A Traveller or a Tourist?

7 mn read

Something horrible and unexpected happened during the first few days of our recent trip to Vietnam.

My travelling friend, Ruby and I went on day trip – in a deluxe mini bus which took nine people but there was just us, a Japanese older man, and two 40 something Swiss men – to the famous Cu Chi tunnels an hour and a half north of Ho Chi Minh City. Okay, we knew we were being tourists but we had no idea of the theme park depths that the tour would descend into. The Cu Chi hell.

We’d already – on our second day – visited the War Remnants Museum and been shaken by the information and the photographs. War photographers were commemorated, massacres were covered from all sides, Agent Orange was honestly dealt with and horrifically. Everyone walked round in a sacred silence to honour all those killed and maimed and duped by the US government during what the Vietnamese call the American War. It was very well put together.

A friend had told us to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, miles of underground tunnels where the Vietcong created villages with schools, hospitals and living quarters on three levels. The VC – the Northern Vietnamese guerrilla army that had practised against their French occupiers in the mountains – were very sophisticated in their use of these tunnels though the conditions were cramped and claustrophobic. They helped in the launching of 1968’s Tet Offensive which was the beginning of the end for the US.

Unfortunately, our guide was underinformed and the location was over-touristed (so many of them). There were tunnels that had been made bigger to accommodate tourists, there were traps that you play with, that the VC used to attack the US army, and it was all like being in an Indiana Jones film. Fake yet in fact real. That was the terrible part.

The actual bottom of the barrel came almost at the end. Our Swiss members confessed that they were on this trip so that they could use the guns and ammunition at the end. This meant, Ruby and I had to sit amid loud gun fire (lots of young men mainly) bursting across the landscape for an extra 40 minutes while they got their artillery kicks. Truly awful. And very loud. Like a theme park battle.

Happily, that was the last tour type tourist day for us! Later on, we decided not to go to Halong Bay – to hang out on a boat amongst limestone escarpments meant to be among the wonders of the world – for the same reason. We knew it would be a non-stop tourist shebang with no space to actually feel into where we were.

We loved Vietnam – the friendly inhabitants, the exquisite food often eaten on minature chairs, the elaborate Buddhist temples, the alleyways with so much happening, the eternal surprises, the chaos, the beauty, the amount of coffee and tea houses, the massages, the landscapes, the exotic flowers, the difference between the North and the South, the lanterns, the maximalist tendencies, the wild juxtapositions (like the slick Prada shop and then the old school upstairs with bird cages and crazy orchids) the dynamism and so much more. It was a rich, rich experience with lots of meandering adventures. Like the time we couldn’t get a taxi in Hanoi – the equivalent to the Uber there is called Grab – and walked instead, then bumped into an eccentric woman who had at least 20 small dogs on a cart which all had separate feeding bowls, some of which had dyed pink ears. It had fairground dimensions.

Happenstance is an intrinsic part of travelling. And allowing some space for that is vital. By not having everything organised beforehand, that is. I think I’m at least part traveller because of that.  Ha ha – I could be kidding myself. I never ring up a booking agency and obey their itinerary, I try to think about what we want and where we want to stay. It does take energy and application – and I do understand that not everyone can or wants to do this – but it’s worth it.

When we were thinking about where we would go, I realised we were going to a lot of cities – we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, flew (travellers don’t fly but it’s a long thin country and we only had three weeks) to Danang and then a taxi to Hoi An (travellers definitely don’t take taxis), took the train to Hue, flew to Hanoi – and that I really wanted to spend some time in the countryside. In the mountains. So I looked for a home stay – this is kind of travellery – but the one I truly felt would be good (there are a lot) was fully booked so I DMed the LazyCrazy Homestay through FB and managed to get a room there. A traveller type triumph except the traveller would have done it in an ad hoc way.

I admit it. We’re no longer travellers. On the other hand, I would contend, that neither are we totally tourists. We’re this hybrid. Formed by a hippie past. Well at least on my behalf. I’m almost 71. Ruby is too young at 59.

And where we meld beautifully is around our willingness to go both high and low. This is Ruby’s high and low theory – from the alleyway to the posh hotel. There was the trip to the mountains near Sapa – a plane to Hanoi, a minibus for ten hours to Sapa, a taxi from Sapa to the village of Ta Van 12 km away then finally a motorbike up the last vertiginous 300 metres. That was almost hardcore. Although not quite as hardcore as 35 hours on a bus with lots of locals throwing up and cockerels running around from Bolivia to Peru in 1978!

I have absolute admiration for Ruby – she lived for four years in a stilted small house in Sri Lanka with her husband in the 2000s – because she doesn’t balk at a shared toilet and bathroom which in this care was quite a long way away across a wet and windy yard nor at the cold and damp up there. The LazyCrazy team double booked the cabin that we’d reserved so we were invited to go ‘low’ for a couple of days. We laughed about the ubiquitous use of the adjective ‘rustic’ – the tourist description for basic. But I have to say this homestay did something wonderful – they turned on our electric blankets after that long, long trip and we slipped into this glorious heated sleep.

