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According to globals surveys, the Vietnamese people consistently rank among the most pro-American in the World (Pew Research from 2017, the latest data for Vietnam).
However, you may think the opposite was true by the conspicuous lack of Americans among the Western tourists in Tay Ho or the Old Quarter of Hanoi, most of whom are from Europe, Australia or Canada rather than the USA. Many young Americans stay away from Vietnam; their insecurities revealed by the sheepish question they often ask us: “Do they hate us in Vietnam?”
Is this insecurity justified: do Vietnamese people resent Amercians? The answer is a resounding no. With the rise of a belligerant China, and successful economic liberalizations that have brought wave upon wave of USA companies to Vietnam, the two countries are much more aligned, in both culture and foreign policy.
However, the answer still somewhat depends on geography (e.g., North vs South) and which generation of Vietnamese one considers. In this article, we discuss how Vietnamese feelings towards Americans are changing between the older and younger generations.
TL;DR: Vietnamese people really like the the USA, as well as most things from the Western world. The Government’s policy is also shifting to a more friendly foreign policy.
- Feelings of Older Vietnamese Towards Americans
- How Do Millennial Vietnamese Feel About Americans?
- Attitudes of Gen-Z’ers in Vietnam Towards the USA
- Vietnamese Foreign Policy and Relation with the USA
- The Four No’s: Vietnam’s Non-Aligned Foriegn Policy
- Why Do Vietnamese People Like America So Much?
- What Do Vietnamese People Think About China?
Feelings of Older Vietnamese Towards Americans
For those 50-60+ year-old Vietnamese who lived through the Vietnamese civil-war (known domestically as the American War) and the subsequent Communist “Subsidy Era” of outright closure to Western capitalism, there has been a gradual softening towards Americans, and Westerners more generally. Still, among this older generation, there is some residual and palpable tension between the two cultures.
This generation grew up through much tumult — they remember hiding in tiny one-persion bomb-shelters on the streets during air-raids. They lived through the subsequent hatred towards the West, where everything from West was bad by official decree: music, jeans, Western books, even dancing were banned. They remember cultural police and suspicious neighbours watching each other for any Western influence — even a 70s-looking haircut could get you in trouble with the culture police.
The South, which lost the war, was historically more open to foreigners, and today it remains slightly more cosmopolitan, both in the street-level attitudes of common people, but also in the official statistics of the number of expats living in places like Ho Chi Minh City (once Saigon); whereas the victorious Communist North has a longer history of suspicious towards Westerners.
However, attitudes are definitely changing. The surviving older generations have seen an incredible economic boom, kicked-off by the 1986 Doi Moi reforms. What followed was a great economic catch-up, as Vietnam’s GDP compounded and closed-in on its Asian neighbours , including massive injections of foreign investment, such that most international name-brand companies now have a significant part of their manufacturing plants in Vietnam (if not the majority of it). This generation has also seen an unprecedented increase in the standard of living of their children and grand-children.
In contrast to other countries, Vietnam doesn’t have the kind of open-hatred towards the West that is apparent in China, where most Westerners have felt the accusing eyes of random “Uncles” who still think it is their civic-duty to follow and interrogate foreigners, demanding to see their cameras and photographs. Such “Uncles” once existed in Vietnam in the 1980’s, but they are now gone. Rather, in some parts of Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City or urban Hanoi, the community-level integration with Western culture is apparent in the number of persons who have either lived-abroad or are married to a Westerner — it is hard to find an urban community who doesn’t have at least one or more families with close-familial connections with the West.
If you are an American touring Vietnam, you will probably not notice any animosity except for a few ambiguous looks from older Vietnamese that could be miscontrued as resentful. However, this older generation is less and less involved in public life — instead, their huge boom-time offspring, the Millennials and elder-Gen-Zers, are the face of most service-level businesses, and it is they with whom you will interact with most of the time.
How Do Millennial Vietnamese Feel About Americans?
The Vietnamese Millennials are mostly fond of Western culture, and America more specifically. As an American tourist in Vietnam, you will likely find only warm welcomes, hospitality, and an enthusiasm to try a few choppy English greetings on you (you may also be targetted for scams, but this happens to all Westerners, not just Americans).
It is hard to understate the tremendous (and positive) change that the Millennials have lived-through from their childhood to their teenage years: They are digitally native, but as children they grew-up with earthen floors, charcoal stoves, government-supplied fabric to make one’s own clothes, no commercial toys, and a ban on private enterprise. If anyone had a television, it showed only Chinese or Japanese media or domestic media.
The first big department stores, like Big C, arrived in Hanoi during the Millennials’ teenage years — they were mesmerized by the vast quantites of things to buy, and were the first generation who were allowed to accoutre themselves according to the icons they saw on TV and movies. After the lift on American media, they would become avid consumers of Youtube, Spotify, Netflix and Western-centric culture.
The Millennials’ English was learned from other Vietnamese, so their hopes of working and studying abroad were mostly dashed by this deficiency (unlike younger Gen-Z’ers ), but it would be their dream to do so.
