MY IDENTITY IN VIETNAM
My Identity in vietnam
When travelling to a new culture, our own identities can influence the experiences we have interacting with local communities and individuals. By considering some of our own identities and learning how these might be perceived abroad, we can be prepared for how we are received, treated or interacted with and how we might need to consider our own behaviour and attitudes in the local environment.
1. Gender Equality
Traditionally in Vietnam, the family is patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal, often with two to four generations under one roof. The father or an older male is often considered the head of the family - having ultimate responsibility and acts as a leader while delegating tasks and involving others in the decision making. Even though each family might have different dynamic, typically in a household tasks were divided along gender lines: fathers typically are the breadwinners while mothers were responsible for domestic duties such as homemaking and raising children. If you are staying with a host family, you might expect to see these divisions based on genders among family members. It is important to approach this matter tactfully and avoid applying your standards to their ways of living.
Nevertheless, gender equality in Vietnam still has a way to go. Women still face hurdles when reaching manager level or entering male-dominated careers, while are expected to balance between working full time and adhering to beauty standards and family responsibilities. Family violence against women is still an issue especially in more conservative parts of the country and where women are not aware of their rights or do not not dare to open up for support.
On the other hand, women are arguably given more respect in Vietnam than in other countries. With the history of war when mothers taking over father's role and become heroes, and the increased number of women working full time and having their own careers, the gender dynamic is becoming more balanced. According to Voice of Vietnam’s statistics in 2019, almost 71 percent of women and they make up 25 percent of company leaders. In public both sexes are free to mingle and express their identities through appearances, behaviors etc.
Vietnam is relatively a safe place for travellers with low crime rate, including for female travellers. Vietnam is relatively free of serious hassles for women. The most common threat is petty crimes. In order to stay safe and avoid scams, avoid flaunting your wealths, take care of your personal belongings, such as purses or jewelry. If such a situation happens and the penetrator is stronger than you, it is best to prioritize your safety above financial values.
Late at night, if you are travelling alone, you might want to take cars over the popular motorbike. Motorbike is more exposed and thus you might be the target for purse snatchers. Also, avoid walking around by yourself at night, especially around dark alleys or sketchy backstreets.
Another tip is to try to blend in – since local generally dress conservatively, wearing super shorts or see through will make you stand out and draw unwanted attention or being propositioned.
Some men, often older, can also think it is normal to catcall or flirt with women walking on the street; even though the females feel uncomfortable and sometimes scared. In such unfortunate incident, try to ignore and walk past them, since in most cases they mean no harm and will not show violence or persistence. Staying calm is best to ensure your safety. If needed, call for attention from passerby and contact your friends for help.
As a general rule, try to follow what the locals wear - so dress ensure that the clothes you wear at least cover your legs and shoulders. Dress in loose-fitting, breathable clothing is a good idea to cope with the heat. This does not mean you cannot be stylish - a lot of female travellers find a culotte trousers or a maxi skirt with a cute top is both practical and flattering.
4. Race & Ethnicity
In Vietnam, almost 85 percent of the population is of the same ethnicity; and you will see that the country is rather homogenous. People, especially in more rural, less touristy areas are not familiar with seeing people who look different from them. Your ethnic appearance may attract attention and local stereotypes and perceptions may result in situations that you might not be used to handling.
Consider the following:
Caucasian/ White: As a “white” individual in Vietnam you will be in the Minority. As a result of this you may experience;
Regarding appearance, pale skin is one of the biggest markers of beauty in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. People can get fascinated by your white skin, blonde hair, or your heights and you may expect to get compliments based on your physical features. As people may not be familiar with the idea of ethnically diverse society, people can sometimes associate Western world with being white.
Overall, with the increased tourism from Western countries to Vietnam, people are getting more and more familiar with Caucasian visitors. Stories of white visitors getting stared at or asked to take photos with locals are becoming less.
African/ Black: As a “black” individual in Vietnam you will be in the Majority/Minority. As a result of this you may experience;
There are not many black people in Vietnam so people might be curious and stare at you. There is no discrimination in Vietnam towards black people in particular so you will be treated like any other tourists. In Vietnam there is no pejorative word for black people and people often address race by skin color directly, so don't be offended if people call you black in Vietnamese. If anything, people may be curious and get surprised to see you (some may surprise that you are African Americans or African French and not from Africa the continent, due to lack of exposures and Vietnamse homogenous society). In rare cases people can also be hesitant to interact since they never see someone like you; they will not harass you or say anything, they will just avoid making contact with you.
