My ebook: Journeys with the caterpillar

My ebook
Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores
and Sumba, Indonesia
" is available at
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Monday, September 17, 2007

Trip to Vietnam and random thoughts on tourism

I just returned after a short trip to Vietnam, a place that had been on my wish list for quite a few years now. Vietnam is an amazing location where one can encounter within a short duration, sights and sounds, ranging from communist propaganda, night-time sleaze, war horrors, hardships of revolutionary life, tranquil of beautiful hill stations, huge sand dunes, highways by the sea, vast pastoral lands, and the densely populated Mekong delta with those magnificently green rice fields. More about Vietnam in the coming posts; here, I wanted to scribble about some random observations on tourism as such.

On our way between different tourist destinations, we drove past numerous small towns which are stuffed next to one another along major highways in Vietnam. The sights of these towns passed by our eyes at the vehicle speed of over 50km/hr. The unknown faces, the buildings, the shops, the trees and the landscape; they appeared in our line of sight for a split second and we forgot them almost immediately. In our lifetime, how many people will we see of the 6.7 billion living in the world? Ho much of the earth’s 150 million square kilometers can we cover in our lifetime? Probably the smallest of any sense-making fractions. Given such enormities, isn’t it so sad that our brains are not able to capture and retain much of the memories of our past interactions?

One can’t but feel sad for the towns that don’t classify as tourist attractions. The only thing they get directly out of tourism is probably just touristy urine, delivered occasionally as tour vehicles take pit stops in these towns. Sometimes, based on the vehicle driver’s whims, these towns also get to feed the tourists.

As for the souvenir shops for tourists; around the world, they keep the same goods: t-shirts, flags, key chains, plaques, cups, replicas of buildings, and paintings. And within the country, all of them, without failure store the same goods. It is amazing how these few items such as plaques and t-shirts (seemingly??) capture the essence of a country’s topography and culture. There is one difference though between souvenir shops in the developing world and the developed world. In the developed world, there is no need for bargaining. A “Mind the GAP” t-shirt in London seems to be very justifiably priced at 25 pounds. On the other hand, a t-shirt in Vietnam costing three dollars, seemingly made of the same material, but with a Ho Chi Minh face on it, demands lengthy bargains using calculators. But then, it’s of course hearty to note that the world would work just fine even without language if everyone had a calculator and some basic numeric skills.

And how do the locals see the tourists? Probably nothing more than a walking pile of cash with an intense and insatiable desire for food, souvenirs, cigarettes, chewing gums and sex!

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