Working for a Western Company in Vietnam
One soft-source of American-admiration is through the day-to-day dignity of work. For many Millennial Vietnamese, the chance to work for an American (or Western) organization comes with many benefits, in contrast to Korean or Japansese firms, which have a reputation for burn-out, extreme top-down hierarchy, and patriarchical attitudes.
Western firms are considerably easier, they pay better, and they often have more well-developed operations-management, such as a clear delineation of roles, operational best-practises, on-time salary disbursements, SaaS infastructure to run things smoothly, etc. These make for better working conditions, and also beef-up employees’ resumes with recognizable skills. We’ve experienced this operations knowledge-transfer first-hand, and it is a definitive-plus which benefits Vietnamese Millennial employees.
American firms are also less-likely to require their junior employees to do non-work-related things for them, like do family-errands for bosses, take care of the bosses’ kids, or attend mandatory alcohol-fueled schmoozing of clients, which are quite common in Asian business.
A nation and culture that treats its employees efficiently and apolitically can command a lot of respect — especially if, at the very least, they get their pay cheque on-time.
READ MORE about the Work Culture in Vietnam
Attitudes of Gen-Z’ers in Vietnam Towards the USA
The Gen-Z generation never experienced life without capitalism, and they are the most Westernized of all the generations in Vietnam. They like the USA inasmuch as they feel themselves to be a part of a global cosmopolitan internet-culture, which shares media, information, and social networks.
They feel like the global culture is theirs to inherit, and they can opine on American pop-culture, fashion-trend, and current affairs as easily and naturally as a Canadian.
The Gen-Z’ers are increasingly well-traveled and have lived among Europeans, Koreans, Americans, etc. Their parents have spent a lot of money hiring extra-curricular English lessons, and they were the first wave to study abroad en-masse in Europe, UK, Australia and Canada. For instance, Vietnamese are the 6th most populous group of international students in the USA for 2020/21 (IIE).
The mindset of Gen-Z is also quite different from the Millennials. Whereas the Millennials still generally abide by quasi-Confucian values, like an extreme family-centric lifestyle, a reluctance to express controversial opinions, and less individualistic identity, the Gen-Zer’s are much more open, out-spoken, and individualistic. “They are just like American children!” many older Vietnamese will complain (or humble brag), while at the same time admiring the vast opportunities available to them that were impossible for older generations.
In fact, the Gen-Z are so similar to their Western counterparts that they ape a lot of the same anti-Western talking points that Western left-wing elites love to indulge: as an American, you are much more likely to be scolded about so-called “diversity and inclusion” issues and “cultural appropriation”, than you are to get flack for the USA’s involvement in bygone wars. In other words, the Gen-Z generation has a tendency to be “Woke” much like their American colleagues.
Vietnamese Foreign Policy and Relation with the USA
Vietnam has establish good relationships with many of its historical occupiers and colonizers, including Japan, France, China, and more recently the USA. Nonetheless, many Americans are surprised to learn that Vietnam and the USA have been rapidly increasing their diplomatic ties and cooperation.
In 2010, the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was an inflection point, and has since deepened under both President Trump and Biden. Currently, the USA is building its third-largest global embassy in Hanoi.
Officially, what the USA seeks (and what China is trying to derail) is a bilaterial “comprehensive strategic relationship”: the top-tier of Vietnam’s four-level diplomatic categorization. Currently, the USA has only a level-3 “comprehensive relationship”, which is below Russia, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Germany, France, England, Australia, India, and China — the latter being Vietnam’s millennia-long oppressor and recent antagonizer (e.g. the 9-dash line, and fisherman assaults).
What does a comprehensive strategic relationship entail? Why does the USA want it? It is a top-level commitment towards cooperation in security, intelligence, economic development, but without being an outright military alliance (something Vietnam claims it will never under the “Four No’s”). Superficially, Vietnam’s stragetic relationships have meant significant technology-transfer and infrastructural-development: Russia helped develop long-term projects in nuclear energy and defense; Japan helped build the nuclear power plant No. 2 (source).
Unfortunately, behind the scenes, China is trying to derail any strategic relationship between Vietnam and America, using any and all Machiavellian techniques. As one petty example, during Vice-President Kamala Harris’s trip to Vietnam in Aug 2021, China tried to delay and disrupt the meeting by scheduling their own last-minute “emergency” meeting with Vietnam right before Harris’ meeting — for which Vietnam had to oblige, given the China-Vietnam strategic relationship.
Vietnam has to walk a fine-line between not antagonizing either country.
The Four No’s: Vietnam’s Non-Aligned Foriegn Policy
Vietnam’s foreign relations are predicated on the “Four No’s”, an official non-aligned stance which includes:
- No military alliances;
- No siding with one country against another;
- No foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory for foreign military activities; and
- No using force or threatening to use force in international relations.
The Four No’s mean that Vietnam is unlikely to ever enter into a strategic military cooperation with the USA, unlike other Asian neighbours like Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Why Do Vietnamese People Like America So Much?
Vietnam’s high perception of American (Pew Research 2017) is certainly not a result of official state media — quite the contrary.
