Are Vietnamese People Really Rude?
First of all, I would like to thank Korski for his nice opinion piece on Vietnam. It is truly a pleasure to read such an extensive reply on my piece, which contains a lot of true and also untrue things being said. But I do hope Stick allows me to reply to Korski, to further elaborate on my own piece.
Many travelers, including Korski, seem to agree with the conception that Vietnamese people are rude and always trying to run a scam. Nomadic Matt, a famous backpacker-blogger having more than 20,000 people like him on Facebook, stated: “When I was in Vietnam [for three weeks], I was constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off, and treated bad by the locals. [..] However, after talking to a number of other travelers, I realized that we all had the same stories. Hardly anyone had a good story, which might explain why 95% of tourists don’t return. They all had tales of being ripped off, cheated, or lied to. They too never felt welcome in the country” (Source). Another famous travel blogger was somewhat more blunt saying that he hates Vietnam because of the compulsive lying behavior of [all] the Vietnamese, the dual pricing system, the noise, the language, the traffic, the visa price, the skinny buildings, the obscured sidewalks, the food, the hygiene, the pith helmets, taxi drivers, cultural insensitivity, and their presumed lack of intelligence (Source).
Joel Brinkley, a Stanford professor and Pulitzer prize winner, made a very interesting generalization in the Chicago Tribune a month ago about the Vietnamese, stating that they are more aggressive than their neighbors because the Vietnamese eat more meat, including dog (which was the most gruesome thing he has ever seen), rat and wildlife meat. According to Brinkley, in Vietnam, you will hear no birds singing, and there are no dogs and rats on the street [sic], because they all have been eaten. This explains, according to the professor, that Vietnam has been so aggressive, opposed to its neighboring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, who of course did not have any armed conflicts in the last decades [sic] (Source). A quick glimpse at all the replies to these articles, and other ones, reveals that people either hate Vietnam (and therefore agreeing with the writers) or love it (if you Google Joel Brinkey and Vietnam, you will find many opposing opinion pieces). Living in Vietnam for more than a year myself, I had the opportunity to hear many opinions about Vietnam, and in my previous opinion piece I referred to the most common (mis-)conceptions I have encountered during my stay and which I read on the internet. I was not just referring to one or two individuals making strange claims, but I actually did some research before writing this article.
Reasons why Vietnamese are ruder than their neighbors are according to the critics because of the various wars in the past (such as Nomadic Matt and Travelogue), because of their diet (Brinkley), because of its Chinese influence and history (Korski, please correct me if I am wrong), but many critics also refrain from any logical explanation.
Let’s first take a look at how many people in Vietnam are communicating or able to communicate with foreigners. I would say a very generous amount would be around 5% of the total population – as in most countries. Therefore, if you are generalizing about “the Vietnamese” you are actually generalizing about 5% of the total population. This part of the population consists of hotel staff, travel agents, shop-owners, restaurant-owners, taxi drivers, motorbike drivers, prostitutes, beggars, scammers, students wanting to practice their English, businessmen, and so on. By no means a true representation of the Vietnamese population.
Then let’s take a look at places where most travelers reside. There has been a lot of research done on these so-called backpacker enclaves which are defined by Wilson and Richards (2008) as: “customised spaces catering for visitors, they provide home comforts as well as points of contact with home for those on the road” (Source). They argue that travelers visit places in a country which provide them the comforts of home, and allow them for not dealing with any culture shock. For example, in Hue the backpacker enclaves are located on Pham Ngu Lao, Chu Van An and Vo Thi Sao street, in most other places in Hue you will literally see no or little foreigners. It’s quite a funny sight to sit in a bar in the backpacker enclave, and see the same travelers just walking back and forth all day. While other countries also have these enclaves, it is a general rule that those enclaves attract a lot of scum – which form a minority of the 5% who interact with foreigners. The amount of scammers in a country’s population interacting with foreigners depends on the tourism development in a country. If the tourism industry is just booming, it will attract a lot of scammers (having no tourist police for example), but once the industry has matured, the amount of scammers will decrease as well. For example, while in Pattaya those jet-ski hiring scammers are quite rampant but decreasing, I guess that it has yet to appear in Vietnam (but I could be wrong already).
