Hanoi is a conservative capital where young couples rarely kiss in public, yet along the banks of the Red River, a men’s nudist club thrives.
Known colloquially as “Banana Island” to some, or Bai Giua (Middle Island) in Vietnamese, the seven-kilometer-long stretch of land is home not only to subsistence farmers, but also a community of men who swim, play tennis and meditate, all as naked as the day they were born.
Many men come here to swim every day, with some even claiming that 24 hours without a dip in the river is akin to being away from their girlfriends. On land, they play sports or workout in ramshackle gyms. In the water, they bathe despite obvious pollution concerns — the river meanders through farmland all the way from China’s southwest Yunnan Province, while the shore is littered with trash.
“Take everything off,” an elderly gentleman says as we enter the swimming area. Although only a few hundred meters from the center of the city, swimmers here feel at ease, with some nudists comparing the feeling to living in the countryside in the mountainous stretches of northern Vietnam.
Thirty-three-year-old Duong, one of the men, says coming here makes him feel like he’s a child again. He comes here every day of the year, and if he has no time during the day, he swims at night. “We are open to each other here,” he says.
Though public nudity is not unusual at bathhouses in some East Asian countries, such as Japanese onsen or South Korea’s jimjilbang, it is extremely uncommon in Vietnam.
The men first started coming here about 40 years ago when Hanoi’s lakes started getting too polluted. While the river here is far from clean, the men don’t seem to mind. In a city where shopping malls are springing up like garden weeds, the swimming spot provides a sense of community for souls in need of connection and closeness to nature.
Original publication 16 December 2019
Posted on NatCorn 27th February 2021
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