Hospitality conventions in this part of Vietnam are built more for one-night stands than long term relationships. We’ll all do just fine so long as we have a lot of fun and we don't have time to get on each others' nerves. I may give you an awkward cup of coffee in the morning, but then please gather up your crap and go. And, no, there will not be clean sheets and towels and declarations of affection.
Yesterday began and ended well, but there was one bad episode in the middle when I got into an argument with the hotel manager (over internet access -- again), which, though I think I prevailed, left me feeling ashamed and unwelcome at the place where I plan to stay another 12 days (not that I’m counting). And because I have no one to confide in, or even talk to I second-guessed not only my reaction to the situation, but reading of it in the first place. Did I think he was saying table when he was really saying cable? Was I the giant jerk in this drama? I realized then that I’m working from the assumption, which has a lot to do with unexamined white privilege, I ashamed to say, that people will basically be nice to me in whatever transactions we manage to cobble together, that they will be grateful for my presence and will forgive my transgressions as if I were a poorly socialized child or a doughty old person. In truth, I don’t just expect people to be nice to me, I assume they’ll like me. But why would they? The people I interact with every day must have the same kinds of gnawing annoyed reactions to my habits and practices -- the way I move in space, and eat, and drink -- that I guiltily admit I have to theirs. Dealing with these things once or twice is fine, but difference can be abrasive, and the points of contact get raw and exposed over time like blisters.
Here’s what gets on my nerves: the insanely loud slurping noises while eating soup; crew socks with dress loafers; looking over my shoulder at my computer screen if I happen to be using it downstairs; how the men sit around and drink all the tea but always expect the woman to get up and replenish the supplies; the littering and spitting; and the shouting, dear god, the shouting. I'm just bracketing out the horn-honking.
I’ll guess what they hate about me: that I won’t go away, won’t leave the hotel all day on outings and look at stuff so they can sit around the lobby and nap and play computer games and smoke that stinky bong that sits in the bucket; that I drink beer and water straight out of the bottle; that I want fresh towels every few days; that I don’t speak their language; that I’m so physically large and white and sweaty. Mostly, they probably just wish I would go away because my presence makes things so much more difficult. I’m sure it’s not just the Cong Fu or this particular manager (who is arguably the worst hotel manager ever), it’s that my overstaying the duration of a conventional visit has exposed the fault lines in a much larger system: east meets west, privilege meets the developing world. The fledgling tourism industry in Vietnam is the laboratory where they forces collide.
The manager isn't very easy to deal with. He seems lazy and surly and unhelpful and sometimes downright deceitful in his attempts to maintain his strict standards of laziness and unhelpfulness. His staff is cheerful, eager, and very hard-working. And bewildered most of the time. His bilious temperament notwithstanding, the breakdown in hospitality conventions isn’t really his fault. Vietnam has watched Thailand, Cambodia, and even Lao capture big hunks of the Southeast Asia tourism market, and they want their share. Yes, there are models of how it can be done: fancy resorts at the beaches and luxury hotels in HCMC and Hanoi with multilingual staff and ice cubes in the drinks, but the people who work here have never been there.
They’ve never been anywhere. I can’t yet determine if they don’t have any desire to travel -- can’t understand why anyone would do it -- or if they just shelved the ambition long ago because they know they won’t able to, because it requires leisure time and cash, which they do not have. I’ve never heard a young Vietnamese person say, “I’d like to go there,” even in response to my telling them about another place in their own country. So, you have drivers who barely know how to drive, or only know how to drive, and waiters who may have never eaten in a restaurant, guides who never been beyond their local and learned routes, and hotel managers who have never stayed at a hotel. As you can imagine, this leads to problems. Every request from a hotel guest probably sounds idiosyncratic and bitchy. When they hear, do you have a newspaper? Can you recommend a restaurant? May I move to a room where the toilet doesn’t leak? Must they chisel the tiles off the wall right outside my window at 6:00 am? They must think, who the hell do you think you are? We put a copy of the rules on a faded, misspelled photocopy in a sad page protector in your room, gave you a sliver of Camay and a little ration of toilet paper, and turn the electricity on for you most of the time, what more do you expect?
We're all in unknown territory here, but if we're stuck together like a snowbound one-night stand, we might as well work on it. I was helping Hoa with her English this morning and wrote out a list of questions that I thought guests may ask and others that she might ask guests. She was stumped by “may I have a wake-up call,” but admired the novel concept once she got it. Borrowing from the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I also included, “do you have an adaptor plug,” but made no headway in explaining what is was until I went upstairs and got mine and showed her how it worked. I also had to explain that people from different parts of the world would need differently configured ones. Why anyone would need one at all was a revelation to her. Moving to the other list, she was very pleased to pronounce “are you happy with your room” perfectly, and glad to know “is there anything else I can get for you?” for waitressing.