Although I’m finding it difficult to settle back into Vietnamese lifestyle after a short but emotionally draining trip to Australia, it’s nice to be back in the heat, noise, chaos, and unpredictability of this country. No two days are the same, it’s never boring, and it’s super cheap – I love it.
My three adult dogs are a bit wary of me, having been locked in the kennel for two weeks. They look at me as if to say ‘I don’t know what to think of you.’ I don’t blame them – there are truly times when I don’t know what to think about them either, especially after they chew up my bed. Why destroy something they love using? Double zap. Weird.
In an effort to chill out and shake the vacation blues for my Sydney trip, I went to a local pub for St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish celebration full of fun and music. There, I met a tourist couple keenly interested to know more about life in Vietnam – what really goes on here and how people live in a culture still very tightly focused on socialism despite the struggle to become a market economy. Questions over beer – that’s my forte.
There really does seem to be a gap between reality and what tourists experience in Vietnam. In Hoi An, where I live, it’s absolutely possible to interact with locals and experience the country while still enjoying Western comforts. Even so, we foreigners are often still clueless as to what locals think, believe, and practice in their lives, even after two weeks of touring.
What’s the average salary? How do people manage to survive? How do people get things done – particularly when dealing with the government? Why do they do this or that?
In my opinion, a real tour guide makes some attempt to answer these questions and give somewhat reliable background information on what the tourists see around them. I believe part of ensuring that tourists return to Vietnam is enabling them to get a better picture of what life here is all about – particularly for people who might want to settle, live, work, or just hang out for a while in Vietnam.
While chatting with the two tourists on St. Patrick’s Day, we covered topics such as the local health system, land ownership, the overwhelming extent of hotel and resort development, the idea of ‘service’ in cafés and offices, local salaries, and to what extent poverty exists in tourist towns like Hoi An.
On the whole, I find most tourists reasonably well informed of the history, geography, and ancient landmarks of Vietnam, yet totally in the dark when it comes to the local people around them.
A few fantastic tour groups targeting foreigners have made it a point to fill in the gaps about local life that make travelling enjoyable, giving tourists a far wider perspective on this gorgeous country and its infectiously cheerful population.
These companies seem aware that simply painting the nation in an unnaturally positive light, with tour guides rattling off facts and figures, runs the risk of aliening some visitors and boring others. In reality, introducing local features, such as the rivers and mountain landscapes, and incorporating a presentation on the pollution, water conservation issues, or deforestation that might be affecting these features are a way to create a serious connection with the country.
It also surprises me that guides don’t stop to show tourists how locals build houses, the costs and salaries involved, and issues relating to ownership. Guides also don’t seem to actually explain to their clients why there are so many sidewalk cafés and the necessity of locals to run a business with minimum paperwork. Showcasing Vietnam’s growing posterity is one thing, but that highlight becomes fairly meaningless without appreciation for the country’s remaining poverty.
This might be a business niche for some youngsters to exploit. It could be called the ‘What’s it all about’ tour and involve driving down the back streets of a town followed by exploring a local village for contrast. I have a feeling this would be an excellent tourism product for the more inquisitive visitor wondering about life in Vietnam the 21st century.
Either way, a greater understanding of another culture’s faults and problems can be more useful in bridging connections between foreigners and Vietnam than a quick tour of the countryside with just enough time for a quick selfie and a stop for lunch before heading off to the next destination.
If travel was meant to broaden the mind, then we’ve missed an opportunity here. Perhaps in spreading knowledge about Vietnam, we can create new opportunities for locals and foreigners.