In conversation with Do Nhat Ha, winner of The Tiffany Vietnam 2018— the first reality show format transgender beauty pageant in Southeast Asia
It’s around 11 pm on a Friday inside of the cavernous Envy, the District 1 club that feels like a homage to some new, electronic god with its towering screen that presides over clubgoers, the newsticker-like ribbon of glowing LCD surface that winds above the edge of the dancefloor. The nearly-solid beams of multicolored light that shoot through space vertically are appropriate visual garnish. It’s, then, particularly arresting when the lights go down and the EDM halts.
The towering screen switched a large animation of red roses with a woman, Do Nhat Ha, taking center stage wearing a dress in the same color. There was no way for the audience to know that they were watching a decorated model, a contestant in the 2019 Miss International Queen transgender pageant and winner of Tiffany Vietnam 2018, the country’s first beauty pageant for trans individuals. Knowing that might help explain the carelessly elegant way she moved through the stage while lip synching, the radiant smile that traveled the length of the room.
She performed Ariana Grande’s liturgical homage to femininity God is a Woman, a song whose acuity is derived from the transgression of reimagining, assigning the gender of the deity. It’s powerful assertion of identify, like when Do said “I feel I’m the real woman.”
Do spoke days later in a private area above Ca’s, the costume shop owned by J’s Band organizer Jessica Ca. In the small room amid empty sleeping bags, Do spoke seated on the ground, physically smaller and diminished compared to her stage presence but still offering a winning smile.
Answering a question about the dangers around Vietnamese trans persons, Do’s face went neutral and her eyes fell as she reached for an iPhone in front of her and held it close to her chest like a bird fallen out of its nest. “Do you know the lotto?” she said explaining that trans people in the country often feel that their safety and livelihood is a matter of chance. “Ho Chi Minh City is an economic city and everything is fine in the city, but sometimes in the country or outside the city… they still have the violence with transgender.”
The permission to be herself is given or withheld the same way one would win or lose a game,Do said recalling the first time she revealed herself to her family. “First time when I come out with my family, I don’t have any acceptance with my parents,” she said. “I just have acceptance from my sister because my sister and I are very close.”
Do held the conversation with her parents as she was leaving to study hotel management at Hoa Sen University. She said she’s come to a truce with them, but she sometimes gets a prying inquiry from a professor who wants to know why her name doesn’t match the one she enrolled in. “They see a girl, but they want to know why it’s the name of a boy,” she said.
Vietnam created regulations in 2015 allowing citizens to legally change their names and gender. Four years in, Do reported that the regulations are inconsistently observed and she is often forced to use her male birth name, as in school.
The Vietnamese government reportedly plans to discuss an omnibus transgender rights bill in 2020 to strengthen and extend the landmark 2015 legislation. The country’s estimated 300,000 transgender persons report much less healthcare access than the general population and medical support for gender reassignment remains scarce.
Do herself said when she started transitioning in 2016, she had no guidance. “The first time when I Answering a question about the dangers around Vietnamese trans persons, Do’s face went neutral and her eyes fell as she reached for an iPhone in front of her and held it close to her chest like a bird fallen out of its nest. “Do you know the lotto?” she said explaining that trans people in the country often feel that their safety and livelihood is a matter of chance. “Ho Chi Minh City is an economic city and everything is fine in the city, but sometimes in the country or outside the city… they still have the violence with transgender.” find (out) about myself and I want to be the real girl, the real woman, I don’t have any information about that,” she said. “Everything I did by myself.”
Meeting Ca and joining J’s Band gave her a clearer sense of the path forward to transitioning. Ca gave her guidance on how to use hormones and advised her on surgeries. Do performs regularly with the nine performers that make up J’s Band, though she has since gained her own profile as a model. She won the top prize in the Miss International Queen contest among top Vietnamese transgender models in 2018, which allowed her to advance and become a finalist among models from around the world in a global ranking of the Miss International Queen winners in March of this year.
Do describes her model look and style as “elegant, a little sexy,” she said with a coquettish smile. “Sometimes sweet and sometimes strong.” On stage, she is other worldly, elevated. In other parts of her life, the model’s prestige counts for little as Do is regularly rejected by employers for gender identity. In spite of it, Do expresses optimism for her future, a job in her industry, later successes. “Sometimes, I think everything is okay. I can find my job that (will) match with my major, you know?”
She speaks while having makeup powdered onto her face with her profile stayed to a single position to the side like the face of a coin or a meticulously made statue. She could pass for aristocracy or someone else who might also have it all.
“One day I can… shine by my way,” she said.
Images by Vy Lam