Colonialists vs. Relativists 

In my experience there are three types of expat in Vietnam. Those who – let’s call them relativists – think the whole country is wonderful and the people lovable and honest, and that even the bad things can’t be criticised as it’s their culture and we have no right to find fault with it.


On the other extreme, we have the colonialists – those who think the country is a festering rat’s nest of dirt, corruption and greed, run by people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, and who need a good dose of foreign management to sort them out.


Then in the middle you have a third group, of which I like to think myself a member, that kind of flits between these two extremes. Obviously we like living here, or we wouldn’t stay, and there are days when Vietnam feels like the best place in the world; but we aren’t blind to its faults and we try our best to offer advice as to how these faults could be rectified.


To Advise or Not to Advise?


The problem is, of course, that the locals don’t really like taking our advice. To take advice from a foreigner, even on something as simple as proofreading some English language ad text, is to lose face – look at the number of ads in Vietnam News containing bad English, and think how easy it would have been to get the ads checked first.


To offer advice – as I recently did in a blog posting about how Vietnam can improve its tourism marketing – generally gets a blank response from the locals, but worse, it gets a furious response from the relativists. “As foreigners, we have no right to tell the Vietnamese how to run their country!” fumed one reader, missing the point that I wasn’t telling them how to run their country, merely offering ideas as to how they might attract more tourists for the benefit of all.


It’s the same with the city’s architecture. Many expats here (and also, though more quietly, many Vietnamese) are appalled at the continued vandalism being wrought on the city’s fine French colonial buildings, and can frequently be heard complaining about the destruction of the city’s charm and character. The Relativists counter with, “It’s their city, they can do what they want” and “French colonial architecture doesn’t have positive associations for them” and suchlike. While this may be true, surely those of us who have lived in and visited well-preserved cities such as Paris or Amsterdam have a right to voice our opinion and say look, it is possible to be a modern, vibrant city without destroying your heritage.


Even insular, xenophobic Britain addressed this problem a few years back by putting an American chief executive in charge of the country’s main tourism body. And of course it worked – whereas we Brits are generally pretty self-deprecating and can’t understand why so many foreigners come to our country on holiday, Americans love the place, so it made sense to put one in charge of marketing it, and to take her advice on how the country’s tourism industry could be improved. We were grateful for her help – and no-one called her a colonialist.

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