“Oh don’t go there it is too touristy!”
I am told this a lot by many people. That includes locals and foreigners. So I have been assessing what this means. What is “touristy”? I naturally think Disney World…long lines…cattle calls…themed gifts and souvenirs.
When people say this there tends to be this disdain look on their face. It looks like they just took a bite of stinky tofu! They typically role their eyes, put a hand up and say with such passion: “Don’t do that.” At first I took this very seriously. Oh my. So it is like Disney World. Oh my. I do not want to be one of “those” people. I want to be the person that is adventurous. I want to be the person that goes amongst the local people. Be one and all that stuff.
So my first big adventure in Vietnam was Sapa (Those are not the right shoes). So with that I set my baseline of “touristy”. Because people told me not to go there. It was too touristy. When you arrive in the actual village, there are a lot of hostels, foreigners around and souvenirs. But the actual trekking was anything but touristy. That whole safety thing got thrown out of the window.
The second big trip was caving in Phong Nha. That town was literally a single mile strip. You could tell they wanted to be touristy at one time. They had a lot of empty businesses. I believe they had expected this large tourist boom that never quite happened. This was the first time I bought a souvenir. I bought a “Straight Out of Phong Nha” t-shirt! I mean come on. I used to work in Compton. I get a ton of compliments on this shirt. The caving part was, again, anything but touristy. True adventure and we would not have been able to do that in the states.
The third trip was Cambodia and Thailand. In Cambodia we went to Siem Reap. That is the home of Angkor Wat. It was very high on my bucket list. I will say that I had expected it to be more like tomb raider than Disney World. And it did turn out to be more like Disney World. Lots of people! I mean lots of people. But that was fine. You are in this 1000 year old temple and the people disappear.
The fourth big trip was Hong Kong. Now the city was just amazing by itself. There are a couple of sites there to see. One is the world’s largest sitting Buddha on top of a mountain. I did think that was going to be a couple of hours and be done. It took almost all day. That was a true cattle call. Signs that say “60 minutes from here to get tickets” and “30 minutes to get on cable car”. This is what happens when you are me and really do not plan trips. I just heard big Buddha and I was like lets go. You had to take a gondola over 3 mountains to get there! When you get off you walk into a Universal Studio set of China. No really. It was literally built to hold restaurants and shopping. This was a big difference than Vietnam. Vietnam had not at this point showed me this fakeness. Also there was safety! Which means sprinklers for fires, handrails, disabled access…
Last weekend I finally did the most famous site in Vietnam, Halong Bay. With time running out here, I have only a few weekends open. So this was my first time booking a group tour. So myself and 35 of my closest strangers got on a bus together in Hanoi for a 4 hour drive to the coast. Half way through the drive they do a pit stop. It is basically a truck stop where they drop you off on one side and you have 3o minutes to make it through the building to the other side to get back on. It is full of shopping and crafts. But what is a bit special about it is that they are right there making many of the crafts. Touristy? I mean they are sewing pictures. Yes sewing landscapes and scenes from Vietnam. After 3o minutes we are then herded back onto the bus. We arrive at the marina in Halong Bay. Once we are on the boat they asked us to stay on the bottom deck until we go into the bay because it is common to hit other boats on the way out. What? There are that many boats that there are literally traffic jams! Boat jams. You are then taken to a floating village where you to kayak into some caves. From there you are then cruise around the bay to another limestone mountain island and taken to a cave. Up until this point, all things in Vietnam had authenticity. I will say that this cave had nice paved pathways, handrails, rainbow lights on the rocks and a guy sitting a desk in the middle taking photos for everyone. It actually caught me off guard. But when you are on the boat and there are over 2000 limestone mountains jutting out of the ocean you realize something. It is the most famous spot in Vietnam for a reason. It is breathtaking. It is majestic. It is Mother Nature at her best. It is dotted with boats and tourists but so what?
So what have I learned! Places are touristy for a reason! I have not had a bad experience once. Sometimes there are lines. Sometimes they do not live up to expectations. But many times they exceed them!
You know what else I learned? Touristy means western toilets, on average about 15 foreigners (aside from Halong Bay) and Diet Coke. So touristy me up! Have you tried a squat toilet? Have you seen me without a Diet Coke for a whole day? Neither is pretty. I have also learned that someone makes all those souvenirs you buy. Someone is making a living off of them. In Cambodia you knew the only way they were going to eat is if you bought something. I gladly buy touristy things now. I gladly support these small businesses. So never be afraid of the touristy side in yourself. I have learned to embrace it.
I will get to see how touristy the Mekong Delta is this coming weekend, Myanmar over Thanksgiving and Laos in December.