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Careful Privileges of Tourism in a Second World Country

So many cultural landmarks, buildings and artifacts that you won't see anywhere else in the world

So many cultural landmarks, buildings and artifacts that you won’t see anywhere else in the world

Throughout this trip, I have met many fellow backpackers that, like me, are on an extended trip through South East Asia. I left almost 3 months ago and still do not have a return ticket. There are few other places in the world where people embark on such long journeys. So why is a longterm trip through South East Asia so common? A few reasons. First of all, its culture very different from Western countries, where most backpackers hail from. Everyone wanting to see what the rest of the world is like can get a good taste of that here. Second, it is very cheap, and yet beautiful and interesting. The people that have time for a long trip are those without jobs and therefore a tight budget, making the area a perfect fit. Third, there are many countries and many cultures in very close proximity to each other, making it easy to travel from one to the other without the need for expensive transportation.

Obviously, the third reason would be irrelevant without the first two. If a place is not interesting, or is too expensive to explore, it doesn’t matter how many such places are adjacent to each other, people (and especially not backpackers if the second condition is not present) will not bother showing up. So let’s focus on the first two.

In Ho Chi Minh, like many other SEA cities, urbanization is speeding up

In Ho Chi Minh, like many other SEA cities, urbanization is speeding up and the cultural landscape is quickly changing

For anyone that has visited the area more than once at a few years’ interval, the rise of Western culture in South East Asia will be apparent, with differences usually noticeable between the two trips. First time travelers are often dismayed at how diluted the original culture is in these countries, and how deep they have to dig to find it. Our culture is already spread through mass media, music and movies, and the trends they portray are being adopted more and more here. This can be seen in cultural aspects such as clothing, lifestyle such as urbanization, transportation with the accumulation of cars, and activities such as the aforementioned movies, gyms for exercise, and clubs for nightlife. The list goes on and on.

Many people are leaving their old rural lifestyle for city life

Many people are leaving their old rural lifestyle for city life, where unfortunately old cultural customs are harder to perserve

But as I look at this list, I wonder what makes it that the Western world owns all of these aspects. Shouldn’t everyone enjoy loud music and dancing in a club, or watching a movie? Doesn’t the promise of a successful career in a big urban city appeal to everyone, over the manual labor usually involved in traditional rural jobs? Doesn’t that migration move you to a more sedentary lifestyle and thus create the need to find physical activity in a gym? Wouldn’t any family prefer the safety and comfort of a car, rather than cramming everyone and the cat on a little motorbike? And as these changes occur, people look to the cultures that underwent them successfully, ie the Western ones, for guidances and adopt even more of their trends.

Unfortunately, these changes often occur at the expense of the old customs. Traditional clothing, usually worn to suite a particular job or climate, is discarded for that more conducive to city life, religion becomes less important and cultural holidays are observed less when living in a city’s melting pot and separated one’s family.

But as you can see, these changes aren’t necessarily due to the spread of Western culture, rather simply the signs of a developing country. Opportunity is growing, jobs are being created, and cities are expanding. But these countries aren’t quite there yet. They are still in transition, which is why there is still a good amount of their culture left for us to explore, and why they’re still rather cheap.

Most of Eastern Europe was under USSR's control or influence after WWII, and rather than putting their efforts towards growth, these countries had to put their efforts towards independence.

Most of Eastern Europe was under USSR’s control or influence after WWII, and rather than putting their efforts towards growth, these countries had to put their efforts towards independence.

So then the question is, why are they catching up? Different reasons for different countries, I’m sure, but it’s incredible looking throughout history how often war, or its aftermath, is a big culprit, and not only in South East Asia. Looking at Europe, the Western side is faring much better than the Eastern one, which was under the USSR’s control or influence after WWII, and therefore had to deal with the various restrictions and ideologies (such as Communism) that came with it. Africa has to battle many medical and environmental issues, but war is often present and is not helping. And after traveling through Vietnam, it’s clear that not only did the War hold it back, but many of its effects are still present today.

This view would definitely cost more than $15 back home

This view would definitely cost more than $15 back home

So this brings me to the point of the story: here we are, a bunch of privileged “Westerners”, coming to South East Asia to view its natural and cultural attractions, as well as take advantage of activities that would otherwise be significantly more expensive back home. All this, largely made possible by its economic state, which is at least partially the result of some Western countries’ actions.

The remains of the Tam Tòa Church, which was bombed during the war and of which only the facade remains, is a strong reminder of where the war was fought and it's destruction.

The remains of the Tam Tòa Church, which was bombed during the war and of which only the facade remains, is a strong reminder of where the war was fought and it’s destruction.

Now, those were not my actions or yours. In fact, most of the people partaking in this exploration are very against everything that happened. I’m not here to point fingers, and of course there was devastation on both sides. I’m not saying there’s a single culprit, I don’t know enough about the war to do that. All I know is that the war was fought solely on these grounds and caused the most amount of damage here. The country is now trying to catch up, as is evident by its “Westernization”.

Of course, tourism is a great way to do that. It brings in foreign money, creates jobs and certainly helps the economy. But as a tourist, it’s a strange feeling being served something by a local that we all rightfully know I’d pay much more for back home. It almost feels like taking advantage of an unfortunate situation. This local might be a waiter only because their parents were wounded veterans who didn’t receive aid from the impoverished government, and who therefore had to put an education second to helping the family out. Or seeing people with birth defects from Agent Orange or missing limbs struggling to sell a pack of gum on the streets.

One of the less disturbing images from the Remnants Museum, yet still a very deep message.

One of the less disturbing images from the Remnants Museum, yet still a very deep message.

When coming to Vietnam, a lot of the attractions center around the war. Sure, the government puts a very pro-Vietnam spin on their museums and landmarks, as any government would, there’s no doubt that an immense amount of suffering went on here. We want to learn about the history but we still want to enjoy ourselves. That being said, how do you go see the Cu Chi tunnels, where Vietnamese soldiers, as well as Allies crawled, starved, suffered and perished, and then head to the local restaurant for some of the best Pho you’ve ever had for the price of a pack of instant noodles. Or from the Remnants Museum, that shows some very unfiltered war pictures, to the local bar for a 40 cent beer?

Of course, the answer isn’t not to come. That doesn’t help anybody. The answer isn’t to raise the prices to resemble Western ones either, as that would reduce the number of tourists or the length of their stay, which again isn’t conducive to a developing nation. To tell you the truth, I honestly can’t think of an answer. It’s just something to think about the next time that lady with a missing arm offers you a pack of gum. And if you buy it, don’t do it with pity, but with compassion, understanding, and gratitude.

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