Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Worst Vietnam Article Ever

Posting twice in one day is rare for me, but I had to get this out there.

I've written before about how badly people who have never been to Vietnam misunderstand the country, particularly its cuisine. During both of the trips home I've taken since moving out here people have cracked jokes about eating dog meat and other strange dishes, and the commonly held stereotype seems to be that all of the food here is weird. I've also talked about Vietnam's image problem. Overseas the thinking seems to be that Vietnam is a backwards country where all sorts of bizarre, uncivilized activities take place. Part of the problem is that misleading articles keep getting published by major outlets. You rarely read about the modern developments of Vietnam's cities, instead you read about festivals where villagers chop a live pig in half, etc. Yesterday an article titled 'Despite increasing prosperity, Vietnam's appetites remain unique' was published on the Chicago Tribune's website. Written by Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times journalist who now teaches at Stanford, it is the most hideously misleading, offensive, and factually bereft collection of words I've ever read regarding the country. This piece deserves to be ripped at length.

Let's start with the opening two paragraphs: "You don't have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

'In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where'd they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten." 

This attention-getting opener is, pure and simple, a bald-faced lie, though many readers will no doubt gobble it up. Spend five minutes in Saigon (or any town or city) and you will actually see a ton of animals. Birds, dogs, cats, and most definitely rats are all over the place. What streets did Brinkley go down that he saw no animals? Acting like urban Vietnam is a biological wasteland is ridiculous.

Brinkley then goes on to discuss the issue of trafficking endangered animals in Vietnam, which is certainly an enormous problem, and one I've been harshly critical of. He quickly steps back into the realm of the insane, though, with this: "But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives here. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale - their fur removed but otherwise intact - ready to cook." 

Yes, it is true that people eat birds - their called chickens, like much of the rest of the world. And yes, field rats are a specialty in a couple of provinces. But Brinkley makes no distinction here, he makes it sound as though the people of Vietnam roam the streets savagely attacking anything that isn't human and throwing it in the cooking pot, no matter what type of animal it is. And he saw one vendor selling rats - apparently that is representative of the entire country. I've traveled throughout Vietnam extensively in my 2.5 years here, and I've never seen such a sight, and no one I know eats rat.

The next section of the article moves from the factually questionable to the logically absurd: "All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar - have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

...

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state's aggressive tendencies - and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Anyone with even a bit of background on Southeast Asia should be able to tell that this is a massive, steaming pile of garbage. Many people in Vietnam have pet dogs and cats. The other countries mentioned have certainly not left their wildlife alone, in fact all are rife with the same wildlife trafficking that plagues Vietnam. Vietnam may happen to be the worst offender, but most large mammal species have been wiped out across the region. As for the people in these countries eating mostly just rice, all that can be said is - what? Meat is prevalent in both Thailand and Cambodia (I haven't been to Laos or Myanmar), and it is impossible to live a healthy lifestyle by just eating rice. (Also - um, Vietnamese eat a ton of rice as well.)

Now, for those last two paragraphs. Vietnam hasn't been any more aggressive than the rest of these countries. Many of the 17 'wars' fought with China were nothing more than warlord disputes before the two countries were even unified countries, and China has been the aggressor on many occasions. The 1979 invasion of Cambodia wasn't a snap decision made because the leadership had had a particularly meaty lunch that day, it followed months of bloody cross-border raids by both sides, not to mention it was the brutal Khmer Rouge that the invasion unseated. Brinkley apparently forgot the genocide that precluded this invasion while saying that Cambodia has been passive recently. Anyway, where does this malarkey about protein making Vietnam more aggressive come from? No proof to support this curious theory is provided.

After this unbelievable section Brinkley brings the focus back to that most stereotypical meat, dog: "Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It's considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn't eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen."

