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The price of being white

VIETNAM | Thursday, 16 April 2009 | Views [1246]

The price of being white

In four days time I will have been in Vietnam for five months. For me this marks quite significant length of time and proves that I have been able to adapt and thrive on the other side of the world.

However, it also is a good time to address the question “how integrated have I become into Vietnamese culture?” and, the question all expats ask themselves: “what separates me from the run of the mill tourist” Answering the first of these two questions is easy: not very. Superficially I have changed: I eat more rice and noodles, I drive on pavements if the road is too busy and I can count to 100 in Vietnamese. However other then this I still live a very westernised lifestyle, quite different form my Vietnamese neighbours. When I go back to England I’m not going to attempt to haggle for fish in Tesco or pavement hop in my small car when the traffic is to heavy. In short, I have become familiar with the customs and ways of Vietnam and have integrated to the extent that most westerners here seem to – a little but without truly leaving their comfort zone.

Answering the second question is trickier as it boils down to a question of perspective. From my point of view I’m not a tourist, I live and work here and therefore am currently an inhabitant to Vietnam. However, this does not mean that I am treated as a local.

Tourists in Vietnam are a big source of income for many people so naturally they are a constant magnet for street sellers, motorbike taxis and basically anyone - read almost everyone - who has something to sell. Unfortunately, being large and lumbering, tourists are also the target of many scams and cons designed to rinse them of as much cash in as little time as possible. These are primarily rigged taxi meters and overpriced goods however can be as far fetched as artificial boarder crossings where you pay for a fake visa only to find the real thing half a mile down the road. This is just the natural way of things however it becomes slightly tiresome having to prove that you are not a naïve tourist every time you wish to haggle for something. Knowing Vietnamese numbers helps but it doesn’t guarantee a good price.

There are a number of things you can do to differentiate yourself from the average tourist: wear trousers not shorts, drive a motorbike, don’t hang around in the backpacker district. But even when following these simple instructions I’ve still found it very hard to go unnoticed and am still regularly greeted by the familiar sounds of “hey you, want –insert a seemingly never ending list of products on sale on the street - ?”.

Driving a motorbike keeps you away form the street sellers and fairly anonymous, however, even here I can be singled out. During the traffic police crack down on westerners driving without Vietnamese licences, we were all warned to cover up in order to avoid detection: facemasks, sunglasses, gloves and large helmets were a must. However being six foot one with extremely pale skin and very light hair, I found it very hard to pass for Vietnamese even when fully kitted out in my disguise.

In the end of the day, these small annoyances are a small price to pay for the privilege of living in such an exciting country, I might even go so for as to say it wouldn’t be the same without them! 

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