Back by popular demand, here’s my ode to Vietnam sung to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Don’t worry, there’s more afterwards.
“You’re just too good to be true
You make Saigon feel like new
Food’s just like heaven to touch
I wanna eat so damn much
At long last pho has arrived
Banh mi makes me feel alive
Street food too good to be true
Can’t take my mind off of food
Pardon the way that I stare
Can Tho village can’t compare
The sight of you leaves me weak
sand dunes of Mui Ne beach
But it’s the people, I feel
That make Vietnam feel so real
You’re just too good, and hot damn,
Can’t take my mind off Vietnam
Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh da duh duh duh duh
Da duh da duh DUHHHHHH
Oh Vietnam baby
Your endless motorbikes
Oh Vietnam baby
Your hot and humid nights
Oh Vietnam baby
What else more can I say?
Oh Vietnam baby
I wish that I could stay
And learn your culture
And all your history
Vietnam, I love you, Vietnam
I will miss you”
Vietnam was a whirlwind of adventure, and after hopping around the south of Vietnam for two weeks, from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, to the touristic paradise of Mui Ne, to the relatively relaxed pace of Can Tho, it was weird to return to my home in Ibaraki, Japan and settle back into the work life.
But even though I’m back in my normal routine, I can’t help but shake off my time in Vietnam, from the cultural similarities and differences I gathered, my first experience of traveling alone, the problems that still exist within Vietnam, and my even positive yet problematic run-ins with other tourists. And all of that continues to tie in with being in Japan and my experiences with both the locals and other foreigners, whether English teachers or not.
First of all, traveling alone for the first time was absolutely amazing. I guess you could say that moving abroad to Japan alone was, in a sense, “traveling alone” but there was still a huge support group of English teachers from all over the English-speaking world, and even my own home of California. But going to a country where I had absolutely no knowledge of language and little understanding of the country’s history or culture was something that I was both excited for and worried about. The excitement though was well-above the worry, especially since the worry was more-so instilled in me by others than an actual deep-seated fear, so I thought, “Eff it!” and bought my plane ticket.
Anyways, we’ve all heard the benefits of traveling alone, and to my lack of surprise, they were all incredibly true. I get to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I never have to consider other people’s feelings, desires, and concerns, and I can change cities and destinations at the blink of eye. Sounds selfish, I know, but hey, it’s my travel! Even though there was the concern that traveling alone might be lonely or dangerous, I’ve stayed long enough in certain cities or destinations that you eventually build up rapport and friendships with other fellow travelers or workers so you feel social and safe. I did have an odd experience with couchsurfing but that’s a story for another day.
But also, traveling alone in hostels and meeting other solo travelers has made me see somewhat of a dark side in the booming travel industry and the growing desirability of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia in general. To put it in very blunt and off-putting terms, “Southeast Asia has become a playground for White Westerners”. Obviously, I’m complicit in this, and there are tons of exceptions, especially with an influx of the newfound riches of Chinese tourists and the established travel habits of other rich Asian countries like Japan and Korea, but I couldn’t shake that notion from my head.
(an excerpt from the Ho Chi Minh museum)
What is the problem of having White Westerners come to these slowly but surely developing countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc anyways? Honestly, I have no developed opinion or answer for that yet. Although my statement of SE Asia being the white playground has a tinge of disdain, there are plenty of positive aspects to it as well. Just like it did for me, it opens and closes the cultural divides between places that are “othered” in society. It humanizes places that often mired in stereotypes. It exposes us to the notion that despite their labels as “poor or developing countries”, they are developed in many ways that we would not expect. (For example, Vietnam had tons of “sleeper buses” for both tourists and citizens alike with seats resembling pseudo-beds, something I’ve never experienced or seen in America or my six months in Japan.) Of course, at the same time, the stretch of the yen/dollar is very real and as one local said, “You were born in America. You are already rich.” Although America has a broad range of poverty that is its own set of problems, generally speaking, it is very true, and it’s a good reminder for such visitors from America or Germany or Finland that the rest of the world is not as fortunate as them.
There’s also the added benefit of the injection of foreign money into the Vietnam tourism industry, but that also opens up a whole host of other issues, like travelers still trying to pinch pennies despite it actually being a difference of $1-$3 given the conversion rate, or the sustainability and strain on increased tourism on the environment.
(while this hostel/hotel looks really nice and expensive, the conversion rate is beneficial enough that it was only $6 a night)
The biggest thing that stands out to me with traveling, especially to a country with a range of problems from poverty to the suppression of freedom of speech, is the lack of cultural foresight on part of the travelers, and this was something I was both guilty of in some aspects, and proud to have prepared for it in others.
I’ll admit my biggest faux pas: I went into Vietnam forgetting that it was a communist country and I forgot that after the Vietnam War, it was the communist North that succeeded and not the other way around.
Shameful. I know. Upon arrival, within the first two days, I spent a couple hours in my hotel room on my phone just reading and reading about everything, from the sights to see to the food to eat to Vietnam’s long and complicated history. I’d like to blame my lack of cultural foresight on my being incredibly busy before leaving, but that’s not a solid excuse. So throughout the trip, I always tried to have at-length conversations about Vietnam with locals, being lucky enough to find some people that were very passionate and willing to talk about the problems that Vietnam faces. My questions were sometimes difficult and heavy, but I was glad to really learn about the country from the eyes of locals.
