Monday, 25 May 2009

A day at the beach

It was a hot Saturday morning. The sun was shining relentlessly. I met my girlfriend at a tourist restaurant near my house, where we had a delicious continental breakfast. When we were full, we went to the small bicycle store around the corner and rented two bicycles.

We cycled through villages and rice paddies. We were greeted by young children shouting 'hello, hello', and by old ladies in pajamas. I had lost my hat some time before, and the sun was burning my forehead. Trees in bloom spread sweet fragrances. Women wearing conical straw hats were busy harvesting rice. Water buffaloes were chewing slowly.

We came across the tomb of a seventeenth century Japanese merchant. It was surrounded by rice paddies. This man had already been to Hoi An several times, when in Japan the newly established Tokugawa regime implemented its isolationist policy and forbade all citizens to travel abroad. However, he was in love with a Vietnamese woman, and he did not want to live without her. According to the story, he missed her so much that he decided to risk his life and leave his home country, so that he could live with her in Hoi An. I wish to believe they lived a happy life together, and he did not regret his choice to escape from his country.

Morning gave way to noon, and the sun's force increased. This was no cycling weather, we realised, and we headed for the beach. We opted for nearby Ahn Bahn beach, equally beautiful but more quiet than touristy Cua Dai beach. When we arrived, there were only a few people, despite the fact that is was weekend. We were greeted by the owner of one of the small beach restaurants, who directed us to a big straw parasol with two seats and a small table. We ordered drinks, sat down and relaxed.

Two tables left of us, a Dutch couple was reading quietly. Two tables right of us, some boys were doing drinking games and yelling at each other. Apparently, they were pretty drunk already, judging from the number of times they went to the sea to pee, and the volume and tone of their conversations. Fortunately, however, I had brought my iPod. So we ignored them, listened to my music, and took a nap.

After a while, we woke up, and decided to go for a swim. We went left, in order not to be too close to the boys (and their urine). However, as soon as we were in the water, two of them approached us, looking at us provocatively long. They came annoyingly close. We tried to ignore them, and moved a bit further. They didn't follow us any longer. We swam and played in the high waves. We were happy.

When we were about to leave the water and return to our seats, a new group of people arrived. From a distance, we saw the owner of the restaurant moving our towels and bags to the table next of us. This table was right next to the drinking boys. A German woman took our place, a German-speaking Vietnamese family the place left of it. Two other tourists, apparently unrelated, who had arrived at the same time, went to sit at the last remaining place. The situation was as follows:
Parasol + table: A B C D E F

A: Initially empty; later, two tourists sat there
B: The Dutch couple, suddenly surrounded by others
C: Initially empty; later, the German-Vietnamese family sat here
D: Our place, claimed by the German woman
E: Initially empty; the place where we were moved to, involuntarily
F: The drunk boys
For obvious reasons, we did not want to sit next to the boys. They were noisy, smelled of alcohol, and behaved quite aggressively. The two tables were less than a meter apart, so sitting there really was no option. Clearly, the woman did not want to sit next to them either. Apparently, she knew the Vietnamese-German family, and they demanded they got two places next to each other - not giving a damn about the people who were already there. If they had moved our stuff to place C, and taken place D and E, there would not have been a problem - but of course, she also wanted to sit as far away from the boys as possible. So when we returned to our place, it was already too late. The woman had confiscated our table, and our stuff had been moved to the table right next to the boys, who were looking at us angrily, sensing our reluctance to go sit there. The German woman was deliberately looking the other way, apparently convinced of her God-given right to sit wherever she wanted to sit.

It is bad manner to move your customers' belongings to another place, without asking them first. Period. If these people really wanted to sit next to each other, they could have asked the other Dutch couple to move to table A, and taken place B and C. Alternatively, they could have waited for us to return from the sea, and ask us then (in which case we would have agreed to move to place C, so they could take D and E). Yet, it was not only the fault of the owners. This woman and her Vietnamese expat friends were behaving as though they ruled the world. Telling a restaurant owner to move other people's stuff elsewhere, and claiming their place, is simply very rude. Sadly, though, it is illustrative of the behaviour of some tourists in Vietnam (including many Vietnamese expats, who, in general, are loathed by other Vietnamese - partly out of jealousy, but partly because most of them do tend to behave quite arrogantly, now that they are 'rich'), who seem to think that their money allows them to demand whatever it is they want.

