Are Vietnamese second-class citizens in their own country?

By Joe Buckley   April 23, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7
Are Vietnamese second-class citizens in their own country?
Foreign tourists bargain with cyclo drivers in Hanoi downtown. Photo by AFP

An American woman's payout would seem to indicate Vietnamese people are second-class citizens in their own country.

Screwing small foot-sized metal hooks into a sidewalk is not, in general, a sensible thing to do.

A company called Vien Dong has recently learnt this lesson the hard way. They installed metal hooks in sidewalks in the center of Ho Chi Minh City for “nighttime entertainment programs”. As it turns out, the entertainment that resulted from this decision was many people tripping over the hooks, and some injuring themselves.

One person tripped over and smacked her face on the ground, leaving her with a bloody nose. The woman was an American tourist. In response, city authorities forced Vien Dong to pay the lady $1,000 in compensation.

What’s the message here? If a company puts metal hooks in the ground that trip you up, you’ll be compensated straight away? Could people use this as a new get-rich-quick scheme? Well, probably no. 

If this leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth, it should. It sounds like an occurrence that would not have been out of place during the French colonial days. Back then, Westerners had privileged access to many things in Saigon. Restaurants, schools, sports facilities, the list goes on. French rule was a classic colonial relationship between the privileged colonizers - the French and other foreigners - and the subordinate colonized - the Vietnamese.

Thankfully, this system is gone now. It took a war, a revolution and millions of deaths to ensure that, legally at least, the Vietnamese are no longer second class citizens in their own country. Yet there still seems to be a lingering legacy, like compensating foreigners when they trip on a bit of metal, but giving nothing to Vietnamese people when they do the same.

Smacking your face on the ground because you’ve tripped is certainly a very unpleasant and shocking thing to happen, and hopefully the lady has recovered from whatever injuries she sustained. Without wanting to jump to conclusions, however, a middle-aged American touring Asia is unlikely to really need the $1,000 for medical bills or similar. The same probably cannot be said for the numerous Vietnamese people who have also been injured.

I am certainly not against companies being forced to pay compensation when they do stupid things like installing metal hooks on a sidewalk, but why only this woman? Why not for all the victims? It seems that Vietnamese people are still, in some ways, subordinates in their own country.

This is not simply a privilege for white people that’s still so prominent around the world today. This is a more general foreigner privilege, and it’s bigger than just this individual case. Last year, for example, an Egyptian tourist was robbed in Ho Chi Minh City. She was given a public apology, a free hotel room, compensation for the money that was stolen and the rest of her trip was paid for. Many Vietnamese people are also robbed, but you don't hear about them getting a free holiday in return.

Perhaps, though, the case of the metal hooks will set an example. Suing companies is a long and complicated process in Vietnam, fraught with difficulties. Because of this, even when they may have a legitimate claim, many individuals just don't bother. However, having seen how easy it was for the American tourist, other people who have been injured by the metal hooks might be inspired to make their own claims.

But it won’t be easy. Last year, a Vietnamese man fell into an open sewer and died while attempting to step onto a bus. He was found to be partially at fault for not flagging down the bus at a designated stop and for being drunk. As a result, the family only received VND120 million in compensation – not much to compensate a whole life.

The metal hooks have now been removed, but that doesn't mean the news is old and the issue is over. We should keep thinking and questioning how we have ended up in a situation where it's OK to compensate foreigners, but not local residents. Hopefully, this most recent event will be the catalyst for change.

*Joe Buckley is a Brit who goes back and forth between London and Ho Chi Minh City. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress.