I hate everyone and other sensitive cultural observations

Vietnam

Travel broadens the mind, but it also narrows it, especially when you are traveling alone as an invisible person, otherwise known as a middle-aged woman. In truth, it’s not really my mind that’s narrowing; it’s my patience and tolerance, and those two strands of my character are winnowing into a frayed spitty end of a short rope. Not my patience with and tolerance for the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and even the frightening, necessarily. I’ve been studying and trying to use a new and difficult language, weathering regular power outages, rats and roaches, and have even survived being hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike. What I can’t stand is the other travelers. Not every single one of them of course; far be it for me to make such broad and unfair generalizations.

VietnamI hate the fake raggedyness of the backpacker crowd, wearing their collection of tattered bracelets and “I went tubing in Laos,” t-shirts, but who never leave the safety of their movable cliques. I hate those stupid Hammer-Harem hybrid pants the women wear, imagining they’re dressing like some lost tribe (I’ve never seen a local person anywhere in Vietnam or Cambodia wear those things), the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus. I hate the shirtless men with their dumb-ass tattoos and stupid hats and sunglasses (yes — precisely the kind of folks who should be given cheap beer and motorcycles!). I hate how rude they are to the Vietnamese people in cafes and hotels. I hate also their callowness and ignorance. The rudest of a pack of insufferable English women in Sapa, sat reading a Judy Blume novel in the lobby of the hotel while her friend occupied every other square inch of the place with her gear and yelled loudly into her cell phone to some hapless Vietnamese driver. If you’re old enough to travel in Southeast Asia, you are too old for Judy Blume: go home. And I hate myself because I can’t help but envy their youth and beauty and unfettered fucking fun and their easy ignorance of the responsibility to think more deeply and complexly about the world and their places in it.

You know who else I hate? The older richer tourists in search of some Asian Resortiana, some unholy spawn of Orlando-Vegas-Waikiki-Cancun, Canlandowaicun, if you will, with “such cheap prices” and “nice people.” A very angry woman from California with whom I shared a cab from the train station to the airport in Hanoi, yelled at a Vietnamese man (who was actually trying to rip us off, but not by much) to fuck off. Then she launched into her critique of the whole country: “Vietnam is too scammy. We’re going back to Thailand!” Because the combination of low-wage service workers, tourism, and wealthy business interests appears to be going quite well there, doesn’t it?.Here in Hoi An, the men have their suits made for them and while the women get spa treatments, then they eat steaks and sea bass with knives and forks in fancy restaurants. Soon the central coast will be lousy with these people, although the actual residents of Hoi An town need hardly worry that they’ll spend more than a few hours here in its hot dusty streets filled with actual Vietnamese people. The road from Danang that runs south along the coast, past the beach now named for an American television show, past the beach where decades ago American helicopter pilots sometimes dipped the bellies of their machines low enough in the shallow waves to wash out the blood and mud and body parts, that road now blocks the view of the beach and is lined on both sides by enormous walled golf resorts where people can experience the exotic world of Vietnam without getting any of it on them. When these places are all open, beautiful Vietnamese women will wear ao dai and serve tea and cocktails, and small, wiry men will carry huge bags of clubs over what used to be sand dunes, descendents of the men who carried artillery piece by piece up and down mountain paths more than 35 years ago. On the day I came in from the airport, I saw an old woman in a conical hat stooped over with a short handled broom sweeping the sand and dust from a small patch of St. Augustine grass outside the wall.

And finally, I hate that the Vietnamese government – or someone – can’t or won’t do anything about this kind of crap. I shouldn’t blame them: They simply need the money. But these are the people who expelled the Chinese, the Portuguese (very briefly), French, Japanese, French again, and then the Americans. They fought off the Mongols, for crying out loud. I wouldn’t think bad-back Greg Norman and that little ill-tempered turd Colin Montgomerie could put up much of a fight.  But of course, they’ve probably never been here.

Author: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton actually gets paid to read books and talk about them with bright young people in her job as an associate professor of English at Southwestern University, just outside of Austin in beautiful Georgetown, Texas. She's lived in Texas for 25 years, but before that spent the first half of her childhood in southwest Virginia, the second half in New Jersey, and college and the first bout with graduate school in Ohio and Chicago. She has written for the Texas Observer and has published work in scholarly journals and collections. Her recent work focuses on the the literature of post-Viet Nam American wars, and her current project is a manuscript about life in a small town in the far north of Viet Nam. Other interests include food, sports, travel, and listening to other really smart people talk about politics.

10 thoughts on “I hate everyone and other sensitive cultural observations”

  1. "…the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus"

    Great simile! Fits generations of ugly American exceptionalists overseas. White phosphorus indeed!

  2. You've nailed it. These are all the reasons I don't travel much anymore–I can't bear to see the inequities and the slobbish, ignorant, privileged air of entitlement so many westerners carry. I also feel so ambivalent about carrying my own American dollars into developing countries, also relying on cheap labor and food and hotels–I realize it's not entirely rational on my part. How do you deal with that part of it?

    1. I don't know, Tracy. The problems — and the solutions — are so complex. I try to think about it the best I can, and just try not to be a big and to destroy anything. Sometimes there is no satisfying response, and no acceptable moral space. Back in Sa Pa, I walked down to Cat Cat village, which is site they tried to create to market local crafts away from street hustlers. You have to pay a small admission fee and they say that everything there is "fair trade." But that good idea has pretty much gone to crap. It's depressing and mostly deserted. I stopped at a little stand at the bottom of the valley and bought a coke, but then was silently hounded by a dirty little girl. I didn't know what she wanted, but when I got up to keep walking she followed me, even more insistent. I then realized she wanted the coke, which depressed the hell out of me. I gave her my half-finished can of soda and she scurried off. I felt sick.

  3. I agree with some of this, but some comes across as very sour. Why pick on someone for reading Judy Blume, a harmless enough activity? Hell, I still enjoy reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables! Nothing wrong with that!

    Definitely a lot wrong with some of the other attitudes/behaviors you mention, though, but be a little more friendly to normal human foibles, please. Not everyone is so mature as you to graduate from reading children's literature.

  4. I know what you mean, I love all that too.

    @Guest – I took it the other way round from you. A moment alone in a foreign place.

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