This is a question I’ve heard asked a few times in the last few days as I’ve been travelling around Vietnam and it’s something I’ve been thinking about.
There is a lot written about in relation to tourism, its impact on the climate crisis, exploitation of communities and individuals and the quest to avoid fakery.
Vietnam has raised a few questions for me and I’ve talked about some of this in some of my other posts. This article is an attempt to outline some of the questions and ideas, with some examples from the last few weeks.
Is it authentic?
I had lunch in the Cho Hoi An (Central Market) yesterday. It is lined with stalls, selling delicious food including Hoi An traditional food: cau lao (noodles with barbecued pork), white roses (wonton parcels shaped like roses) and mi quang (noodles in a broth with roast pork and coriander).
I chose to eat here because there was a menu printed in English. The food looked exactly the same as I saw at the other stalls but I would be able to order it effectively.
A couple who arrived at the counter said they wished they had to the stall next to ours because it was clearly more authentic… apparently because it didn’t have a menu in English.
The two stalls were actually worked by the same women – I watched them sharing and swapping ingredients.
Is it not authentic because the staff can speak English? The recipes were the same. The ingredients were the same. Does the ability to communicate really reduce the authenticity?
In Ha Long Bay I saw a fishing village that was one of two surviving from an original six. Its population is dwindling and not many young people remain in the fishing tradition as they seek employment elsewhere.
The village is there for the tourists. How much of a problem is that?
Its ‘authenticity’ fades but times and needs change – but actually, that’s authenticity from past times. Can we, as tourists and travellers, impose our expectations on areas and communities? I would say not.
It’s a tricky one because it’s the expectation that creates the interest and the desire to visit, which can have benefits for the local community and economy.
There are places around the world where the way of life has changed but people still want to see how it used to be. Beamish Museum in the Northeast of England is an example of showing visitors what life used to be like.
That is obviously reflecting a period from over 100 years ago. Would it be a problem if a similar approach was adopted elsewhere, for more recent changes?
In the fields around Hoi An, there are water buffalo that are not actually there for the rice growing process, it’s just because tourists expect to see them.
I’m not sure I feel comfortable with a quest for authenticity that requires communities to remain in the idealised past. Surely authenticity is what is happening now?
What about the environment?
And then there is the environment.
I came to Hoi An to see the Full Moon Festival with the lanterns on the river. I discovered that actually happens every night.
Am I disappointed?
The tradition emerged as a way of honouring ancestors and the gods. This is not a belief system that I adhere to so I can’t really complain about it lacking meaning when it is done on a nightly basis.
Am I concerned about the environmental impact? There are a lot of durable paper lanterns placed on the water each night, so yes because I do find myself wondering what happens to all of that litter.
Have the nightly displays cheapened the (novelty) value or authenticity of the sight? It probably depends on how many nights you stay here but frankly, it’s pretty.
As rain rather disrupted last night’s Full Moon Festival, I was glad to have seen it on ordinary nights.
And for the local community, the nightly displays are giving the boatmen and the old ladies selling the lanterns an income.
This is what I keep coming back to… authenticity versus supporting communities.
Going back to Ha Long Bay, there were a couple of environmental issues that gave me pause for thought.
The first I’ll talk about was a visit to a pearl farm.
Pearls are the only gem that is produced by a living creature and the only way to harvest them is to kill the oyster.
This farm provides an income to several people. Will it continue as demand for cruelty free products increases?
And then there was the Bay itself.
I came here because of a James Bond movie. I wanted to see this place and it really is beautiful.
Inevitably, I am not the only one (and why should I be?) Ha Long City is expanding rapidly with huge hotels going up. The Bay is also a major shipping channel and of course there are are the cruise boats.
I was staying in one of the quieter bays though the presence of other boats irked other guests. They had expected to be on the only boat in the Bay.
I suspect that level of authenticity would significantly increase costs.
Work is being undertaken by the Vietnamese government to preserve the area though I wonder how serious any government is about the need to balance climate and environment against human needs.
What about community survival?
And communities need to survive – they need an income. Tourism does support that. One of the Ha Long Bay party met a young woman with a masters level degree in linguistics, English and Russian. She was planning to work as a tour guide because that is where the money is.
The presence of the water buffalo (that no longer pull machinery), the nightly release of the lanterns and the provision of menus in English support local jobs.
This might not meet exacting standards of authenticity but I’m not sure that anyone who is not from the area they are visiting has the right to define ‘authentic’ for that place.
We cannot expect individuals and communities to remain trapped in the past. Wouldn’t that almost be a form of colonialism?
What I do think is important is addressing the climate impact. Yes, I know, I too am travelling and contributing to the problem. I have made a couple of steps to try to reduce some of my impact: a filter on my water bottle so I refill it from the tap rather than buying endless plastic bottles and I am planning to take seven flights on this entire trip as I travel by train and bus. It’s not perfect.