Let's state things clearly. When it comes to tourism, something is going seriously wrong in Vietnam. Whenever you visit places that are not visited by many tourists, you are greeted by friendly, trustworthy people. As long as a city or town is only visited by a couple of independent travellers and some foreign expats, people are generally very welcoming. However, as soon as a place becomes a popular tourist destination, it changes significantly - for the worse. Nha Trang is probably the worst place in Vietnam, but Hue, Hanoi and, increasingly, Hoi An have similar problems. These places not only attract tourists, but also crowds of Vietnamese from other places hoping to earn some easy money - in one way or the other. A small town simply does not need three hundred motorcycle taxis, no matter how many tourists are there, but try to tell that to the guys who believe they can make a living by driving foreigners around. And if you can't manage making enough money one way, you'll try another way. With tourism come prostitution, rip-offs, drug abuse, theft, even violence. Law enforcement is frighteningly inadequate: in sharp contrast to Thailand, Vietnam does not have any tourist police, and police are generally unable and/or unwilling to help tourists who suffer from crime. In fact, many tourists don't even bother going to the police when they have something stolen.

But there is more to it. It would be too easy to just blame the Vietnamese people and authorities for the problems. Xenophobic sentiments may be partly due to a lack of decent education and to nationalist propaganda, but it is also a sad fact that some tourists do not seem to realise that they are ambassadors of their country. When you are seriously insulted by a white guy because you charge him one dollar too much, your overall impression of white people is quite likely to change. When you see a foreign girl topless on the beach (even though any guidebook will strongly discourage her from doing so), or snogging a guy she doesn't know in a bar, it may be a bit easier to believe that all foreign girls are indeed whores. And when you have rich tourists complaining and looking down upon you all the time, even though you are working very hard, why would you continue being friendly and polite to them?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that all tourists behave badly, nor do I suggest that all Vietnamese working in tourism are malicious. Many tourists are interested in the country they visit, at least superficially, and behave well. Many Vietnamese are genuinely friendly to foreigners and simply work hard to make a living. But for some reason, people generally remember negative experiences much longer than positive ones, anywhere in the world. Vietnam is no exception. And the tourism-related problems, including the high crime rates and mutual misunderstandings and hostilities, are too numerous to be called incidents. These are structural problems.

I am afraid we did not succeed in contributing to a better understanding. We were moved involuntarily to a place where we did not want to sit. We hesitated, as we did not want to sit so close to the drunk boys, two of whom had already approached us aggressively. But when we tried to pay for our drinks and leave, the restaurant owners started complaining, refused to accept the money, and tried to convince us to stay. Of course, they realised that we hadn't had lunch yet, and they didn't want us to move and spend our money elsewhere. We did not feel like arguing, but we did not want to stay, either.

In any public conflict, bystanders play an important role. Even when they don't want to be involved, most people automatically choose a side. They naturally disapprove of the person whom they think causes the problem (by being stubborn, demanding, whatever), and sympathise with the other. Most of the time, they are not aware of this. Yet, gaining their sympathy is crucial for getting what you want, as public opinion is a powerful weapon. In a conflict, both parties usually are convinced that they are right. In the end, though, it does not really matter who is right and who is wrong. What matters is: who succeeds in gaining the sympathy of the bystanders, for this is the way to convince the other. People always give in to group pressure, after all. So power is not about other people obeying you; power is about having other people sympathise and side with you. Convincing the group of your right - by remaining patient, by playing the part of the victim, and not the aggressor - is the way to success.

In this case, public opinion clearly was against us, notwithstanding the fact that, objectively speaking, we really had not done anything wrong. We were sitting somewhere, went for a short swim, and when we returned, our personal belongings had been moved. Sure, if you prefer those other customers to us, feel free to do so - but then please don't complain when we move to another restaurant.

