I have long despised feeling like a tourist. Yes, I love traveling, seeing new places, exploring, meeting new people, overcoming language barriers, but that’s not what I’m talking about when I say “tourist.” I’m talking about the entitled money-spenders who come, see, resort, spa and conquer. The ones in the Bermuda shorts and American flag t-shirts, who are quick to demand “rights” they have in their own country without even considering for a second that things might be done differently here, half-way across the world. “What do you mean no one here speaks English?” “There hasn’t been electricity for 30 minutes! This is unacceptable!” “Throw the used toilet paper in the trash? No way, that’s disgusting!” You know the type. And those “authentic” tours designed to show you a slice of local life that always turn out to be nothing like real local living, what could be worse? Before, I could rant about those all day. But all of that changed the day I was unwittingly whisked into a tourist trap that was unlike anything I could have ever imagined.
I’d already begrudgingly felt a little touristy all week. My husband and I had traveled from Saigon to Da Nang to spend a week enjoying the little beach town. With no contacts in the area and, despite my best efforts, only very basic Vietnamese skills, we had spent most of our time visiting tourist hot-spots. Each place we visited was absolutely gorgeous and to our merit (in my tourist-hating opinion) we did try to go at it on our own. Hire a Grab taxi-bike, reach the destination, explore freely without a tour guide, spend some time interacting with the locals, order a local dish, head back on Grab bike, repeat.
The Marble Mountains – that was the first destination on our must-do list. The five big marble mountains popping out of the ground close to the coast and not far from town looked rather unnatural for mountains. The didn’t really slope down to the earth in traditional mountain fashion. They were more like great marble pegs someone drove into the ground far away from any nearby mountain ranges. We climbed up the biggest one – Thuy Son Mountain. It was enormous, so big in fact, it was full of giant caves where many years ago people had built and subsequently maintained large Buddhist temples. And the views from the top – spectacular!
There was one small hitch though, the place was crawling with tourists! Tourists from all over the world, bus loads of them, mostly following group guides who carried tall colorful flags so their respective herds of people wouldn’t get lost. To make matters worse, they could be seen laughing loudly right beside the inner sanctums of the temples, stepping into holy places without taking their shoes off – hello people! Can’t you read the signs? Where is your respect for the local religion? A little voice in my head told me I was being too critical when I saw that locals who came to worship didn’t seem at all phased by the tourists’ irreverent behavior…but still.
Next stop was Ba Na Hills. This was a theme park. That’s right, a theme park in the middle of a developing nation. What can I say, there’s no doubt Vietnam is taking off fast! Ads were all over town for this place, promising a giant French castle built on the peaks of a nearby mountain range complete with the longest cable car ride in Southeast Asia, Brazilian carnaval parades and German beer festivals, lush gardens and an enormous golden bridge held up by a giant pair of hands. Ok, so I expected this one to be weird, and completely touristy, but for some reason I was excited about it.
Ba Na Hills did not disappoint. We got our tickets and headed into the park. This place was photogenic for sure. As soon as we entered, my husband was already in a tizzy, running this way and that for the next shot. Just like the rest of the tourists. Sigh. While I waited for Juan’s initial I-must-take-a-picture-of-every-single-detail-of-this-place-from-every-possible-angle excitement to wear off, I began watching the other tourists a little closer. The first thing I noticed? They were pros when it came to posing for photos. All of them. And they had no problem at all acting like they were doing a professional modeling photo shoot while their friends took snapshots on their cell phones. While I get awkward and uncomfortable looking after about three solo shots, these guys and gals strike multiple poses – cute and smiling, sexy side look, pensive gaze into the sky, peace hands with pouty face, Korean heart fingers – and don’t even blush when crowds of other tourists are watching them. “I should document this,” I thought – but then appeared Juan and we were off to the cable cars which took us directly to the Golden Bridge.
The bridge was massive and looked like it was held up by the hands of an ancient mythical god. But geez, the thing was loaded with tourists. It was picturesque, but how the heck were you supposed to get a picture when you have to fight for enough free space for a selfie? I battled my way through the crowd of non-Vietnamese people wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing (looking silly but having fun) to find a good vantage point. Juan and I got a few shots and got out. It was a bit cloudy anyway, we could return when the view was better and maybe the crowds would clear.
The day flew by as we explored the French village, a garden labyrinth, temples and tea gardens, live Disney shows that I don’t think are actually approved of by Disney, cafes, chapels and pagodas – always shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses. I had to admit, I had been a shameless tourist all day and I had enjoyed it, though mostly because I didn’t feel like I was doing it on the locals’ turf.
