Vietnam: Beyond the stereotype

A Travelfish long read by Joshua Zukas
First published on 29th December, 2020 |4,228 reads.

Vietnam is awash with antiquated and orientalist fantasies. Travel media outlets manufacture nostalgia for a colonial heirloom with crowded street kitchens and conical hat-wearing hawkers. Foreign travel companies overrepresent Vietnam’s beaches as if the country exists to serve sun-starved Northeast Asians and Europeans. And although Vietnam has been at peace for over four decades, American films continue to portray a perilous place reeling from war.

As discerning visitors, we should explore the history that forged Vietnam as well as the geography that defines it. But we should also be mindful of perpetuated fallacies and remain open to exploring Vietnam’s dynamic energy and modern aspirations.

Paul and his friends are enjoying a boat tour through a floating market, a quintessential Mekong Delta travel experience. It is uncomfortably warm, but as American veterans that served in Vietnam some four decades prior, the group adjusts to the humidity quickly. The atmosphere is jovial as they take in the sights, sounds and smells of the market, washing down the experience with a few beers.

Not a whole chicken in sight. Xeo Quyt, near Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Not a whole chicken in sight. Xeo Quyt, near Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald

A Vietnamese vendor paddles up to Paul and offers him a live chicken. Paul refuses politely, but the vendor is persistent. He grips one of the chickens and pushes it closer to Paul’s face as it gives a few jarring flaps. Paul, now angry, refuses again. The vendor tries one last time, now with a fatter, flappier chicken. “Get that fucking thing off of me,” Paul yells. “No, motherfucker.” The atmosphere turns and the vendor is horrified. “Motherfucker?” he retorts. “You killed my father and mother!” Paul is livid. He lunges at the vendor while his friends restrain him, and the scene descends into chaos.

Paul is not a real person, but a character in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which premiered on Netflix in 2020. Indeed, Paul (played by Delroy Lindo) could not be real because this scene is so implausible. Vietnamese market vendors don’t force live chickens on tourists; they also don’t accuse Americans of killing their parents when the sale doesn’t work out. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen churlishly puts it in his scathing analysis of the film in The New York Times, the Vietnamese are more likely to see foreigners—including Americans—as “walking wallets, not to be offended.”

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About the author

Joshua Zukas is a Hanoi-based writer covering travel, culture, lifestyle, architecture and innovation in Vietnam and beyond. He is a content producer for CNN Create and a regular contributor for Ink Global, which manages award-winning travel media for the world's biggest airlines. He also contributes intermittently to publications such as The Economist, BBC News, Wallpaper, The Diplomat, 1843 and The Red Bulletin. You can follow him on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn

Reader comments


Posted on: 2021-02-24 11:03:47

Great post. Thanks for sharing!

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