Friday, 22 July 2011

Wanna live like common people

My greatest legacy to WWF Vietnam was the introduction of the concept of “Stuff White People Like” to the Communications Team.

For example, when redesigning a brochure promoting national park tourism, I pointed out that unlike the Vietnamese version, the English version must contain no photos of Tays partaking in fun adventure activities.

“Tays don’t want to think that other Tays are in this national park already. They want to be the only Tays”, I explained, in an excellent example of Australian Government-funded capacity building.

The photo was replaced by one of pristine, Tayless wilderness.

I also removed all photos in which you could see that the ethnic minorities were actually wearing jeans under their traditional garb.

“Tays want to believe they’re the first foreigners that this remote tribe has ever seen”, I explained. “They want the ethnic minorities to be completely isolated from the modern world”. I suggested a photo of a woman with a baby strapped to her back instead.

“But these people are dirty! They look poor!” my colleague accurately observed.
“Exactly”, I said. “Tays love seeing poor people on holidays. It makes them feel more authentic”.

My colleagues looked confused, and rightly so.

I was met with the same look after I organized to have some large street banners, which WWF had produced, turned into bags to give as gifts to office visitors. You know, like the type you can buy at any Oxfam shop:

My colleagues, upon seeing the bags, looked horrified. 

“Do you know what this is? This is rubbish!”
“Yes, that’s the whole point of it”, I explained. “It’s recycling. Tays love recycling.
“Why would you want a bag made of rubbish? It’s not nice!”
“People will want them”, I promised. “People buy them in Australia.”

The rubbish bags were set aside as gifts strictly for Tay visitors only. Naturally they were extremely well-received, completely confounding my colleagues. One of them wrote “Stuff White People Like” on a post-it note and stuck it to her monitor, like a riddle which she would need some time to mull over.

Vietnam is a country that’s on the up. It’s focused on fast development and a bigger, brighter, shinier future. The trend in the already developed West is to look back. The Vietnamese want cars, and the more expensive, the better; Westerners want bicycles. Vietnamese want supermarkets and clean, hygienic mass-produced food; Westerners want farmers’ markets, or even better, to pick their own fruit. Vietnamese want enormous plasma TVs and all the mod cons; Westerners love bragging that they “don’t even own a TV”. Vietnamese want brand new houses and brand new furniture; Westerners want vintage.

Retro tastes are a luxury: being retro in Vietnam is basically being poor. If your family acquired the convenience of a motorbike in only the last ten years, why would you go back to bicycles? Why, if you could afford not to, would you eschew new things in favour of the old?

Vietnamese people wisely don’t want to be poor, and they don’t want to look poor either. Yet White People (ironically) spend buttloads of money on doing just that. To us, “old” is valuable, timeless, unique, and here, it’s… just old.

I’ll take Nathan to illustrate my point, as usual. When Nathan bought new glasses here, he disappointed the optometrist greatly by choosing some of the cheapest frames in the store. Here they are:

She scrunched up her face at his choice. While glasses like these are sported by hipsters all over Australia, in Vietnam, they're popular mostly only with old men. It’s fine wire frames which are all the rage here. Our Vietnamese teacher, who wears fine wire frames, set him straight. “I don’t like them”, he said. “They are old style. And they make you look old”.

So Nathan showed him a thing or two about style:

Now when someone tells him he looks old, he punches them in the face. And then does the YMCA dance routine.

It’s the same thing with motorbikes. Vietnamese people want stylish, reliable new motorbikes, with as many bells-and-whistles as possible.

Tays want this: 

Or even worse, this: 

Image from Horizons Unlimited

And then they break down all the time, and being less common than your average Honda Wave, they’re harder to get repaired. That’s right. They go out of their way to not buy a new, reliable motorbike in favour of an old motorbike that breaks down and is hard to get repaired. You can see how this might be baffling.

While going about my daily life in Hanoi, I often note to myself, “Hipsters would love that” (and trust me, I know, because no-one – I repeat, no-one – could be a more clichéd manifestation of Stuff White People Like than me).

For example, hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "old-school, vintage" enamel cup: 

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "funky, retro" ceiling fan:

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "rustic, industrial" light:

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "antique, shabby-chic" thermos:

That thermos was in the dirt-floor shack of an 80-year-old couple who lived in Ba Be, raising buffalo. If only they knew they could sell their thermos to hipsters on Etsy and make enough money to live off for six months.

Also, see these shoes that this Forest Protection Department Ranger is dousing with leech-repellent?

They’re cheap, regulation-issue army shoes. A friend of ours who works in a national park here was wearing them in Newtown while visiting recently and was stopped on the street by a hipster asking where he got them. Rangers are so hot right now. You read it here first.

Living in a country where they don't have boho, they just have rising damp, and they don't have rustic, they just have rust, it does draw attention to how ludicrous some of these trends are in the well-off West. I see images like these designer interiors on Apartment Therapy and think Vietnam is unwittingly ahead of its time:

I feel much better about our mouldy corner now I know that mould is in this season.

And then I think of these photos, which I took at a friend's family home over Tet:

And how beautiful their home was, in exactly that way that White People Like. But if they want to knock it down, and build something more modern, with proper wiring, and an indoor toilet, and glass in all the windows, then I would be the first person there with the sledge-hammer.


  1. I love minsks and aim to own one. I'm a sucker for difficult women, soviet or just viet.

    For now I'll stick with my antique racing bike bought several years ago on a whim - by my Vietnamese brother in law.
    His neighbour (an architect) drives a vintage beetle that has been carefully restored.

    I can think of two nostalgic Vietnamese cafes in Da Nang, plus a third that's very avant garde decorated (a wasp hive wit glow worms, really) but plays mostly ancient blues.

    I dunno what it's like in Hanoi, but I'd not have found these without being invited - you just need to find some Vietnamese geeks or steampunk fans. They do exist.

  2. Hey Patrick, thanks for your comment.

    I'm totally 100% sure Vietnamese vintage fanatics exist. This post is about massive generalizations of both the Vietnamese and Western variety, inspired by the massive generalizations on the Stuff White People Like site.

  3. Haha,
    love the irony. You're so right, I spent half my time in Vietnam photographing the old, the quaint, the retro.
    Lovely post, thanks!

  4. They have paint on leech repellent in Vietnam? If it works, I'd love some! Would come in very handy here in my Tay-style Aussie rainforest. I bet it's cheaper than Aeroguard.

    Stay funky peeps.


  5. Don't worry, the humour comes through perfectly - I'm just a pedantic git.

    It's probably got a lot to do with the cities as well - Hanoi's old quarter is the epitome of urban 'stuff white people like' while Da Nang is busy erecting glass and steel and shiny new condos all over the place. The society I'm mixing in tend to have been comfortably well off for good few years as well.

    wait a minute, there's an actual 'stuff white people like' site?

  6. What you say about vintage is funny - reminds me of something I was told in ~1996. Grunge was great because you could be cool and poor at the same time.

    Of course, hipsters have created a situation where that is no longer possible, although as you mention, this does provide opportunities for trend spotting Vietnamese 80 year olds.

  7. Maree Louise: You and me both! And being fully aware of the irony of it won't stop me any time soon. In fact, White People love irony! Perfect.

    Buster: Yes, they do! Very popular in Cat Tien National Park, as were leech socks. We favoured the old-fashioned method: wearing shorts and sneakers and getting absolutely covered in leeches and having to stop every three minutes to get them off. I'll see if I can get some repellent for you - if it's not a banned carcinogen in Australia.

    Patrick: White People love being pedants! No seriously, you make a good point. And yes you should definitely check out the site.

    Erika: I know, bless him.

    Datakid: There's nowhere cheaper to be a hipster than Vietnam right now! That should be Nam's new tourist slogan.

  8. Hate to say it, but I totally want one of those recycled bags...

  9. Wendy: Sigh, you're so predictable. I'll see what other rubbish I can find for you.

  10. Next time I head to Doughboy Pizza on King Street, I will have to take a photograph of their lighting, because it is made up of an intricate and tangled array of those "rustic, industrial" lights, just with light bulbs and old pizza trays.

  11. Oh dear, I've only just discovered - I'm looking forward to the post that incorporates it ;)

  12. White people better start a campaign to save moldy old Hanoi ASAP, because the Commie want to smash everything and put in its place a souless, albeit one that's ultramodern and illuminated by karaoke palor lighting managers, megalopolis.

  13. I wear Dude shoes that were 'artificially' frayed when I bought them in Bangkok.
    My design students in Hanoi think they're cool and in trend, proving the Viet youngin's are hipsters too. However, in contrast my 55 year old maid wanted to throw them out and looked at me in disbelief when I told her they were new and that I paid $40 for them.

  14. Renvintage: Sounds just like Nam! Only with less risk of electrocution. And with much better pizzas.

    Datakid: Oh, you know it's coming...

    Robert: Thanks for the links! I like how in the future Hanoi the pollution has turned all the waterways electric blue. I also like the building that looks like a kidney. Every city should have one.

    Anonymous: Love it! Although I had to look up what Dude shoes were, which makes me worry that I'm not up to speed on the latest White People trends.

    1. From a friend of mine working as a frelance journalist i hanoi i know this blog. thanks

  15. Not all Tays are pompous fucking hipsters.


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