On the other hand, one thing I was proud of was my foray into attempting to learn the Vietnamese language. I watched a couple YouTube videos, asked some friends about their opinion of certain “travel Vietnamese phrases”, and even made flashcards that I studied about four days before leaving. I studied on and off during the trip (sadly, I lost them four days into my trip) but I retained enough that I was successfully able to ask “How much?” and understand the Vietnamese numbers. Someone on the shuttle asked me where I was going and I could successful understand right away and produce the address. I could say “Thank you” in my terrible accent and still garner smiles from store clerks and restaurant workers. Even another traveler commented on “how good my Vietnamese was”.
(good but it’s not like karaoke was a piece of cake…)
That was one thing I found problematic among many travelers, and continue to find problematic with myself and other teachers here in Japan. Here you are, in a foreign country, and you didn’t even bother to learn the language, not even how to say “Thank You”? This country is not here to serve your Western whims. This country is not here to cater to your English-speaking wants and desires. Vietnam doesn’t need drunk foreigners reveling on the streets and haggling with locals, trying to save 20,000VND (to an American, that’s less than $1 but in Vietnam, that buys you a meal). Japan doesn’t need confused foreigners unable to understand or unwilling to follow certain customs AKA Gaijin Smash.
Language is one of the basic and innate parts of culture because it represents the way of communication, communication being the foundation of human connection, and you won’t even bother to learn it?
This lends to something I’ve been musing about for the past couple of months: English privilege. We’ve heard of White privilege and male privilege, such as in the context of racially-incensed America or institutionalized sexism in leadership positions. But I’ve never really considered the idea of English privilege until coming to Japan and traveling Vietnam.
Basically, being born in an English-speaking country and speaking English well already gives you a sort of power that millions of people wish to have.
You have an ability to work in tons of countries. The desire for English teachers is strong all over Asia and the barrier of entry is so low that many people who have never taught before or have never even considered the profession are suddenly given the reins of a classroom. The need to learn the native language at your profession is weak too since English is the de-facto language in power.
You aren’t really pushed to learn other languages. Despite meeting travelers from France, Germany, Finland, Austria, Japan, China, India and so on, our primary language of communication was English. It’s nice that English is so widespread that we have a means of cross-cultural communication, but as one traveler pointed out, other languages fall by the wayside, with some countries or places really struggling to maintain their language, thus maintaining their culture, from west Ireland to Native American tribes.
(left to right: Austria, America, France, Vietnam, Germany but currently Switzerland, and Germany. English united us all (and German to some extent…)
Depending on which country or which region, you more-or-less have a choice. In my high school, I could learn Spanish, French, Mandarin, or Korean. In most countries, you have to learn English, whether you like it or not. And, you have to learn it for the rest of your public school life, dependent on when you start, while I only had 2 years of mandatory language learning in high school.
Even when traveling in non-English speaking countries, the country, in a sense, caters to you by putting everything in English. Of course, it’s nonsensical to learn a foreign language well enough to navigate a 3-page menu or the terms and conditions of your hotel room, especially if you are there for a short time. But, while you can’t help but feel pretty lucky that while we can travel to virtually any country in the world and have our English tongues catered to, a Japanese person can’t easily travel to Sweden or a Finnish person to Mexico without some semblance of English understanding.
It’s even important to note that being born in that native-speaking country is another level of privilege not enjoyed by fluent English speakers in non-native English countries. Take the anecdotal case of a friend I met from India who, despite having flawless English abound with the rhythms, slang, and “ums” of a native speaker, was hard-pressed to find a teaching job in Vietnam because he was from India and not your typical white Westernized English-speaking nation.
Granted, there is a span of generalizations and anecdotal cases here short of anything profoundly academic, but I can’t shake these musings and I’d always love to start a discussion on these issues (or non-issues). Here’s a good article that expands further on my musings on English language privilege.
All in all though, my big takeaways are continuing to stay educated and make it a priority to keep up with world events, world news, and world history. Nothing worse than fulfilling the stereotype of the uncultured, self-centered American. I want to visit Singapore this year to see my cousin, and places like Korea, China, and the Philippines are on my radar. When I visit such countries, learning the language is a priority on my list right after buying my plane ticket, alongside reviewing the history and culture of these places.
I’ve also been inspired to be serious about my language study. The number of languages that people know from other countries is so impressive and it’s such a shame that I don’t really know much else other than English. So, I will continue to study Japanese everyday in an effort to both make sense of the world around me and to really show that I am willing to be part of this community. Otherwise, I’m just another outsider expecting my “home” to cater to my English whims. I also have let my previous languages of French and Tagalog fall by the wayside. I find it especially terrible that I don’t know Tagalog, the language of my parents and home country. The college Tagalog class I took in order to reconnect with that part of myself wasn’t exactly rigorous enough to make me even remotely able to hold a conversation. I don’t have a specific course of action yet but it’s definitely on my radar. Lastly, once I feel like I have gotten a grasp of Japanese, I’ll re-take French again and possibly foray into Spanish as well.
Traveling has been and will continue to be a reminder that the world is much bigger than yourself. Bigger than the city, state, country, or continent you live in. I failed to mention this before but it is also integral to building empathy, learning about the lives of others and seeing experiences that are you foreign to you. Not foreign in the nationalistic sense but foreign in never having lived it yourself.
(a slice of life at Turtle Lake, a common hangout in Saigon for locals and foreigners alike)
Sigh. Rereading this sounds like a lot of work. I’m motivated. But let’s hope I don’t get overwhelmed by it all and be a hermit. It is 4pm right now and I haven’t seen the sunlight beyond looking out my window yet. China seems doable but the local grocery store feels like it’s own struggle. I could also just cruise through life and simply enjoy it like this fella below…but that’s too easy.