Jamie Gillen at the end of the Engaging with Vietnam conference at University of Hawai’i in Manoa. Next to him is Hoang Minh Vu, doctoral student in history at Cornell. ~ pc Liam Kelley

Because of the presidential campaign season, I suspect that the summer and fall of 2016 must have sucked out a lot of energy and attention from academics in the U.S.  I know it did mine.  Between early June and late November, my reading habit shifted to a lot of online stuff about ongoing politics, including populism, and I didn’t read as much scholarship as before.

Among the stuff I did read, however, were a trio of very different yet quite interesting works by researchers in Vietnam Studies.  All three books appear deceptively thin on the outside – the book under discussion is merely 128 pages – but the print is small and they are actually not that short.  Two of the three are historical studies, both on subjects that I had known precious little:  Micheline Lessard’s study of human trafficking during the colonial era, and Michele Thompson’s book on traditional medicine and smallpox.  Distinct in subject matter and argument, both books are probably read by specialists only.  But they serve as bricks for the wall of historical synthesis about the early modern and modern eras of Vietnam.  Christopher Goscha’s new history of modern Vietnam came out too late to reference these works. But given the relationship to colonial history, I can easily see that a future edition will include findings from them.

Also geared to an academic audience only is the study from the social sciences by Jamie Gillen entitled Entrepreneurialism and Tourism in Contemporary Vietnam (Lexington Books, 2016). The author teaches in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS).  An American by birth, he was educated entirely in the U.S. and, after a visiting gig at Auburn University, headed to NUS where he has been ever since.  (His responses below follow British spelling because Singapore employs that system.)  By a coincidence, I ordered the book through Interlibrary Loan a week before attending the eighth edition of the Engaging With Vietnam conference, where I met Jamie for the first time.  We chatted a little about the book at the conference and, two months later, followed up with the interview below over email.


Tuan Hoang: As reflected by the references and citations in the book, Vietnamese tourism has been an important topic in academic research. What is your sense of the overall attraction to the subject among scholars in Vietnam Studies?

Jamie Gillen:  Great question. I think that the work accomplished already about tourism in Vietnam is really wonderful but I wish there were more of it. We are a small group of people who look at either the production side of the coin (as I do) or at tourists visiting Vietnam from the West. I would like to conduct more research on Vietnamese tourists myself as I think Vietnam Studies would benefit a great deal from research on the topic.

In other words, we know very little about Vietnamese tourism, as you put it, which I take to mean Vietnamese touring their country or heading overseas. As an aspect of contemporary society I think it retains great scholarly interest but not too many people have written about it yet!  Anthropology has come closest, with a focus on mobility and urbanisation and the rise of the middle-class, but tourism has been neglected in most English language studies.

But I think the arena will grow in the next decade or so because there seems to be an overall interest in how Vietnamese people understand the world to be “travelable” in interesting and unique ways.

Why did you yourself decide to conduct your research on it? Put it another way, what might have been “missing” or understudied in scholarship thus far, that led you to conduct research for this book?

I conducted this research as a PhD student over 10 years ago and I had no idea what I was doing.  Vietnam was an interesting country to me but I felt like I was a tourist more than a researcher. I sympathised more with the wide-eyed group tourists visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels than I did any social scientist. So I felt comfortable exploring the tourism industry because I felt like it was the only one who would “have” me!

I also enjoy tackling topics that are more deep and rich than they seem, and tourism fits that bill for me. What may on the surface be relaxing and fun is in fact a very multifaceted and challenging concept to understand. Since Vietnam often fits a similar bill for Americans like me, I felt comfortable marrying Vietnam to tourism.  And as mentioned earlier, I think there is scattered interest but not much of a body of work on all of this yet, with the possible exception of Vietnam war tourism, which is written about a lot about.

You argue for a “cultural-economic entrepreneurial” approach to studying tourism in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Chapter 2 of the book explains this approach at length. For the sake of brevity, how would you characterize this approach in 2-3 paragraphs?  What constitutes the “cultural” in this case, and why is it important? 