The bystanders, however, considered us the cause of the problem. We were creating a problem, because we did not want to sit at the place we were moved to, that seemed to be the consensus. The boys obviously noticed that we didn't want to sit next to them, and they were not amused. The German empress and her friends were annoyed by the fact that we didn't quietly accept the situation, and ignored us blatantly - in stead of interfering, explaining why they wanted to sit at our place, and trying to find a solution. The restaurant owners made a fool of themselves by literally begging us to stay. The couple sitting at table B did their best to ignore the situation, but the newly arrived tourists at table A looked at us disapprovingly. 'Why is this guy making such a problem, why don't they just take that last free table?' they must have thought, judging from the look on their face. 'Why do they give those poor restaurant owners such a hard time? Why do some foreigners behave so rudely...?'

In fact, however, we did not behave rudely, nor did we get angry. I didn't feel like arguing at all, actually. So after some hesitation we decided to go. We left the money for the drinks on the table, said goodbye politely, and left. The restaurant owners looked defeated, as if someone had just killed their cat. The German empress was suddenly very busy talking to her neighbour. The other tourists looked embarrassed. The boys opened their twentieth bottle of beer. And, of course, had to save their honour:

'Why do you follow that foreigner? Do you want to get AIDS or something?'

I don't know the exact words they used. My girlfriend didn't tell me what they said until half an hour later, and I am sure she didn't use the same words as they. Anyway, the association of foreigners with AIDS in itself is insulting enough. I'm glad I didn't understand what they were saying at the moment they said it, for I might have lost my temper and become very angry. When I heard about it later, it only made me sad.

As a matter of fact, the number of HIV infections in Vietnam has increased significantly in the course of the past few years. It is much higher than in most European countries (290,000 infections, i.e., 0.5% of the population in Vietnam, versus 18,000 infections, 0.2%, in the Netherlands). It is mainly foreign NGO's and volunteers that are active in the battle against HIV, and try to educate the people - not easy, considering the government's condemnation of 'promiscuity' and the lack of any serious sexual education. Associating foreigners with the spread of HIV is not only racist, it is also insulting to all those efforts made by foreigners to tackle the problem of the growth of HIV in Vietnam. They are the ones doing most of the good work - the government obviously doesn't care much, as they are too busy 'running the country' (i.e., filling their pockets with the yen, yuan and won of foreign investors).

Although arguably the worst one, this was not the first insult we suffered. 'She can't get a Vietnamese boy', we hear quite often. Once, when they found out I'm Dutch, they added an incredibly rude remark about the alleged profession of many women in Holland (she didn't understand what they meant, and I didn't really feel like explaining, as it would only have made her more sad). Occasionally, people who know her ignore her when she greets them on the street. We have got used to people looking at us disapprovingly. And these are just the things I notice - I am sure many more things are said which I do not understand, and which she does not tell me.

The remark the boys made, as well as the behaviour that preceded it, is illustrative of the way Vietnamese (especially in touristy places) tend to perceive foreigners. In the perception of most Vietnamese, there is an existential difference between their own people and 'westerners', especially when it comes to moral values. This image is carefully constructed and cultivated, by means of education, propaganda and popular discourse. According to the myth, westerners are rich (all of them, of course), but they do not know how to behave in public, they don't take care of elderly people, they have sex with many different people, they don't care about their family, and they are unable to really understand Vietnamese (or, for that matter, Asian) 'culture'.

As elsewhere, AIDS is seen as the result of moral corruption and promiscuity - thus, it is easily associated with the perceived immorality of foreigners. Obviously, most Vietnamese are more polite than these drunk boys, and would never say such things. Nonetheless, the ignorance is widespread. In the end, what is at stake is the belief that they are fundamentally different from us - and this is a belief shared by basically everyone. The conclusion that, if they are so fundamentally different and don't understand moral values, they cannot be trusted, is drawn easily.

