July 19th, 2010
Hanoi, Vietnam

Recently a Western expat living in Vietnam discovered my blog, was mortified by my honest opinions, and ran off to show his friends on Facebook and Twitter and rally a crusade against me. The result was a grilling by people who didn’t bother to read most of my blog and who have never met me, which I find quite hilarious. Go ahead and check out the 50 comments on the last entry, they’re a riot.

I responded to these comments largely because it was amusing and I have nothing better to do at the moment, not because I harboured any notion of convincing these people I was right. That’s not how Internet arguments work. They are not places where civil discussion and enlightenment takes place. But I found it quite surprising how personally upset these people were and how much time they devoted to attacking one of thousands of tourists who come to Vietnam each year and leaves with a sour taste of the place.

My favourite arguments were that if I didn’t like Vietnam I should just go home (because apparently there are only two countries in the world), that I was ignorant (pretty sure I did just spend more than fifty days travelling all over Vietnam), and that I was racist. I may make a lot of obvious jokes and exaggerations, but anyone who knows me – or, in fact, anyone who bothers to actually read what I write – knows that I regularly go out of my way to rail against the disturbing undercurrent of racism in Australian society. Of course, that’s what happens when you start haranguing complete strangers on the Internet.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been reading travel blogs long enough to know that if you criticise a place – even slightly – the locals will burst out of the woodwork, screeching with indignation. I guess some people just can’t handle freedom of speech. Maybe that’s why they love Vietnam.

But while we’re on the subject, I want to address this silly prevailing notion that a foreign culture is immune to criticism by Westerners; the idea that we should accept flaws simply because “that’s just how things are here” and “we can’t expect to understand their ways.” That is romantic exoticism and it is bullshit. Criticism does not equal misunderstanding. I understand perfectly well that the Vietnamese dislike outsiders, and that Koreans don’t think there’s anything wrong with racial discrimination, and that many African tribes mutilate their daughters’ genitalia, and that Australians treat refugees with appalling vitriol. I know exactly how and why these things are the case (a history of foreign intrusion, racial homogeneity, misguided medical and religious reasons, and government propaganda, respectively). That doesn’t mean I approve of any of those things, and I’m going to say so. Unpleasant people, places, practices and beliefs do not get a free pass merely by virtue of being foreign.

I think there’s a definite line drawn between travellers who treat everywhere they go as though it lives up to its guidebook image, gushing about local charm and exotic adventures, and travellers who dispose with preconceptions and say what they really think about countries, cities and people. It’s not about optimism and pessimism, it’s about honesty. There are plenty of friendly people I met in Vietnam, and plenty of places (notably Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hoi An, Mui Ne, Dalat and the Central Highlands) that I really liked. None of these places and none of these people outweighed their far more unpleasant and numerous counterparts. I didn’t like Vietnam and I won’t be coming back here, largely because the people are so unfriendly. That’s not racism. That’s honesty. I’m on this trip to see the world, and I’m going to write about what I see. It’s not always going to be rosy.

But don’t take my word for it. Elisha regularly warned us that Vietnam was a country best avoided, and we regularly laughed at her for thinking that we would cross a country off our list based solely on one person’s opinion. By all means come and see Vietnam for yourself. Just be honest about what you think of it, like you should be with all countries, and in fact all things in life.

(Credit Nedroid)