Far too many studies of Vietnam focus solely on its economic conditions. This is the case whether one is a historian, an anthropologist, a political scientist, or an economist.

When I spend time in Vietnam, I see all sorts of people making decisions involving their money that have very little to do with the “economy”. For example, some people overspend on their motorbikes to the detriment of their daily lives, others claim to hết tiền [having no money left] when confronted with questions about their frugality, while others continue to keep money under their beds or held in highly unpredictable markets due to religious or family values. In sum, Vietnamese people behave just like anyone else in the world: their economic conditions are shaped by a variety of cultural inputs that are not often considered in research on the Vietnamese economy.

For me the “cultural” are everyday habits and practices that cannot be reduced to or kept conceptually separate from the “economic”. In my book I don’t necessarily add the “cultural” to the Vietnamese economy as much as I say the Vietnamese “cultural-economy” is a much better way to understand Vietnamese society than the Vietnamese economy. For me, culture is not a monolithic thing but a dynamic dimension of Vietnamese society that deserves as much treatment on its own and in conjunction with the economy as does anything called the “economy”. My research is an attempt to use a cultural-economic framework to better depict every day life in Vietnam and to demonstrate that relationships are transactional in much more than monetary terms, even among competitors in a given industry (in my case, tourism).

Chapter 2 names seven “registers” or impulses about the entanglements between the cultural and the economic. They are:

  • Passion of the people involved
  • Moral values that identify business practices with ethical expectations
  • Economic knowledge
  • Trust, specifically between Vietnamese entrepreneurs and foreign investors
  • The role of evolution in the cultural-economy
  • Organization of power in the control of mechanisms of the economy
  • Standardization of different economies into an emblematic reading of the economy throughout the world.

For each of these registers, can you say something about its relevance to the tourism industry in HCMC: say, an illustration or an explanation?

Sure, and I’ll speak only from the perspective of the production side of the tourism industry and share some stories from some of my respondents (both Vietnamese and foreign) in HCMC.

Speaking to the passion of the people, I think tourism is a particularly interesting industry for expressing passion. People who offer tours of Vietnam are basically performing Vietnam and so they had better feel passionately about the country and its people. In a cooking class for tourists I participated in, one of the Vietnamese guides got in to a big fight with one of the Vietnamese chefs over the kinds of ingredients necessary for a “Hoi An” style spring roll (I’m not sure it was ever resolved!)  Passion isn’t always “happy” and positive and the guttural sense of ownership among tourism’s practitioners strikes me as an example of passion in the tourism industry.

Moral values and ethical expectations. This is a strange one because producing tourism in Vietnam often defaults to respecting ethical and moral norms from the perspective of Western tourists. Among Western tourists (and particularly Americans) tipping isn’t just a nice thing to do but is a moral obligation no matter the quality of the experience or good consumed. This practice has largely been absorbed by the HCMC tourism industry and now to not tip is to be considered rude, naive, and “cheap”. A server at a pho restaurant would not expect a tip but a tour guide will often confront anyone who doesn’t tip them appropriately. Morality comes in many forms but I find that the practice of tipping—something Vietnamese do haphazardly and skeptically in industries other than tourism—is treated with such reverence and expectation in tourism.

Economic knowledge. Being “street smart” in the tourism industry is important to one’s success. Keeping two ledgers, something I mention in the book, is one way that tour company owners satisfy the government’s gazing eye and make sure their own finances are in order. What these people understand is that one ledger is not “right” while one is “wrong” but that they serve different purposes. This is an example of cutlural-economically informed economic knowledge, if that makes sense.

Ah yes the trust issue between Vietnamese entrepreneurs and foreign investors. Unfortunately for many Vietnamese entrepreneurs all they need is hard currency from foreign investors for trust to be earned. But trust outside of any financial transaction is, as we know, earned through patience, respect, and honesty. So these two kinds of trust—the trust earned through a financial investment and the trust earned through a relationship—are quite different and clash in odd and interesting ways.

