In Hanoi, I am a visible minority. Walking around the city I get stared at intensely, I am pointed at, and I am the recipient of numerous comments or the topic of many street side discussions.
It’s hard to remain unnoticed here, especially as a foreign woman. I’ve watched foreign men walking maybe 10 feet in front of me be largely ignored by locals. As soon as I pass by though I get hounded by xe om drivers, or anyone with a motorbike really, asking me if I want a ride. Most days I don’t mind saying a simple no thank you to xe om drivers and I can mostly ignore the curious stares of street vendors and shop owners. I know that I’ve probably unintentionally stared at people here that interest me. But some days it just gets to me. Sometimes I honestly dread walking to wherever it is I need to go because I don’t want to deal with the unwanted attention.
Unlike minority groups in Canada or the United States though, my minority status in Vietnam does not significantly disadvantage me, in fact, in many ways it probably grants me privileges. Realizing this makes me feel awful for complaining about stares and comments, but even still it can’t erase my feelings of being out of place.
Sometimes sticking out does have its advantages. It can be a great conversation starter. I have had taxi drivers and security guards make small talk with me in a mix of Vietnamese and English. Children have passed by me excited to say hello, and share whatever other English words they know. Restaurant staff will take extra time to help me with my pronunciation so I can order more clearly the next time. Interactions like these make everything else seem insignificant.
Sometimes though, I still really wish I could blend in.