Lately I have visited Wuhan, China (a column for later), but the city having so little western tourists (almost none), was completely scam-free. Believe it or not, but those “aggressive” Chinese did not try to scam me at all, and were quite honest in giving me back the correct change, charging me the local prices and just being genuinely friendly. In Vietnam, the tourism industry has been booming since the 90s, and because of the low-return rate, and what Korski correctly has observed, many tourist agents do not care about returning customers, often focusing on just getting a quick buck. However, it is already happening that in Vietnam more quality tourist-agencies are popping up who do care about their reputation. I guess give Vietnam it’s time for developing its tourism industry to a more mature stage.
Therefore, I would like to ask the question. If one is not exposed to a representative part of the Vietnamese population, moving primarily within backpacker enclaves, not speaking the language nor understanding its culture and primarily dealing with locals for commercial purposes, how big is the chance that one truly knows a certain population? I would say those chances are pretty slim. For sure you can generalize about the 5%, I was mentioning earlier on, but what about the other 95% of the population? Are all of them rude and are all of them trying to rip you off? How do we know? Or how can we know? Should we base our trust on the critics, who often just have visited Vietnam for a few weeks, or on “Vietnamophiles” who see everything through pink glasses? I guess the answer cannot be black and white and should be more nuanced.
One does not have to trust my opinion about Vietnam, but having interacted with many people belonging to that 95%, including living with a Vietnamese family for over 8 months, having done extensive academic research in the rural areas of Vietnam, having had several educated Vietnamese girlfriends or by simply having many Vietnamese friends, I do believe that I can paint a more nuanced picture of the country. But I am just showcasing my image of this country, and I am sure that many long-term expats could have a different image. But if one is saying that Vietnamese people are rude and are always trying to rip off people, I would like to know a) how long and where that person stayed in Vietnam, b) if that person actually knows the language, c) if that person primarily interacts with the Vietnamese for commercial or non-commercial purposes and d) if that person has a similar opinion about other nations.
Of course, a very legitimate argument could be that travelers felt better treated in other countries than Vietnam. But what does that say something about the whole population of a country or just a country’s tourism industry? I tend to say the latter, but do please free to challenge this idea.
It would be interesting to see how Myanmar’s tourism industry will develop over time. With locals involved with westerners being welcoming and friendly in the beginning (e.g. Myanmar, Wuhan in China, Laos), to more commercial and cunning in a later stage (Vietnam, Cambodia), to apathic and tolerant (Thailand, Bali) in an even later stage and finally to accepting foreigners as part of daily life (Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia). I think that would be a most interesting theory we could try to test empirically over time. But I digress….
To give this article a more balanced feel, I will discuss my annoyances about Vietnam: Many components of the society are corrupt to the bone. While foreigners are relatively unaffected by corruption, local people are incredibly struggling with corruption in their country. First of all we have the police officers, who bribe ordinary citizens for minor offences. While in Cambodia I had the feeling that police officers were mainly targeting foreigners, Vietnamese police officers usually leave foreigners alone. But corruption causes more severe consequences in society. In order to get a job in Vietnam, you usually have to pay thousands of US dollars to be accepted. A friend of mine had to pay $3000 US dollar to be a primary school teacher, with a salary of $60 US dollar a month – taking more than 4 years of work to get that amount back. Corruption is also rampant in universities; you sometimes have to buy your grades from the teacher if you don't want to fail. The richest people in Vietnam do not live in Ho Chi Minh City, the economic capital, but actually Hanoi, the political capital. With land prices so steep, Vietnam is creating a very dangerous bubble. While other developing countries are certainly also struggling with corruption, this will be Vietnam’s biggest challenge for the future. But as my Vietnamese friends state, who are most affected by corruption, give it some time. Like we need to give the tourism industry some more time. Therefore, I guess only time will tell.
Ps: I can definitely recommend everyone not to eat in any tourist restaurants in Vietnam. If I cannot convince you, let Anthony Bourdain do it for you here, and here.
No country in the region polarizes visitors like Vietnam. I know I am in the minority, a very small minority, but I really like the place and want to explore it and get to know it much more. I didn't have any of the dreadful experiences so many people talk of….