Yes, dog meat is popular with some people. But saying that 'Vietnamese tradition' dictates that you should eat it for better luck is COMPLETELY 100% ASININE. I don't know anyone who thinks this way. In fact, most young Vietnamese are just as disgusted by the idea of eating dog as foreigners are. They don't eat it, and they have no desire to eat it. This long-running assumption about Vietnam isn't even funny anymore, it's just wrong, and media outlets should stop publishing stories that perpetuate it.

Brinkley moves towards an ending by explaining that many in Vietnam are now looking to the West for influence through multimedia outlets. This is one of the few facts he gets right. He finishes with: "With that has come a new desire among some to keep pets. So now you do see an occasional dog here and there, lounging on the front porch of someone's home - but under the watchful eye of its owner. Even now, as Vietnam rapidly modernizes and matures, if the dog wanders too far from home, someone will grab it and then serve dog for dinner. 

Visiting Vietnam, many Western visitors despair. As one Western blogger put it: 'I can quite honestly say it's the most gruesome thing I have ever seen. 

I could not agree more."

Yes, it is true that dog-napping happens. But, again, Brinkley makes it sound as though this is guaranteed to happen if a dog wanders off. It isn't. Many dogs live happy lives here (and like I said, this is coming from someone who is critical of the way animals are treated here). It's not all fire and brimstone.

Brinkley's sweeping generalizations in his turd of an article are offensive to me, simply as someone who lives in Vietnam and has Vietnamese friends. I can only imagine how it will make people who were born here feel. The fact that someone with such an apparently illustrious career could write such a fallacious, uninformed piece is disturbing. The fact that a major publisher would run it is perhaps even worse. I sincerely hope anyone that reads it is smart enough to see through the numerous gross exaggerations and falsities. Brinkley should be ashamed of this. Vietnam deserves to have a fairer voice heard internationally, a fairer image spread to the rest of the world. When is it going to get that chance?

36 comments:

  1. Not at all surprisingly the comments are unanimous in their ridicule of this sophomoric exercise in propaganda. Having lived in Vietnam, and also in California for the past seven years, I can honestly report that this article is utter and complete B.S.

    Any reputable periodical that published this should be totally ashamed and embarrassed.

    Of course this article is getting a lot of attention in Vietnam only due to the complete disregard of the reality displayed. Apologies are surely in order because the only reason such a poorly written pack of lies would be published would be to poison peoples minds concerning the nation of Vietnam.

    Why?

    Coincidently this week marks the fortieth anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords which were signed in good faith by all of the involved parties except, of course, by the USA.

    Once the hundreds of war criminals, mostly pilots who bombed civilian targets and other infrastructure without a declaration of war, who had been captured by the North Vietnamese, were returned home, the USA refused to remove the millions of UXO(unexploded ordinance, like artillery shells, bombs and land mines) or mitigate the results of the tons of poisons, like Dioxin(Agent Orange) illegally sprayed on Vietnam. Even more outrageously, the USA embargoed Vietnam and didn't allow the nation to import crucial, critical needs like food and medicines. Shameful behavior, especially after so many years of destruction and murder.

    The Vietnamese people were completely victimized by the USA, primarily by the CIA, from 1954 until reunification in 1975, even after the 1973 Peace Accords" were signed.

    After the USA withdrew, supposedly, and even after the reunification, the USA has acted like Vietnam was an enemy of the USA for no other reason except that Vietnam refused to be a colony of the USA.

    Perhaps this nasty article was published to counter and undermine the legitimate grievances Vietnam has as they continue to fight for justice from their American tormentors, previous, and as this article shows, contemporary too.

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    1. Why is there any need to bring the war into this? There's no relevance to this story.

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    2. You have definitely lived in Hanoi, but definitely not in California. Because what you say,
      "The Vietnamese people were completely victimized by the USA, primarily by the CIA, from 1954 until reunification in 1975, even after the 1973 Peace Accords" were signed.

      After the USA withdrew, supposedly, and even after the reunification, the USA has acted like Vietnam was an enemy of the USA for no other reason except that Vietnam refused to be a colony of the USA.

