By Hồng Minh
“Man bites dog,” is an old journalistic aphorism that remarks on how the unusual is more newsworthy (than a dog biting a man).
Something very unusual happened last weekend, and as is the digital age’s wont, the news, in the form of photographs, went viral.
And almost immediately, a debate raged on the propriety, or the lack thereof, of two foreign women sunbathing in their bikinis on the banks of Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake) in the heart of Ha Noi.
Within the hour, the photo garnered more than 1,500 likes and thousands of shares and comments on Facebook.
Most comments criticised the behaviour of the tourists as unacceptable and disrespectful at what is a sacred, historical and cultural spot for the Vietnamese.
A popular Facebook Group with over a million members for all vehicle lovers also shared the photo with text: “Don’t know what they are thinking when inconsiderately sunbathing in a walking area around Hồ Gươm. Foreign tourists coming to Việt Nam are all welcomed warmly and thoughtfully. But it seems that many of them come to Việt Nam just do things that do not respect our culture and customs.”
Some people tried to be a bit more understanding, and came to the tourists’ defence. “I think maybe it’s because foreigners are open-minded and have a free living style, and such activities are very normal in their countries.
“However, I have to say that it’s not appropriate to do so in Việt Nam… especially here at Hồ Gươm, a sacred cultural site.”
Many others wondered if the two tourists had bothered to learn about Vietnamese culture before visiting the country.
It has been reported that the Hồ Gươm Management Board, on hearing about the incident, quickly arrived at the site and asked the tourists to leave the lawn.
They obeyed, and giving them the benefit of doubt, it was assumed that they did not know what they did was unacceptable here, and they were not fined for violating the recently issued Code of Conduct for people in Hà Nội about dressing appropriately in public spaces.
I said at the beginning that this was unusual. It was, but it was not the first such instance of what most people would say was inappropriate behaviour.
In July last year, two Irish tourists reportedly took off their clothes and jumped into Hồ Gươm to swim in it, an activity that is not permitted.
In October the same year, another foreign female tourist swam naked to the Tháp Rùa (Turtle Tower) in the heart of Hồ Gươm and began singing and dancing there. Officials had to row a boat to the tower and take her ashore.
“Some inappropriate behaviour by foreign tourists reported recently at Hồ Gươm are mostly sudden, impromptu actions stemming from their lack of understanding about the culture and customs in Việt Nam; and applying their own cultures,” said Đỗ Đình Hồng, director of the Hà Nội Department of Tourism.
“To avoid such incidents, the department will step up dissemination of information about the country’s culture and customs to foreigners,” Hồng said.
However, he said, foreigners should also learn about local culture and customs on their own, and show appropriate respect.
Unfortunately, or otherwise, matters did not rest there.
When the photograph of the bikini-clad foreigners was shared in another popular Facebook group that comprises both locals and foreigners, there were some ripostes from the latter.
When some Vietnamese citizens expressed their anger and disappointment over others disrespecting their culture, some foreigners turned the blame on the locals themselves.
Most Vietnamese people have no respect for their country and environment, they claimed, asking the locals to look in the mirror before criticising others.
“People throw rubbish, piss, sh*t, spit, allow their dogs to sh*t and piss by this historical and culturally significant lake and not a word is said,” said Phillip, an Australian man who has been living in Việt Nam for sometime.
That argument just does not wash.
For one, there are many instances of Vietnamese citizens deploring the lack of civic sense among their brethren in very strong language. In fact, this happens all the time.
And, as Facebook user Kyle Nguyễn noted, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.
”I thought, being from ‘civilised cultures,’ you were all taught to respect others, accept that you are not at your beloved first world country anymore, realise your wrongdoing and not try to divert attention to justify it.”
I would go one step further, though. Even without reading up on a place before visiting it, being respectful is a matter of common sense, too. It is obvious as you walk around the lake that nobody is jumping into it or sunbathing in skimpy clothes. It is obvious that there is a temple in the lake where thousands of locals pray everyday.
Willful ignorance of or indifference is also uncivilized behaviour, no matter where you come from or where you go to.
I want foreigners to show due respect to my city and my country. We welcome everyone to visit Việt Nam, and we also welcome constructive feedback and criticism because we know there is always room for improvement.
We do not appreciate disrespectful behaviour, or backdoor, defensive attempts to justify it. -- VNS