And it was all worth it because there was a spectacular view in the morning – mountains emerged from clouds that we didn’t realise existed the night before. The food in the evening was brilliant too – home-cooked fish and lemon balm, mushrooms (omg Vietnam has mushrooms like I’ve never seen before…huge, bulbous, black and many more) in a peppery sauce, broccoli and spinach in garlic, lots of chili and taste and taste. Did I mention the home-brewed plum wine? There were a few niggles because our tourist exteriors felt a little too uncomfortable at times, there needed to be a fire at all times and there wasn’t. And the toilet needed a little more attention. Bins with paper, need I say more? And a certain slowness that didn’t go down well. It took them about half an hour to remember to bring the plum wine! Sometimes we felt that we were at their behest rather than the other way round.

But that’s the tourist in me talking, the traveller was thrilled. And entertained by Xan, our hippie, Vietnamese host. Who talked a lot about co-creating and collaboration. And he was only 34 plus he seemed to have created this place and the bar in the village from nothing. He was peace and love, and go with the flow, but also he was determination and drive.

We knew before we departed for the mountains that we might need a bit of comfort when we got back to Hanoi so we were deeply content to spend our last few days in the relative luxury of a boutique hotel at only £25 each a night with a buffet breakfast thrown in. And no slowness here. Everything was graciously and efficiently delivered. And we could have hot baths. Which was a relief because it was unseasonably cold in Hanoi.

The weather was a thing. We did know beforehand but packing was a challenge. We arrived into the sticky humid heat of Ho Chi Minh City at 34 degrees, went up to Hoi An and Hue which were temperate and 26 degrees, ended up in the mountains where it was 10 degrees and then Hanoi which was wet and 8 degrees. We were grateful for our warm hotel.

Hanoi was full of that wandering happenstance we loved. Alleyways that served tasty pho – noodles in a broth with a plate of salad herbs plus beers – although a few rats were also spotted. Oh and the wet Monday afternoon when we discovered the coffee house where a group of friends were belting out Vietnamese pop karaoke as well as knitting. It was beyond surreal. It turned out they were knitting coats for the owner’s pets.

And on our penultimate night, we visited the Hanoi Social Club. Yep, a direct take from the Buena Vista tree. Great sound track as well as hot chocolates. Plus a gig – they ran the tiny music club – on the roof. It was intimate folk – first a Nepali musician who lived in Hanoi with his Vietnamese wife, then an Aussie from Melbourne who sang Tom Waits as well as his own break up songs – and fortunately there was a fire pit. We sat on the floor right next to it.

At the end, a young Canadian man with a wide-open smile asked – ‘Are you travelling around Vietnam?’. We were flattered. He was intimating that he thought we were travellers. We explained that we were only there for a paltry non-traveller three weeks. And then,  he enquired – ‘But how did you know about this place.’ Well because we did our research! And we have a bit of that traveller left in us!!!

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8 thoughts on

A Traveller or a Tourist?

  • Rebecca Leathlesn

    Totally loved that! I’d say you are definitely Travellers – it’s all about talking to local people and hearing their stories. xx

  • Suzi Clark

    I really enjoyed your article, Rose. I think you are very brave going up a mountain on the back of a motorbike! As we get older, comfort, cleanliness and safety become increasingly important to me. I guess that makes me a tourist but as I don’t like being at the heart of a herd, but rather on the outskirts… maybe I’m a traveller at heart, even now ☺️🙏♥️

    • Rose Rouse

      Thanks Suzi. We had fun and went for a few challenges. I don’t mind a bit of cold and not so clean if the views are as spectacular as they were. Yes to being a traveller at heart!! Me too and a few limbs too.

  • Alison Goldie

    Wonderful read. You vividly bring your trip to life. I want to go! I agree with the high/low theory. I can do a lot of low if I know there’s going to be some high at the end of it. On the other hand, a cheap massage by a skilled practitioner in a street shop in Bangkok can be really high and haughty treatment by snotty waiters can be low!

    • Rose Rouse

      Yeah we definitely subscribed to the high/low approach and laughed about it! I mean a glass of fizzy water at the Metropole in Hanoi was the same as a 1 hour massage. Insane. We did tip the masseuses though.

  • Rose Rouse

    Thanks Becca, Suzi and Alison for your comments. Much appreciated. xxx

  • Lynda Fitzgerald

    I did enjoy your article Rosemary. Wonderful descriptions of your experiences, from the warmth and aroma of the capital to the cold and starkness of the mountains.

    • Rose Rouse

      Ah great to hear from you. And somebody who still calls me Rosemary. Hope you’re new hip has settled down and I look forward to a game of rounders with you soon. Vietnam was amazing.

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