Many Westerners say they travel to Vietnam to open their minds and broaden their horizons, but once here, closed minds and narrow horizons seem to prevail...
Foreign tourists stroll down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Diep Duc Minh
For centuries, many in the West have considered themselves superior to people in other parts of the world. This attitude was most blatantly manifested during the (very long and varied) colonial period, when the European powers occupied vast swathes of today’s Asia, Africa, Middle-East and Latin America.
They justified this, in their discourse, by talking about a moral obligation that white people had to civilize the savages in the rest of the world, and teach them modern and developed ways of living.
The French called this the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), while the British referred to it as the white man’s burden. Such an attitude happened to conveniently coincide with the building of political and economic structures across the colonized world which extracted resources from the colonized and delivered them to the colonizers.
Colonialism is, thankfully, over, at least in its most explicit and direct forms. However, the attitude of Westerners thinking that they are superior to others continues to this day, such as with the whitewashing of global history, which claims that everything good and modern came from Europe.
In Vietnam, the presence of a similar attitude is obvious – all one needs to do is visit one of Saigon’s expat or backpacker haunts.
Over the past few decades, Vietnam has seen a huge influx of foreigners. Some come for work – either to run businesses or to sell their labor – while others come to travel and to holiday.
The latter rarely seem to come in order to try to understand and investigate the politics, economics, society, and history of the country, but more often for an 18-30s, lads-on-tour drinking experience.
And because of this, such Westerners expect to be served and waited on. Any concept of Vietnam being an interesting living, breathing, heterogeneous society is put on the back burner, if at all. In this way, Vietnam (and Southeast Asia more generally) becomes reconstituted as a Western playground, set up so foreigners can get drunk and stoned cheaply.
Vietnamese agency does not play a part in these conceptions of the country, which is why such tourists think they can shout at service sector workers without feeling any guilt. Overhearing such phrases as, “I ordered Hawaiian pizza, you idiot!” or “NO. I WANT THREE BEERS. THREE! THREE! NOT ONE! CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THAT!?” or “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Stop trying to rip me off!” is, sadly, not uncommon on Pham Ngu Lao Street.
When backpackers aren’t busy abusing workers, who only exist, in the eyes of these tourists, to serve Westerners, they are often attempting to “respect” Vietnamese culture.
This, of course, is always a patronizing reformulation of the idea of “culture” so it becomes seen as static and simple, rather than being complex, multi-layered, and in flux, as all “cultures” always are. Such an attitude allows tourists to think that showing respect equates to refraining from touching people on the head, rather than, say, seeing the Vietnamese as equals.
Of course, not all foreigners in Vietnam are tourists - there are thousands of expats in the country. A sense of Western superiority is also, sadly, present amongst this group – many live entirely with other Westerners, and have social circles that consist almost totally of foreign faces. Vietnamese friends that expats do have are seen as quirky exceptions rather than the norm.
Despite this, many such expats feel that they are able to make great, ground-breaking insights into Vietnam and its people, such as “Vietnamese people don’t have a concept of the future – they just live for the moment,” or “they haven’t developed modern thought yet,” and “they don’t understand the idea of getting regular customers, they always try to rip me off even though I go there every day.”
These are just a few examples of the dozens I’ve heard. Such “insights” are made from what expats consider to be a higher, superior level. “I’ve done much more for this f***ing country than you have,” said one English teacher who couldn’t get a shirt for the price he wanted.
These attitudes, from both tourists and expats, are just small examples of a structural racism that exists across the globe. Such attitudes of Western superiority are, at best, naïve, ignorant, and orientalist, and, at worst, poisonous and racist.
When people talk about Vietnam as a “developing” country, the hidden presupposition is that this means Vietnamese people are developing, in their consciousness and attitudes, from an earlier stage to an advanced stage that Westerners have already reached.
Anything that is not exactly like it is in the West is seen as inferior, an aberration to the developed norm (which is always a white, Western European norm).
We must get over this attitude of superiority. Othering the Vietnamese as inferior will not allow us to fully engage in Vietnam’s society (and indeed, we often see ourselves as outside, judge mental observers), and will not allow us to approach Vietnam with an open mind.
There are a millions of different people in Vietnam, doing a huge variety of different activities. We should be humble and open to listening to these varied lived experiences, without judgement, simplification or superiority.