More sharings from black travelers in Vietnam: Here and Here
Asian: As an “asian” individual in Vietnam you may appear similar to the local and thus, do not stand out as much. Because of increased trading and tourism, there are a lot of different Asian citizens from Japan, South Korea, China etc. in Vietnam. Vietnamse locals are familiar with meeting Asian people and thus there is little difference in terms of communications or treatments towards you. The only thing that may happen is that they may be surprised you are of Asian descent but come from a Western country, but that is about it.
Overall, if you are of different ethnic backgrounds that make your appearance stand out from the local crowds (darker skin, lighter skin, super curly hair etc.) you may expect some stares, especially in rural areas where people do not meet foreigners very often. Vietnamese people can stare even at other Vietnamese people if they are curious or if that person stands out. Staring is very normal in Vietnamese society, so don't be too worried about being stared at. As you are in the big city where there are a lot of visitors, staring is less common.
Another thing you will find is Vietnamese hospitality. The locals are generally friendly and tend to treat visitors nicely and give them special treatments - for example they might give you free food to try or invite you to hang out and show you the city. It is not something to be seen as a burden, but rather, you can express gratitude and offer to do something nice for them in return.
5. Body Shape and Physical features
Additional to your race, having a different body shape to typical local people may also identify you as different in Vietnam. Consider:
Height: Local people are generally shorter (average height for men is 1.7m and for women is 1.55m). If you are taller than a local, you might get compliments.
Weight: Typically local people are thinner than many Westerners. Body image sensitivity is not very common yet, and because of history and long-held tradition, people tend to adore certain beauty standard, including in terms of weight. In Vietnam, among local, people can comment directly on other people’s weights, for example: “You are gaining weight” or “You should lose weight”. Avoid being offended if this happens to you and understand the cultural differences - for them it might just a way of showing consideration and for small talk.
Body Piercing, Tatoos: Historically piercing and tattoos are worn by gangs, and thus are still associated with someone of murky backgrounds. However, nowadays it is becoming more and more popular to get piercings and tattoos to express style and identities and it is increasingly viewed as acceptable, especially among young people and in urban cities.
Hair: Vietanmese locals has natural black hair, so if your hair of different, very bright colors it might stand out. However, nowadays a lot of people especially female dye their hairs so even bright hair colors are being viewed as normal.
Physical Disabilities: People with disabilities experiences little discriminations, however, there is still a gap in public awareness in creating disability-friendly infrastructure and disability-inclusive activities.
6. Sexual Identity and Gender relationships
Strong displays of affection is often frowned upon, since affection and intimacy is considered a private matter. Couple holding hands is pretty easy to spot on the street, however kissing is normally shy away from. You will also find people of the same sexes holding hands, but it does not necessarily mean they are a couple, it is just a local custom of showing affection.
Norms: Sexual health and sex in generally is considered a very private matter and seldomly talked about even among close friends or families. The traditional view is generally conservative towards sexual expressions and needs, and that sex is after marriage. However, among urban young people, the view is getting more and more liberal, which is in contrast with what happens in more rural areas. On the street nowadays, you can see people, particularly women, dress in tight-fitting clothes that accentuate body parts, which was much rarer just 10 or 15 years ago.
Expectations at your accommodation: Generally speaking it is expected that you approach sex matters in conservative manners and avoid talking about this subject unless it is brought up by somebody, since you do not know who will or will not be comfortable talking about this subject. When you are staying with a host family, dress conservatively, avoid talking about sexual subjects, refrain from bringing someone over to your room to stay overnight, especially of the opposite sexes, and refrain from having sex while at your host family accomodation.
Contraceptives, condom and other safe sex measures are becoming more and more available in Vietnam. In big cities, they can be found in supermarkets and drugstores.
Image Source: https://ione.vnexpress.net/photo/hong/cong-dong-lgbt-dieu-hanh-cau-vong-tren-pho-di-bo-ha-noi-3985865.html
Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free destination for LGBTQI-travellers. In recent years, the country has made positive strides recognising the role of the LGBTQI community. Same-sex relationships and same-sex sexual acts are legal, and a ban on same-sex marriages was lifted in in January 2015. Viet Pride marches take place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and gay characters appear in mainstream television and films. That said, it is far from a gay utopia. Vietnam remains a socially conservative nation and many continue to hide their sexuality from their families. And while same-sex marriages are no longer illegal, they are not legally recognised either.
