The number of Vietnamese travelers to foreign countries has grown rapidly over the past several years. Unfortunately, this increase has coincided with a growing stereotype of "The Ugly Vietnamese".
Last summer, I went to Thailand and was surprised to see a notice at a buffet written in Vietnamese.
"Please take what you can eat. Those who don’t finish their food will be fined from 200-500 Baht. Thank you!"
In Singapore, I encountered a similar sign, also in Vietnamese.
“Just take what you can eat,” it read.
Any customer of the restaurant understood the need for such a notice.
The restaurant's many customers had queued up for food, when suddenly, a Vietnamese couple cut in front, causing the rest of the line to snicker and sigh while the pair grabbed six oysters from a waiter clearly hoping to give out one per customer.
At another restaurant, a Vietnamese man was seen carrying several heaping plates of food to a table strewn with half-eaten plates, as though fearful the buffet would suddenly close.
‘Please flush the toilet’
In a toilet in Thailand, I encountered another sign written exclusively in my native tongue.
“Remember to flush the toilet,” it read.
Later, I heard a story about a Vietnamese person who got locked in a "smart toilet" in Europe because the automated door only opened after the toilet was flushed.
In Taiwan, I spent two hours watching a group of young Vietnamese people lay out newspapers, sit on the floor and play cards while shouting loudly.
After their game ended, they got up and left their newspapers for someone else to pick up.
Coincidentally, I was in town giving a speech about the relationship between culture and behavior.
‘Are you from Vietnam?’
I rarely talk about these things.
And it's difficult to admit that I'm always both happy and nervous about encountering my compatriots abroad. Between 1999 and 2000 I traveled to Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Denmark to attend a series of workshops.
In Singapore, I bumped into a young Vietnamese student who was on his way to receive some sort of tech award. I accepted his invitation to attend the award ceremony three kilometers away.
Soon after climbing into a taxi we were told to get out because the student refused to wear his seatbelt.
I asked the student if he didn’t get what the cabbie had asked him.
"I did hear," he said. "But we don’t have to wear a seatbelt in our country. It's just a short distance and it’s too bothersome. We can just take another taxi."
On another occasion, I wandered through Disneyland in Hong Kong from dawn till dusk to research how the park was managed.
At one point, I encountered a park employee trying to eject a customer for cutting several lines.
“Are you from Vietnam?” she asked in unclear Vietnamese.
I'm still ashamed of the handful of Vietnamese who seem to have no respect for others or themselves.
Of course not all Vietnamese people have such habits, but I've seemed to run into them all over the world. Not surprisingly, the image of "The Ugly Vietnamese" had followed them wherever they go.
In a society with strong laws, good ethical norms and proper law enforcement, you tend not to see these bad habits among members of the general public.
To get rid of our problems abroad, we need to start at home. Parents should be good examples for their children; schools need to teach students good habits in addition to providing them with general knowledge.