Getting Slut-Shamed in Vietnam

Getting Slut-Shamed in Vietnam

We were at the end of our dubious four-and-a-half month voluntourist teaching placements in Northern Vietnam. We had by now overcome the shock of the noise, the rotten smells, the lawless throngs of scooters and bicycles, the power lines tangled like balls of wool on their poles. We crossed the churning roads fearlessly. We knew the names of the bartenders around town, and it was in Vietnamese that we toasted the locals at our favourite bia hoi, holding dripping glasses of 20-cent beer. We took pride in knowing how much we should pay for a xe om into the tourist district, and in being able to advise travellers merely passing through on where they could keep drinking after lock-out. We were getting comfortable, and worse, cocky.

It was on one of many drunken Saturday nights that we were abruptly reminded that we were, in fact, not local at all. Our teaching placements now finished, we had moved out of our provided accommodation in Cau Giay and were staying in a cheap hotel in Hoan Kiem, the tourist hive of Hanoi. Before we headed out to bloat ourselves on Tiger beers, we asked the owner how late we could potentially stay out – it had happened before that we had returned home to find the roller door down over the glass, and ourselves locked out in the steaming streets. Any time was fine, he assured us.

Later that evening, sitting in a bar we frequented, Doody, one of our group, rushed up to us with phone in hand – “We need to go back to the hotel. It’s Georgie… I can’t really hear her. She’s crying. She said the manager spat on her.”

Georgie was known for her drunken run-ins – her sudden zeal for confronting anyone she perceived to be extorting her, from scooter drivers to banana sellers, had earned her drunk alter-ego the nickname “Medusa”. Mistake number one: we had allowed her to return to the hotel alone to grab some more cash.

Doody, Katie and I entered the hotel to find a very messy scene, and noted with alarm that the hotel manager had padlocked the chain behind us. Georgie was incredibly drunk, and the manager also reeked of rice wine. In returning to the hotel, Georgie had awoken him (and what appeared to be all the male members of his entire extended family) from their intoxicated slumber on mattresses spread across the floor. He was furious.

“You DRUNK! Woman! Woman drunk!” he was spitting, pointing at Georgie while she cowered and bawled. He removed the rubber sandals from his feet and threw them at her. The extended family followed suit. The three of us stood watching, mouths open, while 10 pairs of rubber sandals bounced off Georgie. Mistake number two: we hadn’t brought any males with us into a situation that we rightly suspected would be confrontational.

“We’re sorry. It’s okay, it’s okay, we’ll leave. We’re sorry,” Doody said to the manager.
“Yes! Leave! Drunk!”

We grabbed Georgie and hurried upstairs to our room. We frantically gathered our belongings and stuffed them in our packs with shaking hands, not wanting to leave things behind but also wanting to be out of the room before he followed us up there. Georgie was so hysterical that we had to pack her bag for her. We raced back down the stairs, sweating with the weight of our packs. The door was still chained, and we knew our passports were at the front desk with our enraged host. (It is common practice to hand your passport over when checking in for accommodation in Vietnam, and we hadn’t hesitated to give ours up when we had arrived earlier that day). We were his hostages.

We approached his desk and shoved money at him, apologising and asking for our passports; we could see them in his hands. Realising his power and our desperation, he made us line-up and endure a sermon on the deplorable morals and behaviour of Western women.

“She drunk, you drunk! I’m sleep! Woman no drunk!”
“But you said we could come back at any time…”
“YOU DRUNK. Girls not drunk in Vietnam. Not Vietnam. Disgusting, disgusting… Vietnam…” The rant continued on in this fashion, a mix of Vietnamese and English. We stood silent and still, occasionally shh-ing or sticking out an arm to hold Georgie back from retaliation. I no longer felt boozy, but starkly sober. The door chained behind us, our passports dancing in his gesticulating hands under a shower of spit, we could see no way out of our predicament.

“English sluts! You say!”
“What?”
“You English sluts! You say!”

We realised what he wanted – an admission of wrongdoing, not just for our behaviour that night, but for our existence and our culture and our gender, the presence of which offended him in his hotel. One-by-one, down the line.

“I am an English slut.”
“I am an English slut.”
“I am an English slut.”
“I am an English slut.”

This wasn’t quite true, but it didn’t seem the appropriate time to point out that I was actually Australian. We could only hope that our forced confessions were enough. If this didn’t satisfy him, it was sickening to imagine what it might take.

Suddenly, through the padlocked glass doors behind us, the manager saw something that made his face contort with displeasure. Our friend Will was standing on the other side of the glass, accompanied by two Sudanese men he had befriended earlier in the night. He was holding a broom procured from who-knows-where. Realising that we had been gone a suspiciously long time, Will had made his way to the hotel from the bar. His sermon interrupted, the manager was thrown off-kilter. Less sure of his power now, he was seized by a maniacal resurgence of disgust.

“Ah, you friend?! Your friend?! Hahaha. They so dirty. Their skin. So Dirty.” He slapped at his arms and continued to mutter racist and sexist comments, but his actions betrayed his defeat. He moved towards the door and unchained it, and like mice we scurried by him into the street, not meeting his eyes.

As vile as the hotel manager was, we refrained from self-righteousness each time we recounted the story of our narrow escape. Before we went to Vietnam, we had been warned of the dangers. We knew better than to get stupidly drunk and high, and put ourselves in positions that we shouldn’t be in. Over the course of several months, it led to us being robbed and groped, losing bank cards, losing cameras, arguing with taxi drivers, vomiting on ourselves and passing out in the toilets of numerous bars. The incident with the hotel manager was simply the culmination of ongoing irresponsible attitudes and bad choices. It is a fine line we walk in unfamiliar places – on one side remaining sensitive to cultural relativism, on the other holding fast to our belief in our border-transcending human rights. In the interest of self-preservation, it is perhaps best to err on the side of cultural sensitivity rather than the side of the entitled tourist with invincibility complex.

In an ideal world, the severity with which people are penalised for their drunken mistakes would not be intensified by the fact of their gender. But this is not the case everywhere in the world, including in Vietnam’s conservative northern capital, and we knew this. We knew this, yet we thought we were immune. Just as we were foolish to think we were quasi-locals who knew how to live within a country and culture so dissimilar from our own, we were foolish to think we could strut around protected by the colour of our skin and our Western passports.

Cover by Jon Siegel

Facebook Comments