Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Vietnam's Embarrassment Exclusion Zone

 This post was originally published in AsiaLIFE HCMC

I have written before in these pages about the comedic stylings of the Vietnamese, and their favourite subject (me). Vietnamese people seem to find me quite hilarious when I do pretty much anything (say, for example, some crazy activity like buying bananas from the market! ROFL!), but sometimes I find myself in a position where even I am prepared to admit that I must look totally ludicrous.

For example, while cycling through the city the other afternoon I decided that I absolutely had to have a helium-filled balloon shaped like a zebra with multi-coloured stripes. As I tethered that disco zebra to my handlebars, I looked right into his eyes and said, “Wait till they get a load of you.”

A foreigner, on a bicycle, with a balloon! Surely that’s worth pointing and laughing at, right? God knows, if I took that zebra on a spin through the streets of Sydney we’d get a few laughs. 

But did I get so much as a double take? No. As far as everyone around me was concerned, this long-nosed, zebra-toting cyclist was the most normal thing in the world, warranting no special attention whatsoever. I felt strangely miffed. “Laugh at me!!” I wanted to scream. “Why won’t you laugh at me NOW?!!”

Then I realised that for the two years I’ve been living in Vietnam I’ve failed to fully exploit this country’s Embarrassment Exclusion Zone.

I’ve dwelled so much on why it’s apparently so ridiculously hilarious when I try to carry out an everyday task like buying bananas, that I’ve neglected to take advantage of the reverse phenomenon: the ridiculous will actually go unnoticed.

Why on earth aren’t I wearing my pyjamas in the street? Why aren’t I hanging out with the old ladies in the park performing provocative pelvic exercises and slapping myself in the face right now? This is the one time in my life when I can grind my groin into the side of a park bench and not be arrested for indecent behaviour, so why am I still here writing this column?

If you’re a man, you should go, right now, and buy yourself a bright pink motorbike helmet decorated with cartoon unicorns and the words “sweet dreamtime for my special pony”, because this is perfectly acceptable headwear for a man in Vietnam. You can finally express your inner special pony without fear of mockery. This is your time.

If you’re a lady, you should also head to the shops. When you’re there, buy yourself a completely sheer, 100 percent see-through blouse. You won’t have any trouble finding one. And then wear a black bra underneath it, and nothing else. Oh, except for tiny little denim shorts. No-one will bat an eyelid. You could re-enact scenes from “Pretty Woman” with wild abandon and even then no-one would ask you for your hourly rate.

Don’t lift up your transparent blouse to expose your belly though. That’s just for men, silly.

And we should all be singing in public. Loudly. All the time. In taxis, while queuing at the supermarket, in the office, and especially in a café where the waitresses are all singing too. Go on, harmonise with them!

I tested out the Vietnamese indifference to public singing after the zebra incident. I cycled down the street while singing “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s at the top of my lungs. Nothing. Not a single reaction. Not even when I did the bit about the catfish.

After this you should be fitting right into Vietnam. Locals will praise you for your assimilation and you’ll never be laughed at again. Until you try to buy bananas.


  1. Mainly I'm just impressed you know the lyrics of Rock Lobster.

    That aside, is it just a Tay thing or does anyone behaving extravagantly get ignored?

    I seriously can't believe you wrote this post without including a picture of the zebra balloon.


  2. Ha ha, it's so true! Last week I was happily enjoying the phenomenom - walking around the streets with my husband singing out of tune (and largely made up) Christmas carols. No-one looked at us twice.

    Maybe Vietnamese people admire not giving a toss? Or they think foreigners are weird, and by doing weird things we're confirming this...therefore not funny.

  3. Hanoi is a playground. When my friend Lucey visited me, we drunkenly sang while riding our bikes around and were unnoticed. So we upped the annoyance factor and started shrieking at people - because we had no horns obviously. That only got mild amusement, not the slap in the face it deserved.

  4. I, too, was bitterly disappointed when we put our dog on our motorbike and took her to the local temple (because we didn't live close to a park). She sat between us, bushy tail poking out one side, bright button eyes out the other. No one looked at us! And I thought we were the cutest thing EVER!

    Vietnam is truly weird. And we're going back to Ho Chi Minh City next year to live for a year or so. I can't wait!

  5. Martin: There goes a narwhal! I think it's not so much about behaving "extravagantly" as just what is deemed "normal" behaviour. Turns out there's nothing extravagant about multi-coloured zebras in Vietnam.

    Rose: I love the Vietnamese tolerance of public singing, by locals and Tays alike. I plan to export it back to Australia, or at least try. Just watch me.

    Sarita331: Was there alcohol involved in this story by any chance? I hope not, because you shouldn't drink-cycle.

