Engagement vs. Observation

November 30, 2010

Time’s been going quickly- today is Wednesday, at least here, and Saturday I board the plane for the 20+ hour journey home.  I’m definitely ready.  As we’ve traveled south through the country, we’ve found a much heavier Western influence and the areas have become more touristy, almost freakishly so.  We spent three days in Hoi An, a town known for its tailors and silk products.  Three days was a bit much for most of us, but for those that wanted to have custom clothing made, it was necessary.  One of the Australian guys is 6’6″ and took advantage of the suit-making opportunity, and most people found a few things to help stimulate the local economy.

One of the other guys here (Chuck, who happens to be from San Francisco) is also a “travel with a purpose” sort of guy, although he’s done primarily disaster relief work and also sustainable energy infrastructure work in developing countries, so we’ve been comparing notes about this type of tour experience.  We’re both getting restless.  Now, I’m not saying I miss mixing concrete in stifling heat, but…  well… maybe I sort of do.  I don’t consider myself an extremely goal-oriented person, but the wandering and observing and buying and eating is losing my interest a bit.  I don’t feel engaged with the country anymore, I feel like… gulp… a tourist.  An observer.  In the worst cases, a voyeur.  The other people in our group have made similar comments, so we think it might be because the towns have become more and more tourist-centric, so finding a more authentic experience is much harder.

We’re now in Nha Trang, which everyone agrees is our least favorite destination so far.  The city is kind of seedy and there are loads of Westerners wandering around, which means there are loads of women hocking wallets and cigarettes and sunglasses and postcards.  They’re quite forward and have all learned the same phrases to spout off (“Hey lady, you buy wallet?  Very cheap for you.  Happy hour.  You very beautiful.  Buy one get one free.”).

A few choice signs we’ve seen:

Bike Tours!  Funny Time on Wheels!
Happy Hour 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.
Com See Out Roof Top Bar
Cheap Foods, No Rip Offs
Free Mojito and French Fries for Lady

We took a motorbike tour of the countryside in Hue, which included a visit to a woman who makes Poem Hats.  They look like the traditional conical hats that a lot of people still wear, but in between the layers of dried leaves she puts a layer of newspaper into which she’s cut some images and a silhouette of a couple holding hands and a short poem.  When the sun shines on the hat, you can see the pictures and read the poem.  I thought it sounded like a lovely idea- a hat with a hidden poem in it!  I asked my motorbike guy Cat what the poem translated to, and he said, “When you visit the romantic city of Hue, you should buy a poem hat for every person in your family.”  I felt like Ralphie when he finally got his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin and got a message about Ovaltine.  “A crummy COMMERCIAL??”

I didn’t buy a poem hat.

A few photos attached- the first is a Royal Tomb, or the ruins of what used to be a Royal Tomb.  The second is from Bunker Hill, an area used by the Americans to stockpile weapons (I think… our guide’s English was a little baffling to me), and the third was at a pagoda.  The red spirals are long trails of incense with a wish hanging in the middle, and as the incense burns, the smoke carries the wish up to the Heavens.  Each coil takes about a month to burn, so you get a month of wishing for one low, low price.

Looking forward to being back.

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