HA GIANG & HA LONG BAY
How fragile the authentic experience can be
Modern tourism destroys precisely that which it is searching for: authenticity. This idea, from the book Grand Hotel Europa, was stuck on repeat in my head when I travelled through Ha Giang and Ha Long Bay.
In the remote area of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, the local villagers put a lot of effort into protecting their heritage. I met people whose lives have stayed pretty much unchanged over the generations. Often, that means a lot of hard work on the steep terraces harvesting rice and corn, or putting in long hours to make the most beautiful fabrics out of hemp. Though their life may seem tough, they’re not unhappy. You can see it in the way they wear their traditional clothing and jewellery: these people are proud of what they do and the tribe they belong to.
But their surroundings are rapidly changing. Newly built roads lead to big construction areas where new border crossings with China are being built. No matter how hard these people try to preserve their heritage, Ha Giang will change in the next few years – for better or for worse.
Mr. Thien, portrayed here with his youngest daughter, happened to be our homestay owner and one of the initiators of this system in Thon Tha Village. He proudly told us that he received an invitation to present the system at a worldwide tourism convention in Italy. He had never left Vietnam or even Ha Giang. Can you imagine the journey he’s about to make? Not all heroes wear capes.
If thousands of people all come looking for serenity in the same place, it becomes pretty hard to find any. But what I found most confronting is the fact that as a tourist, I contributed to the same thing that I was mentally criticizing. I still haven’t worked out exactly how to reconcile these ideas.