I’ve found that the most successful Vietnamese entrepreneurs need both kinds of trust—trust from investors that they are trustworthy stewards of investment and trust from investors that they are “good” and trustworthy people.  Many foreign investors are wary of Vietnamese entrepreneurs because they feel that the financial sense of trust is earned too easily while the relational sense of trust is elusive. Meanwhile many Vietnamese entrepreneurs feel that foreign investors are too tight with their money and far too risk-averse for their own good.

I won’t go in to specifics, and these are certainly generalisations of the dynamic world of trust that exists in Vietnam, but it is worth mentioning at least two senses of “trust” that pivot around a Vietnamese entrepreneur-foreign investor relationship.

The evolution of the cultural economy is crucial to any understanding of the contemporary cultural economy. I love reading historical texts that talk about the various kinds of markets—formal, black, grey—at play in historical Saigon because they don’t seem to have changed much today! Perhaps so in terms of what gets emphasised in studies in English, but Saigon is a dynamic city that feeds all kinds of illegal and quasi-legal and legal activities.

This isn’t to exoticize HCMC (because all cities engage in these kinds of things) but to show that the recent excitement over market reform masks the ways in which “market reform” is simply a new label to slap on a diverse set of activities that have been going on for a long time. Unfortunately this means reducing these activities to something called “the market” and my research tries to push against the assumption that since everything has “reformed” according to market principles that we are looking at a brand new, “neolibreralized” Vietnam.

As an extension of the previous point, the organization of power in the “market” economy is not as new as people may think but also much more culturally inflected than it is given credit for. I reference Martin Gainsborough’s book a lot because I think he comes closest to describing how power is organised in an urban environment like HCMC; with lots of fits and starts, temporary and delicately held alliances, and far less of a hierarchical system than most outsiders would sense when reading about policy changes and development initiatives.

There is a lot of precarity in the organization of power in urban Vietnam but that does not mean it isn’t dangerous. I mention in my book that non-state, private entrepreneurs in HCMC have been clamouring for a kind of group or organization that is endorsed by the state where they could share information, trade secrets, and help each other. The city has, at least to the best of my knowledge, not yet chosen to initiate this kind of thing. This is often the kind of power you see in HCMC: not the power of decision, but the power of indecision.

While I have argued strongly in favour of considering the unique cultural-economic conditions in the HCMC tourism industry that make up what we often call the Vietnamese economy, I don’t discount that practices also become standardised so as to be recognisable to a range of players. This is all the more the case in the tourism industry, where people are coming from all over with their own understandings of how to behave, what to say, and how to interact with environments.  As mentioned already, tipping has become standardised, as has the handshake and, perhaps unique to tourism, hugs at the end of a particularly rich tourist experience. People often feel closer to their hosts if they go on a tour with them (rather than join them on an airplane or bus, for example) and so you see very emotional connections among very disparate people in tourism. Homestays, street food eating and cooking classes, etc., are all activities that bring people together in HCMC but do so in many other parts of the tourism world.

The author during his research about ten years ago, here at a party with members of the state and private tourism industry hanging out and collaborating. ~ pc Jamie Gillen

The third chapter of the book is the most historical in tracing the current situation to the past.  Vietnamese culture is highly hybrid: as the book puts it, “with Vietnamese culture the basis for Vietnamese society, Vietnamese culture can mean anything” (p. 37).  It also means that the Vietnamese state could step in and determine its agenda-driven meaning of “culture” to its advantage.  How did the state employ culture as a tool or an agent of change during the reform era?

In many, many ways, but the way culture is employed to temper the purported “ills” of the “western” free market are what are most interesting to me.  Combating social evils is a way for the government to realign Vietnamese culture toward Vietnam at an everyday level but at a more national level the reforms themselves are a form of self-praise by the state because they are arguing that the state retains a certain “Vietnameseness” to market liberalization that takes in to account Vietnamese culture. Now I don’t for a minute believe any of these accounts, but it is interesting that this is how the government decided to handle things.

There is only one conclusion to draw from placing any cultural blame on either individual Vietnamese or outside influences: that the state is going to great lengths to absolve itself from any criticism of the policies through the deployment of culture, a word that, as I argue in the chapter you are talking about, is easy to defend and difficult to define. Trump’s logic during his ascendance to the presidency parallels here: anything from outside is “bad” so we need to protect our “insides” against them. And in the cities, where culture is locally eroding, we need to “clean it up” (just like the social evils campaign targeted urban areas for their “bad” activities).

