000 annual traffic fatalities are from head injuries — twice the rate as in the United States. Fortunately, the figures are edging down with the new law.

Just about anything is carried on Vietnamese motorcycles, and it’s not unusual to see four people spanning three generations, women riding sidesaddle, on one underpowered two-wheeler. Although all passengers are required to wear helmets, only those older than 6 face fines, so protective headgear on children is rare. Many squirm in grandma’s arms as their motorcycle hurtles along, like unguided missiles waiting to launch.

Kevin Nguyen, 29, who met his wife, Phuong Thao, 26, at the hotel where they work, would ride on her motorcycle — newer, flashier and yellow — when they were courting. They’d pass up such Ho Chi Minh City hangouts as Pizza Inn, presumably a cousin of Pizza Hut, and New York Pizza n Fries, in favor of a strip of local seafood restaurants where many riders go in the evening to cruise and show off.

Phuong’s helmet of choice is yellow to match her motorcycle. Buying headgear to match every outfit just wouldn’t be practical, she said.

She dispenses with the elegant elbow-length Audrey Hepburn-style gloves that some women wear to keep their forearms from tanning. She doesn’t bother because she’s married and no longer on the hunt, and her husband doesn’t care if her skin darkens.

There’s an $8 fine if police catch you without a helmet, a pretty serious disincentive in a country where low-end helmets cost $2. Then again, who would be caught dead in a low-end helmet?

“It’s money for the police, although there’s generally too few of them to catch you,” Nguyen says, showing off his black helmet. “With helmets, safety is definitely an afterthought. It’s really about fashion … and not getting caught.”