There is a genuine warmth in the people of Vietnam that I don’t think I have experienced anywhere else on our fifteen month long backpacking world tour.
The Vietnamese do not display the overt flamboyance of the Brazilians, the macho standoffishness of the Argentinians, the aloofness of the Chileans, the rebellious confidence of the Bolivians, the cultural arrogance of the Peruvians, the willful ignorance of the Ecuadorians, the fearless doggedness of the Colombians, the disingenuous smiley-faced competitiveness of the North Americans, the infuriating over politeness of the Japanese, the ear-drum-shattering brashness of the South Koreans or the downright meanness of the Chinese…
The Vietnamese are just a carefree bunch of happy-go-lucky chaps completely content with their lots in life.
Three weeks ago, I was all geared up to write a gushing blog post about the splendour of Vietnamese hospitality – then during my research I discovered at least two dozen other blogs ranting and raving about Vietnamese rudeness…
In fact, if you type ‘Vietnamese’ in to Google Search then the first autocomplete result that comes up is ‘Vietnamese rude’…
Why is it that some visitors to Vietnam find hostility where others discover nothing but delightfulness? And so, my blog post became an exploration in to the mystery of Vietnamese congeniality…
Friends Close, Enemies Closer…
There’s nothing quite a like a cultural misunderstanding to sabotage potential diplomatic relations. In Bahrain, for example, burping is considered a compliment. For the Yanomami indigenous people of Venezuela, farting is a polite form of greeting. Perhaps the reason behind the travel blog world’s problems with the Vietnamese disposition simply boils down to different definitions of ‘friendliness’.
Take for instance, the hotel receptionist in Saigon who exploded in to laughter after holding out her palm to high five my girlfriend and then withdrawing at the last second in a ‘high five-down low-too slow’ shakedown.
It takes a certain level of confidence to let a paying customer high five empty air and expect to get away with it. Playground shenanigans like these have the potential to endear or leave a nasty aftertaste.
In the UK, we relish this sort of gentle mockery. It’s the staple form of communication in a country built on a centuries old class system where everybody slightly looks down on everyone else. Humiliation is the foundation of camaraderie in Britain.
A hotel receptionist willing to risk her five star TripAdvisor rating with mischief is more likely than not to get a five star rating from an Englishman like me – but how would such antics be viewed by Americans who have built their entire economy on the concept that customers should be treated like royalty? Would it work in Japan where respect and social status are considered fundamentally interlinked? How about in the Middle East where horseplay with another man’s woman is considered reasonable grounds for execution?
The Vietnamese belief that people can be charmed through cheap laughs is all rooted in a love of self-deprecation, I think.
Long before you do, Vietnamese people are far more likely to joke about their shitty congested roads, overcrowded public transport, total neglect of health and safety, frequent power cuts and ridiculous telecoms wiring.
Tour guides and hotel owners are happy to reel off which bits of their city are boring and run down and not worth visiting. Waiters and waitresses have no qualms in pointing out the parts of their menus that “taste like shit,” and should never be ordered.
If, like me, your preconceptions of Vietnam were formed mainly through Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Tropic Thunder then you too will probably think that self-deprecation seems like an unlikely facet of Vietnamese identity.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that browbeaten communists prefer to shy away from deriding the infrastructure of the countries that they inhabit, not just because of the severe punishments and lack of legal recourse that tends to go hand in hand with living in a one party state, but because the Vietnamese have damned good reason to shout about everything that makes their nation great…
Vietnam is the most bitterly fought over strip of land in modern history. It put up with a hundred years of French rule beginning in the 19th Century, a brief spell of Japanese domination during World War II, an eight year war of independence against the French ending in 1954, a 21 year long civil war (with heavy US, Australian and South Korean involvement) that ended in 1976, a war with Cambodia in 1978 and an invasion by China in 1979. In every conflict, Vietnam emerged as the victorious underdog.
Being a former colony doesn’t usually lend itself to a sense of humour centred around disparaging one’s own foibles. Being a former colony hasn’t made the Vietnamese ferociously dismissive of all things foreign either, as is so often the way in China. Being a former colony hasn’t made the Vietnamese eager to blame their former colonial masters for all their modern day problems, like they do in Brazil. Being a former colony hasn’t made the Vietnamese overstate the magnitude of their historical bravery, like those tax avoiding, slave owning, rich, white men that threw crates of tea in to Boston Harbour did for Americans.
