Friday, 23 March 2012

What image problem?

A little while back, the Huffingpost Post published a piece by Matt Kepnes called “Why I’ll never return to Vietnam” which criticised Vietnam for being nothing more than a land of scam artists and rip-off merchants. 

Whether or not you agree with Kepnes (and for the record, I don’t, but that’s a post for another time), you can’t deny that the article caused quite a stir in Vietnam. Unsurprising for a country where the burgeoning tourism industry is a considerable source of national pride, and more importantly, income. 

It generated around 900 comments on the HuffPo site, many from irate Vietnamese readers, and prompted a flurry of articles and opinion pieces in the Vietnamese press. One of my favourites refers to the Huffington Post as being “mistaken” for a “prominent newspaper”, and then calls Kepnes “a self-proclaimed Dave Matthews Band super fan”. Ouch.

But the most interesting response appeared on the news site for Voice of Vietnam, the state-run national radio station and mouthpiece for the Communist Party.

Entitled “I am a real backpacker”, the article profiles an Australian backpacker named Thomas Johnson “whose back always carries a big bag full of things he bought from different shops in the capital city”. 

Thomas tells the reporter that he finds Hanoi “really comfortable, with a stable work environment and friendly people”. He loves the food, and he’s enjoyed all the places he’s visited, like the ceramics village, the silk village and the flower village. 

“’Wherever I go, I am always tempted by special hand-made products, such as Ao dai (Vietnamese women’s traditional dress), conical hats, ceramics and other handicrafts. That is the reason why my backpack is always heavy with a lot of things,’ he said with a smile.”

So, he’s a young, Australian, male backpacker who just can’t get enough of flowers, silk, handicrafts and women’s dresses. He’s just cramming them all into his “bag full of things”. 

In closing, the article makes it very clear that Thomas, unlike Matt Kepnes, will be coming back to Vietnam:

“The Australian visitor said he would come back to Vietnam as soon as possible to enjoy the hidden charms of the S-shaped country, and his next destination would be Ho Chi Minh City. “I’ve heard a lot about the great leader of Vietnam and wish to visit the city named after him to explore the southern part of Vietnam,” he said.”

Wow, Thomas. A state-owned mouthpiece for the Communist Party could not have said it better themselves.

I’m going to put it out there and suggest that maybe Thomas isn’t, you know, a real person. You see, you can write an article called “I am a real backpacker” but that doesn’t actually make the backpacker real.

But really, who better to respond to criticism that your country is filled with cheats and scam artists than a person you just completely made up? Tourists will surely now be flocking to Vietnam, voted Number 1 most ironic country in southeast Asia.    


27 comments:

  1. Hang on! I'm sure I know of an Australian Thomas in Vietnam with an interest in Ao dai (at least at weddings), flowers, ceramics and food. Not sure about the silk but maybe that's just a translation problem....

    I'm telling you Mr Communist Party official, that feisty Ms Tabitha is just showing us another version of her unusual and ironic Australian humour! Maybe you could ask her to write some authentic material for Voice of Vietnam? Something that would appeal to the "real Australian backpacker". She'd be up for it (as we say)

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    1. Yes, what he said. Exactly right.

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  2. I know I always look for a stable work environment in my holiday destinations.

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    1. Me too. I like to write reviews about the stable work environment on Tripadvisor.

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  3. What, you're doubting Thomas's existence? They even included a picture of him! You should be more trusting of government mouthpieces.

    In all seriousness, I had never heard of that website until reading this. Great stuff, along with Vietnam News I'm set for my daily dose of over-the-top pronouncements and bad grammar.

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    1. Doubting Thomas! Argh that is an awesome title for this post and I wish I had thought of it.

      Thomas's picture actually appears in another story, about calligraphers at the Temple of Literature. He sure does get around: http://talkvietnam.com/2012/01/calligraphers-spring-2/

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    2. Thomas gets around so much that his picture appears twice in that story!

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    3. So it does! Awesome x 2.

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  4. I think my favorite part of the article is that he orders both beer and coffee at a bar. I only assume that all real Australian backpackers mix these together. Can you confirm?

