Living out in Thanh Hoa, we see the same pale faces over and over again–the three of us plus one of the Kaplan teachers. That’s it. We never run into other Westerners at the supermarket or walking the streets of Thanh Hoa. And even though we know we look vastly different, we have stopped feeling vastly different. Familiar faces wave hello. We know where to get banh mi, how to get to the shopping center, who has the best fruit drinks and more. Each of us have begun to feel like we fit in somehow, that this place is our home in a unique sort of way.
Which makes it truly shocking when we disembark from the train in Ha Noi to face Westerners seemingly everywhere. When we arrived last night, we saw more than a dozen pale-skinned people like ourselves just in the train station. Checking in with the hotel, Americans passed by talking about how nice it is that everyone speaks English and I wanted to yell at them: “Only because you’re in tourism central. You should check out the real Viet Nam!”
On our way to get the fruit drinks we love so much, we managed to merge into a group of Australians coming around the corner. Loud and beligerent and distinctly new to Viet Nam. “Nothing worse than a bunch of drunk Aussies,” Stuart muttered for only us to hear and we laughed loud enough to prove our own Western tendencies.
We’re glad to find a donuts and pizza in Ha Noi, yet find ourselves frustrated with other Westerners clamoring for KFC. We know only the smallest bits of the language, yet belittle others for distancing themselves from the culture. We each complain about all the tourists in the Old Quarter, but this, too, is where we come each visit.
It’s hypocritical, I know. But it’s true that we feel a connection to this country, these people, that cannot be explained easily or readily. Maybe what we really want is for others to appreciate the beauty, depth and culture that exists outside the hop-skip-jump travel that keeps our fellow Westerners isolated from the realities of Viet Nam.