A fish out of water perhaps?

My new card
My new card with a spelling mistake

I have been sitting at my computer for the last hour staring at nothing just absorbing nothing. With a start, I came to when my wife walks in the room to remind me that it is bed time. I have been reflecting about life in Vietnam because I just returned from the tourist area after having a few beers with some local expats and a young man who came here for a few days but cannot leave.  I listened to their conversations about life in Vietnam and the issues they face. I watched the interaction with them and the street people as well as the waitresses and the world seemed to slow just like in a movie. Thud thud… A man turns in his seat to make a joking comment to a passing waitress….. The voice is low in slow motion. Thud thud….. I look around and can easily identify the people that live here and the visitors in this small bubble of falsely perceived security in a small contained world. Thump thump…. The image fast forward to me sitting in the chair not drinking my forgotten beer…… I have to leave. I wonder…. What have I become? A fish out of water?

This is very confusing thing for me. I am one of them… A foreigner.  I can sit and drink, make jokes, and have fun with the others… It is all part

A fun day
A fun day

of the bar experience for many, but I sit at the table next and I am confused by what I hear even though a lot of the conversation is valid. I am sitting at a table not understanding my own culture. Egad!! When did this happen? I know I am not lost. I have foreign friends and we discuss politics, religion and other subjects, but when the conversation falls to Vietnam and the culture and people, I get a bit overwhelmed. Some conversations are about greed and abuse, others about trust and friendship or family. Their experiences are totally different from my own and some of the conversations are bitter about the very same people that are their hosts in this country.

It is now a week or so later and I have been thinking of that night where I felt like in a dream and had to leave the tourist area back into the wilds where I call home. I think I understand now a little of what I was hearing and can put it into context….. A Bit.

Vietnamese people on the surface are probably one of the friendliest and genuine people you will ever meet. The girls and women are absolutely adorable and the men quick to befriend and become chums. What we do not realize or understand is that they have had very little if no experience with anything outside their

Preparing the rice field
Preparing the rice field

world. If you can fit within that world, it is a wonderful place and you will be blessed with loving friendships that can never be damaged, however, we as foreigners come here as ignorant about them as them to us. This lack of understanding leads many foreigners to unintentionally corrupt people here and the result is some of the conversations that I heard. Let me give a real example of a person that I know…….

A beautiful young woman from a very poor family comes into the city looking for work. She has language abilities and is able to find a job working in a restaurant or bar in a tourist area. Her family monthly income was 60 USD a month, and with her new job, she has become successful by adding another 70 USD for a total of 130 dollars a month for a family of 6 to live on. One day a man appears with the best of intentions and tries to chase this beautiful young woman. In the process he takes her to a place to eat that she never dreamed of going because a meal might cost 5 dollars. Ok… no problem, that was but one instance, however, the foreigner genuinely likes this girl and I can understand why…… Many are innocent and adorable with a giggly shy and respectful nature. The second date wanting to impress, they again go to a place she never dreamed she could afford. It is nothing to the foreigner and does not even

Happy faces and one not so
Happy faces

give it a thought, but quietly though, a monster is being created. In Vietnamese culture, the thought of “If he loves me, he will pay” is common but usually that applies to Vietnamese affordability……… It starts…. My sister has a tooth ache, my mother needs doctor, until it works up to I need new motorcycle. Thinking we are being good people, we help all the while creating a situation where now the relationship is no longer about love and respect, but about what a person can provide.  In the case that I am talking about, the woman now has 4 fiancés that send her a monthly income with the expectation that they will be married if they can overcome the paperwork hurdles (that of course will always be) They visit every year when they can get holidays to fit with her schedule. It is now simply her job. She now can contribute 400 dollars a month to her family and get perks and toys bought personally.

This happens on both sides of the fence and I can understand completely the bitterness when the foreign friend discovers the betrayal, but at the same time, I cannot judge this abuser for his or her actions as it was us who created her or him. It feels like I am looking over the fence at my own wondering why I am on this side. I am a bit confused……. Am I one of us or one of them?

