HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Someone's getting a little defensive...

When I decided to move to Vietnam in 2010, numerous people back home expressed surprise that I would willingly choose to live in such a country. At first I didn't understand why people were acting so shocked, but then I started listening to what they thought of the country; I got the impression many pictured me living in a rice paddy, commuting to work on the back of a water buffalo. I was also asked, "Is it still split into two countries?", "Will they like you if you're American?", and "But it's a communist country, right?" My mom has even told me that several times people have asked if I'm in the military when they discovered I was living out here. Many Americans still look at Vietnam through the lens of the war and the fact that it is a developing country. It wasn't until I arrived and started posting pictures of skyscrapers, BMWs, and hamburgers that people back home realized that there is actually a lot of modernity here.

I've come to realize though that these questions aren't asked out of naked ignorance. Vietnam doesn't make international news very often, and it seems that when it does it is for a very negative reason, reinforcing the stereotype that this is an ass-backwards country full of uneducated peasants. Let's look at two examples that appeared on the Internets this past week.

First up is a video of what happened when a police officer tried to pull over a bus outside of Hanoi. You can probably guess what went down from the below image. Story link here:

Man those Vietnamese sure are some crazy guys!

Next up is a story about a festival somewhere outside of Hanoi that involves cutting a live pig in half so that people can smear money with the blood of the dying hog, in the belief that it will bring them luck. While the video accompanying the article is certainly stomach-churning, with a geyser of blood that would make Quentin Tarantino giggle, the very brief text of the article makes no mention of the fact that this is most likely an old tradition of a specific group. It's not like every village in the country holds an annual "Chop the Live Pig in Half Festival", and it's likely most Vietnamese would also be repulsed by such an act. The authors even go so far as to publish a petition to the Vietnamese Government, asking them to ban such a barbarous act. Surely the slaughter of one pig, even if it is inhumane, is nothing compared to the way animals are treated in, say, the American food industry. Why not focus your efforts on something that impacts millions of people, and just leave the villagers be? Surely no foreigners even visit that place, so what does it matter?

Somewhat understandably, the Vietnamese tourism industry is a bit miffed at all this negative press. (Although surely the Ministry of Tourism could have picked a better 5-year slogan for the country than "Hidden Charm". Why is it hidden? How hard do I have to look to find the charm? I mean, I'm really lazy...) They've come out swinging recently, and this is best illustrated by a bone they picked with Matt Kepnes, some blogger who is apparently famous for traveling the world without having a job. Earlier this year Kepnes wrote a story for the Huffington Post called "Why I'll Never Return to Vietnam," in which he bitches and moans at length about stuff that happens to basically every foreigner that visits the country, and unconvincingly explains why this is cause for him to NEVER. RETURN. EVER.

Thanh Nien, a major Vietnamese newspaper, took umbrage. In a hilarious defense of the country on the paper's website, the author derides Kepnes for being "a self-proclaimed Dave Matthews Band super fan who spends his off hours streaming episodes of True Blood on his laptop from exotic locales". BAM! He likes Dave Matthews? What a douche! And he clearly gets off to vampires having sex. Gross.

The article also quotes a shocked Vietnamese person who "mistook (the Huffington Post) for a prominent newspaper" and wondered why it would publish such a thing. Thanh Nien's writer closes with a sardonic evisceration of Kepnes, saying he has submitted an article to HuffPo called "Why I'll Never Return to Canada", a piece which "promises to be a vague rant about a nation and its people based on a few minor slights and inconveniences during a trip I took years ago." Zing!

Another good example of Vietnam's touchy response to criticism is a piece discussed to a hilarious degree at The City That Never Sleeps In, link here. Since Kepnes is apparently a fake backpacker, the Voice of Vietnam decided to publish a story called "I am a real backpacker". In this delightful piece a reporter talks to 'Thomas Johnson', a 'backpacker' from 'Australia'. Although he must be an odd backpacker, because he is quoted as saying "Hanoi is an ideal place to settle for a long time, because the city life is really comfortable, with a stable work environment and friendly people." Umm, I thought backpackers only stayed in one place for a couple days and didn't care about work? 'Thomas' is also enamored by the craftsmanship of the Vietnamese people, gushing that "Wherever I go, I am always tempted by special hand-made products, such as Ao dai, conical hats, ceramics and other handicrafts. That is the reason why my backpack is always heavy with a lot of things". I feel the same way, 'Thomas'! And native English speakers obviously talk like that!

The point I'm trying to make in lampooning these articles is that the Vietnamese government, and the country's media outlets (which are sort of one in the same), are going about promoting the country the wrong way. Instead of waiting until videos of wackjob bus drivers and bloodthirsty villagers hit the web, or supposedly famous bloggers rant and rave for no good reason, they should get the word out on the good aspects of the country...and preferably without blatantly making up Australian tourists.

This is an amazing country, and while there certainly are days where I feel like punching people in the face (speaking of which, someone tried to rob me for the first time today), I'm still glad I live here, and I've never regretted my move to Vietnam. Surely the Voice of Vietnam could have found a REAL foreigner who likes the country to talk to, and surely Thanh Nien could've talked about the unique festivities surrounding Tet or the way random people will often go completely out of their way to help you out. No need to attack people or foreign publications, just sell the country. It's really not that hard, because the charm isn't actually hidden at all.


  1. Found this via a Facebook share, and, holy cow! Thank you!

  2. Brilliant piece. Well written and......WORD!
    A truer word never spoken, and sure, the charm is far from hidden. An amazing country and people with 100% heart

  3. Eating dogs is another thing that is overexaggerated about Vietnam. Sure, it's more common/accepted in certain regions, but 99% of every Vietnamese I know have never tried it and are disgusted by the idea. Not that I wouldn't try it for fun, just to say I did it :P

    1. You're absolutely right, and I considered including that in the post but decided against it. When I visited home last August I heard numerous jokes about eating dog, so I told people that it's pretty rare and certainly NOT a daily dish. I've had pet dogs my whole life so I don't think I could knowingly eat one, but more power to you Tom!

  4. I know what you mean Michael. I am 40 years old, and when I tell people I met my wife in Vietnam, they always ask if I was in the military. And I think, "Damn, do I look that old"? When actually, what I should be thinking is "Damn, are you that uninformed about US and world history"?