It’s true that most people, at some point in their life, have dreamed of what it would be like to be a celebrity. Well if you really want to know (and you haven’t yet reached stardom in your home country) come to Vietnam. Being a “westerner” or “foreigner” here attracts A LOT of attention. Of course you have to avoid the more touristy places where diversity is more common, but where I have been for the last 2 months, Hai Phong city, I am a celebrity. I’m talking the whole shebang: people shouting at me on the street; people asking (or mostly not asking) for photos of or with me; people constantly staring; wanting be near me all the time and touch me for no reason; people inviting me to their parents houses and throwing me a parties; people being endlessly generous and feeling honoured to pay for my beer; people nearly falling off of motorbikes, or circling around to get a better look at me; and children are absolutely fascinated to see someone so different. You would think that all of these things would grate on a person and make them want to hide away, and at times it is a little daunting. For example whenever I walk with my Vietnamese friends, especially to markets, everyone is constantly asking my friends questions about me in Vietnamese – and that’s daunting. To know that everyone is talking about you in a language you don’t understand all the time takes a lot of getting used to, and in my culture this is very rude, but I’m not in my culture, I’m in Vietnam. As soon as I embraced that I realised that I could use the differences in my appearance to make people happy, and that’s what I try to do. When people say hello I smile and wave and talk to them, even if they can’t understand a word I say. When people offer me food I take it and try it in front of them, and I make yummy noises even if the taste is terrible to me. When I go to a cafe, or shop, or hairdresser and they want to take photos of me with their products to use for marketing I oblige. And when parents push their unwilling children at me to practise English with a native speaker I always make warm conversation. This has all become normal to me, but it’s not normal for them to see someone like me. Just by smiling at someone I can make them truly happy, and I will never get tired of that, it’s the least I can do for a county that has given me so much. I will never get tired of seeing a group of school children ride past, watching them fight over who is brave enough to say hello to me and when one does and I reply, watching their astonished faces turn to laughter and elation and disbelief that I replied, then they zoom off to tell their friends.
Don’t get me wrong there are downsides to being different here. If a go out alone or with other foreigners I know people will try to rip me off – the harsh reality is that they see white skin and they think I’m rich. Well I’m not. Sorry. I’m also not stupid, and after 2 months I’m pretty confident I can avoid getting ripped off in most situations. I just have to be firm, a good (but not rude and always fair) negotiator and have a rough understanding of what things are worth. To be honest, most of the time you are making them happy by trying their produce even if you do haggle the price down.
Facebook is massive here, possibly bigger than in the UK, and those of you who know me will know that I do not have Facebook (SHOCK HORROR), well I’m glad! Because every foreigner I know has had at least 50 friend requests, and I can’t be dealing with that. People often ask us for our telephone numbers, why so you can call me? You don’t speak English, I don’t speak Vietnamese. They don’t care. It’s such an honour for them to call you their friend, they don’t even mind that they can’t speak to you, it makes them happy. Its very humbling. I know that it’s not me they idolise, it’s just the idea of western culture. I’m not special and people here react the same way to every westerner they see, I don’t want to be special, I just want to see people’s faces light up in that unique way and then I’m gone.