    Barbara: Oh, I would have pointed and stared, I promise you! Good luck in HCMC with your furry friend.

    Round Eye Idiots In Vietnam: Was going to reply to your comment, which I agree with in many ways (I often cringe at how typically "expat" the things I say are), but then I realised you'd linked your username to a hardcore porn site, so you got deleted.

  6. I have brought the public singing back to Canberra with me. I still love it. Shouldn't let the hours of poorly tuned karaoke go to waste!

  7. These are of course very fascinating observations about a country's unique norms of public decency, which only a relatively non-native person can point out!

    If I may offer some rationalisation to these seemingly crazy phenomenons:

    -Carrying large/ strange/ funny objects on one's (motor)bike is completely the norm in Vietnam. Because the bike is the most accessible transportation means, it is the obvious choice for all individuals wanting to transport things and thus falls within established norms. Market traders transport everything from quackling ducks and chickens to pieces of slaughtered pigs to melting ice blocks. Workers transport everything from large standing mirror to giant furniture to flower pots. Parents will certainly transport anything their child demand for, balloons being the least bizzare object one can think of. As it happens in Barbara's case, taking your pets along for a ride on the street is a complete norm as well.

    -There is no such thing as a defined sense of appearance as identity amongst the majority of the working class, which is also likely to be the majority of people riding the average bike on the street. They treat clothing at its most basic commodity level: mere pieces of cloth covering their skin; and as such make consumption choices based on prices purely. Colour, texture, shape and style mean nothing to the average Vietnamese person. If the girl wearing transparent blouse with black bra you mentioned was riding an average bike, she was unaware of any cultural, class or fashion interpretation someone might have. If she was actually riding an expensive bike, then she has simply acquired purchasing power without developing any cultural awareness; as is frequently the case nowadays in Vietnam.

    The only phenomenon I am yet to experience on the street is singing-aloud, although in all honesty I only spend about 2 weeks in HCMC every year during the past 4 years so I should not be judging on the frequency and likelihood of such occurrences.

    Just out of curiosity, does laughter also ensue when you purchase other types of fruits or is it only bananas?

  8. Uggclogs: Canberra's very own Singing Dutchwoman! I like it.

    Scrbbld: Thanks for your comments. I think the message is that as a foreigner I try hard to assimilate with "normal" local behaviour, yet have failed to understand that by doing things which I feel would make me stand out, I would actually fit right in.

    About the fashion choices, this just comes down to the different cultural ideas of what is "acceptable". Western men are usually pretty averse to wearing any item of ladies' clothing (like a sunhat, for example), and many wouldn't been seen dead riding a pink bicycle, even for a short trip. I actually really like that Vietnamese men don't have this ridiculous hang-up. And as for the see-through clothes, this is just a different approach to modesty. For whatever reason, this is not something you see in Australia. Skimpy clothes, sure; low neck lines, absolutely; but someone in the office with their bra on display? Just not okay. While this is something I see often in Hanoi.

    And the bananas? Well, no, I get laughed at trying to do pretty much most mundane tasks. The extent to which I care about it depends entirely on the day. Thanks again for commenting!

  9. Someone in the office with bra on display is definitely not okay in Vietnam, I swear. You may see that often, but that's not okay and people would consider those who do so "bad" and "not educated properly". No one would like or want to have anything to do with those people(and also those men with ladies' clothing). 10 years ago some old granmas would even scold those people right to their face. Foreigner doing so will be consider "bad", too. Beware of what you see.

    And yes, just like Rose said, foreigners are expected to behave weird :D And by trying to be like local you will be laughed at, but don't consider that bad. Vietnamese just find that amusing, even amazing and they have no bad intentions.

  10. When you buy bananas, do you speak in Vietnamese, or in English? Because if you speak in Vietnamese, I can kinda understand why. "Banana" is a slang for something lame/mawkish/stupid... Besides, "banana" is quite a sensitive word. Some people who made fun of you may be perverted, trying to imagine what you are going to do with a banana, whose shape pretty much looks like a *beep* and which is used widely in sexual jokes. Do you even know that eating a banana wholly would get you reprimanded because it looks like you are sucking a *beep*? The preferably more polite way is to break it into two or several parts and eat them. I snickered at such a ridiculous my friend told me, which I believe it's only practiced in a very very very very conservative land. Thankfully my parents've never tried to instill any weird norms into my mind.

    Got a good laugh from our banana frenzy? You are welcome!

  11. Love this entry. Can relate totally. Nothing like executing an utterly mundane task to set the locals into peals of uncontrollable laughter. I found drinking water was always a big comic hit for me.


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