The world is divided into two sorts of people, those who come into a dorm room at 12 o’clock at night, with people clearly sleeping, and turn on the light, and those who don’t. This is why wars start, the light-leavers become so irritated by the endless switching on of the light by the light-switchers that they are forced to take aggressive action to protect themselves. Seriously, what lack of human decency allows people to casually turn on the bright, fluorescent light of the kind favoured in schools and hospitals, turn it off, go out again for an hour, come back in, turn it on again? There is a special place in hell reserved for these people.
After two months of this I needed a holiday. Now, I can hear you all tutting in disbelief. Yes it’s true that I haven’t worked for two months, have done nothing but dedicate myself to sightseeing, reading for pleasure and sampling as much as possible of regional food specialities. However, it’s hard work. Especially in Vietnam where walking down the street is an assault on your senses. So I’ve checked myself in to a (comparatively) nice hotel, with a room which has no-one else in it, and walls thick enough so I can’t hear the snoring from two rooms away. I’m in Hoi An, a pretty small town on the coast which is famous for it’s preserved wooden houses. Tourism is pretty big business (mostly because quite a lot of Vietnam got summarily destroyed by American and VietCong forces in the American war, as we call it here)
Throughout this trip, I’ve been obsessively thinking about tourism and its good and bad points. Someone I met in Thailand referred to that country as a ‘cultural themepark’, where everything that was once a genuine cultural quirk is marketed for the best photo opportunity for rich Westerners. I’m not sure I agree with him, but Hoi An definitely has an aspect of this. Other people have dismissed it as fake, but again I think that is a too simple judgement. I like Hoi An, I like the fact that the wooden houses absent from most of Vietnam have been protected here, and that I can go inside and look around. I like the Hoi An speciality food section on each menu and I definitely appreciate it that cars are banned from the city centre (though sadly not motorbikes). It’s a good place. Besides, at the heart of Hoi An is a local market, where people sell their half-dead chickens and their still-alive fish, lending all the ‘authenticity’ to your trip you could ever want.
On another, related, point, I want to mention ‘tourist trap’ restaurants. Now, for one reason or another, I’ve eaten in a few of these places, where food is a few thousand dong more expensive than on the streets, and the menu is translated into sometimes indecipherable English. But the food is good. Seriously. Does that counteract the trap-y-ness of the place? I’m inclined to think it does.
However, there is a measure of discomfort in the idea of being served by poorer Vietnamese in restaurants they can’t afford to go to. But I would argue that just by coming here that is inevitable. It’s impossible to avoid. Every Vietnamese person you are served by in hotels and restaurants is poorer than you, one girl told me she couldn’t afford to go travelling even if she spent nothing for two years. But, by being here, and by not minding being occasionally cheated out of 32000 dong (1 pound) you are contributing to the wealth of the country through tourism.
This is why I find the whole tourist thing so problematic. I try to avoid tours, I prefer to do things and get to places independently. But by doing that you deprive tour guides and travel agencies of their money and livelihood. Of course, eventually things will evolve in Vietnam so that tourists are exploited more cleverly, like they are in Paris or London where you can happily pay two pounds fifty for a bottle of water in a restaurant. But for the moment, without wanting to sound like a bleeding heart liberal, I’m happy to pay twice the Vietnamese price for things, if only to spread a bit of my comparatively enormous wealth around.