As a self-proclaimed travel writer, I find myself often faced with a rather unanswerable dilemma: what do I spend my time writing about? Many of my “postcards” reveal the romance of travel . . . and surely this is fun and important, but should I be discussing the social implications and human atrocities of poverty and economic development I see here everyday? Or should I even write about some of the places I describe? What if my writing causes a flood of tourism to a place I found so quiet and peaceful and filled with local life, (something many would describe as “the authentic,” which most every traveler, whether aware of or not, is ultimately searching to discover), thus destroying the very thing I found so magical? This of course assumes that more than a dozen people are even reading these passages. None-the-less, it’s a necessity that I consider the implications of my written, (or electronic), words.
With our last stop in Vietnam, these questions prodded me with every step. We arrived here on a bus filled with only locals. As the only tourists aboard, we found ourselves often questioning where we were actually headed, and whether or not we should be heading to that destination. The questioning remained as we hopped off the bus into the middle of a bustling Saturday night. Local kids practiced karate on the river boardwalk, families sat down to dinners at sidewalk cafes, and vendors closed their shops in the market across the street. And we were the only Western faces in town.
In the morning we arranged for a tour on the river to see the floating market and floating homes and floating fish farms (life happens on the water here) of this town. We left the hotel early and boarded a long-tail boat by ourselves. Our captain motored us up and down the river, quietly showing us his village, his neighborhood, his home. Boats filled with fresh produce sold smaller bundles of fruits and vegetables to families on paddle boats; women cleaned laundry on the banks of the river; children smiled and waved to us from the bows of their boathouses or the decks of their homes on stilts. And still, we were the only Western faces in town.
On some level, we worried that we intruded upon the intimate daily rituals of the people here, the same rituals that we all complete privately. So we sat back quietly, watching this “authentic” world pass-by, attempting to remain awe-inspired without awfully trespassing. If too many westerners get aboard a similar boat and take a similar tour, chances are good that the boats selling produce to locals will soon exchange their jackfruit and bananas for wooden carvings and plastic nick-nacks, like we saw in Thailand. Though this might be considered by some as economic development, I might consider such a transition a humanitarian downfall.
And then we turned the corner. There aboard a similar, but much larger boat sat nearly two dozen German tourists. And across the river four paddle boats paddled a French family down the same water street we just floated through. And behind us, six other American backpackers headed for the border, snapping pictures of everything everywhere. I took a picture of them when they weren’t looking. Their boat captain squinted his eyes at me, and then smiled. I think he understood my point: maybe we can find the authentic and enjoy it and photograph it and write about it, without destroying it. We must first and foremost though, respect it.