It is true that Vietnamese society is characterised by strong moral values and restrictions, undeniably more so than liberal countries in, say, Western Europe. However, the strong moral values that apparently define Vietnamese society do not apply to everyone equally. In fact, Vietnam is a thoroughly sexist society, and women are treated remarkably differently from men. Whereas women generally work twice as hard as their male colleagues, and basically run the economy, they earn less, and have very little political power. Confucian ideology lingers, and women still have considerably less freedom to make their own choices than men. But the discrepancy between the sexes is perhaps nowhere as significant as in the field of sexual morality.

Women are not supposed to have sex before marriage. They should be obedient and faithful, and sacrifice themselves for the sake of their family - their parents, until they are married, and their parents-in-law, after. Women are either good or bad, and correspond to one of the sexist female archetypes: the virgin, the mother, and the whore (and, perhaps, the evil hag/mother-in-law). There is nothing in between. An unmarried woman who has sex, or just sleeps at her boyfriend's place, is considered a whore - by definition. Men, on the other hand, are free to fuck around, visit brothels, et cetera. A good husband is someone who takes care of his family financially, and is a good representative of his family in the community - not someone who is loyal sexually. Virginity and monogamy are not considered important male virtues. Hypocrisy rules.

So, in sum:
1. A foreigner is immoral, by definition, especially when it comes to sex (hence, the association of foreigners with HIV - at least by some ignorant people).
2. Only virgins are good girls.
3. A girl who dates a foreigner doesn't care about moral values, cannot be a virgin, and damages her family's good name. If she is not a virgin, nor a mother, she must correspond to that other archetype.
4. It is ok to insult her, as she is not a decent person anyway.

Jealousy is a dangerous thing.

We went to another restaurant. We had fresh crab and rice soup. We went swimming one more time. We talked. We wondered: maybe it's time we meet some people who have had similar experiences, and learn how they dealt with them. And we wondered: maybe living in a big city wouldn't be so bad, after all. We laid down and relaxed, but not completely.

And I wondered: what would the Japanese merchant have done?


  1. Really naive to use AIDS to insult someone!!!

    I also strongly sympathise with this annoying whore/mother distinction. Anyone who judges people's honour that quickly and in these simplifying terms does not deserve to be moral police. I would have asked them if getting drunk instead of being useful to their family gives them anything to talk about.

    It must be so frustrating not to be able to talk back (or in that case, to be exposed to indirectly received harassment like when they insulted your girlfriend in Vietnamese).

    It's by no means easy for an anthropologist or any international-minded person to talk back to people when you are in another cultural environment than your own. It feels wrong and unnatural to me, I can't help it. It's like going against my humanistic principles but who tells those bad apples abroad that give you a hard time believing in the good ones? Do they have the same sensibilities? Or have I just been too ignorant about reverse experiences of foreigners in my own country?

  2. That's always the dilemma... Do you talk back and argue? The risk is that you generate even more aggression, especially when you are dealing with people who are drunk. On the other hand: if everybody always ignores them, they'll never learn. Of course their behaviour is condemned by other Vietnamese as well, but nobody here tells these guys to shut up and behave. Sure, they will gossip about them (and their parents), but they don't consider it their responsibility to correct them.

    In this case, not being able to speak the language clearly is a handicap. Knowledge is power, as we know - that definitely applies to the knowledge of foreign languages as well. On the other hand, maybe it's a blessing I cannot (yet) understand every single insult addressed at me...

    Frankly, I was as much annoyed by the behaviour of the other tourists. I could have told the lady who confiscated our place in her own language my opinion about her actions. For some reason, I didn't. Maybe I just didn't feel like the confrontation. Maybe it all went too fast, and I didn't realise what had happened until it was over and we had moved elsewhere. Anyway, I didn't feel like going back there and argue.

    Sure, there is racism and xenophobic hostility in European countries as well... It would be interesting to walk around Amsterdam and Vienna one week while wearing a hijab. See what happens, experience the ways in which people look at you and talk to you. I think we would be shocked... Yet, I don't think the insults would be as rude as this one - more subtle, I would guess.

  3. He Aike,

    Bijzonder naar dat jullie met zulk soort dingen te maken krijgen. Ik hoop dat de last die dit soort dingen met zich mee brengt niet te zwaar weegt. In ieder geval veel sterkte ermee, doe de groeten aan je vriendin van mij, en blijf schrijven! Goed verhaal weer.