For a perfect example of Vietnamese self-perception, take a tour of the Củ Chi Tunnels – 200km of interconnected hand dug tunnels buried deep within the forests just outside Saigon.
Throughout 25 solid years of armed conflict, the Củ Chi Tunnels were used to successfully infiltrate and sabotage the enemy – despite endless attempts to carpet bomb, flood and Agent Orange them in to oblivion.
Had the Củ Chi Tunnels been built in Britain, today we’d be commemorating them as a testament to stiff upper lip and resolve. In America, they’d be a symbol of heroism. In Bolivia, they’d have been willingly allowed to fall in to disrepair.
But in Vietnam, the Củ Chi Tunnel dwellers are portrayed as clever, wily and devious. Traps armed with sharpened bamboo spikes covered in chicken shit, fake tunnels filled with poisonous snakes and scorpions, bombs made from unexploded ordinance dropped by enemy planes – these are the weapons of choice for a poorly equipped and uneducated peasant army. Not glamorous, not heroic, just the necessary actions of a people trying to outsmart their opponents.
This wiliness, this pride in being crafty, is perhaps the most obvious feature of the Vietnamese character to be most easily confused with unfriendliness. Cashiers at shops and stalls in Vietnam, for example, are fast and loose with dispensing the exact correct change more often than not.
The view taken by many Vietnamese people is that Westerners can probably afford to spare a few more pennies than the amount stated on the price tag. Given that the average wage in Britain is twenty times that of Vietnam, they’re probably right. Also, with one British pound being equal to roughly 32,500 Vietnamese Dong, rounding down to the nearest thousand Dong is usually the easiest way to avoid pedantic maths.
Being swizzled out of a couple of coins, no matter how few, is of course unlikely to endear anybody to a swizzler, but before we condemn an entire nation for its tendency towards low level larceny, let’s first consider the grand scheme of the average tourist’s visit to Vietnam…
On one occasion during our hotel stay in Hanoi, a receptionist let us share the bottle of wine she was secretly snaffling behind the desk. On another in Saigon, the night watchman let us drink half his bucket of beer bottles. In our hostel in Dalat (the cheapest accommodation we stayed in anywhere in Vietnam), the owner and his wife every Tuesday hosted a six course feast for all his guests.
In all three of these examples, the people that bestowed these gifts refused to accept any form of payment.
Acts of generosity like these are far from rare in Vietnam. The most extreme examples we encountered all occurred in Hoi An on New Years Eve…
My brother Greg, my oldest friend Lewis and my girlfriend’s sister Amie had flown out to Vietnam to join my girlfriend and I over the festive period. We waddled back to the hotel having eaten five courses at a cooking school earlier that afternoon.
On discovering that the hotel owner had changed the location of her annual New Years Eve banquet from the roof terrace to the altogether more wheelchair friendly patio area on the ground floor, I knew my plan to lie undisturbed on the bed until the five course food coma had subsided was in jeopardy.
The hotel receptionist pounded on my door. I managed to successfully ignore her twice, but on the third occasion realised that pretending to not be in the room was a lost cause.
The hotel receptionist physically dragged me by the arm to the banquet table. When I got to the banquet table, I met twenty or so other hotel guests being forced to listen to a stereo playing ABBA’s ‘Happy New Year’ on loop.
Over the next two hours, spring rolls, noodles, ribs, pancakes, pizza, beer and wine were shoved down my gullet even after pleading that I could take no more.
When I tried to pretend that my empty beer can wasn’t empty, the hotel owner’s husband snatched the empty can out of my hands, checked the weight, grinned, and then shoved a new can in to my chest.
Then came the presents…
My present was a box of antibiotics. Lucky me… but wait…
The antibiotics box was just a ruse! Inside was actually a pair of socks! Oh Vietnam, your love of mischief cracks me up every time…
We finally managed to sneak out of the banquet after the hotel owner’s husband put Lewis and me in a headlock and started taking selfies.
Stumbling towards the centre of town, ABBA’s ‘Happy New Year’ rippled through the night air.
