On Huế / On Oversensitivity

It occurs to me that I’ve traveled to Hue at least once per month this year, twice for the sole purpose of acting as an amateur tour guide for a best friend and family member and once for the sole purpose of spending time with VIA friends. My next trip to Hue won’t come until June, when Phu Bai airport reopens.

Last week’s trip was especially nice, notwithstanding Hue’s terribly nasty weather. My brilliant, beautiful grandmother and I—along with a friend from university—went on the tomb circuit, shopped for incense, and visited Thien Mu Pagoda. Between fighting back “been there done that” feelings and extreme laziness brought on by wet feet and warm blankets I did enjoy Hue again.

There’s something about the place. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s one of the few locations in Vietnam that I talk up. Hue denizens are among the most graceful folks in Vietnam, good food there is never hard to find, and in terms of culture Hue comes second only to Hanoi as a place that oozes history and tradition.

Yellow Incense
Yellow Incense Sticks in Hue, Vietnam

One of the byproducts of all this recent travel, though, has been what I can only call my growing oversensitivity to negative comments about the Vietnamese.

I usually sympathize with visitors who gripe about trash on sidewalks, civic pride, traffic conditions, noise pollution, and procedural inefficiency. But I also find myself becoming extremely defensive with tourists who bitch and moan about getting ripped off, Vietnamese service industry workers who don’t speak English, airport employees who have bad attitudes, or anything that even remotely suggests a collective character deficiency in the Vietnamese.

It’s silly, and I know it is, to get so tense about criticisms that at the end of the day mean nothing to the Vietnamese and nothing to me. Locals and foreign expats have lives to live; we certainly don’t spend all of our time occupied with tourists’ unoriginal takes on idiot drivers or men and children who urinate in public spaces. We have our own issues with Vietnam that usually run much deeper than current pricing for boats, trains, or planes.

But, still, there’s a part of me—underneath the sarcasm and aloofness—that so badly wants for friends, family members, and strangers alike to enjoy Vietnam. Vietnam has been more and more of my home since 2004 and I feel like the moment I decided to become an expat was an implicit statement of purpose to in some ways defend Vietnam’s idiosyncrasies against uninformed, foreign opinions.

The danger of course has always been and will always be falling victim to Vietnam worship. There’s room for improvement here, and lots of it. To pretend otherwise would be just as offensive as Vietnam bashing.

But there’s a nuanced way of criticizing the country, its people, and its culture, one that usually begins with the questions ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ Instead of growing angry at a waitress for screwing up an order of “salad with no carrots and dressing on the side” I’d rather an English-speaking foreigner ask himself how he could have phrased the request differently. Instead of issuing the blanket statement “the Vietnamese can’t seem to get anything right” I’d rather someone question her expectations.

Another part of this is the lopsided nature of the relationship between the Vietnamese and visitors. Vietnamese people are almost always in the position of serving; foreigners are almost always in the position of being served. It makes fussing by tourists seem awfully bourgeois. Unless someone lives in Vietnam for a very long time or is fluent in Vietnamese, it’s incredibly difficult for him to see Vietnamese people as people. All of this just seems to create a natural tendency towards griping and crankiness on the part of visitors. Fetch me another bia Tiger, boy, and make sure the ice is clean.

Ultimately, I don’t think these feelings will ever end. I want people to like Vietnam because it’s my home, but I also need to come to grips with the fact that people always bring their cultural and economic biases with them wherever they go in the world. It’s not always Vietnam that people don’t like; sometimes they just don’t like different. Nobody can fix that and I really shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.