“Can you introduce me to an anh Tay?” is the most common question asked by my Vietnamese single friends when they discover I have been working and socializing with foreigners for about eight years. But to be honest, many of us are not so interested in people from overseas. My mother once told me: “You don’t have to date a foreign guy. Vietnamese guys are still good!” I guess all she wanted to say was that she was afraid of the language barrier, the culture clash and losing me if I moved to another country.
Yet this article is not going to talk about love or culture clashes or living overseas. Instead, it’s about helping you, the ‘foreigner’, understand how Vietnamese people think, and it will explain why at times we behave in a manner that might seem a little weird.
So, here is what tends to go through the Vietnamese mind when they come across foreigners.
Stage 1: “I want to say hello!”
Don’t worry if you are on your way to work and Vietnamese people say “Hello!” to you. They just regard you as a guest in their country and want to show their hospitality. Normally, they will end their comment with a smile. This happens more when you visit the countryside, as people there, especially children, will generally all say hello to you. All you need to do is say hello and smile back. Not that difficult.
Stage 2: “Oh, that price will not hurt them.”
As the US dollar fetches a lot of dong, some of us still think foreigners are rich and that it’s okay if we charge them more than the locals. To deal with this, go to fixed-price shops, supermarkets or go shopping with a local friend.
Stage 3: “He is so handsome.”
People tend to wish for what they don’t have. Most Vietnamese prefer women with fair skin; some believe that blond hair and blue eyes are the two key factors of a beautiful face. So don’t be annoyed if some of us stare at you or try to touch you. All it means is that you’re good looking. And if they don’t stare? Well, don’t let it affect your ego.
Stage 4: “Let’s practice English.”
You have no idea how cool and nice I felt when I was able to communicate with a foreigner in English. This first happened to me when I was in high school. It is something that not so many people can do, and it makes us feel special. To many of us, especially students, foreigners are useful just for practicing English so that they can feel cool and hip. As a foreigner, you can either stay away, or offer a little bit of help by hanging around the parks where students search out subjects to help them improve their English. There are also some English clubs in the town.
Stage 5: “We need a foreign expert in this field.”
Most of us believe that anything which comes from overseas is better, especially education, science and technology. That’s why a large number of Vietnamese-owned companies have foreign managers and staff. This is not only to take advantage of overseas knowledge, but also to expand the market to the expat community. In this scenario, if you can speak Vietnamese it’s a real plus.
Stage 6: “It’s not fair.”
This is the complaint that most of my university teaching friends make when they discover that a foreign colleague gets paid better than them, although that person may only have a high school education. They also envy the fact that foreigners can make a living simply by teaching their mother tongue (English), while Vietnamese have to learn English to get a well-paid job. I guess they just forget that there are a lot of foreigners in Vietnam who want to learn Vietnamese and are willing to pay well.
Stage 7: “If you don’t like it here, you don’t have to stay.”
I have used this sentence several times after hearing a foreigner complaining about life in Vietnam. Many of these foreigners have been in Vietnam quite a long time. Everyone in the area knows them and they can often understand some Vietnamese. They know where to stay, eat, buy and hang out on the cheap. They get paid better than us, but they are still not happy.
Stage 8: “Stay away from me.”
Vietnamese who make this statement usually get frustrated and have been through bad experiences with foreigners. It could be problems at work, bad behaviour, money scams or romantic relationships gone wrong. During this stage, we tend to reduce interactions with foreigners and limit our communication with them. Depending on the person, this stage may last for several months. It may even last forever. In my case it was several months.
Stage 9: “Oh, they speak Vietnamese so well.”
A foreigner who can speak Vietnamese fluently always surprises us and makes us smile. Some of us might speak Vietnamese back to them, some of us might keep speaking English. Then we might call them a Vietnamese ghost or ma so — meaning they have been in Vietnam for a long time, know everything about the country and can speak the language. But don’t get me wrong; you are still a foreigner. It doesn’t matter how long you have been here or how fluently you can speak the language, it’s the look that matters.
Stage 10: “Hey, how are you doing?”
This stage usually follows the “stay away from me” stage, as after we have been through good and bad experiences with foreigners, we understand that what kind of person someone is depends on their personality, not their nationality. Then we start to have close foreign friends who speak a different language but understand and treat us as like brothers and sisters. Vietnamese people at this stage are usually open-minded and are at ease with foreigners.