Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Unhappy Westerners

An American woman I know, who has been in Vietnam for six years, is leaving. I am sad for her, not because I know her well, but because she has had such a hard time here.

For six years in Hanoi, this woman led one of the more materially-charmed lives of anyone I know. Her house was a mansion, with high ceilings, fashionable furnishings, and tasteful mementoes of her many travels. Her son received excellent schooling at the city's most prestigious school. Her husband's high government position freed her from the necessity of work, and she enjoyed the services of a cook, a housekeeper, and a driver. But despite these comforts, she disliked the country, and will be bidding good riddance to Vietnam.

Many of the things she told me when I arrived – that Hanoians were rude, that they would pretend to not understand me if I tried to speak their language, that they would constantly try to rip me off – have simply not been true for me. She dismissed my favorable first impressions as naiveté. After some time, when my impressions of Vietnam only grew more favorable, she ascribed it to my work at a language school. She could not accept that Vietnam was not as bad for me as it had been for her.

Unhappy westerners abound here; most of them blame Vietnam for their miseries. Another example: the other day, an Australian woman I know, speaking about the Vietnamese, said, "This is an unkind race." I asked her on what she had based that opinion, and she mentioned the driving, and office politics at her workplace. I asked her if she spoke any Vietnamese, if she had studied the history, or the literature, or if she had any close Vietnamese friends. The answer, of course, was a mumbled no.

These attitudes are hard for me to understand. I like Vietnam: I appreciate its history, I like its food, and most of all, I like the people. I also have practices that help me to live here as a foreigner. First of all, I remind myself every day that I am here by choice. Vietnam did not invite me; I chose this place, and if I want to make the most of my experience here, I had better remember that.

In a similar vein, I don't look for Vietnam to entertain me, or fulfill me spiritually, or provide for me anything that I am unable to provide for myself. I came here assuming that Vietnam would at times be intriguing, frustrating, exotic, horrible, and beautiful – in other words, like every other place on earth. I'm not surprised by its discomforts. Vietnam gives you nothing you cannot give yourself. Why should it? It's as pitiless as the sea.

Happiness – and this is true anywhere – often depends on accepting things on their own terms, not on the terms one would impose upon them. When you take Vietnam on its own terms, you see an ancient culture where Confucianism and traditional agricultural village society have been thrown into a crazy blender with Voltaire, Marx and Mao, and produced a melange of dynamic forces that often operate at odds with each other. It's a country that has experienced enormous social fissures...and not entirely reconciled them. But the thing to recognize is that Vietnam's fundamental dialog is with itself – not with me, or any of the other foreigners that have recently begun to wash up here.

I try to live by the credo expressed in the Henry Miller quote that anchors this blog: look outside, forget yourself – the world is filled with richness and beauty. Learn to appreciate vignettes: the old women in conical sunhats selling mangosteens and pineapples; the weird wooden bong smoked by the uniformed security guard in front of a motorcycle dealership; the scent of rotting fruit peels that, in the summer heat, blends rank and sweetness in equal proportion. These moments anchor a place in memory, and become tomorrow's nostalgia.

Aristotle one day was sitting on a hillside outside of Athens, when a traveller came up to him and asked, "Are you from that city?" When Aristotle said yes, the stranger asked, "Tell me, what are the people like there?" Aristotle answered the stranger's question with a question: "What are the people like where you come from?" The stranger replied, "Oh, they are very nice, very friendly, kind and helpful," to which Aristotle responded, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."

Later, a second traveller approached him with the same question, and Aristotle asked this traveller too, what the people were like where he had come from. The stranger replied, "They're very mean, always fighting and unhappy," to which Aristotle replied, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."


  1. Well said about those "grumpy-it's-the-world's-fault" people you mentioned. Also, absolutely correct - "Vietnam did NOT invited you".

    I'm a Canadian and have lived/worked in HCMC for over 8 years and just recently moved back to Canada. Boy, do I ever miss VN - thanks for writing (updating), it brings back great memories and can't wait to return.

    PS: In my opinion the absolutely RUDEST & MOST OBNOXIOUS "race" I encountered and witnessed were the Aussies . . . Yes, I'm totally generalizing.

    Keep on bloggin!

  2. The world is truly what you make it.

    Thanks for your blog

  3. Very nicely written, Hal oi. The Aristotle story is one of my all-time favourites.

    Much to ponder on what you wrote.

