I have to admit, I had never heard of Matt Kepnes until I just saw his blog post about Vietnam making the rounds in the Huffington Post. From the crassness of posting this 5 year old blog about Vietnam in an international forum like Huffington Post, I will be just as happy never to hear of him again as he is never to come back to Vietnam. It is a huge insult to an entire nation to look at the 0.00001% of Vietnamese who work around and live off tourists, and then to feel qualified to speculate that 87 million people are therefore cheats.
I am writing this post basically to stand up for the other 87 million Vietnamese people who Matt did not meet, and yet has internationally tarnished their name. I used to know a woman from Eastern Europe who once told me possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard - she said that she "hates blacks and yellows" (I am quoting her exactly) - when I angrily pushed her to find out what she could possibly have against such a huge proportion of the planet, it turned out that one black person had stolen her mobile phone outside a subway station, while she felt that Vietnamese people were coming into her country to put her own population out of business - claiming along the way that 25% of her country's population was now Vietnamese! Those of you who have been around Eastern Europe will know exactly how unrealistic this figure is.
This type of generalisation is exactly what we are seeing today with Muslims in the West - because a few have been driven to feel they have to fight 'the West', I have heard too many times that Muslims are somehow 'bad' - this is 2.1 billion people we are talking about!! I have travelled a lot and met loads of people of all religions, and have never met a 'bad' one belonging to any of them, or atheists or agnostics either.
What I am saying is that it can be all too easy to put down a whole population through stereotypes and prejudice, as well as through generalising traits across the people. I come from the UK, and there are some sectors of society (especially the most disadvantaged) who can tend to blame immigrants for their lack of jobs. If someone only met a large number of these very poor people who have been brought up believing that all their problems stem from immigration, and then went on to speak to a lot of other people who had also met large numbers of these same economically disadvantaged people, he could easily conclude that 62 million people across the UK are xenophobic and blame foreigners for their plight, and have his theory corroborated by those others who had met the same people.
This might seem irrelevant, but what Matt Kepnes has essentially done is just this - he has taken an extremely tiny segment of society, namely those people (mostly touts) who make their living from tourists, and strongly implied that Vietnamese people are all cheats. He states that other travellers have also met a lot of these touts, and they have agreed with him that, yes, and surprisingly, these touts do indeed rip people off, thereby confirming this concern that all Vietnamese people are somehow on the make.
He has also said that he can understand what he has been told by an all-knowing English teacher in Nha Trang - that Vietnamese are 'taught...that the West "owes" Vietnam' (Taught by whom? In school? By parents, as above, who bring their children up in the UK blaming immigrants for the country's problems?). I have never once come across this perspective that the West owes Vietnam from any one of the Vietnamese people I have met in 5 years, and find it a completely pathetic statement to forward around. This is especially because the impression from Matt's article is that he never had a single decent conversation with a Vietnamese person, and his entire experience comes from these touts.
I have been an English teacher myself, in Vietnam and China, and know fully well how easy it is for urban myths about the local populations to start getting passed around. So all I can say about this statement, is well done Matt, for sending what is very likely an urban myth global, and propagating a false negative image of Vietnamese people. The truth is, though, that the West has destroyed Vietnam and brought it to its current situation, so any true reading of events may reflect this - but I have still never heard this from locals, nor have I ever heard anything suggesting that the Vietnamese expect foreigners to spend money in their country, again, other than touts who experience a daily struggle with tourists and backpackers to make their own living, and who live in a tough situation themselves.
I have been living in Vietnam for 5 years. Except for those few Vietnamese who make their living from tourists, I have never come across a single Vietnamese person who has ever tried to cheat me - in fact, it has been entirely the opposite. All the Vietnamese people I know are some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever come across - no exaggeration, and they have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome and help us out when we have been stuck. I could give so many examples, but I don't feel that I should need to pick out certain events to say, "Look, here is where a Vietnamese person was nice. And look, here is another time they were generous." It is the rule rather than the exception that the Vietnamese people I have met are extremely friendly, warm and helpful, and the last thing they want is to make money out of you. Other than the tourist area touts, I can't think of a single Vietnamese person in 5 years who has tried to take advantage of me, while there are hundreds who have gone out of their way to help us and make us welcome in their country.
