Tuesday, 20 December 2011

'The real Vietnam'

When I was in Hanoi one night, having something to eat in a cafe, I got chatting to a guy who'd been travelling round Vietnam for a few weeks on his own. He'd done the usual tourist trail, the Ha Long Bay tour, a few days on the beach in Nha Trang, all that kind of thing, but had also spent a few days being driven around the mountains and countryside on the back of a motorbike, seeing small villages and staying with local Vietnamese people. 'Didn't see any other Westerners for days, ' he told me. 'That's the real Vietnam out there, that is'
You meet a lot of people when travelling who talk a bit like this and who are in constant search for the holy grail of authenticity -  who are disappointed when they get somewhere and it's been 'spoiled' by tourism, or who go out of their way to get off the beaten track. My route through south east Asia was shamelessly touristy, and in a way I do wish I'd got off the tourist trail a bit. But when I heard that bloke talking about his motorbike tour i wondered, what is it that makes Hanoi or other cities and touristy places not real? The people who worked in my hotel, who drove the taxis I took or who lead the tours I went on would probably be a bit affronted to be told that they're not 'real' Vietnamese, wouldn't they?

Surely tourism, urban development, cities, pollution and all of that are just as much a part of the reality of these countries as mountains, villages and hill tribes. It seems to me that these ideas of authenticity make a fetish of rurality (and, often, of poverty). And this craving for the 'real' creates a strange tourist industry in itself, where tour companies offer visits to tribal villages and the locals are paid to put on uncomfortable 'traditional' get up which they don't actually wear in their everyday lives.

We're all tourists in that those situations. I'm not saying that people shouldn't bother getting off the tourist trail and seeing remote places or get chatting to locals - you should definitely be open to those things. The times when I did, which were more frequent in India than other places, were great. I guess I'm just saying you have to be honest about the position you occupy when you're visiting another country.

Angkor Wat, with its huge coach parties of tourists and where you get peddled postcards, T-shirts and noodles by local kids, is part of the reality of Cambodia. The resort that I stayed in in Kerala, which was almost entirely populated by rich Russians but staffed by Indians, was a part of the real India. Even the ghastly Khao San Road in Bangkok, with its tacky binge drinking-friendly bars and aggressive street hawkers - that's really Thailand. They may not be pretty - and, of course, they're only a fraction of the picture - but they're certainly real.

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