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How should you behave when you’re in a foreign country?

In early April the press ran an article about two foreigners sunbathing in the centre of Hanoi and the ruckus that followed. The bikini-clad women had taken up a spot on the grass by Hoan Kiem Lake and regardless of the people and traffic around them, had decided to take in the rays.


The issue came to light when someone made a video of the two women and posted both the video and photos on Facebook. It led to social media outrage, with many commenters describing the action as “offensive”. Wrote one Facebook user, Lai My Linh: “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Foreigners, suggested Linh, should respect Vietnam’s culture.


The women eventually put on extra clothes when a police officer walked by. Yet the issue wasn’t so much about sunbathing in the wrong place, but about culture.

The two women sunbathing next to Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

What is Vietnam?


Ask someone to describe their country’s history and they will talk of events, places, dates and famous people. Ask the same person to describe their country’s culture and often as not, there will be no answer. Some will even say that their country has no culture.


Vietnam is no exception.


I often ask my teenage and adult students to tell me about their country’s history. They confidently tell me about The Two Sisters, Vo Thi Sau, Uncle Ho, Dien Bien Phu, 1975 and more.


However, when I ask the same intelligent adults to describe for me their culture, they are stumped. At best, they might reply “we are old” (true), “we are modern” (true), “father is important” (true). After that there is a void.


This is a scant amount of information about a culture that spans more than 4,000 years. Yet, this lack of cultural knowledge is consistent with the rest of the world trying to define their cultures.


It wasn’t so long ago that anthropologists defined Vietnam as a fishing culture. A medical doctor in a Vietnam News article last year described this country as having a conservative culture. Yet sometimes my students, when listing advantages to being Vietnamese, will refer to “being free”. When I ask for a definition I inevitably get: “We can do whatever we want.” That is opposite to the doctor’s description of a conservative culture.


If Vietnamese have such trouble defining their own culture, why would a visiting tourist know about Vietnam’s cultural sensitivities?


Indeed, if all countries have trouble defining their own cultures, why would a visiting tourist know about any country’s cultural sensitivities?


Codes of Conduct


Until recently I would take history and culture tours of my adopted home town of Vung Tau. I was impressed by the tourists’ constant attempts not to offend the Vietnamese people and culture. It was relentless: “Should I take my shoes off ?”; “Is it ok to take photos?”; “Is tipping acceptable?”; “Can I burn some incense too?”


They knew they were in another country, but they knew that they didn’t know the culture. And again, why would they know when the locals can’t explain it to them?


Seasoned travellers understand this conundrum. When you are overseas you need to get used to the idea that your preconceptions and thoughts on cultural matters are often wrong. It doesn’t matter how many National Geographic documentaries you have seen, or how many units on ‘Culture and South East Asia’ you have passed, more often than not, they are plain wrong.


In regards to the two sunbathing ladies, I have spent four years at university doing Vietnam Studies, and I cannot recall ever reading one article, or one line, about a skin taboo in this country.


In Vung Tau at the Kito Statue (Jesus) there is a notice asking patrons to cover up while within the statue. No shorts and no bare shoulders. Everyone covers up. However, that doesn’t seem to be a cultural thing. It comes over as a Catholic Church request. A couple of larger Buddhist temples in Vung Tau also post similar notices. Again, this appears to be a Buddhist thing as opposed to a cultural matter.


The writer of a Vietnam News article about the incident at Hoan Kiem Lake mentioned that the cure for this was that the two girls should have been able to see that the locals weren’t dressed for sunbathing.


It is not that simplistic. Let’s say that a Vietnamese tourist visits London during spring or autumn, she would dress for the colder weather, while the Londoners would be wearing T-shirts and shorts and revelling in the warm outdoors. Perhaps then the two tourists were not disrespecting anything, they were simply appreciating Hanoi’s sunny weather and enjoying the capital city’s open spaces.

The Australian men in this photo were arrested after the most recent Malaysia Grand Prix

Tolerance and Good Will


The friendliness of a country is measured by the tolerance shown to its visitors. Vietnam is already known and proven to be a very friendly country. This was reinforced by how the issue of the two sunbathing women was resolved. They were asked to add more clothes. They did. No fines were dished out. Problem solved.


Contrast this to an incident that took place in Malaysia at the end of 2016, when nine Australian men stripped down to Malaysian-flag-printed swimwear. Their stunt took place after Australian Daniel Ricciardo won the Malaysian Grand Prix.


The men were arrested and spent four nights in prison before appearing in court and issuing an apology.


While I am sorry that some people felt insulted over the Hoan Kiem Lake episode, the incident provided an opportunity to examine an important issue. The more we learn about culture (ours and others) the less likely we are to accidentally offend; and when others offend us, the more likely we are to be tolerant towards them.


Paul Rowe is a Masters in Linguistics and teaches at university. He is a published author and presently lives in Vung Tau, Vietnam

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