Travellers, however, are typically exempt from social stigma and usually find Vietnam to be an extremely hospitable and welcoming destination. While displays of affection will likely draw disapproving glares, the same holds true for straight couples. As long as LGBTQI-travellers display some discretion and respect local culture, they will have no problem visiting Vietnam. Just don’t expect to see many rainbow flags hanging from gay-only venues – the low-key gay scene found in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is largely limited to gay-friendly and gay-owned establishments.
Queer culture in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): The most populous city in Vietnam boasts a number of bars, restaurants, saunas and hotels that are gay-friendly. The largest gay club, Republic, features a drag show each Friday, live music on Saturdays and a large dance floor. Full Disclosure puts on raucous monthly themed-LGBT parties with live music, drag shows and DJs that go late into the night. Gay-friendly parties can also be found at La Fenetre Soleil (44 Ly Tu Trong). Whiskey and Wares is another popular bar owned by American and Vietnamese partners that attracts a mix of gay and straight expats, locals and travellers.
Queer culture in Hanoi: The gay scene in the capital is more low-key than Ho Chi Minh City. GC Bar is the best-known and longest running gay bar in Hanoi. Located within walking distance from the Old Quarter, it gets packed on Friday and Saturday nights. Savage, an underground electronic music club, also hosts popular monthly gay nights. Pride festivities are biggest in Hanoi, where LGBTQI film screenings, panel discussions and other various events accompany the annual bicycle pride parade. Source: Intrepidtravel
Local groups for LGBT+:
Cong dong LGBT in Vietnam (LGBT Community in Vietnam) LGBT Vietnam Official iSEE (The Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment) - this is forefront NGO advocating for minority rights in Vietnam, and famous for its queer advocacy campagins
International resources you might find helpful:
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) offers Lesbian and Gay Rights Maps that detail legal climate. Other useful information is available throughout their website.
The National Center for Transgender Equality provides air travel and airport security tips for transgender individuals.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers some guidelines for LGBT tourists travelling abroad.The US Department of State’s US Passports & International Travel Department has LGBT Travel Information for LGBT individuals going abroad.
7. Socio-Economic Status
Visitors to Vietnam, especially from Western countries, are often identified as “rich” by locals in Vietnam As travel is less common for the local people, the ability to travel in itself is often attributed to being a pursuit of the wealthy, and by you being able to travel to their country, you may be (often incorrectly) labeled as wealthy. This may make you a target for scams or other petty crimes such as purse snatching. People may also get surprised when you choose to use local amenities, such as public transportation, eat at local eateries. However, with the influx of tourists to Vietnam, people are getting more and more familiar with tourists and more aware of the diversity that come with it. Local Vietnamse are generally friendly and curious about visitors and want to befriend you, that does not mean they want something back from you - in many cases the locals offer a lot of things and go out of their way to help visitors. Lastly, it is always good to not to promise things that you do not intend on executing, such as promises to send money, gifts or support on your return home, cause people might genuinely believe your promises and get disappointed if you cannot follow through.
Vietnam is officially declared as an atheist state. Although most Vietnamese list themselves as having no religious affiliation, religion, as defined by shared beliefs and practices, remains an integral part of Vietnamese life, dictating the social behaviours and spiritual practices of Vietnamese individuals in Vietnam. In general, the religious belief of the common Vietnamese is a synthesis of the three traditional religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) which have been coexisting peacefully for centuries in Vietnam. Around 7 percent of the population is Christian, and there are also tiny numbers of Hindu and Muslim believers. As with other countries, the Vietnamese have several popular beliefs such as animism and theism.
Ancestor worship is another common part of religious life in Vietnam, and many Vietnamese families incorporate ancestor worship into their other religious practices. In many Vietnamese homes you’ll find a shrine that has photos of grandparents and great-grand parents, complete with offerings of flowers and incense. It’s also common to worship rulers of yesteryear, including Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
One important feature of the religious attitude of the Vietnamese is its great tolerance. With a long history of several religious influences over thousands of years, the locals are familiar with co-living with people of different religious beliefs. In daily lives, there is little to no segregation between people of different religious groups. As a traveller, it is rather open for you to express your religions or ask about other people’s religions’ practice - in fact locals are happy to introduce you to theirs, of course as long as the communication is genuine and respectful.
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