In a recent essay, Darryl Campbell, a fellow Bureau writer and traveler, tells how his friendly relationship with a Kuwaiti bread-seller went bad when he revealed his American nationality to the baker (“The Gulf: Bread and Blowback”). He uses this anecdote of evaporating trust to illustrate that the “experience of travel is only appropriately mystical… when it’s more than passive observation,” but that “of course, not all epiphanies are pleasant.” As I concluded my own travels, a three-month, five-country tour of East and Southeast Asia, I also learned that intense immersion can lead to a backlash, so perhaps some places are best seen through the naïve eyes of a tourist.
I spent the final five weeks of my trip in China and Vietnam—four in the former, and one in the latter. You might think, then, that I would have felt a stronger connection to China. After all, I speak Mandarin proficiently and have a background of living and traveling in the country. My knowledge of Vietnam, on the other hand, is based on monthly trips to the local pho restaurant and watching Platoon in eighth grade. So why do I feel more of a connection to Vietnam, despite such a weak background and short stay?
I chalk it up to the highly structured experience of being a clueless tourist. I spent my week in Vietnam on guided tours by day and in four-star hotels by night. On the day trips I sat in a hired van as it traversed the country’s underdeveloped highway system. For long stretches, the highway only has two lanes, which were occasionally clogged by gaggles of schoolchildren on bicycles, so we had many hours to fill.
Luckily we also had an English-speaking guide (the fabulously named Ruby), who would fill the time with lessons on Vietnamese history and would illustrate tales of the modern-day struggles by pointing to examples outside the car window. I saw pigs and chickens crammed into cages slung over motorbikes, peasant women selling baguettes to passersby, and many smokestacks, the backbone of the country’s growing manufacturing industry. True, at times this style approached cultural voyeurism: Stopping the van to photograph a nearby farmer riding a water buffalo was a bit too blunt for my tastes. But without extensively planned outings to the country’s “must-see” sites, I wouldn’t have seen or learned so much along the way.
Compare this with my travel experience in China. For one thing, I didn’t actually travel. I spent a month living in the coastal city of Fuzhou, and except for a weekend excursion to a smaller nearby town, this city of six million next to the Min river was my home. Granted, my local friend and host took me on weekend trips to the outskirts of town, and these proved to be my best experiences for understanding the city. But most of the time I was on my own, and at these moments I found Fuzhou inscrutable. Even though I became comfortable with the bus system, and took taxis after the buses stopped running, and walked out of my way to see new neighborhoods, I was lost without an imperative list of must-see sites or an informed narrative of what was going on around me. My language ability and academic knowledge of China did little good, given the impossibility of assimilation into Chinese culture. As I wandered Fuzhou trying to grasp it by myself, it always slipped through my fingers. I would have been better off with a naïve sense of gee-whiz wonder and an oddly named English speaking guide.
The other reason being a true tourist in Vietnam served me well has to do with contrast. I stayed at upscale, Western-style hotels, which allowed me to retreat from the chaotic streets of Hanoi and prepare for the next day’s assault on the senses. By fleeing back each night into what Vietnam is not, I could venture out the next day with an appreciation for what it is. Compare this to my digs in Fuzhou which, while comfortable, modern, and welcoming, offered no escape from the sounds of the construction site the next block over. For an entire month, there was not an hour in the day when a crane’s groan or conveyor belt’s thrum did not echo off the canyons of the excavated lot. Fuzhou pummeled my senses even when I was at rest, and my acceptance of the city’s grinding, clanking plod towards development wore thin.
So even if it means being a softie, I think any travel strategy which consciously prevents overkill (some call it “China rage”) is good for both the individual and the country. Travel implies a positive, deeper connection that lasts beyond the stamping of the passport and survives the crossing of datelines on the plane ride home. Better to keep this feeling alive by traveling within one’s limits and return admitting ignorance, than to reach too far into the fire and end up burning the bridge on the way back.