This chapter cites several works from historians, but especially the book Fragments of the Present by the Australian anthropologist Phillip Taylor.  I happen to have found that book quite significant as well.  Do you mind telling us the influence of that book on your scholarship?

I haven’t looked at it in a long time but what I remember loving about it is the way he is able to convey the importance of Vietnamese society through various aspects of its culture without reducing culture to something definable. This is why I recall finding the book so compelling and why I decided to use it in my book. His new one on Khmer lands is also much like this. He has an anthropologist’s gift for writing and a historian’s gift of precision. He has a lot of gifts!

Let’s get to the topic of tourism in the post-reform era…  The state-society relationship in HCMC has been addressed in some scholarship from the social sciences. What are the common points that you share with this scholarship?

First, that the distinction between state and society isn’t really that distinct after all. The state would love to be in the hands of society and it isn’t (as we who study Vietnam know). The lengths to which it goes to to ingratiate itself in to society’s hearts is disgusting and intriguing all at once. On the other hand, most commentators would say, “Oh, a one party Communist government!? No chance of political participation there?” And we know that that isn’t the case either. All of these debates have been made by masters like Gainsborough, Kerkvliet, and many historians but they haven’t been made in the field of tourism. This book was my modest attempt at agreeing with previous work and showing how a similar situation plays out in the tourism industry.

Where do you diverge from this scholarship?  I presume that it is the “influence of the non-state tourism sector in HCMC,” right?  If so, in which ways is this influence larger than it had been assumed previously?

Oh boy, great question. I guess I would say that my research shows just how collaborative members of the state and non-state are in the tourism industry.

Behind the closed doors of tourism SOEs (state-owned enterprises), there is some collaboration with small and medium size non-governmental players. And this isn’t just because the state is picking on these businesses, I show that these businesses can gain from working (selectively and cautiously) with the state. Innovation is one area where this occurs. To paraphrase Obama in his description of the US government, the tourism SOEs move like a freightliner in Vietnam. The smaller businesses move like speedboats. So the state finds it advantageous to pick up on some of the trends and interests beyond just going to the War Remnant’s Museum, Cu Chi, and the Mekong, which are so over-saturated, boring, and stale that it is comical.

What I wish I can get an answer on is how the state handles the influx of hungry Vietnamese overseas and expat entrepreneurs who are upending the market with back of the motorbike tours, art tours, etc. That I am not sure about but I would imagine they either aren’t aware or don’t know how to compete at that level.

Another central argument of the book is that one should not approach this sector in a clear-cut manner, as if distinguishing it completely from the public sector.  The relationship between the public and private sectors has been quite “blurry” and “fluctuating” and “uneven.”

Now, I find it quite interesting that Chapter 4 cites some of the historical literature to suggest that Vietnamese in general and Saigonese in particular have a long tradition (dating back to colonialism) of engaging in an informal and non-state sector.  Moreover, the market reform in the early 1990s included a decision to assign provincial status to three cities (later expanded to five), including HCMC.  How did that decision affect entrepreneurs in Saigon overall, and tourism entrepreneurs in particular?

Ah, I should have read all of your questions ahead of time before I answered you!

I guess I’ll start this answer by saying that Vietnamese consider themselves very resourceful, resilient, and often malleably skillful. Recently the news has turned this understanding into an explanation of Vietnamese people as “entrepreneurial”, and a part of what the book was trying to do was to expand on this idea to historicize it.  As I try to argue in the book, I think what the market reforms did was legitimize what people have been doing for a long time, especially in Saigon.  This isn’t my argument, it is Martin Gainsborough’s, but I certainly back it and use it in my book.  I think there were a range of responses to the market reform policies for non-state entrepreneurs, ranging from “finally!” to “meh” to “who cares?”

