Out of the all the foreigners that come to Vietnam, I think I am having a very unique experience. This is because I am not just a foreigner (người nước ngoài), but I am a Vietnamese foreigner. There’s a special word for that in Vietnamese; it’s việt kiều.
Before we begin, let me mention two things:
First, I would like to mention that Vietnamese people LOVE foreigners. If you are blonde, have green / blue eyes, and snow white skin, you will be stared at on the street. People will come up to you to take a picture with you. People will reach out to touch you–your hair, your skin. They will ask you where you are from. They will ask you to teach them English (once they make sure you can actually speak English).
Second, I look Vietnamese. I mean, I am Vietnamese, but looking Vietnamese is important to how people treat me. If I don’t say a word, it looks like I live here, like I am a native. I think I mentioned this, but on the bus, someone had asked me for directions.
Remember the time when I got run over by the motorbike? Well, the guy didn’t even stop and see if I was okay. I was on the floor! But, “She’s Vietnamese, so she knows what she’s doing.” Gosh, if I was white and blonde, he probably would have stopped and made sure that I was okay.
And then, people are shocked that I can’t really speak Vietnamese. When I begin to speak, they know that I’m not from here. I have a Southern accent. Then, when they realize that I am not from Vietnam, the questions come. Where are you from? How long have you lived there?
Today, when I spoke to a security guard, he asked if I was from Saigon. In Vietnamese, I said, “No, I’m from the US.” Strangely, it took him a while to believe that I was from the States. I had to speak English for him to believe me. Then, when he believed me, he let me up the elevator (he was hesitant to because I didn’t have my ID with me). Foreigners get special treatment!
I get it. He was probably not used to hearing a southern accent, so it was hard to believe that I was speaking bad Vietnamese.
Anyway, when people know that I am a việt kiều, they could treat me one of two ways. One, they could treat me like a foreigner, making sure that I understand them, speaking as much English as they can, and giving me the “foreigner treatment.” They even like it that I could understand them speaking Vietnamese sometimes. Or two, they could ask why I don’t speak more Vietnamese or they can take advantage that I don’t understand.
Fortunately, I haven’t met a lot of people from the latter category.
So, I would like to say that I know just enough Vietnamese to get by, but not enough to survive.
But, out of the all the people that have come here from overseas, I know the most Vietnamese, and that makes me the automatic translator / communicator in a lot situations. And it’s actually a lot of hard work; it’s a very difficult position.
I am usually the person ordering at the restaurant, and it becomes really complicated when my friends have a complicated order or I don’t necessarily know what words to use. Sometimes I don’t know what food it is or the ingredients they use, so translating can be really difficult.
When I went to Sa Pa last week, I went with 6 other friends. 4 of them that spoke French and some English. The other 2 spoke English. So, if we were lost or needed something, I was the one they sent to talk to the Vietnamese folks.
I remember in specific that we were on the sleeping bus on the way back from Sa Pa. All of a sudden, I hear from one of my friends that we missed the stop, and I was told to go ask the bus driver if that was the bus stop we were supposed to get off at.
I clambered my way up to the front of the bus, and in the best Vietnamese I could, I asked. The bus driver asked where I was going. I said, Hanoi. He said, no, we are on the way to Hanoi. I asked if he could let me know when we get there so my friends and I could get off. He said, okay.
So, after that conversation, I went back to the back of the bus and told my friends that the bus driver told me that we were on the way to Hanoi.
Three of them disagreed with me. They said that the previous stop was the stop that we needed to get off on. Didn’t the last stop look like the stop we were at when we were going to Sa Pa? I was told to talk to bus driver and clarify the situation.
— Wow, really? First, I understand that they were stressed because we had just missed our stop, but it seemed that I was being attacked by them even though I was only translating what they told me. Then, they wanted to make me say something to the bus driver that would make me sound so stupid.
So, once again, I clambered to the front of the bus and asked if we were going to Hanoi. He said, yes. I asked again, so we’re not in Hanoi right now? He said, no. I told him that my friends said that we had missed the stop. He said that if that’s so, we could get off at the next stop and take a taxi back.
I relayed this message back to my friends. It turns out that we were supposed to get off the My Dinh bus station, not the Hanoi bus station. I didn’t know that. But, it seemed that my friends were trying to send me up there to try to turn the bus around, but obviously, I could not do that. Or, they wanted me to get the bus driver to admit that the bus station we had passed was really the Hanoi bus station, but obviously, the bus driver would know better than all of us.
It was really interesting to be stuck in the middle, but there was a lot of pressure too.
This is how I felt when I was translating between Anh Cuong and John at the police station.
All I know is that I need to know more Vietnamese!
Over and out.