Dec 8th 2010, 11:00 by H.C. | HANOI
BEAUTY-QUEENERY has become a big deal in Vietnam in recent years. The country’s first post-war pageant was held just over 20 years ago, when the grand prize was a simple bicycle, according to Dr Kim Ninh, quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
How times have changed. Miss Earth landed in Vietnam on this season, staging its final show on December 4th and becoming the latest of several pageants to which this proud communist republic has played host in recent years. Miss Universe passed through in 2008, also stopping in the coastal resort town of Nha Trang. Miss World was supposed to make her appearance this year too, but ran into problems when its organising body tried to move the event from Khnah Hoa province, where Nha Trang is located, to My Tho City in the Mekong delta province of Tien Giang, a place which has yet to find its way onto Vietnam's map for international tourists.
All this giddiness has left some Vietnamese feeling queasy. In 2008 Miss Vietnam was deprived of her crown when it was discovered that she had never finished high school. Some of her fellow citizens feared that her example might encourage other girls to forgo education in favour of taking a shot at the crown.
Then there are those killjoys who worry that all beauty pageants worsen the shallowness, vacuity, vapidity and narcissism of today's youth. This new crop of international pageants and the local ones that feed them with contestants give girls a chance to win fame, a bit of fortune, and the opportunity to "show their personality". Personality-showing has become very popular in recent years. Though media restrictions are tight, Vietnam is home to millions of bloggers who like to write about their lives to "show their personality", according to a recent survey.
The older generation, like older generations everywhere, worries about the state of youth today. There seems to be a disconcerting preference for fun and frivolity over those finer things of yore, things patriotic, family-oriented, or otherwise weighty.
But no one wants to be left out. Recently contests have found space for HIV-positive women and for men (not to mention cows). The male pageant will have as a judge Duong Trung Quoc, an historian and one of the few members of the national assembly who is not a member of the Communist party. Men are also competing in a “supermodel” competition, though not yet in Vietnam's version of “Next Top Model”.
Will pageant fever persist? It’s hard to gauge. As with so many other popular crazes—like Premier football—young Vietnamese are remarkably quick to memorise facts about their favourite celebrities. Too soon to tell how quickly they might forget them.
“She was Miss Vietnam World and she's married to a singer” explained a salon owner to an American tourist about one of the hosts, during the live broadcast of Miss Earth on a state-owned station. Her employees and customers were watching on a flat screen attached to the salon's walls.
Who did she think would win? Thailand? India?
“Oh, I don't know,” she said over the loud cheers Miss Vietnam received as she strode out in her pink bikini.