5 Myths Americans Believe About Vietnam
1. Religion is not tolerated in Vietnam.
Quite the contrary! Sometimes I read stories on the web about religious persecution in Vietnam, but what I see here in Ho Chi Minh City is a very religious people, far more religious in general than Americans. People here will nearly all say they are either Catholic or Buddhist; it’s hard to find anyone who would call themselves Agnostic or Atheistic- I haven’t met one yet.
The Catholic Church is one of the biggest property owners in Ho Chi Minh City. There are huge, newly built churches everywhere. I can see a gimongous church being built in the distance from the window where I’m sitting right now. In the evenings and on Sundays there are crowds of people at all the churches, often spilling out into the street and adding to the traffic mayhem. The most popular tourist attraction in Saigon is a cathedral- the Notre-Dame Cathedral in District 1.
There are also Buddhist temples in every neighborhood; many of them are huge. Thich Nhat Hanh, the rock star of Buddhist monks who was living in exile in France for many years, recently returned to tour Vietnam with an entourage of over 300 monks.
Granted, there are conflicts between the Vietnamese government and some religious leaders who get involved in politics. I don’t know the details of these conflicts but I’d venture to say they involve only a tiny minority of religious people. In the past, certainly there has been severe religious persecution in Vietnam, but things have changed a lot. The official government line is that religion is free and accessible to all, and I haven’t seen anything different.
2. The Vietnamese hate Americans because of “The American War.”
My own experience is only in the south, and it may be different in the north, but what I have experienced would actually be the opposite. Even when I first came to Vietnam as a tourist in 1996, I never heard or felt anything but tremendous love and respect for America and Americans.
To the Vietnamese, just like to people in developing countries everywhere, American is the promised land, the land of opportunity. Nearly every Vietnamese family has at least one member living in the USA, so America is the country that is taking care of their loved ones.
Unlike Americans, especially baby boomers, who will never get past the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese have gotten over it. The bulk of the Vietnamese population, it’s own baby boom, is only in their mid-20’s. Their parents have stories but most people are too young to remember the war.
Also consider Vietnamese history. Americans don’t have much of a history, but the Vietnamese collective memory goes back 5000 years. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for 1000 years. France occupied Vietnam for 100 years. America was here for all of 30 years, merely a small blip in Vietnamese history. Contrary to Americans’ sense of self-importance, the American episode isn’t all that significant. (I don’t know how accurate those figures are; those are the numbers that Vietnamese people will recite if you ask them.)
This is a topic that is big enough for it’s own article, but suffice it to say that I’ve noticed far FAR more tension between the north and south of Vietnam and between local Vietnamese and overseas Vietnamese, than between Vietnamese and Americans. (My personal plea to Americans: get over it!)
3. They’re all Communists.
I cringe when I hear Americans refer to the Vietnamese as “those commies,” as if everyone was running around in blue suits. Vietnamese people are just like everyone else: most of them couldn’t care less about politics. They just want a decent job, food on the table, and an iPhone. Most of them will bitch about their government if given a chance, just like Americans. The number of people who are actually in the Communist Party is a very tiny number, even smaller than the number of people in Vietnam’s Cao Dai religion.
4. Vietnam doesn’t have modern technology.
Out in the countryside, this is true. My wife’s family just got electricity at their house a few months ago. They still don’t have running water. But in the cities it’s different. I’m typing on a computer that I bought here in Ho Chi Minh City, using a broadband connection that is just the same (as far as I can tell) as in America. My university classroom is wired with wifi and a projector; I have to tell my students to close their laptops and pay attention. I’ve heard there are some schools that have those touchscreen interactive projectors, but I haven’t used one yet. I’d brag about my modern cell phone but I can’t afford one. My students can, though, and I’m often envious of their gadgets. There are electronic gadgets or sale in my neighborhood computer store that I can’t even identify.
I have a friend who works for the Vietnam office of a British architectural firm and he said their counterparts in England were worried that the Vietnamese staff might not be able to open the AutoCAD documents they sent, because surely the Vietnamese must be using some ancient version. In fact, because of the lax enforcement of copyright laws, the opposite was true. The Vietnam office had the latest version, whereas the British office only had an older version! Since all the latest software is practically free here in Vietnam, it’s common for people to have $20,000 worth of software on their computers, if not more.
5. Vietnamese people are not “free.”
What is freedom, anyway? The ability to do what you want, right? If you want to rock the boat politically in Vietnam, of course you’re going to have a tough time, but citizens do rally against their government. And for big-business people, you’re going to run into restrictions. But for the average person, like me for example, Vietnam feels much more “free” than America.
Here in Vietnam, it’s all up to your local police guy. If he’s happy then everything’s okay. You want to open up a company in your house, maybe even a school? No problem, just pay your local official a (very) small sum and off you go. Try to do the same in the USA and you are screwed. Try to open a school or a restaurant in America and you’ll be shut down if your stairway is an inch too narrow. In my experience, the average person is much more free in Vietnam to do what they want than in America.
Take a look at the traffic police. Here in Vietnam your traffic cop has no radio, no computer, many don’t have guns. They can often be pacified with a hundred-thousand Dong ($6). In America an ordinary policeman has a fast car with a computer and is armed to the teeth. Disobey one small traffic law and instantly your entire criminal record is on their screen.
One of the tragedies of America that people don’t talk about much is it’s prison population: the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the world’s incarcerated people- four times the world average. America’s prisons are full of men and women whose lives have been virtually ruined because of some small, victimless crime they committed. Is that freedom?
Obviously, the contrary to what I’m saying here could easily be argued. The government and police in Vietnam are basically the equivalent of the Mafia, and they do what they want, arbitrarily. But I’m talking about what your average person can and can’t do, and especially just the way it feels to live here vs. the USA. One of the reasons I love living in Vietnam is that I feel much more “free” here than I do in America. You can argue the opposite all you want, but this is the way it feels to me- Vietnam: free. America: not free.