The next day, we had scheduled a tour of the coconut groves just outside of the picturesque Hoi An, where we would subsequently spend the evening. The sweet host at our AirBNB had shown us some pictures and told us how beautiful it was. After seeing the pictures, I drew a mental image of Juan and I meeting women who make traditional coconut candy in a tropical looking hutch, floating down a crystal clear river in little circle boats made from some kind of tough tropical grass and maybe getting to pet a water buffalo. The pictures were gorgeous and gave off a feeling of unmatched tranquility. Our host would take us to the groves and we would find a tour we liked and barter for a good price. At least, that’s what I thought would happen.
After a pleasant ride to the groves, we pull up to the tourist area. It is FULL of buses. And they’re all empty. Tourists swarm the entrance where people are selling cheesy tourist goods for cheap. Everyone is wearing the conical grass hats, but you know none of them be working in no rice field, smh. Our host told us we had arrived and indicated with sign language to get on a bike with a man. How would we find him afterwards? No idea. But the man on the bike was ready to go. “hai người?” I asked him pointing at the back of the bike. Bad grammar but he understood what I meant – both of us with you on this one bike? “Yes,” he said, “hai người.” So Juan and I looked at each other with a gaze that said “I have no idea what’s happening right now but let’s go with the flow.” We crammed on the bike – me right in the middle of this people sandwich – and we weaved through the tourists while our new guide, whoever this stranger was, yelled, “beep beep, moto-bike” so that he wouldn’t run down any of our fellow tourists.
After a short trip we were on a little wooden deck that hung over the river. There were the little round grass boats, but the water wasn’t even close to crystal clear. It was more like black tea, with a few drops of milk. Trash floated along the river banks. Juan saw a bathroom and took advantage. So I stood alone. A little old woman told me to get in one of the round boats with sign language. And so I did. I guess we were taking this tour. It was about two in the afternoon and the sun was beating down. She motioned to me – no hat? I shook my head no. She rummaged around in a black trash bag in the boat and produced a conical grass hat and plopped it on my head fastening it in place with a string under my neck. She smiled so big and I laughed, mostly because I was embarrassed, but also because her smile made me happy. Juan came back and our motorbike man appeared again as well and he ushered Juan into the boat with me. He too received a grass hat. Then the old lady got out of the boat, stood on the dock and waved us off.
“So how much is this going to cost us?” Juan asked me, concerned that we didn’t even get to barter a price. “I don’t know, just go with it!” “No, ask him how much.” I sighed, “Bao nhiêu tiền vậy?” I asked, my tones coming out completely wrong. But the man understood. Apparently, this was a deal made with our host, not with the man who was now paddling down the river because he whipped out his cell phone, made a call and passed me the phone. I recognized the voice on the other end – our host, who didn’t really speak English. We had had a few basic conversations but nothing as complex as this. He began, “SomanyvietnamesewordsIdon’tunderstand. He’sspeakingtooquicky – bao lâu? – morefastandlongwordsthatblendtogether.” I paused…oh! Maybe he’s asking how long we want to tour? I ask him in my broken Vietnamese – “Anh em đi bao lâu?” confirming his question. That’s right, he says. I had a mental celebration because I understood something, followed by a moment of doubt. How do I say in Vietnamese, “I have no idea, because I don’t even know what I’m doing here or what this tour is about and we’re already floating down a river.” I opted for “có thể một giờ không?” Surely that was also not really how you ask that question but he seemed to understand. He replied, “Amillionwordsspokensoquicklyinvietnamese. OnceagainIcan’tunderstandathing – một giờ bảy trăm – wordswordswords.” Um, I think I heard 700,000 for 1 hour. I tell Juan. We agree to one hour, even though we were pretty sure that was about four times the price you get when you barter, but we were already out on the water so what were we going to do?
With the price agreed upon, our river guide began paddling in earnest. As we rounded a bend in the river, I saw it. Dozens and dozens of little round grass boats. Each was manned by a Vietnamese paddler and held two or three tourists all donning matching tour group t-shirts, conical grass hats and bright orange and pink life vests. “At least we don’t have to wear the life vests,” I thought. We floated amongst them. They were loud, talking, yelling, laughing. There was no tranquility here. Our guide pointed and said “Hàn Quốc.” They were Korean and they had come by the bus loads.
Our guide, a man in his mid-forties, wore a jumpsuit, like a mechanic would wear and had no shoes. He was kind and spoke to me in Vietnamese patiently, even when I didn’t understand. When we entered the narrow waterways of the groves he grabbed onto a branch and began to adorn us with small handicrafts made from coconut tree leaves. An adjustable ring shaped like a flower. Two grasshopper looking shapes he attached to our hands and a “flower” crown for me. He took my cell phone and took our picture. We had been shoved into this tourist trap unwillingly, and this was a supremely cheesy tourist moment but for some reason it tugged at my heart-strings. Juan’s heart was not yet melting though, because as a professional barterer he was still miffed he was paying more than this tour was probably worth.
