“Thirty years ago, they couldn’t force me to come here…”

“…the name Vietnam…arrived…as a summary and combination of everything one had ever learned…about the horrors of war.  There was something profoundly, horribly shocking in the odds and the proportions of the thing.  To all appearances, it seemed as if a military-industrial superpower was employing a terrifying aerial bombardment of steel and explosives and chemicals to subdue a defiant agrarian society.  I had expected the newly-elected Labour government to withhold British support for this foul war (and the amazingly coarse and thuggish American President who was prosecuting it)…”

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22


‘The crow went traveling abroad and came home just as black.”

English proverb


The title of this post is the first line of what must be a standard Baby Boomer Vietnam tourist comment.  The punchline is “…and now I’m paying for the privilege.”

Yes, thirty years after the worst disaster in American foreign policy, American tourists (actual example) are paying big bucks to visit Vietnam, paddle kayaks and ride a junk up and down the Mekong river, sleep part of the time on said junk and in a tent, ride an elephant, and observe people who live on $1 a day and do not have the option of going back to big, air-conditioned houses and Toyota Priuses in America.

There is another, darker punchline about such a visit (and this one I keep to myself): “…the privilege to enjoy what 56,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese died to prevent: a communist/socialist Vietnam.” 

Not so bad

Not so bad, is it?  They didn’t go communist the way North Korea did.

Surely not worth wasting twelve years and horrendous amounts of American life and treasure over a stupid theory that if one country went communist, so would another, and another, until we’re fighting them in the streets of San   Francisco.  The domino theory – does anyone remember?

Full disclosure: I’m not a travel person.  I just don’t get it.  Why subject yourself to a grueling itinerary (13.5 hours from Newark to Beijing, and there are more legs to the journey) to endure no end of physical discomfort just to experience something directly, when the image of it is no farther away than your computer?  It can’t be good for your legs to sit on a plane for so many hours…or to kneel in a kayak because your arms are doing all the work.

Grain of salt

So if you are lover of travel, take this with a grain of salt.  You see something in it that I do not.  Where exactly is one going, and why?  As Baba Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary’s compadre in early psychedelic experiments) says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” 

Relentless travelers seem to be in the grip of  what some Eastern philosophies see as the Western form of laziness – constantly keeping in motion to avoid the real issues.   Some of it is conspicuous consumption: I do it because I can.

But aside from the need for compulsive motion and activity, there are two of the so-called appeals of travel that are actually turn-offs to me: native cultures and religious monuments.   Below, I explain.


But first…Vietnam is in a class by itself.  Even if I could afford it and welcomed the physical rigors, I still wouldn’t go.  As with America’s WWII enemies, the US pounded the shit out of a country, then came back as tourists.  The Vietnam wounds are still too fresh for me. 

I remember how this fucking war tore the country apart for more than a decade.  I remember how I really was ready to leave for Canada if they ever came for me (I had a how-to handbook on emigration); I lived in anxiety until I reached the magic age of 26.  Then the lottery kicked in.  (Then the volunteer army, surely a most brilliant stroke on the part of a government that’s pursuing endless war as a foreign policy.)

1968 was a nightmare – riots and assassinations, along with the war.  I was in Chicago for part of the ’68 Democratic Convention.  I saw police beat the crap out of American citizens, while, inside the building, the elite picked their next puppet candidate.  For years I was ashamed to be an American. 

Yankee dollars

To come back and spend your Yankee dollars to make live entertainment out of another people’s real life…well, as a humanist, I find it degrading.  I watched it when I lived in Hawaii (but didn’t participate; that was for tourists). 

I would not pay do that, especially in Vietnam.  Before he left, the traveler told me that the people are really friendly.  Well, sure.  They want to let bygones be bygones and just make a buck.  Just watch out for the unexploded land mines.  And oh, yeah, the travelers had to get several inoculations and take anti-malarial medications.  What fun!

Aside from the physical discomfort (after 13.5 hours on a plane I would be so jetlagged that if you deposited me a block from my home, I wouldn’t know where I was)…aside from the degradation of native peoples (doesn’t apply to most of Europe, though)…aside from the fact that jet fuel is among the most profligate uses of fossil fuels…I have a problem with the reason why they go. 

Committed modernist

I’m a committed modernist.  Just as our philosophy, science, and medicine are far superior to those of the primitive people whom religion idolizes, so are our technological achievements.  Even the spouters of Christian hate and Muslim jihad use modern technologies to spread their vile message.

