“…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.”
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.
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.
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.”