Above the law?

Ever notice when a new group of Expats arrive in a particular country, in my case Vietnam, they tend to think they are ‘Above the law’?  Even some longtimers, those who have been here more than 4 years, have this notion they can anything they want in Vietnam.

Some examples off above the law attitudes include having your ‘Vietnamese’ girlfriend stay overnight in your home, apartment or room.  Not obeying the traffic rules on the streets.  Refusing to pay since you that you were cheated, ie not paying for the week’s worth of motorbike rental.  There are many, many examples.

Yesterday my students were presenting about motorbike safety.  They kept mentioning about the consiousness of the Vietnamese people need to change in efforts to decrease motorbike and car accidents.  I found this amusing since if you check around Saigon, the person most likely NOT to wear a helmet is, yes you guessed it, a Western Expat.  Just drive past the Pham Ngu Lao Backpacker area.  If you ask them why they are not wearing a helmet, the response normally wil’ be, “The Vietnamese Police can’t speak English so they will not stop us.”  Hence, he is saying he is above the law.

Many Expat guys want their Vietnamese girlfriends to stay overnight in their homes, apartments or room even though legally this cannot be done in Vietnam.  Some Expats accept this.  Others do not but they feel the police will not do anything since they are a foreigner.  So wrong, the police will just contact your landlord.  When my landlord talked to me to complain about my roommate and his girlfriend, it was after his visit to the Ward police.  You can guess what happened but in the end, the above the law attitude prevailed.

Refusing to pay the Vietnamese is more of a problem with Backpackers and English teachers.  One complaint you hear from Vietnamese is that they get to know, lets say, an English teacher.  He/she has no money one day so the restaurant, hotel, etc., gives them a tab.  The teachers pays it off in the beginning but starts to pay later and later.  Eventually the English teacher bails believing, many times, that they do not need to pay their ‘bills’ since the Vietnamese are most likely cheating them.  They also get away with it.  What can the Vietnamese do to someone who feels they are above the law?

It goes on and on but are Expats really above the law?  Makes you ponder.  Comments are definitely welcome here.

21 comments on “Above the law?”

  1. malique

    i believe in this personal mantra,

    “when in someone else’s country, dont be rude!”

    and i gotta say pham ngu lao is infested with backpackers!
    been reading your blog for a month now, to prepare myself for saigon. And here i am!

  2. Chris

    I’ve been to Viet Nam twice now. Both times, I’ve stayed with my wife’s family. There are rules for this, too, and I could, I suppose, simply ignore them. But I’m a stranger in a strange land, and, to me, the risks are too high. I can’t understand the attitudes of those who believe they are ‘above the law’. I also can’t understand the whole ‘not paying’ thing. It’s not like it’s a lot of money…

    Were I to see this kind of thing going on, I’d step in. I understand that Viet Nam is working hard to improve its tourism image, but letting this kind of stuff slide will, in the end, only attract the wrong kind of tourist. The government really should step in and take action.

  3. SaigonNezumi (Kevin)

    @malique: Welcome to Vietnam. Are you staying in the backpacker area? I was rude in the beginning but have since changed since Vietnam is my home now.

    @Chris: Expats cheating Vietnamese is something you will never see firsthand, I hope. I have seen it on many occasions, the Vietnamese just ignore it. One time a guy wrecked a rented motorbike and never paid for the damages. He went to Cambodia the next weekend. I couple rented a motorbike, returned it after three weeks and never paid. I was there so I saw it but most times you will only hear Vietnamese owners complaining.

    Even when they have the Expat’s passport, in the end, as with the guy above, they gave him back the passport and fixed the damaged motorbike themselves.

    Remember, it is not just tourists but English teachers as well. Still you do see many Expats here that probably should have stayed HOME.

  4. Timen

    I know what you mean, Kevin, but still in general have to disagree.

    Let me give you a prime example of what you mean: I was in Pacharan two months ago and these western backpackers were incredibly drunk and were spilling rice on the floor (on purpose) and breaking glasses and making other customers feel uncomfortable. That’s wrong, and that’s what I can relate to in your post.

    That said, in general, I don’t see many westerners feel they are above the law per se. Vietnam is not Europe or America. People need to adapt here and take advantage of what they are given. Vietnamese people do it as well. I.e. a Vietnamese I know who looks Japanese often blabbers in non-Vietnamese if he is stopped by Police and he gets off the hook. It’s just the way of life. Vietnamese will take advantage of lax laws as well.