In terms of changes to their day-to-day business operations, I think the same range of responses could be used. Some entrepreneurs felt that they could finally behave “out in the open” while others were operating in the shadows and likely felt worried that the reforms would force them to stick their heads up and get counted, with all of the value and criticism that that would entail.

What did change in Saigon was an excitement that the reforms would spur on more inbound tourists who have now heard that Vietnam has “opened” up to the world. In that case the reforms were a big deal and they certainly aided in growing the overseas tourist market. The reforms made a lot of Saigonese more wealthy than they would have been if they weren’t announced by the government. But in terms of their relationship to the state, not much changed. It could have been different in Hanoi, I don’t know.

You also argue that tourism entrepreneurs engaged in their business differently during the 1990s than they do now.  You point out joint ventures with foreign companies as one reason.  How did the rise of joint ventures affect Vietnamese entrepreneurs in tourism, especially in the realm of culture? How did they help to maintain or further the blurry and fluctuating nature of the relationship between the public and private sectors?

I know of no locally owned Vietnamese joint ventures. In other words, the joint venture initiative was a means of controlling the tourism industry for Vietnamese, by Vietnamese, by including the provision that any foreign-owned company who wanted to operate in Vietnam fully and completely must have a Vietnamese state partner, which doesn’t have to be in the tourism industry.

Many foreign-owned tourism companies simply said “no” to a joint venture opportunity and to this day only have branch offices in Vietnam to serve their own guests from other countries. They don’t own their own resources (like buses, etc) in Vietnam and they are not allowed to serve the Vietnamese market. Some foreign companies said yes and their businesses are generally bigger as a result. But Vietnamese are not required to partner up with a local institution to become a joint venture.

As far as culture is concerned, I think that some of the joint ventures succeeded because foreign companies chose appropriate or even supportive partners, while others chose local partners who could care less about the tourism industry (though some failed even with a local partner that didn’t care, too!). The horror stories coming out of Vietnam in the mid-2000s, when I did most of this work (it’s taken me a while to get this book out!), come about with intense meddling from Vietnamese partner institutions that know very little about tourism but believe that they should have at least a 50% say in matters.

Perhaps this is because they feel they must be a mouthpiece of the government, or perhaps believe they know what is best for their foreign partner, I don’t know. I didn’t interview the state side of tourism joint ventures.  But I do know that the blurriness between the state and non-state was particularly acute in these cases, and it wasn’t always pretty as a result. I have found that when a branch of the state takes a hands off approach to the joint venture, thus leaving the state and the market somewhat separate, results are usually better from a financial and company well-being perspective.

The book includes a chapter on tourism related to the Vietnam War and another chapter on “domestic tourism.”  There is a growing scholarship about war tourism from, more or less, the public sector.  What is different, if anything, about private tourism operations related to war memories?

I would say that in general private tourism operations have the option to tailor tours to particular needs while most state tourism operations are big and don’t do much tailoring. State-owned tourism companies like Saigontourist don’t often serve tourists from countries like the US and Australia, where veterans tend to live, so it is almost a moot point to think about how big companies like Saigontourist would run tours for veterans. Veterans who want a special tour know that they are going to have to pay for it, and it will take some effort to research and understand what is available (and to save to pay for it!)

The vast majority of tourists coming from the West are only interested in a half-day at the tunnels or an hour at the War Remnant’s Museum and that is the extent of their exposure and interest to the “Vietnamese” side of the war. But private tours can be very detailed and localized for veterans, if they are interested and which I detail in my book. They are expensive but these private tour companies are paid a lot of money to come up with the right kind of ‘results’, so the pressure is on to deliver accurate history, locations, and generate meetings between veterans from overseas and Vietnam. It does help that due to their language and cultural skills many of the elderly tour guides in southern Vietnam are often former ARVN servicemen. These folks aren’t around as much as they used to be, however, and neither are veterans from “the west”. So the market for very personalized war tours is dwindling.

Your chapter on domestic tourism strikes me to be among the first scholarship on this increasingly important subject.  Two questions. First, how does the Vietnamese state approach “culture” in its promotion of tourism?  Second – and here the focus shifts from the public and private sectors of tourism to the tourists themselves – how do Vietnamese domestic tourists upset the Vietnamese paradigm of tourism from the late 1980s to recent times?