    Vietnam is the ninth country I've lived and worked in. I can honestly say that wherever I've spent time, I've been met with incredible hospitality, kindness and warmth. I only had one problem. Wherever I went there was this selfish, grumpy, occasionally charming but often cranky, lazy and irritable guy who keeps following me around. By the way, his name's Kevin!!

  4. Oh, so true! Your experiences anywhere are what you make of them and are a result of the effort you put into it - no matter where you are in the world!

  5. Nicely put. I've just returned after nearly three years away and came back despite hearing from so many people's not the same, it's changing, things are worse etc etc

    I came back to find that the only thing that has fundamentally changed is that Vietnam is a little bit richer - as a result it's a little bit cleaner than it was and its a bit more expensive. Both are as a result of development that can only be a good thing.

    Yesterday I was discussing Hanoi with someone who had lived here and eventually moved to HCMC city and he said he couldn't live in Hanoi because he hated the people. I was amazed - I find myself relooking at the people and wondering if there is something I have missed about them. My experiences are almost exclusively good. I find Vietnamese people just incredibly special and warm and very very welcoming.

    But I've yet to go anywhere that polarises opinions as much as Vietnam. I have to say that the vast majority of foreign visitors absolutely love the place but there are a few who dislike it with a passion. What I do think, however, is that its a country that treats you as you treat it and I think that is especially true of Hanoians.

    If you show anger, frustration or even just forget to smile occasionally then people will treat you as you treat them. Likewise I've found that there are few situations here that cannot be diffused with humour or a smile. I've never known a country where people appreciating teasing and jokes more.

    But I also wanted to add that I have never known a country that has such a hold over so many foreigners as Vietnam does. I know so many people whose love of this country, myself included, is something akin to a love affair.

    I find myself tremendously moved by the place. At times I am absolutely euphoric just to be here. I can't believe just how lucky I am to live in this country.

    Save me from those people who treat any positive description of this country as naive. They have always been here - always ready to tell you that you have a lot to learn etc etc. Well after nearly three years spent in Vietnam I am yet to see it their way.

    What I will say is that the culture is such is that you will always be considered a foreigner here and you do become vaguely aware that there are things they will never share with you. There is a feeling that - the more you find out the less you know. But that is fine. I think that is human nature and is true of living in many countries.

    What I will say is that I continue to find Vietnamese people so incredibly charming. As a result I have never felt anything other than extremely happy here and also made to feel especially welcome.

  6. What a great article.. thank

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  8. Great post. I wrote something similar on my blog a few years ago -- you get back from people what you put out.

    I like the Aristotle quote.

  9. Great post.

    I wasn't a huge fan of Ha Noi, but I am living in CanTho and believe that the Vietnamese are the most hospitable people I have ever encountered.

    For instance, they hate when I walk anywhere because they think its too hot for me and they tell me again and again to wear a hat to shield myself from the sun. And they never come to my door without fruit or bia in hand.

  10. Hi Hal, it is Doug again. I am back in Vietnam again and loving it. I too feel sorry for the woman you described so well. However, I am glad she is leaving since it seems she had ample time to get to know and understand the people and culture of Vietnam. I sense she is like some characters in the book “The Ugly American” published in 1958 and written by Eugene Burdick. The book describes poorly chosen American Ambassadors sent to a fictitious South East Asian country, who ambivalently practiced the art of lording themselves over what they deemed to be an inferior race. The woman you describe would have been well advised to read this book before leaving America. I am sure the attitude she displayed in Vietnam did little to build up the reputation of our fellow Americans.
    Doug' Blog

  11. I have been living in Hanoi for almost 3 months now and I must say the place has grown on me. When I first arrived, I hated the heat, the humidity, the rubbish, the potholes on the roads. I hated being hassled non-stop by people trying to sell me postcards, conical hats, water bottles, fake CD’s, fake books, exchange money and what-have-you ... I hated being called out (and the hand movement that go with it) madam motorbike ... when I am just a few steps away from my home or my work. I hated being asked constantly "how old are you" "how much did you pay". I still hate these now. But putting these aside, Hanoi has so much character in my eyes. I find the Vietnamese people are very hospitable, helpful and if you can speak and understand their lingo, you will find them (in particular the people from the North ie Hanoi) a humorous race. I know I pay for things a tad more than the locals. But when I look at the people who sell the stuff to me, you know what, I don’t care I have to pay that extra. I know things are a bit "random" in Hanoi, the locals have no sense of order and there are certain expat types that will do better than the rest here ie single Caucasian men hehe (and I am not one). But there is something about Hanoi that I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just hope Hanoi will always be able to retain its sense of poetry, quirkiness, charm and strong identity that I have an incredible attraction for.