  5. Dromedarius

    I remember when I lived in Indonesia pretty much the same thing happened there amongst the expats. There was this feeling that because you existed in a more privileged strata of society that meant you weren’t constrained by the same rules as others.

    The problem twofold. The first is people just believing that they’re somehow special and thus entitled to do what they want. The second is that the corruption that occurs amongst officialdom can make one feel a little invulnerable. Knowing that a small payment makes most problems go away is a powerful feeling that most don’t get to feel at home.

    What really gets me annoyed is when expats/backpackers use the fact that they’ve been taken advantage of by one individual to then themselves take it out on another – that sort of hypocrisy is unforgiveable.

  6. D

    I dunno dude – I’m all about the money, so the foreigners stiffing locals on the bill would be the only thing that is a cause for concern.

    As far as traffic rules, as long as they don’t run me down on the sidewalk, or spirit the wrong way down a street, I’m cool. Tool around helmet-less and die, I don’t care.

    And the sleepover thing – again, as between adults I don’t care. Laws like these are ridiculous and broken indiscriminately by locals and foreigners alike. Look at the States – about half the states have adultery laws on their books, but that is violated all the time. Sure, normally things like that aren’t prosecuted, but within the past 3 years someone got criminally charged for adultery in Virginia. Or look at the UMCJ. In this arena, it is not about being above the law, it is about the overreach of said laws.

  7. KCA


    Let’ s not make some generalities. Expat are expat, tourist are not expats.

    This is you personal point of view, mine is that most of the expats obey the law put the money on the table even they clearly know they are been cheated. And matter of facts (we need a study for that) most expats stop at the traffic jams, pay theirs bills, don’ t cheat the taxes… Just read the news paper: the people who fraud the taxes are not foreigners matter of fact.

    Girl stay over night? On the paper it is not mention about Vietnamese or locals, this is the same decrees for all. Vietnamese or foreigners you are allowed after midnight.
    It is not question of above or not the law, But minds are open and realize that couple not means marriage (concubine).

    The attitude that you are talking about, is just an… attitude. Some folks got it, for sure. But let s be realistic: 99% of the expats know that their visa can be not renewing for anything and by anybody. And really don’ t feel “secure”. But this is a choice of life.

    And let me remind you the decrees promulgated last year about the deportation of foreigners convicted of Administrative Violations
    Within 7 days of the conclusions on administrative violations . People affected by this sanction will be informed of their violations, will receive the expulsion order 24 hours before his execution
    Let’ s be clear, it is not “criminals” but “administrative violation”. And within this 7 days you can make appeal … hrrr 7 days let’ s the weekend, so 5 days.

  8. Trinity

    You are more and more crazy Kevin, 🙂 I think you just put yourself as a Vietnamese in this situation. I have not known or heard any foreigner like this before. These things you mentioned were done by most of Vietnamese instead.

  9. Clifton Buck-Kauffman

    I haven’t seen, or even heard/read before about, foreigners, other than some indigent Africans(unfortunately), who are living here in Vietnam and being thieves or being so ridiculous about their financial responsibilities. I am sorry to hear about those visitors, who should know better, that treat our Vietnamese hosts so shabbily. English teachers? Say it isn’t so!
    Our culture/society, where we Americans come from, creates a panoply of outlaws, from indigent, petty scofflaws, drunks and other pests to irrational, irksome sociopaths and crazed, dangerous psychopaths.
    Until acquiring a passport, and being granted visas, require strict adherence to much more rigorous criteria, the same bozos, and worse, seen back home will be plaguing folks worldwide.
    There is the factor in the equation related to how crucial tourism is to the future of Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities are not interested in doing anything that would cause bad publicity or any tourism diminution. Tourists/foreigners are therefore given a lot of “slack” by police/authorities. I find this attitude to be one of the multitude of “charms” making Vietnam a relaxing, fun place to visit, or live.
    Americans used to the “rule of law” are nonplussed when exposed to the more realistic European & Asian models that also have lots of laws but understand that they are just guides and that, truly, everyone dances on both sides. The petty “victimless” type of transgression is not a focus for the police or judiciary except when the “perp(s)” get too famous or too greedy. This is particularly true for foreigners here.
    Vietnam, as is true in most of the world, doesn’t have the resources to incarcerate or have on parole or probation, 1% or 2% of the population like in the USA. Not that we can afford that either but our culture is so twisted that few politicians would dare challenge or change this sick, alienating, unsustainable paradigm.

