“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”
Dealer, D. 1987.
That the act of observing automatically changes that which is being observed is a pretty well worn cliche. However, like the cliche about cliches ultimately just being often told truths, it’s also true. Similarly, by this rationale, I wonder if Vietnam might be in danger of having been oggled a tad too much.
Maybe it’s that my time here is drawing to a close. I think endings automatically force on you a subconscious desire to summarise, but I still can’t shake the sense that things are changing. Maybe it’s just that I saw two separate drunken tourist today, each wearing the wooden conical hats of a thousand tourist brochures and each thinking it hilarious, but it’s on my mind, which means, by default, it’s in this blog.
Tourism has a long and established history of reinventing the best parts of the best parts of the world in its own image then resenting them for being too much like home. It’s a gradual shift; initially it’s the insistence that western standards of hygiene be met. From that follows the insistence on western standards of customer service and from that, inevitably, flow the endless orders of egg, chips and lager.
This is hardly new. Southeast Asia has been reinventing itself in the reflection of tourists’ expectations for a long time now. Similarly, tourists project a reality onto Southeast Asia – and Vietnam specifically – that has never really existed. This is where they come to lose themselves, get their hair braided, buy long baggy clothes, discuss the natural simplicity of the people and lay the groundwork for the hundred anecdotes they’ll tell over a hundred dinner parties. It’s a pervasive myth, and one that those naturally simple people work very hard to reinforce; their tourist industry is based upon it. All the way through Vietnam, from Sapa to Hanoi, from Hanoi to Hue and Hoi An and from there to Danang to here, (Saigon) that reality is hard at work, reflecting Western notions of Vietnam back to Westerners. All of these destinations are superb – if you’re ever here you should visit them – but they’re as removed from Vietnam as the moon is from Milton Keynes.
Vietnam is a highly industrial nation and, like any industrial nation, people work hard. They work from very early in the morning to often quite late at night. Moreover, they do so in conditions that would, as often as not, make the average western worker blanche. Right now, about three kilometres from my flat, women sort through the refuse of the city
dump, with their scarred and always partially infected, bare hands, for anything that can be salvaged. This, for about $2 a day. On Bui Vien, the backpacker mecca of Southern Vietnam, women push children at tourists in the hope of selling a few more trinkets. The odds are that the children aren’t even their own, as often as not they’ll have been shipped in from the Mekong by families so poor and desperate that they’d part with their own children for a few more dollars a month. Similarly, the trinkets themselves – crude wooden bracelets and bead work necklaces – bear little relation to anything Vietnamese as much as they do to Western ideas of Vietnam. I suppose it’s always been that way and, I’m guessing, it always will be. It’s like Pi, it just goes on.
Trust me, I don’t mean to sound down or cynical. It’s hard to blame anyone for forming whatever opinion they like of Vietnam when Vietnam itself gives them so little to go on. As I said, there’s a tourist trail that runs from North to South and, within that trail, visitors are allowed almost total freedom of movement and, in ways that can’t be imagined elsewhere, near limitless freedom of action. Straying outside of that trail, however, isn’t so straightforward a proposition. Until recently, to work in any of the more remote areas of Vietnam, I would first have to submit my passport and Visa to the local security authorities with a request for permission to visit. I say, until recently, as, after a less than flattering piece I wrote about the economy here, those permissions started drying up. Again, it’s a long way from the nouveau hippie trail fancied by most of Vietnam’s much monied international visitors.
I’m aware that I’m erring towards vitriol and, at the risk of repeating myself, that’s not my intention. The thing is that my time here has been stunning. I’ve loved it. Vietnam has repaid every second I invested into it and done so with immense generosity. Quite simply, I love it. But I love all of it; from the endemic prostitution, through the white sand beaches and far away hamlets, to the sons and daughters of the Politburo getting rich off the country’s back. To miss Vietnam’s failings is to miss Vietnam and that would be a real shame, because it’s amazing. It really is.