Shame about the litter in the water
Shame about the litter in the water

In 6 days I will be returning to Canada for a 1 month visit for the first time in almost 4 years……. I am very nervous…. The cold, the people, the cost, the changes…….. I have adapted to this environment and cannot imagine living there anymore however, my wife is exuberant at returning. Hopefully this will not become  a defining marrige issue in the future. I am so sorry…… There is so much more I wanted to include in this post as in examples and things that happen because of cultural difference, but I am already way over myself imposed word limit..

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Tour designer and Guide specializing in off the beaten track tours of Vietnam

9 thoughts on “A fish out of water perhaps?

  1. I am bar girl. I have married man from abroad. He here on business alone for a few days. He cheats his wife and family. I give him what he wants in hotel. I get dinners and drinks. He comes back soon to take me to Singapore. He pays everything. His wife cries but not my problem. Stupid man.

    1. A complicated life to lead. Many of you are beautiful, adorable and easy to love. It is our weekness that is being exploited.

  2. We talked about this before I had a chance to read it so we covered a lot of what you were hashing around. I also think it’s why some of us are lucky in some respects…to have enough brains/the chance to get away for a while…get out and see the ‘real’ country and re-boot the system once in a while.

    Most expats don’t. For reasons of job or work they stay in the same area, create a little bubble of life and comfort (security) then never stray from that. When problems arise they have built walls (fences?) so well that they have restricted chances of cultural problem solving -or – negated the chance of doing it. I find myself doing that, slap myself on the back of the head and then, change direction.

    Most of the time it works.

    Example (not one I’m proud of):
    This came to light on our last little trip – while riding in the rain – on a very bad road – in the middle of nowhere – with Phuong on the back…reality check.

    I have long criticized the Easy Rider guys because of superior attitude and how they take passengers to see the ‘real’ Vietnam. Then, while staying at the hotel you recommended to us in BMT, we ran into a couple of nicer ones. Yes, there were also a few who wouldn’t speak and had their noses firmly up and locked.

    We had a nice long conversation, talked about TH and our cafe, they traded business cards with us and were truly interested in us the cafe/hostel and the area. They wanted to ‘network’ and this took me aback for several reasons. It became a nice long breakfast.

    Then, while hittin’ the trail up through the hills the next day, the reality of Easy Riders bit me in the butt…hard!

    They can’t really show the average tourist the ‘real’ well off the beaten track Vietnam…it’s just not possible because it’s too dangerous for both them and the tourist.

    In reality; had we gone-down in a few of the areas we were riding, we would have been screwed and not just a little. We were on a smaller bike, we were packed light, Phuong has been taught how to be a good passenger and I’m a pretty experienced rider. Still, had we gone-down – in the middle of nowhere – simply getting medical help would have been a problem. Major highways ok, decent provincial roads ok, wet/slippery/loose and rock strewn back roads up in the hills – NOT OK!

    Have fun on vacation, Bob

  3. Hello Owen,

    I’ve been reading your post & this is the first time I comment on it. What you said is absolutely correct about how the foreigners or Viet Kieu create this “monster” unintentionally. You cannot blame this young beautiful lady for having 4 fiancés. She is just trying to improve her situation. These foreigners go over there with their fancy attires & money. These young gals can’t help but be attracted to them. The young & inexperience girls will fall in love, the guy will promise her the whole world, then break her heart once he gone home leaving her hopelessly depressed. She probably experience a few heart breaks….she then learn to protect herself & in turn improve her situation allowing these foreigners to pay for her & let them promise her whatever they desire. She knows that once they leave, nothing else will change except for the emptiness in her heart. She doesn’t really care until one of them actually fulfill his promise. This doesn’t just happens in Viet Nam. Wherever there are poverty, there will be people willing to do whatever it takes to improve their situation. As for you being confused…I think you just have a much more understand of both cultures. You are not confused, you are much wiser.

      1. Hi Owen,
        I will be traveling to VN in October. I’ll swing by Nha Trang for a week or two. Perhaps we can meet up for a drink or 2?

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