      Perhaps this nasty article was published to counter and undermine the legitimate grievances Vietnam has as they continue to fight for justice from their American tormentors, previous, and as this article shows, contemporary too. " is utter BULLCRAP. I bet you haven't seen the Vietnamese population in California have you.

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  2. I bet that this SOB Brinkley guy is in the same group of people who always think that people who are from Louisiana are people who talk funny, cannot read nor write, and live in swamps.

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  3. I don't believe there's anything intentionally malicious about this article as clixtox suggests. (Though the Tribune is a traditionally conservative newspaper.) Rather, Mr. Brinkley probably wanted a "colorful" story about a culture few Americans are directly familiar with. So he framed an entire story around an insulting stereotype. Ignorant Americans can gasp at the funny foreigners while Vietnamese and non-troglodytes are offended. Either way Brinkley and the paper get attention.

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    1. Very good point, and if attention is what they wanted then they are certainly getting it. It's just disturbing that such an (apparently) respected 'journalist' would write such a thing.

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  4. Bravo, Michael! I wrote Brinkley to tell him that his theory of carnivorously determined cultural evolution was a lot of hooey. He relied that his story is based on extensive research, and he isn't a cub reporter.

    Well, I'm not either, and unlike Brinkley, I've actually lived in Vietnam for nine full years.

    Here's what's true: Rice rat ("Chuot dong") is widely consumed in the Mekong Delta. Wild birds are netted and show up in the markets there as well. Dog meat ("thit cho," or "thit cay" and cat meat ("tieu ho" or little tigers) is still widely consumed in northern Vietnam. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive down to Ha Long Bay, for example, and you'll see lots of restaurant signs. It's my impression that consumption of both cat and dog is on the wane. However, in parallel with growing prosperity, there's been a boom in "thit rung" (wild meat) restaurants around the cities that cater to the nouveau riche.

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    1. I know about the popularity of wild meat, but in my experience it seems that most young Vietnamese have little to no interest in such cuisine. Showing off to your friends that you can buy some bizarre animal is how the old, out of touch elite works, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is largely done away with in a generation. Still, the fact that Brinkley widens these consumption habits to the entirety of the Vietnamese race is lazy and misleading.

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    2. I agree with Michael. I have been living in Vietnam for 20 years and I don't have any friend who eat dogs or cats. It's only a small number of people who eat those kind of meat and they are often illiterate. For wild animals, I don't think there are many left to eat. Usually they are pork meat that is faked as wild meat. Only those rich and illiterate want to spend a fortune for wild animals such as tiger or rhino. Normal people don't even have much money to eat pork or chicken.

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  5. Same regurgitated half baked crap people have writing for years, the Sydney morning herald ran a story on dog meat in Vietnam this week, thats origional.

    The problem for travel writers and bloggers is there isnt that many new places to go so you rehash the old chestnuts every few years.

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    1. In my view this is worse than the usual 'regurgitated half baked crap', Brinkley seems to have a personal vendetta against the Vietnamese people. I didn't use the 'r' word in my post, but if something like this had been written about African-American or Hispanic stereotypes the author would be getting blasted as a racist.

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  6. I wouldn't say Vietnam is backwards, but maybe developing differently. Brinkley may not intentionally being insulting, but there is this annoying tendency to think that anything that is "Western" seems to be advanced, and intelligent while anything "Eastern" is considered barbaric and backwards. I will apologize for being a bit profane here.
    For example:

    "Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries."
    - Hey, if you lived under a big ass country like China, you'd have to defend yourself. Look at the former Soviet Union Countries all 17 of them.
    - Although I like the US, what about "Manifest Destiny?", Spanish American War, Takeover of the Philippines and Puerto Rico?
    - Britain's colonizing India is no big deal right? Or owning Hong Kong for 100yrs
    - France's conquest of North Africa and East Asia is no big deal either huh?
    -Spanish Empire in South America?

