Constructive Criticism Rooted in Respect: A View from Vietnam

I recently penned an essay about the scourge of environmental pollution in Viet Nam that was published by a major media outlet. Shortly after posting the article on LinkedIn, Mr. Pierre, a Frenchman living in Viet Nam, left a comment that left me dumbfounded: I am a French citizen… As France is a former colonial country, I cannot blame Vietnam even when I dislike.

In other words, because Mr. Pierre has the passport of a former colonial power that brutally exploited Vietnam and its people until it was decisively defeated at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, he doesn’t have the right to constructively criticize anything that is happening here in 2021.

Vietnam and presumably other countries that France colonized get an unlimited pass on any societal problem, big or small. What does that have to do with the existential problem of air and water pollution? You guessed it: absolutely nothing.

Foreigners in Vietnam: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

In a 2019 essay On the outside looking in: A US American in Vietnam I wrote about the often conflicted and problematic status of foreigners in Vietnam. In section entitled Love Us, Love Us Not, I acknowledged that

I am one of those strange creatures from a distant planet, walking enigmas who evoke a panoply of emotions, ranging from interest and curiosity to indifference, contempt, and fear. As outsiders, we are sources of income, role models, fonts of wisdom, bearers of all things good, easy marks, and importers of evil trends and tendencies.

Our “beauty” lies in the eyes of the beholder: multifaceted and, at times, schizophrenic. Sometimes, they love us, sometimes they love us not, often with good reason, based on past experience or collective memory.

I also explained why so many foreigners, tourists, travelers, and expats, have flocked to Vietnam in recent years: In abridged alphabetical order: adventure, business, charity, cultural heritage, curiosity, development, forgiveness, love, penance, profit, reconciliation, religion, scholarship, sex, and study. Some of us come here to take, others to give (back), still others to experience the dawn of a new age in a country that is making up for lost time in stunning fashion.

I am here for some of the more noble and inspirational among those reasons. I am not a backpacker in Bùi Viện in HCMC or the Old Quarter or West Lake in Hanoi, nor am I someone who lives in a fancy expat enclave and has very little contact with the locals.

I don’t whine, moan, and complain incessantly on Facebook about “annoying” Vietnamese customs and why can’t “they” be more like “us.” I don’t make jokes at the expense of Vietnamese national heroes and other revered cultural figures.

I respect, like, and even admire many aspects of Vietnamese culture. That doesn’t mean I accept everything I see, hear, and experience. Why should I be any different from the people who were born and raised here? While I am not Vietnamese, I have lived here for 16 years. Vietnam is my world, too.

Living in Vietnam as a thinking and caring human being who hails from another country does not mean I must withhold judgement. What’s important is to express constructive criticism in an accurate, informative, and culturally sensitive way. Environmental pollution is a national crisis that affects the quality of life of all of us, regardless of nationality, and that of future generations.

As the saying goes, you can’t solve a problem until you identify and define it. If you don’t acknowledge a problem and propose solutions, you are part of the problem. Silence is not a productive approach to problem-solving. Substantive criticism is driven not by spite, pettiness, or cultural alienation, but a desire to improve something and even the knowledge that this is possible.

I carry the passport of another country that followed in France’s bloody footsteps and inflicted inestimable damage on Vietnam’s people, flora, fauna, and infrastructure. The war legacies of Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) still haunt this country.

Since I was in high school when the war drew to a merciful close, I am not here to do penance. Nevertheless, this tragic history pains and saddens me. It is my sacred and solemn responsibility to acknowledge and accept the truth about history. Unlike Mr. Pierre, it doesn’t obligate me to sit back, keep my mouth shut, and watch ecocide in action, to mention one example.

Criticism as an Expression of Caring and Concern

Mr. Pierre continued to deflect and derail our dialogue by asking, How many tons of plastic Vietnam does export every year? (Most of the plastic consumed in Vietnam finds its way into landfills, waterways, and elsewhere in the environment, including the ocean.) What about the “advanced” countries that are among the most egregious polluters in the world? True but irrelevant to the matter at hand.

After some back and forth, he reiterated his unwillingness to criticize the people or government of Vietnam:

Vietnamese do know what pollution means. We the foreigners (French and US) came in Vietnam with guns, bombs, napalm and Agent Orange. We destroyed thousands square kilometers of fields and forest. We killed millions people including mothers and children and grandparents. We deliberately starved whole regions. How can we dare advising Vietnamese people about plastic pollution today? Even if there’s plenty of bitching and blame to go around, I won’t blame neither Vietnamese, nor Vietnamese Government.

Again, all of this is true and only the tip of the iceberg; however, it has nothing to do with the monumental issue of environmental pollution. Quite honestly, it was the first time I had heard a foreigner swear a solemn oath not to speak out against a pressing societal issue because of his country’s past mistreatment of Vietnam.

This foreigner’s strange unwillingness to criticize, rooted in what France did in and to this country and its people for nearly a century, is a silent and passive crime against modern Vietnam, not the favor he thinks it is. It’s reminiscent of the colonial attitude of condescension, an example of treating the Vietnamese like children rather than adults. It is nothing less than an abdication of the responsibility of someone who claims to care about environment pollution and its devasting impact on humans and other living beings.

To offer constructive criticism about an issue of the day is not to tear down but rather to build up. It is done not out a sense of superiority but of caring and concern. Patriots, who by definition love and are devoted to their country, are proud of their country’s virtues but also eager to correct its deficiencies, in the words of US journalist Sydney J. Harris. Global citizens have the same sense of cross-border civic-mindedness.

Respect as an Excuse for Silence

Mr. Pierre claimed that “it is not a matter of culpability, I have never fought any Vietnamese, but a matter of respect. Unless Vietnamese ask it, I have not to tell them what to do or not.” But respect should include people and other living beings whose health is affected by pollution and the environment that sustains us all. He is not doing Vietnam or the environment any favors by turning a blind eye to an issue of this magnitude.

Here’s the other extreme of not saying anything because of some perverted notion of respect. A former US diplomat who was disgusted with what he perceived as incompetence once had this to say about Vietnam in an unguarded moment in 1995: “They’ve had 20 years since the war ended to get their act together, and this place is still a disaster. Look at what Thailand has done! Vietnam should learn from them.”  The obvious difference is that Thailand was at peace and has benefitted from billions of dollars in US funding for infrastructure development.

By refusing to assign blame and explore solutions, which he views as a noble gesture, this foreigner does a grand disservice to a nation that possesses goodness and even greatness, past, present, and future, and a proven ability to overcome formidable challenges.

Environmental pollution is near the top of the list of priorities and time waits for no one. Vietnam and its natural world need all the help they can muster from Vietnamese and expats who call Vietnam home. To try to effect positive change is the ultimate sign of respect.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at