Vietnam: Surprising Attention in Asia

Well, after a two week (amazing) vacation in Portugal, I’m back online. I’ve finally got time to reflect on a few experiences I’ve had over the last eight months, so I thought I’d write about one of the more unusual experiences I’ve had in Vietnam: strangers asking to take selfies with me.

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Selfie in the fog.

Before I decided to move to Vietnam earlier this year, I’d briefly considered Korea as well. In the end Korea didn’t work out. I couldn’t get the damn FBI check in time. But before I realized I wasn’t going, I’d talked with friends of mine who had taught in Korea before.

“Korea’s great. You’re pretty and blond. Everyone’s going to want to be your friend.”

Lol, what?

“Yeah, it’s so easy to make friends in Korea. If you’re Western, people are going fall over themselves to be your buddy.”

At the time, I thought this was a rather silly thing to say and I still don’t know if it’s true, but when I moved to Asia I had this thought in the back of my mind and I did find myself questioning whether people would treat me differently because I was a Westerner.

Generally in Vietnam, especially in the big cities, people aren’t treated very differently based on whether they’re white or Asian. I can’t speak for other races though. I suspect black people draw much more attention than whites, as this unfortunately seems to be pretty standard for most Asian cities.

Of course, people switch to English when they see me and vendors have a tendency to jack the price up when I inquire, but for the most part I’m treated pretty much the same as anybody else. I get the same crappy service at restaurants, the same teasing look when I do something stupid, and the same disinterest when I clearly need help that the Vietnamese people living in Hanoi also get.

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Everyone is treated pretty much the same in the big city.

I like this disinterest – this anonymity – that Vietnam’s big cities provide, and I assumed that this same indifference extended to the rest of Vietnam as well.

I assumed wrongly, my holiday weekend in Son Tay and Ba Vi National Park (a national park technically considered a part of Hanoi, although it is about an hour’s drive from the center) quickly proved.

“Hello!” *followed by giggling and gesturing towards camera

“Can I take your photo?”

It’s a bit strange to be constantly asked to take photos with strangers while you’re on vacation. I’m sure my face is plastered over hundreds of Facebook news feeds after my long weekend in Ba Vi and Son Tay, which is considerably more rural than Hanoi and apparently gets far fewer tourists than the capital.

I don’t mind taking photos with people, but still I wonder, why? I’m not famous. I don’t even look famous. Why do you want a tall, sweaty, gangly Westerner in your photos of your walk up to Ho Chi Minh’s temple?

In general, everyone was quite nice. Some people even returned the favor and let me take a photo of them, so I have a few photos of complete strangers on my iPhone now. The guy in the photo below was particularly sweet, and when he saw us later in the day he gave us a bamboo shoot filled with rice and a cucumber from his picnic.

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He was a nice guy.

He wasn’t the only stranger to offer us food. A group of young Hanoians shared their watermelon with us, which I am eternally grateful for as I was dying of thirst at that point during our hike and the juicy fruit probably saved my life. These guys didn’t ask for a photo nor did they seem keen on starting a conversation. I can only assume they just wanted to be nice to the obviously lost tourists and it was a kind gesture.

In the States and I’m sure in a lot of Western countries, asking to pose in a photo with a complete stranger because of their race would be seen as offensive, not to mention weird. The Vietnamese people in Ba Vi clearly weren’t trying to offend. Sometimes the photos did weird me out a bit, such as the moment at Thien Son waterfall, when a father thrust his baby into my arms and clicked a photo before I could protest. Ha ha, what?? Or the moment on my hike up to Ho Chi Minh’s temple, when a young woman forcibly blocked my path and waved a peace sign in front of my face until I stopped trying to get around her and she could snap a photo. Oh, you wanted a photo? I thought maybe you were trying to poke my eyes out.

These instances were not necessarily offensive either. These people weren’t trying to be rude, and I understand that they didn’t simply ask for a photo because they probably couldn’t speak English. It was still strange though.

My favorite photo of the weekend took place at a goat meat restaurant in Son Tay, where one of the worker’s daughters came over to our table and quietly passed me a note, which alarmingly read, “Help big sister. Photographic surveillance. It’s a secret.” After briefly becoming convinced that the girl was being held hostage and I needed to help her break free, I realized that she was holding her phone open to the camera app and smiling. The note was undoubtedly one of the most abysmal failures of Google translate I’ve ever seen. I posed for a photo with the very adorable teenage girl who secretly posted the image on Facebook, while looking over her shoulder at her mom, who I can only assume told her not to bother us by asking for photos. When we left later in the evening the girl gave us a giant grin and a happy, “Goodbye!” It was quite the bizarre encounter. I still don’t completely understand what that note or the photo was about. Although I am reasonably assured that she wasn’t being held hostage.

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This was the goat meat restaurant. It’s quite nice if you’re in Son Tay.

So while being asked to pose for photos all weekend was bizarre and a bit exhausting by the end, I know people weren’t trying to be rude, and, in fact, could be quite the opposite such as the funny girl at the goat restaurant or the kind guy who offered some of his picnic. However, it still leaves me wondering why? What do the captions of these Facebook snaps of me read? “Random white woman I took a photo of in Son Tay.” Or maybe, “Isn’t this lady tall?” The experiences were often funny, but I could see the practice getting on my nerves if I lived in a more rural city and had to deal with the attention more regularly.

In the end the experience still leaves me scratching me head. So let me know what you think. Why would Vietnamese people be interested in taking photos with random Western strangers? Do you think it’s rude? Or is it just a culture thing that I don’t understand? I’m still reflecting on the experience, and would be interested in the insight of other travelers.

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2 thoughts on “Vietnam: Surprising Attention in Asia

  1. I’ve been experiencing this for about six months now, all through SE Asia. Initially I found it confronting, but soon worked out it was a great way to intersect with the young people of the country. Now I really love it. I’m 6’5″, so there is no hiding, and I would get approached maybe a dozen times per day

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