I spent years looking at blog posts, travel articles, and Best Of lists in a cubicle. With no window, but a desire to see the world, I sighed over glossy photos of turquoise water kissing white sand, monasteries impossibly nestled into the sides of mountains, hot air balloons floating over fairy chimneys, dreamy color-soaked sunsets over white Mediterranean villages, and ancient ruins perched in the clouds and watched over by llamas.
Are the photos I’m talking about incredibly idealized versions of Thailand, Bhutan, Turkey, Greece, and Peru respectively? Of course. Are they also the reason I eventually quit my cubicle job and never looked back? Also yes.
After dreaming about a thing or a place long enough, it’s only human to have created expectations. I’d gone to the Philippines and Thailand with relatively few expectations aside from some beach time (check) and some banana pancakes I saw Andrew Zimmern eat on a Travel Channel show (double check). While the Philippines was not for me, I seriously enjoyed nearly everything that Thailand had to offer.
It was with that high that we flew into Vietnam. Saigon – a tangle of motorbikes, honking, street vendors, and unrelenting humidity – left me feeling sick and that was before the food poisoning set in.
I was unfazed.
While Saigon had been a convenient point at which to enter the country, what I considered the main event was still ahead. Hoi An – a convenient halfway point between Saigon in the steamy south and Hanoi in the wintery north – was a city of lanterns. I’d read about it in numerous blog posts and decided it would be the perfect interlude between two hectic Vietnamese metropolises.
When we arrive, the city is as darling as I’d imagined it. Lanterns hang from every building. Women ride bikes down the street wearing nón lá, the iconic conical hat. Fruit vendors push mangosteens and rambutans into our hands. But something is wrong. Something is off.
I can’t figure it out, but I can’t shake the feeling either. Then it hits me.
Hoi An is too perfect.
The buildings are filled with tailors hawking their wares at hapless tourists. Signs on the street point to the tourist office and public bathrooms like we’re at a theme park. The most picturesque streets are pedestrian only and clogged with white people snapping photos.
It’s a hot day and we pause at an empty restaurant on the waterfront. There is construction happening on the street, which blocks patrons from a view of the river. Beyond that, a rusty barge floats in the calm river. This is the only ugly thing we’ve stumbled across in Hoi An. I order a ginger tea, which turns out to just be ginger slices in hot water. The longer it steeps, the more the ginger burns my throat when I take a sip.
Hoi An is beautiful, travel blog photo worthy, but I begin to wonder at what cost? Is Hoi An merely the travel equivalent of a philosophy degree? You get a philosophy degree to teach other philosophy majors who then, in turn, teach yet more philosophy majors. It’s a self-sustaining model. Hoi An is beautiful so tourists come here so it must remain beautiful so more tourists come here.
The beauty here edges out other realities of Vietnam – incessantly honking motorbikes, vendors hunched over small grills serving up bowls of phở, ropy cables of wires strung up and down streets. These things will never be as beautiful as buildings draped in glowy lanterns, but they are still woven into the fabric of life in Vietnam. After the vibrancy of Saigon, Hoi An feels anemic. Where is the pulsing lifeblood of the Vietnam I had become acquainted with in its capital? Hoi An is packaged and offered to tourists as a safer, sanitized Vietnam. A Disneyland-esque theme park of Vietnam.
What I begin to see as the artificiality of Hoi An makes me wish I had tried harder in Saigon, the teeming, noisy, overwhelming, smoggy, chaotic, and authentically real city that it is. I will not make the same mistake in Hanoi. It will take a while to crystalize, but this is the moment where I begin to value substance over style in travel.
We watch the sun set over the river from the balcony of a restaurant. As the sky darkens, it begins to rain. Fat drops of water fall hard and small rivers run down the street. Touts appear, offering umbrellas and ponchos to drenched passersby (because of course they are).
After buying plasticky ponchos, we pause to take selfies on a bridge. The photos are dark and grainy. We can’t stop laughing. Our smiles stretch wide and we blink away raindrops. This moment is not perfect, not staged, not travel blog worthy, but real – exactly the kind of memory I want to have from my travels.