Tourists, Vietnam & the Disconnect

photo by besar bears.

RICHARD BERNSTEIN PULLED INTO Danang harbor on a cruise ship and disembarked to find the lives of locals interrupted in a frenzy of opportunists looking to capitalize on the tourism crush. A few miles south, pristine China Beach was actively being chiseled out by developers of posh hotels.

In his recent piece for the International Herald Tribune, Bernstein observes that Vietnamese towns like Danang are swiftly going the way of Tuscany Villas, pushing aside real life for the sake of nostalgic kitsch that can be sold to the wealthy. Which, he observes, the people of Vietnam should have every right to do — with one major caveat:

What is sad about it nonetheless is the contrast between the wealth of the visitors and the poverty of the country they are visiting. This is one of those countries where the arrival of a tour bus occasions the appearance of hordes of touts, cyclo drivers, would-be tour guides, sellers of T-shirts and ink paintings of women in flowing ao dais and straw conical hats. These are the economic opportunists who aren’t shareholders in the Hyatt or Raffles but who jockey and jostle to have a modest portion of the tourist trade.

Bernstein also points out a disconnect that exists beyond economy, one that lies in our experience. He questions whether travelers to much-exoticized Southeast Asian nations ever really come in contact with the culture and history of those places, or if we’re just touring an “ersatz jungle”.

Is our interest in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam purely elemental — sun, beach, nature — or are we curious about the people and their lives? It’s a question worth reflecting on before making your next journey.

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