A couple of weekends ago, the Fulbright Program sponsored my cohort to a weekend getaway to Ninh Bình. It was honestly a nice break from the usual routine we all had going on: wake up (late) every morning for breakfast, spend a few hours learning Vietnamese, eat lunch for an hour, and spend the last few hours learning Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) lessons. During our little getaway, though, I was prompted—or rather, reminded—to think about the space I/we occupied (shout out to MJ!).
We woke up early Sunday morning to bike through Van Long Nature Reserve. We rode along a narrow path with rice fields on one side of our periphery and a mountain range on the other. As we rode in a crooked line behind our tour guide, cars, motorbikes, and bicycles veered past us, honking and dinging. They all carried a similar expression on their tan, brown faces. They looked…unamused. Irritated, almost. A bit bothered. We continued riding, nonetheless, passing more locals, and water buffalos, and cows, and calves, and trees, and mountains, and open fields. We stopped only for photo ops.
“What’d you think of the tour?” MJ asked as we neared the end of early morning bike ride.
“Interesting? I don’t know,” I answered.
“Me, too. ‘Interesting,'” they replied. “But I also feel weird. We’re disrupting people’s way of life for pictures and tours. We got honked at a lot earlier, and that kinda just reminded me that this isn’t really our place to be.”
MJ and I discussed further. We shared our thoughts on global tourism and the contradictory, hypocritical attitudes of many Westerners (ourselves included), who feel entitled to explore and take pictures of all the ~exotic places we visit, yet we fail to get off our high horses when international tourists, especially non-white tourists, occupy our spaces. For example, I thought about all of the Chinese tour groups who visited my college campus. They would clutch onto their 3-feet long selfie sticks, pose with Korean hearts, pressing their index fingers and thumbs together, and flock around in their matching outfits. They were captivated by all the mundane things I saw every day: wooden benches, statues of old white men, skyscrapers, squirrels. I gave so many side-eyes my forehead wrinkled. My surroundings were being constantly subjected to photographs and scrutiny. It was a bit intrusive. I never really spoke up or questioned their presence either because I knew, realistically, that I was not entitled to the physical space around me. To challenge their presence would be uncalled for. Instead, I opted for soft groans and scoffs.
But then there I was, in Ninh Bình, more than 9000 miles away from my campus, with fifteen other loud, obnoxious Americans. Hypocrisy leaked from our moist, sticky skin. We were holding up traffic on a narrow road to gasp and shriek and take pictures of everything around us. We posed unapologetically, our backdrops capturing the tall mountains hidden behind the clouds, overlooking field workers and fishermen and women. Honk honk! We also shouted at each other, our voices louder than the vehicles speeding beside us. We wanted to make sense of ourselves and the space around us. The humidity, already heavy with Vietnamese chatter, was met with our American tongues. Our languages, foreign and native, entangled.
I didn’t think twice about our American-ness, our bluntness, our disturbance. Our touristy behavior was an act of disrespect—one I regret not being more cognizant about in the moment. MJ prompted me to reflect on the nature of my/our presence in not only Ninh Bình but also Việt Nam. As a Vietnamese American (or Việt Kiều) living in this country for the next year, I am (and am not) a foreigner in many aspects. But one thing is for sure: I am a guest. We are guests. And my mama would smack me upside the head if she knew I disrespected my hosts in any way.
Moving forward, I hope to be much more mindful and respectful of the spaces I take up. But what does that mean? What do mindfulness and respect look like in this context? I’ve interpreted this to mean a number of different things, and these interpretations will continue to evolve as I further my time here in Việt Nam or elsewhere, but for now, I suppose it to means to check my (American) privilege in all that I do and say.
And I urge my fellow Americans traveling abroad for whatever purpose to do the same as well. Check your privilege.
Ninh Bình Province | Photo Credit: David Thai (2018)