    I am a little sad reading the first comments i.e. Aussies are most obnoxious and rude and yes, I am Australian.

  12. Hello Anonymous,

    Please recognize that the opinion expressed about Aussies is certainly NOT my opinion! I'm quite fond of Aussies, as a rule! Gotta like that good criminal stock! ;-)

    I've found that westerners' reactions to VN have little to do with their place of origin. Nor is this a place only for "caucasian men," since I know a number of western women who have learned the language, and in fact, love it here. To me, the ability to adapt to VN has little to do with demographics, and a great deal to do with individual attitudes.

    My opinion is very much in line with Steve Jackson's: VN is a place that forces you to meet it on its terms. It reflects what you give it. If you come to learn, it will teach you. If you come to impose your mores and views, it will reject you.

    This is one of the things I like about the Vietnamese. They seem profoundly indifferent to your approval. To me, that's a sign of self-respect.

  13. Dear Hal,

    Yeahhh I knew the opinion about the Aussies isn’t yours. I wasn’t shocked nor surprised to read that since we, the good criminal stock (hehe I like that), have been told the same when we used to dominate the surf scene in Bali and recently flocked to the ski slopes in northern Japan. I agreed with you VN will force us to meet it on its terms. Having said that, I think it will be the same in many other places in the world. It is the expats who need to be sensitive to the culture and customs of the (foreign) countries they are living in and make the adjustment, not the other way around. The Vietnamese has the idiom 'nhap gia tuy tuc' translate loosely to English as 'enter the house - depend on the customs of the house'. I am sure other countries have similar sayings.

    About caucasian men western women etc, yep I like to think can or can't adapt to VN has little to do with demographics. After all, i hope by having a little bit of Vietnamese in my blood will help me settle in. Time will tell.

    Thank you for posting a great subject.

  14. I've travelled and worked in quite a few countries worldwide and all of my experiences have been positive. I attribute almost all of that to me.

  15. @BGE -- pat yourself on the back there why don't you! ;-)

    My tuppence on Vietnam experiences is that it often depends on what you are doing here and/ or trying to achieve as an expat, long term or short term or lifer.

    This can be a frustrating and tormenting place even if you are a benign person and full of the joys of spring. If you're getting into business here or trying to run a small NGO or run a bar or a restaurant you will have a much more potentially exasperating and possibly negative experience than if you come to teach or sub-edit in a newspaper (the two jobs I've done). That's a generalisation, but you know what i mean.

    I've seen nice people broken by this country. Perhaps they were too impatient or too temperamental for VN. I know there's a hell of a lot of cantankerous negative folk here but living here (for some) is not always a bed of roses either.

    Just ask the locals!

  16. Hi,
    I came across your blog as I was searching for BANH MY in new york. I'm a Vietnamese living in NYC and can't help smiling when reading your blog. I'm glad that you have had a great time in Hanoi, where I was born and grew up. I can't help missing the feeling of hoovering around with the bike, eating street food and loving the unique taste that i can never find anywhere in the world.
    I am sad that some people had different opinions from yours, but I suppose that you'll see rude and mean people besides nice, friendly and warm ones anywhere you go. The problem is that once you had a bad experience, will you close yourself down or open yourself up to experience the place? I would venture a guess that the women you know once had a bad impression about Vietnam and never tried to understand it again.
    Anyway, just my rambling... keep on great blogs! LIVE FROM HANOI =)

  17. From my travelling experiences on a bicycle through 22 countries, people everywhere were super hospitable and overwhelmingly helpful.

    If you take the time to learn a few phrases, and spend any amount of time in a country, learn the language.

    I get upset when foreigners come to my country and can't speak any English/French after finding out they have been here for years. Seems impolite, but to each their own.

    I read a list of blogs before entering Vietnam and a majority of the tourists wrote some pretty nasty things about Vietnam. My brother and I always took the time to learn some simple phrases to get by. It helped so much and in return we got so many smiles and help from the locals.

    I ran into some cycle tourists in Marble Mountain (I won't mention country name) and was asking them about their opinions of Vietnam. They seemed to reflect the many lamb basting threads on the Lonely Planets "Thorn Tree" forum. When I asked them if they could speak any simple phrases they replied no... Don't expect 5 star service here and you will get on just fine, learn a little of the language and smile. It goes a long way.

    My brother and I loved Vietnam and the people. I have my days culture jamming, but this is not our country and not our culture, embrace it. I've lived here 4 years now, after travelling for 3 weeks.

    "When you lose small mind, you free your life" System of a Down.