Exposing the absurdity of wagging fingers at Vietnam's tourist-friendliness while praising Thailand (or any other country)
Summer has become the season of self-loathing in Vietnam. And with tourism numbers slightly down and the hysterical reporting of everything bad that happens to foreigners here, blood is in the water and every persnickety Vietnam-basher has their snarky synopsis at the ready.
Jack Cole and his girlfriend April Clifton recover from their horrific experience after Cole was stabbed seven times and hit in the head with a machete while saving Clifton from a sex attack led by a group of Thai youths in Krabi during the couple's first trip to Thailand in 2012. File photo
Well, I'm a snarky bastard myself. First off: enough already with the "Thailand is "˜better' than Vietnam" bullshit. Yes, I'm aware of the statistics. Just because more people buy Justin Bieber's albums than Woody Guthrie's doesn't make Bieber better. Popularity is an irrational phenomenon. Enthusiasts for this or that always present empirical-sounding analyses, but in the end, how can enthusiasm be anything but subjective? Just because something's repeated ad nausea does not make it true.
As for the omnipresent comparison - why, exactly, is it valid? Yes, Vietnam and Thailand share the same geographical region. But is one's experience in Egypt supposed to correlate with a trip to Libya? If you loved San Diego, do you expect the same experience from Mexico City? In his piece that appeared in this column two weeks ago, Tim Russell, a Briton who lived in Vietnam and now lives in Thailand, presented his black and white argument with cool, levelheaded-sounding platitudes, arrogantly slandering Vietnamese culture for its lack of beach bars.
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I, for one, am glad he likes Thailand better than he liked Vietnam and that he's there and not here. I wonder what on earth took him so long to get there.
After pointing out that Vietnam "is struggling to even compete with Cambodia" - a backhanded and unfounded slap in Cambodia's face (even Cambodia! - why shouldn't people want to visit Cambodia?) - he tells us why tourists don't like Vietnam.
"Because tourists [in Vietnam] are not made to feel welcome and are treated as a one-off opportunity to make money." He says scams in Thailand are the exception, not the rule, as is the case in Vietnam. While such claims are impossible to substantiate either way, and while I don't want to badmouth Thailand in order to defend Vietnam, let me remind people what also happens in Thailand.
Take, for instance, famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan - an insane scene of tourist hedonism, pervasive drug-use, corrupt police framing tourists; incidents of violence where groups of meth-head Thais attack tourists, often without provocation. Rampant pick-pocketing; thievery on night buses - and when you search the online tourist forums for Thailand's dangers you find women warned to never walk alone at night; men and women alike told to beware of having their drinks spiked. If you examine Thailand's pitfalls, the list can go for as long as you like.
What's really behind Thailand's popularity? Could it be that the Thais have been supremely well-trained to kiss Farang ass? In Thailand, foreigners are catered to so slavishly that the local people are reduced to second class citizens in their own country. I'll never forget befriending a Thai man who was working at the beach bungalows where I ended up in Koh Phangan. We made plans to go to his hometown of Chiang Mai together. The cheapest way to get there was a tourist bus he wasn't allowed to take. We went by train. Thailand caters to foreigners so exquisitely you can forget you're in Thailand or that average Thai people exist when you visit its tourist traps. That's simply not possible most places in Vietnam, though it too has its share of destinations that are unequivocally peaceful.
Here are some questions I don't hear being asked.
Let's pretend for a minute that Vietnam's tourism industry, via some miraculous transformation, began drawing as many tourists as mighty Thailand? Has anyone stopped to think what an incredible mess that might be? From where does this consensus come from that blindly presumes Vietnam would be better off if its tourism industry more closely resembled Thailand's? Maybe that's the case, but where's the evidence? How much does the average Thai person benefit from the country's tourism revenues? Does anyone claim to know? I certainly don't.
Is Thailand - whose military shoots down Cambodian peasants who inadvertently wander too close to the Thai border and slaughters Muslims in its southern region - a country to be uniformly admired?
Is anyone besides me bothered by having to stand in salute of a monarch when you see a movie in Bangkok?
Here's another difference between Thailand and Vietnam: they don't have strip clubs here or sex shows where you can watch women that used to be men shoot ping pong balls from their surgically created vaginas. And another thing: the stupid Vietnamese have yet to start speaking Thai! What's wrong with them anyway! WHY ISN'T VIETNAM MORE LIKE THAILAND? Bad Vietnam, you're not like Thailand, not same-same. Different-different, but different. Like dumb-ass Forrest Gump was sharp to note, "Vietnam: it's this whole other country" - an aberrant acknowledgement to come from an American, albeit a fictitious one.
It's ok to prefer Germany over France, but don't blame Germany for not being France.
Thailand was groomed by the quirks of recent history to be the tourist Mecca it is - those terrible Hangover films were destined shot on location there. Russell dismisses this line of thought as "overly simplistic." Talk about a black pot kettle! Listen to Russell's language: "In Vietnam's defense, one might cite the fact that Thailand has had a tourism industry since the late 1960s, whereas Vietnam didn't open up to foreign visitors until the mid-1990s." Yes, Tim, that's one way to put it. Another way to put it would be:
In Vietnam's defense, during the 1960s Thailand established a monopoly on Southeast Asian tourism by playing host to US military bases from which 80 percent of US war crime air strikes levied against northern Vietnam were launched - providing US troops a sanctuary for R&R MADE Thailand a modern tourism destination - whereas Vietnam was starving to death whilst fighting off the most powerful and grotesque military murdering machine the world has ever known"; and then from 1975-1994, while Thailand partnered with the US, the UK and China to support the Khmer Rouge and continued to entrench itself as Southeast Asia's answer to Hawaii, another place where tourists' rights trump those of the locals to such a degree that the socially conscious cringe, Vietnam was punished with a merciless economic embargo for having had the audacity to emerge victorious over the forces of modern Rome"!
If people want to say the fundamental dissimilarities between the post WWII experiences of Thailand and Vietnam aren't primarily responsible for the difference in their current revenues from tourism, that's fine, but it sounds just like the people from my country who talk about slavery and Jim Crow segregation as if those abhorrent institutions existed millions of years ago. And those people are idiots. Cambodia and Laos are able to compete with Vietnam for tourists, among other reasons, because they share land borders with Thailand, which is king of the Southeast Asian tourist anthill in the same way Microsoft rules the computer world. You can blame Vietnam all day for not being Apple, but what I don't get is the blood grudge held against it for not being more like Microsoft.
Vietnam won its battle for independence against global giants France and the US, but multinational corporatism won the war for the hearts and minds of the epoch. So whose lead should Vietnam follow as it develops its tourist industry? Perhaps Bhutan, which requires visitors to pre-book tours, which while costing an arm and a leg, tend to win rave reviews among those who can afford to take them.
And then there's another of Russell's claims: Visa fees as evidence of Vietnam's lack of seriousness when it comes to luring tourists. Seriously? Countries have different visa requirements for a variety of reasons too droningly boring to get into, but in this day and age, with plane tickets as expensive as they are, with the world economy in its ongoing malaise, would anyone seriously choose to visit one country over another just to save 45 bucks?
As someone who has periodically visited Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for 15 years, and adores all four countries, despite their various and innumerable flaws, I think it's safe to say that the foreign demographic that journeys to Asia has changed. Vietnam still has a Wild West aspect that rubs some percentage of travelers the wrong way. Gone, or nearly gone, are the unshaven backpackers of yesteryear - the mad ones who prefer travel to vacation and adventure over leisure. Here, the adventure starts at the airport, where scam taxis are known to operate, or hadn't you heard?
*The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.