It’s fine with me if antiquities are your thing.  But let’s remember that what we’re looking at is religious monuments to fantasy and the ruins of failed societies.  Why are these societies gone?  What can we learn?

Travel and religion 

These questions are not the province of the tourism industry.  I bet that every tour, no matter where, is filled with religious magic places where this or that god touched down and performed miracles, some saint was buried, Abraham pitched his tent.  An atheist friend of mine went to Turkey and got this same spiel.  Here was where the apostle Paul took a piss. The religious believers lapped it up.

The more committed I became to humanism, the more balanced became my perspective on ancient ruins.  The high point of the Vietnam travelers’ trek is Angkor Wat – as I said, monument to fantasy, failed culture. 

It’s interesting to see what people of past centuries could do, but let’s face it: The World Trade Centers were a crowning achievement of modernity, making Angkor Wat look like the primitive – though artful – effort that it is.  No wonder the mediaeval-minded Muslim fanatics targeted it.

To step into a cathedral is to experience the execution of those primitive impulses first-hand: the bloody Jesuses all over the place, dark recesses with more statues, the stained glass (mediaeval virtual reality), high ceilings that seem to disappear into nothing (didn’t God punish people for making towers too high?).  To a humanist Jew, it feels downright creepy.  The incense and chanting no doubt contribute to the otherworldly effect.

So: culture is prostituted, old is good, history and legend can be completely mixed, and the tourist gets a totally manufactured, orchestrated experience.

I’ve been to the USSR and Amsterdam; in both cases, there was something very desirable on the other end.  Absent that, I’ll stay home, thanks.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance” (1833),  “Travelling is a fool’s paradise.  We owe to our first journeys the discovery that place is nothing.”

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Comment by Alan Perlman on October 25, 2012 at 12:50pm


Thanks for thoughtful comment.  Travel can present surprises, as when I got into a jazz jam session with musicians in the USSR.  Historical sites of more recent vintage appeal to me.  I grew up near Phila., and seeing where it all started, which I've done many times, is quite thrilling and never grows old.  I was also 16 miles from Valley Forge and 3 mi. from the Battle of the Brandywine.

Comment by Pat on October 25, 2012 at 10:27am

Alan, I understand what you’re saying. And could even add a few examples myself. Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmarte is a prime example. It has all the medieval trappings of Notre Dame, yet was completed in 1914, and dedicated to the destruction of the Paris Commune by the reactionary forces of France; not the least of which was the Catholic Church. And yes, the view of the Paris skyline from Montmarte is quite impressive, and also available on Google Images.

However, there is something I think missing here in the reluctance to travel. And please do not misunderstand. I’m not accusing anyone of being xenophobic. But there is the whole element of meeting and interacting with people of other cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds that you simply can’t get from images on a computer screen. I will completely agree with you regarding tour buses that tell the passengers you have 10 minutes to take pictures where St. Paul pissed, where ancient Celts built a circle of stone monoliths, or where St. Thomas Aquinas levitated at Notre Dame. Those types of travel “packages” are an anathema to me (every pun intended).

However, grabbing a back pack (as I did in my younger years), or just renting a car and going on your own has a lot of merit, in my opinion.

Example: I’ve been to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and Dealey Plaza in Dallas. They’re both set up to afford the visitor all the views, recount the events, that mark the historical significance of the place.  Brochures are handed out, and guided tours are offered. On the other hand, try to find Béal na mBláth, in County Cork, Ireland. It has the same historical significance as the American sites (the place of Michael Collins' assassination), yet is out the way, no markers on how to get there, and the locals simply don’t want to discuss it. If you’re close, and ask for directions, the Irish hang their head, point down the road, and walk away. Or walking into a pub where everyone is speaking Gaelic, and the patrons immediately switching to English to make sure you feel welcomed. You don’t get that experience from Wikipedia.

And while I could go on and on, I’ll leave it at one more. Taking the walking tour of Old Havana, prior to President Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions, I was amazed at how warmly I was welcomed as an American by the Cuban people. At one point, on a narrow cobblestone street, and upon learning me and my fiancée were Americans, and old washer woman took her by the arms, started loudly singing and danced with her in the middle of the street. The people standing around were welcoming and literally applauding us on running the gauntlet just to visit them. That, along with cab drivers blocking the radio and telling us what they really thought of Fidel.

Besides, you just can’t get a good dish of Irish Bubble and Squeak, or a real Cuban sandwich (olives instead of pickles) by simply reading Lonely Planet.

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