Vietnam for the Vietnamese

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Tourists and expats should understand Vietnam has bigger fish to fry than appeasing foreigners

A street bicycle repairman sits waiting for clients in downtown Hanoi

The neurotic public discussion of Vietnam's relative merits as a tourist destination has crossed the threshold into insanity.

A hailstorm of criticism kicked off with the inexplicable international publication of an American's embittered blog post, which badmouthed all of Vietnam based on experiences he found unpleasant, all of which could just as well have happened anywhere in the world.

The debate has raged on, consistently underemphasizing or ignoring altogether, the economic factors primarily responsible for Vietnam's pitfalls. It is as if the country's sole purpose is to prevent crimes against its tourists and ensure no expat be kept up nights by loud music. The process has marginalized the Vietnamese people in a myriad of ways, most notably in its failure to recognize that the Vietnamese suffer disproportionately more from the same ills foreigners take as personal affronts.

The race to "˜defend' Vietnam has only made things worse. The nadir may have been a recent letter to the editor, differentiating between "real Vietnamese" and the "low-class scum" that prey on tourists. I cannot think of anything sillier than a foreigner, no matter how long he's lived here, daring to preside over Vietnamese authenticity.

It's incredibly ironic that local folks who work in the more touristy parts of town could somehow be considered less than Vietnamese. The overwhelming majority of these people are so fair-minded in their dealings, they all but transcend the inherent dictates of an economy increasingly driven by free market principles. In my experience, they condemn injustices suffered by foreigners with more vigilance than the commonplace sufferings of their compatriots. With paranoiac fervor, they admonish every foreigner sober enough to listen, not to abandon their street smarts while traveling in Vietnam.

Although the complaints of foreigners are being granted increased airtime, they are nothing new. In 2001, I was thrilled to learn the young woman seated beside me in law school orientation had recently traveled through Southeast Asia, as I had. I raved about my experiences in Vietnam and was dumbfounded to hear her reply with a sermon which began, "If Vietnam ever wants to be a real country," and went on to allege how she paid 20 percent more than a local would have, for a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

The median incomes of foreign tourists and expats exponentially exceed the average Vietnamese salary, which stands currently at 108 bucks a month. That locals sometimes pay less for equal value simply does not constitute an injustice. Furthermore, it is as if many foreigners, Westerners in particular, suspend their knowledge of rudimentary economics upon setting foot in the developing world. They begrudge vendors for attempting to maximize their profit margins, ignoring that such practices adhere to the most basic tenants of capitalism. Fixed prices have become the way of the world, but it is not how a free market operates, where the price of everything is supposed to be in constant flux based on annoyances known as supply and demand.

I do not waste any more time worrying about being overcharged in Vietnam than I do tormenting myself over the fact that an international student pays infinitely more than I did to attend college in California, which I might add, is also significantly more expensive for somebody from New York.

A vastly increased gap between rich and poor has gone part and parcel with Vietnam's rapid development. As long as consumerism and the quest for material wealth continue to penetrate deeper into modern Vietnamese society, money will become a bigger part of identity and incidents of crime, both petty and violent, will rise.

But HCMC is becoming evermore like Los Angeles, and every year Vietnam more closely resembles the countries from which its tourists tend to hail. If the street crime here ever reaches Californian levels, it will be because its root causes were never examined, let alone addressed. This is the case in the US, which according to the New York Times imprisons not only a higher percentage of its population than any nation on earth but more total people than anyone else as well.

Perhaps it is because I come from America, the ultimate hotbed for crime and corruption of the highest order that I tend to dismiss foreigners' gripes about Vietnam out of hand, absolutely unable to get worked up over scam taxis, pickpockets, aggressive vendors and the like. But worse things do take place in Vietnam, sometimes even to foreigners.

Crimes like street theft and muggings reveal perpetrators far too desperate to discriminate among potential victims based on anything other than calculated estimations of profit. Motorbike thugs follow the same code as corporate moguls, though you do not hear many foreigners in Vietnam admonishing Coca-Cola or Monsanto.

Vietnam, free of foreign rule and occupation for less than 40 years, remains at a crossroads. Since the US embargo was finally lifted in 1994, the country has completely overhauled its economy. Vietnam is a real country with real problems and it is neither reasonable nor plausible that the government would make sterilizing the Vietnamese experience for tourists and expats a top priority.

As it is, Vietnam, its increasing numbers of tourists and expats notwithstanding, has overgrown its infrastructure. Instead of attempting to please elites who live or visit here, whatever their nationality, Vietnam would be better off if the government concentrated on the concerns of its most powerless residents and did everything in its power to improve their life chances. Such efforts would benefit everyone who sits down for some tra da in this unbelievably wondrous land.

We could all benefit from the realization that even miracles cast shadows. It is nothing less than miraculous, the dignity with which this extraordinary people have transitioned from a tyrannically oppressed peasantry, to become the most successful repudiators of Chinese aggression, French colonialism and American imperialism the world has ever known. And now Vietnam stands as one of the globe's most alluring destinations for tourists and expats, despite its drawbacks, which upon deeper inspection, represent nothing more than ordinary trends endemic to highly competitive societies the world over.

By Jeremiah Twain
The writer is an American freelance writer who is living in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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