Tuan, you like the idea of Vietnamese culture as much as me, I love it! Thanks for these questions.

I think that the state’s presentation of culture to Vietnamese is most clear in the SOEs catering to domestic tourists. Vietnamese tourists by and large like to pop in and pop out of supposedly “famous” sites in their country, with the exception of family or religious pilgrimage sites. So I’ve noticed that Vietnamese culture is framed to Vietnamese tourists more in terms of meeting other Vietnamese tourists, in terms of the food experiences they will have, and so on rather than on the quality of the culture in the sites they are going to be visiting. Same goes for when Vietnamese tourists go overseas: it always amazes me that most group tours for Vietnamese tourists pack so much in to a day, with the most time set aside for meals. I wouldn’t be happy to be rushed to the Eiffel Tower for an hour but that is how the state tourism companies often handle these kinds of visits.

To the second question, this is what I would like to do more work on in the future. My second to last chapter in the book talks about how the rise of Vietnamese domestic tourists has totally confused the typical understanding of who a “tourist” is for Vietnamese. This is so because Vietnamese tourists don’t often conform to the idealistic, inquisitive, naïve, and friendly tourist that is come to be known in the person of the khach du lich (tourist)/tay ba lo (white backpacker). Vietnamese are generally new to tourism if not mobility and so they really don’t care about how they “should” be acting. I don’t mean for this to sound like a criticism at all because we hear a lot about how “bad” Chinese tourists behave because they don’t yet conform to the “rules” governing tourism.

As I put it in my book, Vietnamese know a lot about the world, and they know the world to be travelable, but perhaps not in the ways that the Western tourist have been conditioned to.I place more blame on domestic tourism companies for griping about the behaviors of Vietnamese tourists than I do about the behavior of Vietnamese tourists because domestic tourists are placing demands on tourism companies that they haven’t confronted before.

Can you share with us a couple of anecdotes about your research experience: people, institutions, travels, unexpected insights or discoveries, etc.?

Sure. Some updates on a few things. The first is that since I have conducted the research for this book and a lot of things have changed since then. I would hate to say my book is out of date but it is a record of the past (ha!)  I’ll restrict what I say next to the Vietnamese tourist market because I think in many ways it is the more interesting side of the story right now.

Vietnamese tourists are a massive part of the tourism story these days and there seems to be a big mismatch between what the Vietnamese state believes Vietnamese want to do during their leisure time and what Vietnamese themselves want to do.  I went to the state-run Vinpearl Phu Quoc Safari Zoo this year. It was massive, totally empty, and rather depressing. It was obviously kitschy but I also felt that it infantilized Vietnamese tourists.

Tourism development is proceeding throughout the country in much the same “theme park” way and in my experience it is not sitting well with most Vietnamese tourists. The literature on tourism in Asia often argues that the “theme park movement” in Asia is in response to demand trends but I’m not so convinced of that.

At the Vinpearl Phu Quoc Safari Zoo, which has evidently hired an African dance traditional dance troupe to perform at the entrance of the zoo.  The target looks to be domestic tourists. ~ pc Jamie Gillen

The idea of traveling for leisure is normal now, seemingly throughout Vietnam. Going somewhere in Vietnam on vacation is fun but also ho-hum. Facebook has totally transformed the way Vietnam connects with itself in a tourism sense. Now everyone can feel that they have “been there” through social media. In the most positive sense Facebook is making Vietnam more of a diversified country for a lot of Vietnamese people. That’s exciting. On the other hand, there is a staleness to the market.

I think there is a bigger point to make here about unexpected discoveries. I am skeptical of the political value of leisure travel as a means of extracting change at the governmental level, but large-scale failures at places like I predict will happen to the Phu Quoc Safari Zoo may actually demonstrate that consumer choice will shift the political story a bit. This is not a realized discovery but one that I am going to keep in view for the next few decades.

Prof. Gillen sent his responses during a trip to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for a new research project on Asian smallholding; and our best wishes to the success of this research.