Going by the Book

Hanoi, Vietnam -- 06 July 2004 | Permalink

“Does anyone know if Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is open in the afternoons?” asked the girl in the halter top. There was a fluttering noise as four copies of "Lonely Planet" snapped open simultaneously.

Over the last few days, I've been reading a book kindly loaned to me by A., about a couple who set off to travel around Vietnam by local transport, eschewing the ubiquitous travel guides and guided tours in favor of 'off the beaten track' travel. The author refers scathingly to travellers with copies of "The Book" (which book is never stated, but it's fairly obvious that she means the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam). It doesn't take long for her continued smug digs at 'adventure' travellers with their mapped-out routes and air-conditioned buses to grow tedious; I left the book half-finished when I went to catch my plane to Hanoi, but it was pretty clear that she wasn't going to give up her favorite theme any time soon.

Tiresome though she is, she has a point. I mean no disrespect to "Lonely Planet", who have grown from a literal kitchen-table operation to a substantial publishing business that offers a quality product and impressive attention to detail. Nor to its readers, of whom I am one. My own "Lonely Planet: Vietnam" is sitting on my lap right now, and I have been following its instructions with almost slavish precision for two days now.

But something has happened since the days when the founders of "Lonely Planet" were dragging their motorcycle in and out of Indonesian swamps and scribbling notes for kindred spirits by the light of flickering hurricane lamps.

People who go on holiday with "Lonely Planet" (or the Rough Guide, or any of the others) clutched in their hands like to describe themselves as 'travellers', rather than tourists. They look down on the package tour crowd in much the same way that Mrs Adventure Vietnam looks down on them. There is an unspoken promise in the guidebooks for independent travellers that they will show you the 'real' Vietnam, or the 'real' Cambodia or the 'real' wherever.

God forbid. I can't yet speak for Vietnam, but I can confidently say that the 'real' Cambodia is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. (No, wait, I take that back). The glimpses that I had of the 'real' Cambodia included uniformed police shaking down the stall holders in the market on a nightly basis, a group of young women - one of them eight months pregnant - turning tricks in a public park for seventy-five cents a time, a student who was afraid to go to her classes after dark because of a realistic fear of being gang-raped (currently an endemic problem in Cambodia). It includes the "parade of horrors" at the border crossing at Poipet, a Boschian line of maimed and deformed children and adults waiting for travellers to toss them their remaining riel before crossing back into Thailand. It includes a people who have all but lost faith in democracy because nothing they can do seems to be enough to get rid of the monstrously corrupt crew who've been running the country for the last decade or so. It includes remembering to stay on the path in rural areas because the fields are full of leftover death, and not walking anywhere alone after dark in Phnom Penh because there are still a lot of people there who have guns and not much else. The 'real' Cambodia looks startlingly like hell.

What the independent guidebooks sell - for most of their readers - is an illusion of access to something 'real', something that is out of reach of the package tourists behind their tourbus windows. The idealized reality they hint at is some fuzzy vision made up of magnificent vistas and quaint peasants, of daring adventures and profound insights, all strung together in a succession of Kodak moments and leavened with a source of eco-tourism and international brotherhood.

If this alternate reality exists, if the quasi-heroic prototype of the independent traveller exists (the covers of the French "Guide du Routard" portray him as a robust moustachioed adventurer with the world as his backpack, occasionally to be seen striding along in company with a classic hippie chick whose formula, like his, hasn't been updated since the 1960s), then the independent travel guides may bring you closer to it than anything else can. But sometimes it seems as if the guidebooks are merely the door to a different slice of tourism-space, in its way as artificial and detached as the five-star hotels and air-conditioned coaches of the package tours.

Reality and even adventure have a way of sometimes leaking in between the banana pancakes and the pitchers of beer. But sitting in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, looking at the rows of identical tour operators (half of which pretend to be the 'official' local branch of HCMC's famous Sinh Cafe, and the other half of which have changed their names to try and pass for whichever of their competitors got the most favorable review in the most recent edition of "Lonely Planet"), it's hard to feel very superior to the despised 'tourists' any more.

The French word for a snapshot is a cliché, a word that in French carries none of the overtones of something hackneyed or over-used. But travel photographs - and here I emphatically include my own - tend to run to cliché. They are consciously constructed, consciously selected, to convey the exotic - but the exotic chosen according to a set of pre-existing stereotypes. A woman on a motorcycle in jeans and a pork-pie hat is not interesting; a woman on a motorcycle in a conical hat or an ao dai is a photo-opportunity. Even if there are more women wearing jeans, the picture of the cyclist in an ao dai is more 'representative' of Vietnam. We take pictures of temples rather than tower blocks, even if there are more tower blocks than temples (but we have tower blocks at home, so temples are more interesting). There is a parallel between the artfully-constructed illusions of travel photography and the illusory world sold by implication in the guidebooks.

So what to do? I don't intend to give up my "Lonely Planet": I'd be literally lost without it, and being lost here is the kind of thing that might expose you to more reality than you can easily handle. But at the same time, it's hard to honestly maintain the belief that you are somehow being granted access to something hidden from the rest of the world, that adventure is just around the corner, when all the clip joint tour operators and the English-language menus suggest the contrary. Maybe I should admit that I'm just a tourist after all.

Oh, by the way - Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is only open in the mornings. "Lonely Planet" says so.