Another side of Vietnam

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A Facebook group seeks to elicit positive experiences from foreigners in the country

Two foreign tourists touring around Ho Chi Minh City by cyclo. After a recent bout of Vietnam-bashing, some foreigners claim positive experiences far outweigh the rare negative ones.

It was an unforgettable experience for the expatriate. He was out of petrol on a road in the middle of nowhere one night, and was pushing his bike in the rain, when a stranger materialized and virtually rescued him.

"A Vietnamese fella comes up behind me, having a laugh saying "˜3km to petrol' and rides off. A couple of minutes later he comes back with two liters, then says "˜you come me'," he wrote on Facebook group Another side of Vietnam.

"I offer to pay, he doesn't want it and says "˜you have coffee with me, one hour speak English'. Pretty much couldn't refuse, I did however manage to get him to accept petrol money in the end but he insisted on paying for the coffee."

A member narrates the story on the group's "No Vina-bashing week" from February 21 to 28 where several members share experiences that "could only ever happen in Vietnam."

One has written in about how total strangers helped them when a person in his group fell ill. It is not hard to conceive something like that happening anywhere in the world.

It is safe to say, however - without overly generalizing - that it is the smaller but thoughtful and spontaneous act of kindness that indicates more about people.

Vietweek spoke to several foreigners who are not members of the group. They came up with some insights into the "˜us versus them' thing.

Marc Spindel, an American living in Vietnam, says: "Most anger seems to stem from misunderstandings. The barter system here is the way most goods are purchased. This is a huge obstacle for most foreigners who have no day-to-day experience with this. We are used to one huge corporation fixing the price for everything and having no right to negotiate how much we pay to buy a single piece of bread for example.

"In a sense, we feel naked and vulnerable when we are first exposed to this new way of buying goods. It's a very primal experience and most people never really get used to it."

Backpackers are the most vulnerable to this culture shock as they have the most to lose by overpaying on their travels, Spindel says.

"In the local markets where prices are not fixed, speaking just a few phrases of intelligible Vietnamese has gotten me the same or nearly the same prices as the locals."

Despite several negative experiences in Vietnam, including petty theft, he says the positive far outweighs the negative.

"I still feel safer and more comfortable here than any other country I have lived in - at last count, that was seven places."

Bob Johnston, a writer who operates a café in the south-central province of Phu Yen with his wife and has lived there for almost six years, says: "If you must live and work in the big cities talk to the Vietnamese who you think are your friends to guide you to people they know won't take you for a ride.

"I don't believe there is a lot of scheming because the majority of the people don't share information with a wide circle of friends, they react based on past experience.

"However, if you spend all of your time in tourist and backpacker areas and give in at the first sign of being "˜pushed' into something, real or implied, the people will base future reactions with foreigners on that."

Alfredo de la Casa, a British lecturer in finance who lives and works in HCMC, says whether an experience in Vietnam is good or bad depends on how a foreigner reacts to cultural differences.

"For example, before moving to Vietnam, I visited the country as a tourist. I came with a friend and we experienced Vietnam together. However, while I was enjoying the country a lot, the people and the culture, he was getting constantly upset. He wanted the traffic, roads and pavement to be like in London, and he constantly got very angry and upset in HCMC.

"I would also prefer British traffic, however I realized that people don't walk here and therefore pavements have more use for parking or setting up a business."

He also criticizes the negative attitude of some tourists who think they are better than locals and end up not experiencing what they hoped for when visiting Vietnam.

"Many people, when they travel to another country, especially to a poorer country than their own, behave as if they are better than the locals, which is never the case.

"Going back to my example of my first visit to Vietnam, my friend got really upset at Wrap and Roll Restaurant because they did not make a dish for him. I told him that when he goes to a restaurant in London, he could never ask for dishes not in the menu or get upset if they don't have what he wants. So why do it here?"

"I have endless examples of waitresses, usually earning very low salaries, who have chased after me from a café or restaurant because they thought I had forgotten my change when I left them a tip."

De La Casa says he has many Vietnamese friends who helped him a lot "even when our friendship was just recent and fresh. You can forget about that in most western countries."

Grant Chenery, a British expat who has been living in Vietnam for six years, says he has traveled "fairly extensively" and finds it very difficult to comprehend why so many expats develop and harbor such negative feelings towards their hosts.

"I've found that it's the people that have never lived, worked, or socialized with the Vietnamese on a day-to-day basis that are the most fearful and mistrusting.

"Anyone who has spent time around the people in this country knows that, while they're different in many ways, they are good people at heart and that they are not out to take foreigners for a ride."

Another member of Another side of Vietnam has this touching story. He once crashed his Vespa into a coffee stall in the alley beside his house one morning.

"Needless to say, business for the coffee/juice stall was done for the day as it was damaged, glasses broken, coffee, juices and all gone.

"The owner was also injured. I offered to pay for all the damage and also if there was any medical fees that would be involved.

"She refused any payment and said it was an accident and that s**t happens."

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