HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Forever a Tourist

Foreigner - 1. A person born in or coming from a country other than one's own. Also, a stranger or an outsider.

I'll admit it: Life in Vietnam can be easy. Cost of living is low, the food is great, the women are quiet friendly, and travel opportunities abound. There is something, however, that will always frustrate me - the fact that, no matter how long I live here, I will never be seen as anything other than a foreigner, an 'other', a tourist; certainly not someone that lives here.

This problem is most noticeable when I go into the backpacker area off of Pham Ngu Lao, where I am constantly accosted by xe om, cyclo, and taxi drivers; women promoting massages; men advertising restaurants and bars; and wiry men or street children hawking sunglasses, hammocks, cigarettes, books. They all think that, simply because I am a Westerner, I am just another one of the transient travelers that fills the dives and grubby restaurants of the area every night.

A few weeks ago, I was waiting to meet some friends when a man selling cheap souvenirs approached me:
"Hello! You want nice souvenir for Vietnam?"
"No, I don't need a souvenir. I live here."
A look of disbelief.
"So, you want souvenir? Bring back from Vietnam."
"No! I live in Vietnam! Go away."

Xe om drivers are the worst offenders. Besides the fact that they usually try to get your attention by either clapping or shouting "Hey, you!", they refuse to believe that any Caucasian isn't a tourist. Once, I was walking around my neighborhood (which is quite Vietnamese, and has no tourist attractions in it) taking some pictures of buildings under construction. These drivers seem to think that camera = tourist, and one pulled up to the curb:
"Where you want to go?"
"Nowhere, my house is three blocks away."
"Ben Thanh Market? Chinatown?"
"No! I live right down this street."

An offshoot of this misunderstanding is that most locals think Westerners have no idea where they are going. A few months ago I had arranged to take an American woman that was new to the city to a local market and give her the basics of Vietnamese street food. I gave her precise directions to the market, which is called Thai Binh. I had been waiting there for a few minutes when I got a phone call: she had asked a receptionist at a hotel where the market was, just to be sure, and the woman sent her to Ben Thanh, the most touristy market in the entire city. Despite the fact that the names aren't even close, the receptionist simply thought "Ah! A white person! She must mean Ben Thanh. Silly white person."

Just last week, I planned an outing to a pool in Binh Thanh district for some new teachers. It can be a little tricky to find, so I was taking one on the back of my moto, while another hopped onto a xe om. I told the driver to follow me, but as soon as we turned the corner he went in a completely different direction, while gesturing for me to follow him. I went my own way, and beat him easily. The fact is I know my way around the city better than most taxi and moto drivers. I've considered, though not very seriously, propping my bike up on a corner and offering rides to foreigners, just to see what kind of reaction I would get.

Sometimes Vietnamese seem surprised when I go to a place to actually meet with other Vietnamese. Several times I've gone to a cafe or restaurant to meet a local friend, only to have the hostess point towards a table with some random foreigner at it. "Umm, I have no idea who that is. I'm actually meeting the Vietnamese person sitting over there."

While all of this can be humorous at times, more often than not it is supremely frustrating. I realize that people here, especially in the Pham Ngu Lao area, are just doing their jobs. However, I wish they would have a bit more understanding of the fact that there is a fairly significant expatriate population here. Sure, there are plenty of tourists and travelers, but just because you don't look Vietnamese (or Asian) doesn't mean you're clueless.

I find it difficult to accept this. In the U.S., you sort of assume that most people you pass on the street live in whatever city you happen to be in. (Obviously that doesn't hold true everywhere, but you get my drift.) If I saw an Indian in Houston, a Chinese person in New York, or even a Vietnamese person in New Orleans, I would think: "Oh, they probably live here." I certainly wouldn't go up to them proclaiming "AH! Do you want to go to Jackson Square? French Quarter? Where you go?" Frankly, I detest being thought of as an outsider. Sadly, that is reality. Most Asian countries are ethnically homogenous - almost everyone in South Korea is Korean, almost everyone in Japan is Japanese, etc. Vietnam is no different, so anyone that looks out of the ordinary is clearly not from these parts. This lack of acceptance (I'm not saying locals aren't friendly, and there are some that become even nicer once they find out you live here, but most always look at you as an other.) has me thinking that, once my time here is done, I probably want to live somewhere back in the West for a while, where you can be considered a local, even if you look funny.

On a side note, I am leaving for Hanoi on Saturday for an almost two week trip; which will include stops in Sapa, where I'll climb the highest mountain in the country, and Halong Bay. I won't be doing any blogging until I get back on the 19th, but I'll have plenty of pictures and stories to post after that. See you then.


  1. I have been living in Saigon for 3 months now and your post is spot on. I pretty much never go in D1 so I don't get the worst of it but every day, all the time, I am reminded that I am a stranger here. And rich, of course.

  2. Thanks for the comment - you're absolutely right about everyone assuming we're rich too.

  3. I found a story about the Vietnamese tribe family, selling the goods and services (as was offered to you) to make a living. Look inside their lives. https://azylo.com/portfolio/peterlengyel/article/55/