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Fifty Shades of Expat: The Suit

Who is the Suit? The Suit has been in Vietnam since you were in nappies, and he knows virtually everything there is to know about the country (except the language). He remembers when District 7 was all farmland, and when Noi Bai airport was slightly less awful. He can quote you the price of a bowl of pho in 2004, and provide a lengthy explanation of why it has skyrocketed since then.

 

The Suit didn’t plan to stay for so long, but life has a funny way of getting people pregnant and awarding lucrative business contracts. And so the Suit has found himself a virtual ‘lifer’ in Vietnam, despite occasional longings for the cricket pitches / baseball diamonds / gladiatorial coliseums of his home.

 

Having seen so many people come and go throughout the years, the Suit is wary of newcomers. He keeps his distance, preferring to confide only in those with similar long-term commitments in Vietnam. Until his third or fourth whisky, that is — after which anyone in earshot is fair game for an exhaustive oral history of his Asian experiences.

 


 

My wife got angry that I let our daughter get a tan. Tanning is a big no-no in Vietnam. Not necessarily because of the harmful impact on one’s health, but because of the implications of dark skin.

 

When I visit a supermarket, I struggle to find a lotion or body wash or even a roll-on deodorant that won’t accidentally bleach my otherwise coco-coloured armpits. There are even entire shopping aisles dedicated to products that give one’s skin a healthy radioactive translucence.

 

That’s why, when I let my mixed-race daughter stay out in the sun too long, I was in the doghouse. “Why does it matter?” I pleaded with my hysterical wife. “She looks beautiful with dark skin,” I added, grasping for the moral high ground.

 

I've heard my fair share of expat rumours in my time. But this one has to be the best.

 

It starts with a fridge and a guy — let’s call him Peter — who comes from somewhere in Europe.

 

Peter moved to Hanoi sometime in the autumn and very quickly got a reputation. It had two sides. One was as a fun-loving drinking buddy, a riot, someone who would go on hysterical (but wildly expensive) drinking binges. Then came the stories floating up from Saigon. Peter had ‘borrowed’ the tips of a bar he worked in and never given them back. Or he had rented a motorbike and sold it to another expat. Or he had hired people and never paid them.
Quickly the whispers went around town — Hanoi’s still a village, you know. But the fridge story was the best.

 

He was working in a restaurant, which will remain nameless, and sold a drinks fridge from the restaurant to another restaurant for a pretty large sum. A week later, the restaurant owner turned up, asking for his fridge back. Not wanting to cause trouble, the people who’d bought the fridge returned it. They then went in search of Peter.

 

By chance they found him. And oh, did he get a beating.

 

 

The last I heard, Peter had left the country. People like him get quickly found out in Vietnam. He’s not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last.

 

I like to think I'm a pretty tolerant guy. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people not queuing. It must be the English in me.

 

If someone jumps the queue, I used to be the first person to say something. But one time I went just a little too far. I was at the Danang airport, next in line for check-in. As I was about to approach the counter, some local guy waltzed up in front of me and handed his papers to the check-in clerk.

 

I must have been having a bad day, I don’t know. But what I did next was inexcusable. I grabbed the man by his collar — he was a head shorter than me — and lifted him up. I then walked him, his whole body in the air, to the back of the ten-person-long queue.

 

I immediately felt sorry for the guy. Everyone watched the episode in astonishment — the guy must have felt so ashamed. So I told myself that if this ever happened again, I would never lose my cool.

 

It’s happened a few times since then, but now I don’t get angry, I just smile and explain my point. It works every time.

 

I used to hate Facebook. Everyone seemed to be on it and by proxy, I found myself also getting an account. But it felt like an invasion of my privacy. It also seemed a waste of time, the kind of stuff people posted on there.

 

That all changed with #Pantsgate.

 

At the time when Pantsgate took over Hanoi, the Hanoi Massive Facebook Group only had about 2,000 members, not including me.

 

I was sat in the office — it was a particularly boring day — when one of my colleagues burst out in laughter. “What’s up?” I asked. She ushered me over to her computer and showed me.

 

Someone had put a post on Hanoi Massive with a photo of a pair of knickers that read something like this: Hey xxxxxxxx, here’s the underwear you left at my house when you were f***ing my boyfriend. Happy engagement!

 

By this time the post already had 50 comments. So, I asked to join the group and was accepted immediately.

 

The comments started off quite nicely, with people taking the piss. People wrote song lyrics, someone created a t-shirt. But then the tone changed — the guy who was accused of the infidelity started getting nasty. The death threats came. Then it got amusing. Then it became nasty again. I think after about 400 comments the moderator took the post down.

 

Everyone loves a good scandal, and this was a classic. For me, though, it changed my attitude to Facebook. Ever since then I’ve kept my eye on stuff — sometimes the things people write can be hilarious.

 

The trust issue in Vietnam has always irritated me. I’ve been here a long time and have found that once you’ve got a mutual understanding, no matter how small, the people you can trust the most are Vietnamese.

 

I saw this firsthand after I opened my second bar. There was a ‘knife’ incident. A drunk customer had got angry with one of our barmaids. He grabbed her by the hair from the other side of the bar and tried to head-butt her. Avoiding the head-butt, she grabbed the guy’s beer bottle and smashed it on his face. He refused to let go of her hair and, screaming, she took a second swipe and slashed his cheek.

 

The fight was quickly broken up, but not for the customer. The next day he went round town telling everyone that our bar manager had slashed him with a fruit knife. And the worst thing? All the foreigners out there believed him.

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