Hoi An’s main strip was packed with bloated Westerners, just like us – unsurprising given that the Vietnamese use the lunar calender and so don’t celebrate New Year until about a month later. December 31st is a night like any other for most Vietnamese people – apart from publicans in tourist towns, for whom it is the most lucrative day of the year.
Landing at a cocktail bar staffed by a man with a more than passing resemblance to Kim Jong-Un, we took a moment to recuperate from the onslaught of Vietnamese kindness.
Kim sold us a round of piña coladas containing roughly three times the amount of booze of a Western equivalent for about a tenth of the price.
We went for a stroll along the river in search of a more authentically Vietnamese experience. Half a mile later, we found it…
Several hundred Vietnamese people aged 1 to 100 stood in a perfect grid, watching a stageful of smiley-faced, uniformed dancers. The dancers gyrated in time to a throbbing beat, and the grid pattern crowd attempted to mimic their every move. This was ‘copycat dancing’ – for want of a better term.
The dual effect of Kim’s cocktails and a twelve course food coma was now in full flow, and it took us less than five seconds to decide to join in.
Each dance routine was essentially just different combinations of superman arms, hitch-hiker thumbs, mashed-potato, disapproving index finger waggles, dosey-does and Achey-Breaky strafes. It was quite fun, believe it or not, with looking like a total tit and the music sounding like a broken pinball machine being no bar to enjoyment.
Not long after, it started to rain – big rain – fat penny sized rain drops that had no chance of drying off in a humid sub-tropical climate. But still the dancing continued. When the DJ dropped in Katy Perry the crowd went wild.
It was around this time that I began to attract attention – not unusual for a guy in a wheelchair on a dance floor in any part of the world, but for certain this was the first time I had ever experienced it in a choreographed scenario. Some members of the grid pattern crowd broke off from the grid to come and shake my hand. Others asked to take selfies.
Then one by one, they broke from the grid en mass, turned away from the stage and danced in my direction instead.
Before long I was enveloped in a 20 strong circle of Vietnamese teenagers. They completely ignored the dance instructions being doled out from the stage and began grooving to their own rhythm. Everybody started high-fiving everyone else.
When the DJ dropped The Birdie Song, things got really out of hand. My brother shot the following video so you can see for yourself…
The rain turned from gentle trickle to ferocious downpour. This only fuelled the teenagers’ ecstatic frenzy further. From outside the circle, someone brought me a hat. Then, from nowhere, a bouquet of flowers. I launched the flower bouquet over my head like a newlywed bride and the crowd behind me jumped up to devour it like a horde of ravenous zombies…
It seemed, in my drunken mindset, like we were expressing through dance a pretentious fairytale metaphor for the slipping off of the shackles of totalitarian Communism and the embracing of the warm fuzzy glow of free thinking Western capitalist decadence and chaos. For my fellow dancers, I imagine they thought we were just having a good ol’ fashioned Vietnamese knees up.
As I said before, the people of Vietnam have a not totally unjustified reputation for occasionally short changing tourists, but this should not be criticised without first considering every other aspect of the Vietnamese experience.
If I added up every penny I am supposed to have gotten back from every transaction I made during my visit to Vietnam, it might turn out that I am a few short. When I add on to that every time a Vietnamese person went above and beyond to make me feel welcome, then without doubt I am a richer man than I was before arriving in the country.
“So are you friends with the French now?” I asked Tien, our tour guide.
We were in the city of Dalat, driving past the former holiday homes of the colonial French. Tien looked at least 20 years too young to have been directly affected by any of Vietnam’s former colonial oppressors, but I braced myself for a dose of state approved vitriol on the subject of Western arrogance anyway.
“Oh yes,” chirruped Tien. “We’re great friends with the French now. Every year we hold a joint musical and cultural festival with them, right here in Dalat. It is very good.”
“Ah…” I said, somewhat relieved that I wouldn’t have to plough through the next five padding questions I’d planned to get us to my real first question, “So what do people in Vietnam think of the Americans?”
“We love Americans too. They help us with the Chinese,” he said in a tone usually reserved for discussing chocolate biscuits.
“China?! What’s wrong with China…?” I further probed. Tien’s latest answer had taken me by surprise to the extent that my voice went unusually high when asking the question. “China and Vietnam are both communist buddies, right?”
“Well, yes… no…” flustered Tien. “China is communist like Vietnam. Government is same, same… but different.”