    "Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state's aggressive tendencies - and the sharp contrast with its neighbors."
    - How the Hell is eating meat= aggressive? If it is, than the most aggressive countries are on the other side of the pacific.
    - Sharp contrast with its neighbors? Is that really a bad thing? Then Europe is a really a pile of trash huh.

    This is the equivalent of what someone who watches only Hollywood movies would say about America. Full of lazy blue-eyed, blond hair, lazy, obnoxious, violent, and egotistical. Those of us who live here, we all know that's not true.


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    1. After reading, his response I have come to change my mind. Brinkley is intentionally being insulting towards the Vietnamese people and culture. Why? I mean, I live over here and I've seen a lot of shitty American people, but I never think that all Americans are like that.

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    2. I have no idea why he hates Vietnamese people, all of this is completely ridiculous.

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    3. I think what happened was that when he was in Vietnam he got burned by his "GFE" is now angry at the whole nation.

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  7. Calvin Godfrey at Vietweek is writing a response to this article and looking for contributions... calvin@thanhniennews.com

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    1. Thanks for the tip, just got in touch with him.

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  8. Maybe someone should skin and eat Brinkley? Unbelievably biased article from a so called intelligent man.

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  9. Thanks to Michael for understanding Vietnam. To some people, the article may think us funny and uncivilized. As a Viet, I don't think it's funny to telling lies about Vietnam. I have been living in the US for many years, and I can laugh at some funny things Americans say about Vietnamese but I can hardly think this article is funny at all. The guy seems to be an advocate for Cambodia when I looked at his Facebook. I understand that there was war between us and some Cambodians don't like Vietnamese just like Vietnamese don't like Chinese. I also understand that the winner wrote history so I am not sure what the truth in history was. However, telling lies and saying things without proofs is unprofessional and unethical. Sadly, some Americans will easily think what he is saying is true because of his credibility. What will happen when I introduce myself to my American friends? The first thing they will think is that I'm dog and rat eater and they will ask how to make dog meat instead of asking how to make Pho. I know communists are aggressive (many of them do in wars) because of their illiterate leaders, but telling the nature of a people as aggressive is not right. I believe in human nature as being born nice. Only environment makes them bad people, and I think this guy is an example of how environment influences people's thinking.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, and I agree with you. I'm hoping anyone who reads Brinkley's article sees the comments at the bottom, because they clearly illustrate how wrong he is. It's pathetic that people still try to spread these types of stereotypes.

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  10. For those of you who are interested, Brinkley's response to someone who wrote him regarding this article can be found here: http://jimromenesko.com/2013/01/31/joel-brinkley-defends-his-vietnam-op-ed/. It contains even more mind-boggling logic.

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  11. Michael,

    Thanks for your article. As a tour operator in Viet Nam for 17 odd years now, I'd like to chat more with you about it. Can you private message me at my facebook page please.

    https://www.facebook.com/realkangaroocafe

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  12. Firstly, I am an Australian born caucasian. I grew up in the South Pacific. I now live in Saigon.

    This article you are commenting on is the stupidest thing I have ever read. My god. What an absurdity ! There are no animals ? No birds ? I am in an apartment in District 1 in central Saigon. Even excusing the fact that it overlooks the park... outside (amongst the motorbike horns) I hear birds tweeting (no.. not on Twitter.. verbally) even with the windows closed.

    Vietnamese eat dog ? So what ? I ate it at Christmas with my new family (I have a Vietnamese wife) and it was great. The family also keep dogs as pets. You know what ? My wife's father keeps chickens as pets. He doesn't eat them either. Seriously. PETS != FOOD ! My wife's favourite food is frogs. We LOVE going out to a local restaurant in District 8 to eat fried or boiled frogs. It's a delicacy. But Vietnamese didn't invent this idea.. the French did !