Next, we paddled into a semi-quiet waterway where no other tourists could be seen. You could still hear them though. It was beautiful, despite the water not being as pristine as I had imagined. This 30 seconds was the calm before the storm.
We paddled around a bend that opened up into the main waterway. The Koreans were having a race in the grass boats and they zoomed by whooping and screaming. One guide was making the boats do circles and the older women in the boats yelled out, giddy like little girls. It did bring a smile to my face. All those grown Koreans, acting like kids in little grass boats. It was, if nothing else, pretty darn funny. But the best was yet to come.
We weaved our way through them and I heard something strange. Old techno tunes floating through the palm branches. Ancient gems of techno like this one. (Go ahead, play it in the background as you read the next few paragraphs to set the mood.) What in the world? As we flowed down the river surrounded by hundreds of bright pink and orange life vests, the music got louder. We rounded another corner and something strange happened. The river opened up and widened out into a large open space. Several different loud techno tunes flowed out of large speakers hidden in the palm groves or set up in grass boats all around. They blended together into a single noise that was pure pandemonium. The boats separated into smaller groups each group crowding around one around a grass boat with a single paddler. What was this, some kind of religious cult ceremony? Because that’s what it felt like, like we were about to make a human sacrifice or something.
I was thinking about how this mix of terrible techno songs was ruining the natural beauty and also feeling bummed about spending 30 bucks on this weird tour, when suddenly, the single paddlers stood up in their boats and started to paddle in circles, faster and faster. Their boats came close to capsizing as they whipped their paddles over their heads like helicopter blades. The Koreans cheered. They themselves were being whipped into a frenzy. Some of them even stood up in their boats and danced to the techno while they cried out in excitement over the amazing feat taking place right before their eyes. Our guide took us in for a closer look. Without the matching t-shirts and life vests, we were like quiet onlookers who had somehow infiltrated a never-before-seen ritual of a secret society. It was one of the strangest moments I had ever witnessed and for this reason it was captivating. I felt like I couldn’t even take everything in because it was in no way logical. It was incredible.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the spinning paddlers stopped dramatically and cried out, “Wooooooo!” as did all of the Koreans in unison. Juan and I exchanged a “what the heck?!” glance with huge grins on our faces. This was simultaneously shocking, hilarious, horrific, outlandish and just plain loco. What kind of circus was this? I couldn’t resist any longer. I cracked up laughing. Our guide looked on approvingly. The paddlers were busy asking for tips for this show and the Koreans were busy emptying their pockets when Juan spotted a fisherman casting his net not far away. He motioned to our guide that we wanted to get closer.
Our guide paddled over, techno tunes fading into the distance, and yelled something out to the fisherman. It was quite clear that he wasn’t actually fishing, he was just casting a net for the tourists to ooh and ahh over. But at this point, I didn’t care about being a tourist anymore. Not after what I had just seen. The first cast didn’t give us a good shot, so our guide told the man to cast again (at least, that’s what I think happened since I didn’t understand a word) The fisherman bunched his net methodically and prepared to cast. He threw with force this time and the net came closer and closer and closer – way too close! The weighted edges crashed down on our grass hats (miraculously sparing Juan’s extremely expensive Nikon D850 and lens) and splattered us and everything in the boat with river mud. Once again, we were shocked. I glanced over our camera gear to make sure it all survived, our guide looked concerned, and then I once again busted out laughing. Thank the Lord for these tough grass hats! Did I just say that? This was not at all what I expected.
After all that action, our guide opted to take us back to the dock where we started. He paddled us down a semi-peaceful main waterway by some large, colorful boats. As we floated back, you could tell that we had only made a small circle in a tiny area of coconut palms. I had a wry smile on my face as wiped the river mud off my face and clothes and mused on what we had just experienced.
I learned something from those Korean tourists that day – sometimes being a tourist was amazing. Yes, the whole river tour was nothing close to authentic, but the show they had concocted to entertain outsiders was a bizarre and extraordinary surprise. If I hadn’t been involuntarily whisked onto that little grass boat and sent on my way with the masses of tourists that day, I would have never known what was out there in the depths of those Hoi An coconut groves.
We spent the rest of our day strolling the streets of gorgeous Hoi An amidst the bus loads of tourists, but somehow I didn’t mind as much. We chatted with the ladies who wanted to sell us boat rides and paper lanterns – instead of avoiding the tourist traps, we dove right in. We didn’t buy any more boat rides that day, but we made some friends and got some nice portraits.
What can I say? Maybe being a tourist isn’t so bad. Maybe my idea of what it means to be a tourist was all wrong. Sure, there’s a few entitled money-spenders out there, but there are also a lot of people who respectfully enjoy their time in another country even if they don’t fully understand local culture or speak the local language fluently. They are the people who find happiness in something as simple as a cheesy tourist souvenir, people who cheer their hearts out for unexpected local performances, people who just want to have a small adventure and are incredibly glad to have it.