“How so?” – I followed up without trying to sound sarcastic.
“China invaded Vietnam in 1979. We had a border dispute. So now we’re not so good friends,” said Tien. “Also, we have the Paracel Islands. They belong to Vietnam but China says they belong to China. Last year, China put oil rigs in the Paracel Islands, so Vietnam asked the UN to make China leave. The Americans gave us support, so did France and Australia. We also asked Russia but they would not help us.”
“Uhuh…” I added helpfully.
“Eventually, Vietnam said it was going to invade the Paracel Islands with the Marine Force Army, but a typhoon came and China said it had to move its oil rig because of bad weather,” Tien chuckled to himself.
“China wants to control all the islands in this region because then it can control the Cow’s Tongue Sea [South China Sea]. It’s a stretch of sea that is owned by many countries including us, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. If China controls the Cow’s Tongue Sea then it controls all the shipping. Our government says they will not let this happen and America says they will help us, so now Vietnam is friends with America.”
“My name is Jackie Lee,” said Jackie Lee. “You know actor Jackie Chan? He is my brother.”
Jackie Lee burst out laughing. I doubted the sincerity of his claim to fame. In 1998, at the age of 16, I read Jackie Chan’s autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan, and it made no mention of a Vietnamese sibling. ‘Why would Jackie Chan’s brother be working as a night porter at a three star hotel in downtown Saigon?’ I thought to myself.
“This is my sister Jin,” said Jackie Lee. Jin gave a small wave, pulled a beer bottle from a bucket full of ice and handed it to me.
“Oh wow… thank you,” I nodded. Jackie Lee took a lighter from his pocket and lit my cigarette. We sat on the hotel porch, listening to the chaos of Saigon’s main tourist thoroughfare for bars, nightclubs and prostitutes – Phạm Ngũ Lão Street – about half a mile in the distance.
“Vietnam is a very friendly place for visitors, don’t you think?” I asked them both.
“If you go out to the countryside then people are very friendly,” said Jackie Lee, perhaps assuming unintended irony in my compliment.
“We are from the countryside but we have lived in Saigon for 30 years. This is a big city but in the provinces, probably you are the first white people they will have ever seen. Countryside people insist on inviting you in to their homes and feeding you dinner and making you stay over and so on. It is the way we do things in Vietnam.”
“Also, the government does many things to make Vietnam a nice place for tourists,” added Jin. “Like, if you go to Nha Trang, all the road signs and restaurants and hotels are in Russian, because so many Russians like to go for beach vacations there.”
“Russians…?” I decided to delve deeper on the basis that this particular late night drunken fag break would definitely be enriched by pandering to the Vietnamese love of making sweeping, albeit slightly xenophobic, generalisations about national character.
“Many Russians come to Vietnam because they helped us beat America in the war,” said Jackie Lee.
“I see,” I said. “Congratulations on your victory by the way.”
“No problem. Any time,” said Jackie without skipping a beat. “So now we have lots of Russians here, but they are very loud.”
“And fat!” squealed Jin. “I don’t like Russians. When I was at school, they made me learn to speak Russian. Why? Am I going to ever go to Russia?! No!”
“I don’t like Australians,” said Jackie. “They are very cheap. When they come to the hotel, they will always try and get the lowest price, and if they find anything wrong with the room they will always demand that they get it for free. Would you like some tofu?”
“Sure, why not?” I said.
Jin passed over a steaming hot plate of tofu stuffed with some sort of mushroom and covered in a weird cheese. I wrestled in a mouthful using chopsticks which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.
“So does the government do things to make Vietnam a nice place for Vietnamese people?” I mumbled through the tofu. We were at that time of night where enough alcohol had been imbibed to skew the conversation on to politics. Jackie Lee eyed me up and down. Jin looked antsy.
“Ummm…” Jackie paused. “Ho Chi Minh was a very good man. He wanted to do many good things, but the government of Vietnam after the war with America was not so good.”
I wondered whether Jackie Lee was referring to the Communist Party’s massacre of several hundred thousand South Vietnamese in the years immediately following 1976 through ‘political re-education’ and ‘land reforms’. I then further wondered how likely Jackie Lee and Jin would be to know of the massacre given that Vietnam is currently ranked the 174th worst country in the world for press freedom.