  10. malique

    Yeah ‘unfortunately’ I’m in pham ngu lao. Some locals told me that pnl has bad vibe. Your opinion? I think its ok, the area just never sleep!

    as to being rude, I believe in karma..so, yeah.

    I take everything with 2 pinches of salt. Heh.

  11. Tracy Reed

    I have spent a total of nearly a year of time actually in VN now and I have never really noticed any of this sort of behavior. Perhaps you should find a better class of ex-pat friends to hang out with? Like Trinity said, I think as a percentage there is probably a higher incidence of Vietnamese cheating each other than foreigners cheating the locals. Same goes for theft, accidents, crazy driving, etc. As you know, whenever Trinity and I go shopping together it is always better if she goes by herself because if they see me we will be cheated.

  12. Ken

    I believe that it’s just a mindset. A person who breaks a law abroad will most likely do the smae in their native country. I really don’t believe that anyone (in this context the expats/tourists in Vietnam) thinks that they are “above the law.”

    Vietnam laws are actually not quite lax, it’s more that it’s not strictly enforced or only so when the crime is sever. As you can see from the traffic in HCMC, riders hardly ever obey traffic law, expats and locals alike. There are also laws against corruption, but it’s no secret to us that corruption is in every tier of government in Vietnam. As for the sleeping over law, the expat/tourist his Vietnamese girlfriend are both adults and it takes 2 to tango. How could the expat solely be blamed for a crime that involved a local accomplice? So, who’s advocating who? Things like this happens everywhere, whether it’s in the United States or in Vietnam. It all comes down to a person’s moral value.

    As far as, expats cheating locals. Can you say “delinquent account?” I mean, people like this are people who would default on their credit card accounts or have their car repo’ back at home.

    So my point is, expats comes from all walks of life, some are just plainly scumbags of society. They are scumbags whether they are at home ore they are in Vietnam or anohter country. The fact that they are in Vietnam doesn’t change anything, it’s just business as usual for them. To say that they think they are “above the law,” is most likely a false assumption. They know that if they get caught, they’ll buy their way out of it just like a local person would. It’s not an expat’s way lof life, it’s just a way of life in Vietnam. Locals do the same thing to each other all the time in Vietnam, just because one is a foreigner, it doesn’t make it different. People are just people, there’ll be “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

  13. Alex

    Above the law?

    Keving, did you get a licence to ride your motorcycle before you bought/rented your bike? Or after?

    Did you get permission to reproduce a Garfield comic?

    Are you above the law?

  14. Rusty Rail

    Not respecting a visiting countries laws,then to fraudulently flualt the laws is a crime worthy of rejection and deportation.This is little like arranging the furniture of your host because the ignorant visitor doesn’t like were the sofa is sitting.
    Those that have this belief need a attitude adjustment to a cold dark and dank cell to find them selves.

  15. Ibis

    I agree with Rusty Nail. Just because the locals are doing it does that mean you should disrespect the law as well? Or that their laws are pattered a certain way you think is ridiculous, does that mean you are right?? Remember, even though you live in Vietnam, IT IS STILL NOT YOUR COUNTRY! And the local people don’t have to accept you as their own. To hell with this “I’m a Global Citizen” B.S. Shut your mouths, obey the law, pay your fines, taxes, whatever and nothing will come to you. Otherwise don’t even set foot in Vietnam or get the hell out and go back to your own country. To those that keep that “I’m from the USA or the Western World, I was raised more liberal and I demand freedom where ever I may be,” just wait and see when the locals get pissed off and start chopping you with machetes on their motorbikes.

  16. Ken

    @Ibis: Well, I kinda disagree with you on “IT IS STILL NOT YOUR COUNTRY,” it would be if you become a naturalize citizen. I’m of Vietnamese decent but I’m an American Citizen, and the U.S. is definitely My country, to say otherwise is to be ignorant about what the U.S. is all about. I do not hold a dual citizenship between Vietnam and the U.S.