    Warme groet,

  4. Ik heb inmiddels verschillende dingen gelezen van je blog. heel interessant allemaal..
    Zelf ben ik net terug uit Vietnam, Hoi An.
    Een heel interessant land. Gelukkig heb ik zelf geen vervelende dingen meegemaakt zoals jij hierboven hebt beschreven. Ik heb een broer wonen in Hoi An en via hem dus ook veel mensen leren kennen. Mensen die gelukkig niet van die extreme vooroordelen hadden. Toch herken ik wel een aantal dingen.. zoals het vele drinken.. (en roken)
    man man man.. wat een hoeveelheden.
    Verder weet ik vrij weinig over Vietnam dus ik zal je website nog verder bekijken. heel interessant en ga er vooral mee door!


  5. Dank je wel voor je reactie, Ilana!
    Fijn dat je een goede tijd hebt gehad in Vietnam.
    Je broer woont ook in Hoi An? Of bedoek je Hanoi? Wat doet hij hier?

    Groetjes Aike

  6. Hi Aike,

    Nee hij woont in Hoi An. =]
    Hij is getrouwd met een Vietnamese (ik heb eigenlijk 2 vietnamese schoonzusjes haha.. mn andere broer is er ook net getrouwd maar die woon hier in NL)
    Hij is een paar jaar terug naar vietnam vertrokken om daar werk te zoeken. Hij kwam er al vaak voor vakantie.. en het beviel hem zo goed.. dat hij liever daar bleef...
    Op dit moment werkt hij bij het Vinh Hung Resort. Echt super mooi daar. Ik ben er een week geweest.. vervolgens nog een tijdje gewoon bij mn broer thuis. ook heel bijzonder.. omdat je daar echt het gewone leven van de mensen ziet.. in die buurt komen niet of nauwelijks toeristen. dus ja.. ik als buitenlander viel er wel op haha.
    alleen het is praktisch onmogelijk om met ze te praten omdat, afgezien van het buurmeisje, niemand engels spreekt. gelukkig spreekt mn broer redelijk wat vietnamees, dus als hij erbij was konden we toch nog een beetje communiceren.
    ik hoop zo snel mogelijk weer terug te komen! alleen jammer dat het zo ver weg is...


  7. Hoi! Ik kende dat resort niet dus heb het even opgezocht op internet. Dat ziet er inderdaad mooi uit zeg!

    Nee, de meeste mensen hier spreken vrij weinig Engels... Ik ben ook al een tijdje bezig Vietnamees te leren, maar het schiet nog niet echt op.

    Leuk in elk geval dat Hoi An je zo bevallen is. Het is zeker een mooi stadje. :)

  8. Kende je dat resort niet? triest hoor haha.
    Hoe ben je zelf in Viet Nam terecht gekomen eigenlijk? (ik heb nog niet alles gelezen van je site.. dus het kan zijn dat ik stomme vragen stel)

    Vietnamees leren.. het is niet een van de makkelijkste talen. Verschillende mensen hebben geprobeerd mij wat te leren.. maar.. hmm niet echt een succes haha.
    Maar volgens mij ben je wel goed in talen.. of niet? =]

  9. Nee, ik ben niet bekend met alle resorts hier... Zoveel levert lesgeven nu ook weer niet op. ;)

    Ik was een aantal maanden op reis... En toen op zoek naar een leuk baantje, en een mooie plek om wat langer te blijven. Dat werd Hoi An. Een goede keuze!

    Wat betreft de taal: ik heb mezelf tot doel gesteld het over een jaar vloeiend te spreken. We zullen zien...

  10. Fijn dat je het naar je zin hebt in Hoi An.
    Ik weet niet of ik er zelf zou kunnen wonen. Even op vakantie is leuk.. maar wonen.. ik weet het niet.
    Binnen een jaar Vietnamees leren.. ik wens je veel succes! Maar ik heb het idee dat het best weleens zou kunnen lukken...