“But the new government is better. When the Americans left Vietnam it sent our economy back 30 years,” Jackie Lee continued, perhaps now referring to triple digit inflation and mass famine. “But in the 90s, we had many economic reforms, so now we have much more money and businesses and jobs.”
“We cannot talk! We cannot talk!” blurted Jin. “If we talk about Vietnam government, we go to prison. I do not want to talk about government. In your country, you can talk about government, but in Vietnam, we cannot.”
“People think the government is so so,” Jackie Lee continued nonchalantly, presumably having already concluded that I wasn’t a state spy. “They do some good things and some bad things. What about your leader? You have a king?”
“Ha! No!” I snorted. “We have a Queen, but we only see her at Christmas. Our leader is a Prime Minister.”
“Tony Blair?” asked Jackie Lee.
“No, no, Tony Blair is a baaaaaaaaaaad man,” I replied. “He is supposed to be in prison for war crimes but for some reason we haven’t gotten around to locking him up yet.”
“So who is your Prime Minister?” asked Jin.
“He is called David Cameron,” I said. “He should probably also be in prison but for some reason no one has come up with a good enough reason yet. That’s the way we do things in Britain.”
I pinged my fag end in to a nearby drain and took one last big swig of beer. Seeing the bottle was empty, Jackie Lee immediately reached in to the ice bucket and handed over another.
“I like British people,” smiled Jackie Lee.
“Yeah…?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Of course!” said Jackie Lee. “Why else do you think I let you drink my beer?”
Friend In Need, Friend Indeed…
Our last day in Vietnam was much like any of the others that came before it – loud, busy and stiflingly humid. We sat in a bar on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, listening to a Russian guy on the table next to ours complain to a waitress that his beer tasted of fish.
“Don’t drink the beer everybody!” he shouted. “They make it with formaldehyde!” And then he slumped down in his chair.
The waitress wandered over to our table, leant over and whispered, “Sorry for letting you sit near this guy. Comes here every day. He’s crazy. Russians, huh?”
After settling the bill, we took one last slow walk through the streets of Saigon to our hotel where a taxi was waiting to take us to the airport.
It is hard to believe that Vietnam is a country that once had, and continues to have, so many enemies. Saigon is a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis, brimming over with foreign influence – not a bitter, curmudgeonly, wasteland of isolationism. The same can be said for the people of Vietnam.
Hardest of all to believe is that America lost the war. There are more McDonalds, KFCs and Burger Kings in Saigon than in any other Asian city I have ever been to. Not a bad feat for a country that only opened its doors to US fast food chains in 1998.
As a tourist, I expect that a large part of the superb hospitality I received throughout my tour was due to the size of my wallet. The people of Vietnam were good to me because I pumped money in to the local economy.
But having spent the last year backpacking across the world over three separate continents, I can tell you for a fact that tourism is not just an industry, it is an art, and the Vietnamese are damned good at it. It is impossible for people of any nation to feign niceness indefinitely, even when money is involved. In Vietnam the tendency towards what-you-see-is-what-you-get makes the difference between a great stay for some and a holiday from hell for others.
Less than one street away from the hotel, and we stumbled across the saddest scene I have ever witnessed in my entire life.
A small Vietnamese boy, probably about eight years old, squatted over a smelly puddle. In the puddle were his Pokémon cards, soaked in oily grime, which had accidentally fallen in only moments earlier.
The boy picked the Pokémon cards out one by one and laid them on the kerbside to dry in the sun. My girlfriend walked over, knelt down beside him and began picking out the cards too.
From the far side of the pavement, a hotel security guard grumbled loudly. He stomped over, picked up all the still wet cards in one scoop and shoved them in a plastic bag. Handing the bag to the boy, he motioned for him to get on his way. It is moments like these that turn children in to the sort of bitter, curmudgeonly, isolationist grown up that I am today.
Just before the boy scarpered, he smiled at us and said something in Vietnamese. It felt good seeing that our woeful attempt to improve the situation was not a total loss. He was at least gratified to know that not every aspect of that particular day was conspiring against him.
For me, my girlfriend and the boy, this was not the beginning of a life long bond, just a brief moment of mutual understanding. We had all been in the right place at the right time to make each others’ worlds a tiny bit less painful than it could have been. After all, isn’t that what friends are for?