    However, I do agree with you on your statement “I’m from the USA or the Western World, I was raised more liberal and I demand freedom where ever I may be.” Like I’ve mention in another entry, your “God given rights,” isn’t so God given afterall. You do have the rights to demand freedom, but it is the country that guarantee you that rights, not God. So, depending on what country you’re from the protection of certain rights are not guaranteed. This is something that a lot of liberals do not or refuse to understand. So, if you live in a country like Vietnam you should inquire or learn what you can and can’t do, rather than assumming that your rights are protected regardless of where you are, because it’s “God given,” even after you’ve left your country’s boundaries. Your country has no authority in Vietnam, regardless of what country you are from. So like you have said Ibis : Obey the law, pay your fines, pay your taxes, know that do’s and don’t and take accountability for your own action.

  17. ibis

    Ken. I respectfully disagree as well. I myself am also a citizen of the USA. Yet, Vietnam is NOT THE USA. Even if a foreigner becomes a citizen in our country Vietnam, that doesn’t mean we should accept him/her as our own when we can’t even get along with our own people and even bestow national beneficence to our national minorities. Heck, theres even a new law allowing foreigners to own apartments, when so many millions of our own people can’t even get decent housing or own their own lot. I believe in Vietnam for the Vietnamese(i.e. Vietnamese, Cham, Khmer, Montagnard, etc.) only. Yes, the USA is our country too, yet comparing Vietnam to the USA is like comparing apples to oranges. Two totally different countries with two totally different circumstances.

  18. Ken

    @ibis: Like I said, to think otherwise about my statement that “the U.S. is definitely MY country” is ignorant. When you hold a U.S. passport and is living in VN and then travel to, let say China, who’s going to protect your interest in case of evacuation, wrongful arrest, or loss of documentation? Although you live in VN, they have no obligation to help you, even if you are Vietnamese (with only a foreign citizen). On the other hand, the country that you are a citizen IS YOUR COUNTRY and has an obligation to help and protect you in those situations. If Kevin abandon his U.S. citizenship and get a Vietnamese citizenship, he’s legally a Vietnam national, but he’s stil American-Vietnamese. He has every right to call Vietnam his country. Of course, there’ll be groups that will alienate and discriminate against him because they think he looks different, but that happens here in the U.S. too. When I’m asked what I am, I reply that I’m Vietnamese, when I’m asked where I am from I’m from Vietnam. However, when I am asked where is home, the reply would defintely be Los Angeles California. To blame foreigners for VN’s troubles is a little out there for me, I even think that it’s a little discrimative. Vietnam isn’t giving the foreigners those apartments, they have to buy it, so how is that effecting the Vietnamese national from obtaining a better home? Pumping money into VN’s economy is actually beneficial to VN itself. I don’t see how comparing the U.S. and VN is like apple and oranges from a citizenship standpoint. I Think we have taken this a little out of context here. The issue discussed was about obeying or the lack of obidence towards Vietnamese laws from Expats/Tourists.

  19. never in a million years

    well Kevin, i’ve not heard of such a group of expats that play unfairly like you have so accurately reported and i’ve been here just as long as you have. To generalize expats and tar them with the same brush as badly behaving tourists is wrong! PNL has become and will always be a circus to all the tourists wanting to let go of themselves and think they are above the law as you have portrayed, BUT expats are mainly here for the experience of learning, contributing, and fulfilling a personal goal. Of course that’s not to say or discredit any information you’ve heard, but a tourist cum teacher who has just landed here thinking of making a few bucks to supplement his/her travel would more likely act like you have mentioned. So if a VN local said that a teacher did this or that, then can they be sure that they are a true expat or simply a backpacker doing a few easy classes to pass the time away whilst waiting for his visa to go to Cambodia or wherever?

  20. anthony

    I agree with never in a million, well put.
    Kev, your observations seem honest enough but seem to have a district one / backpacker area bias.
    Let’s be honest- Pham Ngu Lao is the epicenter of douchbag foreigners, scooting shirtless on their Yamaha with the newly acquired Vietnamese girlfriend perched on the back like a trophy (except they probably didn’t earn it). You know, the ones who only yell louder in English when their not understood. I’m not saying everyone here is like this over in PNL, but you’re clearly more likely to find an ignorant expat there than, say Tan Binh or Cholon. The reason is that people venturing outside of the western-friendly bubble of D1 are more likely to show an honest interest in learning about the country they’re in- beyond seeing how many girlfriends they can ‘gain cultural experience from’. My two cents.

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