When her wedding approached, Ngoc Tuyet went for tattoo removal sessions every two weeks as she sought to remove the matching tattoo she got made with her ex-boyfriend.
The 32-year-old Hanoian initially did not think about removing the tattoo since, whenever she went out with her groom-to-be, she wore a shirt that covered her back.
But as her wedding day approached, she realized she could not hide her secret forever and found a place that promised to completely remove the tattoo in four to five laser sessions for VND10 million (US$430).
Tuyet said though she was given anesthesia she felt the laser moving on her skin and a burning sensation and smell.
Her tattoo was removed, and in its place now is a large scar.
“I would rather have a scar than let my husband know I have my ex’s name on my back,” she says.
Thanh Hung, 25, of Nghe An Province went for laser sessions to remove large tattoos of phoenixes and dragons on his shoulder since he was planning to leave for Japan to work.
“It is a long and uncomfortable experience that changes the texture and color of your skin, but it can’t remove the ink,” he said.
He visited a studio in his neighborhood twice a month. Over half a year his tattoos became harder to see, but he got scars on his shoulder and his skin changed color. To completely erase the tattoos, he registered for two more laser treatment sessions.
It costed him VND 30 million.
“Removing tattoos is ten times more hurtful than getting them. It’s like cutting your skin open to take the ink out.”
With tattoos becoming increasingly popular, the number of people who are willing to shell out a lot of money to remove them, like Tuyet and Hung, has risen sharply.
Vu Giang, a well-known tattoo removal artist in Hanoi, says five to seven times more people are coming to her studio to remove tattoos than five years ago.
Most of her customers are women aged between 18 and 30. Their reasons vary from pressure from their parents and the images becoming outdated to attempts to meet foreign employers’ requirements, which accounts for around 40%.
Cultural expert Nguyen Anh Hong, a professor at the Academy of Journalism and Communication, says getting tattooed is becoming popular, especially among youth. Some get tattoos as a way to set themselves apart from others or show their personality, some simply follow the trend, and others think of it as a means to project power [through showing that they are willing to challenge norms], she says.
What is common is that many get themselves tattooed without thinking carefully about the pros and cons, she says.
“Getting tattoos without thorough consideration is the reason why many have to get them removed later. Some face health, marital and other problems, even trade their future for that.”
Not surprisingly, the number of people trying to get their tattoos removed is also high.
There are no official statistics about the number of people having and removing tattoos in Vietnam. But Dr Pham Duy Linh at the Duc Giang General Hospital in Hanoi says the tattoo removal industry is booming.
Research agency Allied Market Research estimates that the global industry will be worth $800 million by 2027, up from $500 million in 2019.
Hung was turned down by foreign employers, who pointed to his body scars. Local companies did the same and he has had no option but to work in a mechanical factory in his hometown for VND5 million a month.
Doan Ha, who has assisted people with relocating to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan for work for over 20 years, says Hung is among 90% of tattooed people who are rejected by foreign employers.
Even those who remove their tattoos find it hard to be accepted since their skin texture changes.
“Foreign employers consider people with tattoos ‘thugs.’ The fact that these people can bear the pain of getting and removing tattoos also indicates they are stubborn, which makes employers less likely to accept their applications.”
Hong Hanh, 24, of the northern province of Bac Giang says she used to get tattoos as a distraction whenever she felt mentally disturbed.
But the eight visible tattoos on her arms, neck and shoulders made her parents the target of criticism by relatives. They blamed them for her “rebellious” and “twisted” nature and “leading a bad lifestyle.”
Her boyfriend’s mother even said she would not allow her son to marry a girl with tattoos.
After months of contemplating Hanh decided at the end of last year to get them removed.
But she had limited money, and so went to an illegal studio. After going under the laser two times, she got keloid scars, which caused complications.
She then had to go to a major hospital for treatment, and a doctor there said she had to get the keloid excised and the resultant wounds covered with skin from elsewhere in her body.
According to Dr Linh, people going to hospitals after botched tattoo removal treatments like Hanh are not rare.
Illegal studios often use low-quality and unhygienic tools, which could spread viral diseases, not to mention scars, pigment disorders and other incurable problems, he says.
So doctors warn that people should not believe the promises made about cheap tattoo removal services and instead go to specialist hospitals to remove tattoos.
Hong says: “Tattoos are not a bad thing. However, before deciding, you should consider carefully whether getting tattoos is fine in your social setting. Unlike clothes, tattoos will be on your skin until the end of your life.”
“So, don’t ruin your life with a [single] careless act.”