(AsiaLIFE, August 2015)
A surge in plastic surgery in Vietnam over the past decade has not been exclusive to women. Lorcan Lovett finds out why men are going under the knife and what they’re getting done.
A teenager plunged a photograph of a Korean pop star in the face of a plastic surgeon not so long ago.
“Make me look like this,” he said, and Dr Alain Michel, a seasoned surgeon with a thick French accent, refused before telling the young man undergoing this operation would be a mistake.
Despite the doctor’s advice, the 18-year-old flew to Korea and had the surgery. He was back in front of Dr Michel within months, complaining about the result.
“When you’re a plastic surgeon you have to follow what you think, not the patient,” reflects Dr Michel. “If you follow the patient you cannot do nice, good surgery.”
The surgeon declined to operate again and the teenager, brandishing his new jaw and new nose, walked out into Saigon.
If you find yourself in the doctor’s office on the second floor of the city’s Franco-Vietnamese Hospital in District 7, chances are you’re on the brink of a life-changing decision. The road here would not have been easy for some, riddled with anxieties over the size of something, or an urge to reverse the tides of age.
It’s mostly women anticipating their names to be called in the large latte-coloured waiting room, strikingly reminiscent of a first-class airport lounge, although Dr Michel can feel change coming.
“I do not know how it is in Korea or the other countries but probably in Vietnam it will be more and more men for surgery,” he says. “Now it is just beginning.”
Hospitals in Hanoi and Saigon have reported a surge in cosmetic surgeries in recent years. Dr Le Hanh, head of Cho Ray Hospital’s plastic surgery department, estimated that around 100,000 people have cosmetic surgery in Saigon every year, according to a 2013 Tuoi Tre investigation.
Cho Ray performs about 1,000 operations every year, catering mostly to young women who want breast enlargements, face lifts, nose lifts or liposuction.
Men are still in the minority. Doctors have said some come to boost their business, acting on the word of fortune tellers who blame a mole too close to their eyes or a flat nose on their failures.
Others go under the knife for more conventional reasons. Blepharoplasty, also known as eyelid lift, is one of the most popular among men as well as facelifts, another anti-ageing operation.
Most men would feel comfortable sharing their body woes with Dr Michel, whose crescent moon smile, honest conversation and long white coat matching his white hair exude an affable demeanour. These are vital characteristics in his job, especially when the man is asking for genital surgery, the third most popular region after face and hair, says Dr Michel.
“Some people want to be longer [in the penis], other people wider,” he says. “It’s simple to make it bigger with a fat graft taken from another part of the body such as the stomach. To make it longer is another procedure but too difficult to explain.
“The problem with genital surgery is that many of the men are not well in their mind and they think the lady is not happy because it is not big enough. Everybody [who visits] has a good reason in his head to do surgery but very often they do not tell us why.
“Of course it is very important the luck you have in your job but I’m not sure it is always that, sometimes it is for ladies or men. There are many reasons and it is always a good reason for everybody because it is your reason.”
Genital surgery can take two months to fully heal while an eyelid lift means stitches in the first week. “You forget about me after a month,” adds Dr Michel, who also has advice for those contemplating surgery.
“If everyday when a man sees his face in the mirror when he wakes up and before going to sleep and he says: ‘oh my god, I have to do something,’ then he has to do it. If he is not sure, if he just thinks about that sometimes when he does not feel good, wait, just wait. For a woman it’s the same. And never do it for a partner. Do it for yourself because you never know what life brings.”
Dr Michel says he sees only a couple of men per month although numbers soar just before Tet when Viet Kieu visit their families. Westerners can have plastic surgery in Vietnam for a fraction of what it would cost in their home countries.
In the licensed surgeries an eyelid lift can cost about USD $1450 and a facelift USD $4150, however Saigon has hundreds of beauty salons, many unlicensed, which charge less for a nip and tuck.
A Tuoi Tre investigation in 2013 quoted USD $240 to USD $480 for eye surgery and USD $1,500 to USD $1,900 for a facelift.
So would all this choice interest your everyday Vietnamese man? “I think definitely it can become popular,” says IT worker Nguyen An Minh, 36. “Vietnamese are pragmatic people so at a philosophical level there’s no objection to it at all. If people think it might make them look better I think a lot of men will do it.
“Surgery does not diminish them in any way in my view, although I would not do it. I do care about appearance to some extent but at this stage of my life I would try to sort it out by other means like exercise.”