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    1. Crikey Charlie, we sure do. We call this a DINGO KILLAH.

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  5. Hilarious! I wonder if the guy in that photo might show up on your blog one day to identify himself! Surely, following the expose, no state mouthpiece will ever again dare to distort the truth!

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    1. Oh man, I would love to find that guy! That would be my blogging apex.

      And yes, I believe I have struck fear in the very heart of the Vietnamese media. Actually this isn't even close to being the best example of some of the shonky practices of the media here, but it's one of the most amusing.

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  6. Wow, if the VOV wants to encourage us to take Cyclo rides they need to stop publishing photos showing us what complete dicks we look like.

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    1. And doesn't Thomas look like he'd fit in so well with those guys, enjoying what is surely Hanoi's most "special, comfortable, and convenient" mode of transport?

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  7. But they don't want to encourage you to take cyclo rides, cyclos are the reason why Hanoi is so congested: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/society/8617/hanoi-anxious-about-banning-of-cyclos.html

    I also love all the associated stories about tourists in Hanoi which you can access from I am a Real Backpacker, such as Must-learn List for Foreigners": “The price we paid for a glass of beer is a lot different from what the guys next to me paid. I was shocked at first, and then I got used to it and now I can find my way around shopping in Vietnam,” and the informative Crossing the Street in Hanoi

    Simon (not a backpacker, but real)

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    1. Ooh yes, someone obviously failed to cross-check the official position on cyclos.

      Must-learn for foreigners: You will be ripped off, but you'll soon get used to it. Great!

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  8. Yeah the unmitigated fail of the Vietnamese editorially directed English language media. The Vietnamese language media by contrast is actually pretty sparky at times.
    JC

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    1. You could write a whole book about the likes of Thomas Johnson, I'm sure, JC! And it really does seem like all the juiciest stories never get translated. Although we did recently get "Man has car mirrors' parts stolen at wedding ceremony":

      http://www.tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/society/man-has-car-mirrors-parts-stolen-at-wedding-ceremony-1.65598

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  9. I'm starting to think that I may be a doubtful "Thomas". I was told by a friend in Hanoi yesterday that she was leafing absentmindedly through a Vietnamese travel magazine in the Family Medical Centre and stumbled across this photo of me:

    http://goodeveningvietnam.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/img_18231.jpg

    If there is a victims' support network for Westerners whose touristy images (and associated identities) have been purloined and incorporated into Vietnamese propaganda or publicity material, I want to sign up. :)

    What's more is that at the moment that photo was being taken, I was midway through the old 'offer to take your photo carrying my pineapple baskets and conical hat and then insistently demand that you buy a thank you bag of overpriced pineapple' scam. Personally, I think it was 50,000 vnd well spent.

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    1. Aah, that is hilarious! I would love to see the caption accompanying it. Maybe "Tourists paying to be humiliated"?

      This is quite a legacy you've left. I'm proud of you.

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  10. just to let you know taBEEtha, that this entry has officially sealed the deal. this is without a doubt the best blog ever. seriously. come down to hcm and ill get you a beer and coffee and u can experience all the awesome ironic things in this part of the s shaped country

    sincerely
    dave

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    1. Aww, thanks Dave! But I'm afraid I'm only interested in going to HCMC to learn about Uncle Ho.

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  11. And now, finally, a parody of ourselves... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwgO7eQJBWE

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    1. Haha, those girls did a great job with that video. Even if it is mortifying,

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    2. Can't believe that Vietnamese government would bother responding in that way it hilarious. You could use that video for western expats in any Asian city, well it would fit Phnom Penh.

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  12. Another scam is the war museum where - when I lived in Vietnam (2000-2007) the claim is that the (northern) Vietnamese did not torture their prisoners of war, and treated them so well.
    Of course they did (as the opposed side also did) - no tourist buys that story and the then US ambassador in Hanoi has the scars to prove it (in earlier years he'd been a prisoner of war).

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  13. hillarious, I didn't know about the "I am a real backpacker" :)

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