Based on our experience with Vietnamese friends and family, the Vietnamese fondness for America can be attributed to 3 factors:
1) Vietnamese-Americans are Thriving
After North and South Vietnam’s reunification, there was a large Vietnamese refugee population that fled to America. These Vietnamese, as well as younger Vietnamese studying abroad in the USA, were and are thriving — they have above-average academic achievement and above-average salaries compared to the American median (e.g. the median Vietnamese-American income was $82,400 in 2019, compared to a median $65,712 USD for all Americans).
Having come from literally nothing, the success of Vietnamese-Americans reinforces the forgotten American Dream — that hard-work, intelligence, family-values and abstinence from criminality provide a sure-fire path for upward mobility (Ngoc, 1991). Who wouldn’t admire a country that allowed them to exercise such fruitful self-determination? The success of Vietnamese-Americans also thoroughly refutes the idea that the USA is systemically racist or suffers from so-called “white supremacy” — one of the much-abused criticisms of the USA from other wealthy nations who, ironically, have much more difficulty integrating their own immigrants.
Back in Vietnam proper, neighbours speak among neighbours and the good news is spreading — it is hard to find an urban neighbourhood that doesn’t have one or more direct connections with the USA or another Western country, such as a family member living/studying abroad, or a neighbour married to a foreigner. Among them, the news of success is relayed and admired.
2) Memories of Collectivization
The Doi Moi liberalizations were a brilliant and well-executed basket of reforms that kicked-off Vietnam’s inexorable economic boom. However, prior to 1986, there was the “subsidy era” of collectivization — no private business, no privately-own property, and centralized planning in everything including the fabric sent to one’s house to make clothes.
Today’s Millennials were young children during that low-resource time-period: it is not hard to imagine why they would come to admire the global standard-bearer for light-regulation, limited government, and radical protection of property rights. This hypothesis is supported by the cadre of Eastern-European countries who also top the list of Pews’ countries with high-favourability towards the USA, including Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania — ex-Soviet places where people also felt the sting of central-planning failure and poverty.
3) Culture of Entrepreneurship
The Vietnamese people are incredibly entrepreneurial, and know the cultural cul-de-sac of being deprived economic opportunities. As a visitor to Vietnam, you will be struck by the density of economic activity happening on the streets — it is like every public-space is under threat of being commandeered for a side-hustle.
Why are the Vietnamese so entrepreneurial? One hypothesis is that, prior to the Doi Moi reforms, people needed to have multiple-sources of income just to eke-out a basic standard of living; for example: a piano-retailer may also serve noodles at lunch; a stay-at-home mom will operate a Nuoc Mia cart while she watches the kids. We’ve witnessed a similar mentality in Cuba. But, unlike Cuba, this survival-mindset has been given the chance to operate under free-market opportunities in Vietnam.
Regardless of the origins of this trait, the fact remains that Vietnamese people have a widespread burning desire to run their own business and get wealthy — a mindset that is very clearly aligned with the prevaling ethos in the USA.
What Do Vietnamese People Think About China?
Most foreigners are surprised to learn that every-day Vietnamese have a very low opinion of China, despite certain cultural inheritances, deep economic connections, and, officially, a top-level “strategic comprehensive relationship” in foreign policy.
The truth is that China is viewed by everyday-Vietnamese as its millennial-long arch-nemesis, cultural colonizer, and frequent occupier — on the scale of centuries. “We hate them in our blood” a Vietnamese colleague remarked.
One major ongoing issue is that China considers any land or nation that it once occupied (such as Vietnam before the Ngô-dynasty uprising) as theirs, similar to the way that Russia considers the Ukraine or Georgia as part of their “orbit”, in defiance of modern international borders. A quick glance at Quora, a popular vehicle for Chinese propaganda, quickly showcases the contempt that Chinese netizens have for Vietnam, and their sense of entitlement over Vietnam as a vassal state.
The Vietnamese people are acutely aware of the contempt that China has for its Asian neighbours — there isn’t a decade that goes by where China isn’t invading or bullying a nearby Asian nation, such as Tibet, Xijiang, Taiwan, and Vietnam after reunification.
More recently, China has attempted to colonize Vietnam’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (the 9-dashed line), and is pressuring foreign entities, like Hollywood film producers and map-publicists, to recognize this boundary in global media.
There is a long list of grievances which has fuelled an anti-Sino mentality, including human trafficking and enslavement: Vietnamese girls are being illegally sold to Chinese families, ostensibly for a “better life” in wealthier China, but official surveys reveal a far more horrifying situation as slaves. Official statistics are difficult to acquire, but the phenomenon is so prevalent in some border-regions and port-towns, like Sapa or Hai Phuong, that it is very easy to meet a local family who’s daughter is being prepared for or has been already been sold to a Chinese “family”.
“Vietnamese in the U.S. Fact Sheet”. Pewsocialtrends.org. 29 April 2021.
Halloran, Florence Ngoc. Intergenerational occupational assimilation among refugees: the case of the Vietnamese-Americans. Diss. Georgia State University-College of Education, 1991.
IIE, “All Places of Origin: International Student Data from the 2020 Open Doors Report,” accessed January 11, 2021, available online.