Friday, 29 April 2011

Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây Take or leave us

By virtue of repetition, one of the first words you learn in Vietnam is “Tây”. It means “Westerner”, but the literal meaning has been extended to apply to pretty much any foreigner. You hear it as you approach any street vendor – “Tây! Tây! Tây! Tây! Tây!” – usually as one vendor alerts another to your approach like that of an incoming missile. An incoming missile made of dollar signs. As you walk through a market you’ll hear shouts of “Tây oi!” from every stall-holder, trying to attract your attention so they can then seal the deal by waggling a cauliflower in your face. Grandparents with toddlers will physically turn the child’s head and point at you, and instructively say “Tây!” as you pass by, like they would say “Look, a tree!” or “Look, a bird!”. If it’s Nathan they’re pointing at, the child will then usually burst into tears due to his hideous visage. This is no exaggeration: Vietnamese babies and toddlers find Nathan terrifying. Once, in a restaurant, a small child pressed herself against a wall, turned deathly pale and refused to walk past our table, her gaze fixed on Nathan’s monstrously bald pate and hairy face.

Sometimes when you park your bicycle, you won’t get a number chalked onto your seat like everyone else, you get this:

You, and whatever other Tâys you’re with. No need to distinguish amongst you: you’ll all get a “T”.

When I had new passport photos taken, the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_______” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”. When I came to collect my photos, they were filed away under “T”.

So I was overcome with excitement when back in Sydney recently I found this wallet in a boutique store, made from an old Vietnamese feed sack:

What are the chances! A wallet! That says Tây! Which basically translates as “walking wallet”! I snapped it up at a price of only one million times the cost of a Vietnamese feed sack, excited about single-handedly bringing irony to the Vietnamese people.

The funny – and, I admit, massively disappointing – thing is that absolutely no-one here (other than Tâys, who freaking love it), gives two hoots about my wallet. I flash it hopefully at the cash register, and I see the shop assistant noting it with a blank face: “Yes, a Tây wallet. Indeed she is. That is why she has a Tây wallet.”

Because as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, “Tây” is just an accurate description. It’s not loaded, it’s not offensive, it’s not funny, it’s just true. You get a “T” on your bicycle, not because you don’t deserve a number like everyone else, but because you don’t need one. You look different. They’ll remember you. And all the Tâys get a “T” because they’re hardly going to steal each other’s bicycles, are they? It’s a practical and convenient way of sorting. And since half of the population of Vietnam have the surname Nguyen, they’re more than familiar with problems of sorting.

I don’t mean to say that there’s no racism here. By jingo, there is. But where mere mention of the words “racial profiling” in the West causes people to start frothing at the mouth, here I’m not going to lose sleep over being labelled a Tây. In fact, I’ll embrace it, flaunt my wallet with pride and sing the Tây theme song wherever I go:

Because after all, we ain't ever gonna be Vietnamese.


  1. Thanks for bringing the joy of Mel and Kim back into my life on a Friday evening...special knee flops for all the Tâys out there.

  2. Oh god I just literally LOLed. Twice. Then again when the song go to the chorus. THANK YOU. Oh, and I'll be listening out next time were out and about!

  3. Brilliant song & wallet

  4. Hi!
    I'm loving your blog and writing style - too funny!
    My partner and I are looking to move to Hanoi in a couple of months and would love some advice from you guys. The pics of your new apartment are awesome - what sort of price range would we need to be in to get something similar? We need reliable net for work (voip) and study: Is using voip/skype feasible from Hanoi? Also, we were in Hoi An in Feb and there were whole day power outtages (boo!) - do you get them in Hanoi.
    Thanks tons for your help!

    Cheers!, Vickie

    PS I'm not a freaky stalker or anything ;)

  5. Thanks for your comments guys.

    Vickie: A large studio/small one bedroom apartment in a nice area will set you back around $650 - $750 a month, sometimes including bills (sometimes not).

    Depending on your ISP, the internet can be a bit shifty, but overall my experience is that it's actually better than in Australia (for shame), and free Wifi is definitely more widely available here. You'll have no problems using Skype etc.

    There are power outages in the Summer. Sometimes for whole days. Sometimes for an hour every third day. Sometimes planned rolling outages. Sometimes not at all. When they happen you can just go to another part of the city and sit in a cafe if you need to work.

  6. Oh, and you should look at the forums on The New Hanoian for answers to pretty much any question you could possibly have about living here:

  7. Tabitha, thanks so much for that!

  8. I was once meeting some people at a restaurant and we discovered that all of our parking slips had tây written on them, along with cartoonish descriptions of us. The red-headed guy was tây cáo, or "fox" tay.

    Whenever I check out a CD player from my school's library, they have to record it in a logbook. All the other teachers get entries like "Ms. Huyen, Room 401, CD Player." My name always gets recorded as "Tây," though. Not even "Anh Tây."

  9. Jon: Love it! The waitresses at R&R Tavern also do excellent little Tay descriptions when they write down your order. Definitely don't recommend reading them if you're suffering from any self-esteem issues though...

  10. More here on beardy Tâys making children cry:


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