    And all this shit about Vietnamese people being aggressive warmongers ? Ummmmm. Wait... this is being said by an AMERICAN ? Holy crap ! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black !! How many times has Vietnam invaded a country to "bring them democracy" just in order to steal their oil, diamond or gold reserves ? None that I can count.

    Vietnamese people are some of the most gentle, friendly and funny people on the planet. They don't walk around the streets with GUNS. They walk around the streets with t-shirts extolling the virtues of LOVE and they love a good joke more than any other culture on Earth I have experienced. They are not violent people and the most dangerous weapon I have seen a Vietnamese person wield (even when drunk) is a plastic chair.

    To say that Vietnamese people don't keep pets is INSANE. The amount of cats, dogs and birds kept as pets in my neighbourhood is incalculable.

    I simply cannot comment any further because I just find it impossible to believe that a university educated person could seriously write this tripe. Shame on you. What sort of absurd political agenda are you trying to push by making out that Vietnamese people are savages ? I have been all over the world and I think Vietnam is one of the best countries in world with an excellent standard of healthcare, affordable food and housing, friendly people who will open their homes and hearts to you and a culture that is rich in mystery and history.

    I am so sick of this "Bawww, Vietnam eats dogs so they are savages" bullshit. Yeah yeah. Japanese eat whales. Australians eat kangaroos. Vietnamese eat dogs. Get over it ! Animals are just food. Stop making out like one is better than the other. Do you not understand the concept that different societies do different things ? That's what makes the world a rich and interesting place !

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    1. Awesome comment. It is extremely ironic that an American writer is calling the Vietnamese 'aggressive' (and I'm an American as well). His article is so full of faulty logic I can barely wrap my head around it.

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  13. I think the best thing Brinkley can do for the world at this point is to quit his jobs as a journalist and a professor. I feel bad for the next generations of journalists who were/are/will be taught by Brinkley.

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    1. That would be nice, but I don't think that's gonna happen.

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  14. What a Vietnam, in era of internet though. We have winner and loser Vietnameses - ever read "Ben Thang Cuoc" (?), we have Truong Minh Giang in Pnom Penh and "cap duon" on Mekong river, Hue Mau Than and Ha Noi Kham Thien, ..., such complicated history but issues not solved yet, ..., just hope someday this Vietnam will be understood as it is - multifaceted in peace, amen.

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    1. Don't really understand this one, sorry.

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  15. Brinkley certainly got a lot of publicity with his terribly opinionated, black or white excuse of an article. Yes, the Vietnamese like meat. Yes, the variety of meat can raise a few eyebrows and make a few stomachs churn among first time visitors. But, so what? It's a cultural thing, why make it anything else? It's not like the Vietnamese torture every animal sadistically before eating it.

    I would say the lowest point in his article is his theory linking aggression to meat eating. Even worse, the bit about Vietnamese people being aggressive? I am a vegetarian Indian woman and on a "good" day I admit I am many times more aggressive than the gentle people here!

    Brinkley probably wrote this opinionated, ill-researched piece to get some reactions, I don't think he realized the reaction would be so vociferous. I think we should all dismiss his article as the ramblings of an aging man who once knew how to write.

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    1. By this point I think we've all dismissed Brinkley as a complete joke. I had never heard of him before this, but whenever I hear his name from now on I won't be able to take it seriously.

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  16. Thank you for this post.
    I am a Vietnamese youth and yes most young Vietnamese really don't like to eat dogs.Our parents or some adults in our families may eat it so it's pretty normal for us to see it but that doesn't mean we want to eat it. This Joel Brinkle guy may just stay in the hotel all the time.

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    1. I think you're right. You only have to take a few steps outside to see animals here.

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  17. I've been working all day with a Great Dane next door (yes, my neighbor actually has one, here in Vietnam, how's that for animal racial diversity?) has been barking non-stop... I can testify that this animal is alive and kicking :-)
    Just an attempt at humor since the article by Brinkley inspires outrage as most comments above reflect.

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