For the most part, and bearing in mind that we are far better off than them financially, they insist on paying for dinners and drinks, as well as the vast majority of traders not raising their prices at all for foreigners, despite not having any money themselves. While Matt talks about the people who did hassle him and try to overcharge him, he has completely neglected to notice the large number of street traders who never hassle people, and quietly come to offer their wares and walk away just as quietly. I actually find this quite incredible, knowing that most of these street traders and touts are the sole earners for their entire families, travel in from the countryside every day and then work 12 hours, sometimes making 50 cents, occasionally making nothing for the day. The issue is that there are so many people in this predicament here - this results in a large number of these street traders, in direct competition with one another, having to be more forceful than in other places.
Unfortunately, if you stay around the tourist districts, then obviously, people will try to make as much money as they can. These touts look at backpackers, and see them as tourists, while backpackers see themselves as having no money either. The problem is that, even with only having a certain budget per day, backpackers are still and will always be infinitely better off than the street traders. When a backpacker claims to have no money because they are limiting themselves to $20-30 per day, it doesn't make sense to people who realistically earn $2 per day on average. That backpackers claim they need to save their money to extend their travel doesn't make any sense to them either because they know that whatever backpackers are now, they will go back to their country in 3-6 months and be able to earn more in a month than they can earn in 2 years (or more). Of course you are still way better off than they are, no matter which way you look at it, even if you are a backpacker on a budget.
So anyway, my advice is to get out of the main tourist drags, if you ever want to be qualified to comment on a nation's people. I have lived here for 5 years and am still not qualified to comment on the population - locals themselves have pointed out that everyone is different, even within a nation. Not only that, but you will have such a rich experience compared to just meeting a completely unrepresentative, tiny segment of society who make their living from tourists. Get to know any number of the other 87 million Vietnamese, and you will come across a huge variety of wonderful people, as in any country, who are not out to cheat you!
Get beneath the surface. Or alternatively at least take an honest look at whether what you are doing and who you are meeting in a country are representative of the whole before you cast aspersions on the rest. I say come to Vietnam - be prepared, if you like, that there are touts, but it is your choice whether to buy from them. If someone is too forceful, walk away. If someone is overcharging, walk away. One hotel owner in Egypt made a very wise comment when we asked him what the 'right price' was for things before we went to the market. He said, "The right price is what the buyer is happy to pay and the seller is happy to receive." If you take this to heart, you will find your travel experience is vastly improved, no matter where you are.
As a final note, learning a bit of the language will go a long way to getting in with the locals - why should we expect people to go out of their way to make us feel welcome? I have never heard of any such concept in the UK for people to go out of their way to make tourists feel welcome - ha, it makes me smile to think of people even considering it. Luckily, people in Vietnam are far more willing than in the UK, and will often try to strike up conversations with foreigners. If you make an effort yourself and learn a bit of the language, then you will find the locals are even more impressed and are amazingly happy to see you speaking their language.
About me: I am an English guy living in Vietnam. Before coming here, I lived in Beijing, China for 2 years as an English teacher. I also wrote 2 books, "The Most Vital Chinese" for anyone needing to get by travelling using hotels in China and "The Most Basic Chinese - All You Need to Know to Get By", which contains the entirety of my knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, and was literally everything I needed to know to live there, so would advise it to anyone wanting to pick up some easy Chinese.
And I am now expanding this into a series of phrasebooks and apps (some free), entitled Most Basic Languages, including "The Most Basic Vietnamese - All You Need to Know to Get By", which follows the same structure and format as the Chinese one above.
If you wish to contact me, click on my name below, then "Send a message" or "Send an email".
We also have a partner if you are travelling with Budget Airlines from the UK, who sell hand luggage to fit their allowances. This is http://ukhandluggage.com.