A Rant About Vietnam: Saving Face

Vietnam has taken me on a roller-coaster ride since I’ve been here. There’s the ups and the downs, but the ups usually take longer — you know, like how a roller-coaster slowly ascends. click. click. click. And then, when it gets to the top and goes over that hump, it’s a quick exhilarating drop that only lasts a second. Well, Vietnam is like that. The ‘ups’ are longer, and the ‘downs’ only last a little while. But I guess the whole exhilaration thing kind of screws up my metaphor. Vietnam is like a box of chocolates… No. What I’m trying to say is, don’t think that I hate living in Vietnam just because I rant about it. I love it here, but I have to get my frustrations out somehow, and if you ask anyone living here if they have frustrations they will tell you, “Yes, yes I freakin do”.

Before coming to Vietnam, like good boy scout, I did a lot of research about the culture. One thing I had heard about, but wasn’t really that familiar with, was the concept of ‘saving face’. It isn’t when you tell someone that they have to lay off the makeup. Despite the adventurous eating habits of the Vietnamese, it isn’t when you cut off the face of an animal and save it for later. ‘Face’ is your reputation, or your dignity. If you make someone look bad in front of their friends, you are making them ‘lose face’. This doesn’t just apply to calling someone out on their farts. It can be something as little as refusing to let someone pay for your meal, or pointing out a mistake that a person made. Personally, I think it’s stupid. The guide books will tell you to respect this part of the culture. Vietnamese man eating at the marketI say, shit all over it. Why? Because it needs to be done. Sometimes people need to be humbled. We should be able to recognize when we’ve made a mistake, confess to it, and make it right. Just look at the Vietnam War. One of the reasons that war lasted as long as it did was because America didn’t want to lose face. I think, they knew it was a mistake long before they actually withdrew all their troops, but they slowly backed out of it, like a straight guy that just walked into a gay bar, pretending that they knew what they were doing the whole time. You’d think Vietnam would have learned something in those 10,000 days.

It seems as though I am the only one that’s allowed to lose face in Vietnam. I’ve been told not to low-ball people at the market, but I’ve been ripped off (big time ripped off!) several times. The rice grain that broke the sack (a Vietnamese saying that I just made up) is when I went to a plant nursery looking for some water plants for our pond. It was incredibly difficult communicating what I wanted, but I managed to buy one water lily. The cost was 500,000 dong, which, amongst all the confusion, I handed over without hesitation. I’m going to sacrifice my face now and admit that I’m an idiot. With all the zeros on the money it’s easy for me to get confused when converting the cash into my native currency. In my head I was like, “$2.50, that’s a pretty good deal”, but I actually paid $25. It wasn’t until later that I realized this. A few days after that, I was driving along and I noticed another nursery. I popped in to see how much they were charging for their water lilies. The lady showed me 6 fingers. At first I thought 600,000 and that I hadn’t gotten ripped off at the previous place, but then I thought about where I was. Vietnam is known for it’s remarkable plant growing conditions, and it’s low low prices. I pulled out my phone and typed in 60,000. The lady looked at it and nodded.

Sara sits by the pond and the water lilies.
Sara enjoying the $3 water lily just as much as the $25 one.
I think that was the first time I had ever been upset about something being much cheaper than I expected. Sixty thousand versus five hundred thousand… I paid $25 for something worth $3. That’s a hell of a white-man markup. I was so tempted to go back to that original nursery and give them a piece of my mind, but what would I say? They don’t understand any English. Instead, I prepared for war. I started keeping track of the prices of food. I keep my receipts from the grocery store, and then when I go to the market and they tell me that a head of lettuce costs 10,000 dong (50 cents) I go, “pfffffffffffffffffffffffft” right in their face, then I whip out my receipt and show them that I bought one at the grocery store for 3000 (about 15 cents). They try and keep their face intact, blabbering on in Vietnamese, but I just give them the old talk-to-the-hand-cause-the-face-don’t-wanna-listen (universal language) and walk away. I’ve started collecting Vietnamese faces. Like a Native American collecting scalps, I ride around on my scooter looking for faces to add to my collection. A driver makes a stupid turn without signalling and almost crashes into me, I yell at them.

“What the hell are you doing, assface!”

They don’t understand, but the yelling attracts attention and they feel embarrassed — that’s another face on my belt.

Gas station in Vietnam
Beware of scams at gas stations.
Today, I was a victim of the gas station scam. Sometimes, the attendants will purposefully forget to reset the meter, so you end up paying for the previous patron’s fuel on top of your own. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion. Usually I’m ready for it, but today I was filling up a new bike, so I was distracted looking for the gas cap. By the time I noticed, it was too late. The cost was 120,000 dong. It should have only been about 90,000, but for 30,000 it’s worth it to have the man’s face. I yelled some obscenities, pointing to the number on the gas pump and shaking my head as if to say, “shame on you”. The man shrunk up like a scolded dog. I paid him the money and he quickly retreated in shame, probably to go hide under a tree. Should I have just let him get away with it? Maybe laughed like, “Oh, you got me”. If there are no consequences, what will stop them from doing it again? If you’re going to act like a child, I’m going to scold you like one. Speaking of children, I’ve heard countless tales of Vietnamese assistant teachers that have put children at risk by not listening to the western teacher. The reason why could be two things:

  1. They didn’t understand the instructions, which won’t be admitted because it’s considered losing face. Instead they’ll nod their heads saying, “Ok, ok” but really they’ll be thinking “What they hell does this lady want me to do?”. One of the assistant teachers was actually fired because of this. His reaction to being let go: “Okay, okay” while nodding his head. He would have shown up to work the next day if the principal hadn’t gone get a Vietnamese person to translate the news to him.
  2. They disagreed with the instructions and decided to do it the Vietnamese way. Parents put their children in western schools, and pay quite a bit of money for it, because they want western standards. Apparently, this includes keeping your children safe from fires, strangers, and paper cutters.

I would have had all those assistant teacher’s faces in a second. I’d be wearing them on top of mine and dancing around the room. In my eyes, if you don’t correct someone for putting a child at risk you’re a bad teacher — forget the taboos of the culture.

If you’re traveling to Vietnam, I’m going to go ahead and tell you the opposite of what Lonely Planet and Frommer’s say (you should probably always do the opposite of what they advise). If a Vietnamese person tries to take advantage of you, take their face. If you really want to help the culture go forward into the next century, yell at them when they make a mistake. Shame them for trying to rip you off. Learn phrases like ăn gian (cheat), and quá đắt (too expensive). I’ve read that the consequences could be dire, but they’re pretty small people. You could probably beat up a few of them at a time. Seriously though, just because a culture has been doing something for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s right. The world is constantly changing. It’s time for everyone to be honest with one another, be direct. No more beating around the rice paddy field.