«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»
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'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the
Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War)
Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; 461
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Article ‘What the Fuck is a Vietnam?’ 1 Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Stockholm University, Sweden
With the introduction of the reform project doi moi in 1986, Vietnam turned to tourism as a major new economic resource. Demands from inter- national visitors have entailed a commodiﬁcation of the Vietnam War. This article approaches tourism as an ideologically saturated nexus where identities and worldviews are continuously being represented, consumed, reconﬁrmed, negotiated and modiﬁed. Practices and narrations of Western backpackers, who travel to Vietnam spurred by phantasms of Vietnam as a war, are related to dis- courses of Vietnam in tourism literature, popular media, academia, journalism and politics, and traced to a ‘popcolonial’ fantasy of Western superiority. At the core are the hegemonic implications the ‘been there, done that’ cliché carries when war and tourism go hand in hand. It is argued that the dichotomies of here/there and war/peace need to be dislodged in order to understand the ide- ologies of both tourism and war.
Keywords international tourism phantasms Vietnam war Introduction: ‘Vietnam, a country made famous by a war’ You want to hear a gen-u-ine war story? I only understand Vietnam as though it were a story. It’s not like it happened to me. (Vietnam War veteran) Picture this!
A bunch of navy privates from a warship harboured outside Saigon has the night off – a rare chance to escape from soldiery hardships and indulge in some R&R action.2 You hear music – ‘Break on Through’ by The Doors – as you watch a high-heeled mini-skirt clad Vietnamese girl walk out of a bar with her arm neatly wrapped around a GI’s waist. Back in the bar the GI’s friends are putting down bets on how long his coming ‘boom-boom’ will take. Some 20 minutes later the rosy-cheeked GI is back, his previously so impeccable leave-of-absence uniform now slightly creased and his wallet a few dollars thinner. His friends can’t resist giving him some digs about his swift return. Soon the girl also Vol 22(4) 461–489 [0308-275X(200212)22:4; 461–489;029005] Copyright 2002 © SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
462 Critique of Anthropology 22(4)
We’ve all seen that Vietnam War movie, haven’t we, with those obligatory beer-bar or brothel scenes. Only this was not a scene from a movie; this incident took place in March 1999 at a bar in Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon). The warship was there on a friendly visit, I was told. The next day I met some other GIs, this time at the War Museum. Soldiers on a friendly visit, gazing at a war of the past. But that night at the bar, the only thing that really reminded me that I was in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City, not in the cinematic wartime Saigon, was that some tourists joined the GIs in bantering their ‘boom-boomed’ friend. The name of the bar was appropriately The Backpacker’s.
When the war ended in 1975, Vietnam became yesterday’s news – no longer a geopolitical reality, but a mythical war appearing typically as a ‘syndrome’, an MIA/POW issue and, mostly, a box-ofﬁce hit. Then, in 1986, the Vietnamese government introduced the political reform project doi moi (renovation), and accordingly turned to tourism as a major economic resource. Ironically, while the war left most heritage sites otherwise destined for great tourism in ruins, it ‘blessed’ Vietnam with other sites – the Cu Chi tunnels, My Lai, the DMZ, China Beach, Hamburger Hill, Khe Sanh, the Rex – with their own seductive and unique aura. The subtitle above – ‘Vietnam, a country made famous by a war’ – is taken from the opening line in the popular guidebook Lonely Planet: Vietnam (Florence and Storey, 2001: 11). It reveals the crucial role the American War plays in promoting Vietnam as a tourist destination. Vietnam is marketed as having ‘an ancient history and great cultural traditions, with later French-colonial and
American-war periods still much in evidence’ (Thailand Asia Paciﬁc, 1997:
32). While a bumper sticker popular with American veterans heralds ‘Vietnam was a war not a movie’ (Doherty, 1991: 267), in tourism it has become chic to profess ‘Vietnam is a country, not a war’ (e.g. Lasser, 2000;
Truman, 1999). But with the tourist trail so meticulously following the destructive trail once trampled by combat boots and Ho Chi Minh sandals, it’s worth asking – is this newly discovered country still at war?
Initially the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) did not promote the war at all, and they still prefer to sell the uniqueness of Vietnamese culture to international visitors (Biles et al., 1999).3 I therefore would like to point out, lest there be no misunderstandings, this article is in essence not about Vietnam, nor about the War. Instead, it is about ways of approaching Vietnam, and primarily the ideological traits of these approaches. The study is limited to young Western low-budget tourists, often called ‘travellers’ or ‘backpackers’, who, due to their age, have had their images of Vietnam simultaneously informed by re-runs of actual footage of the TV-war and by Hollywood movies. In Ho Chi Minh City they
tend to gather in the area around Pham Ngu Lao Street – dubbed a ‘budgettraveller haven’ by Lonely Planet (Florence and Storey, 2001: 476). I will begin with a broad theoretical discussion followed by some ethnographic examples. Moving on to a global context, I will conclude by reﬂecting on the hegemonic implications the ‘been there, done that’ cliché carries when war and tourism go hand in hand. I do not pretend to be able to cover this vast subject in all its complexity, but with some touristic snapshots I hope to raise some critical issues for further investigations.
Touristic phantasms: When there is here and the past lies inthe future
Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I ﬁrst started travelling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp-collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Bagio, Ankor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly and interesting.
Of course witnessing poverty was ﬁrst to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure stuff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with a truly obsessive zeal, along with being tear-gassed and hearing gunshots ﬁred in anger.
Another list item was having a brush with my own death...
(Garland, 1996: 163–4) A Swedish trade union declared it an outrage that 25 percent of their members did not have the means to go abroad for the holidays. Having to vacation at home posed a serious threat to their members’ health, it was argued. A few days later, Tamil Tigers bombed the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, whereupon all major Swedish news bulletins reported it as a threat to tourism. Tourists were interviewed along with soothing conﬁrmations that none (no tourist, that is) had been injured, all this while ignoring the local realities and colonial history of the thorny conﬂict.
Tourism-as-usual The excerpts from Alex Garland’s best-seller The Beach and the newsﬂashes above illustrate the current topic – backpacker ontology and the emergence of tourism as normal expectation. These ostensibly unrelated examples indicate in different ways how tourism, once a novelty, has undergone normalization in Western society. This process has raised tourism, as a practice of ‘getting away from it all’ and/or a consumption of Other cultures, to the status of an unofﬁcial civil right. With this tourism-as-usual, it is almost impossible to clearly separate tourism from other social Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
464 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) practices (see Urry, 1990). Rather than responding with a ‘we-are-alltourists-now’ lament, I suggest it’s more fruitful to view tourism as evaporating into overall society. Just as ‘tourism’ is more complex than plain ‘free-time’, a clear-cut opposition of mobility/immobility will not do, as both can be coerced or voluntary, depriving or privileging, mental or physical, and symbolic or material. When reviewing my data from Vietnam, it was obvious that it had – just like me and all the (other) tourists – its point of departure elsewhere, not merely spatially, but culturally, ideologically and conceptually. These facts are at the analytical core of this article.
Outlining ‘modernity at large’, Appadurai argues that the imagination has evolved into an organized ﬁeld of social practices, which increasingly serves to deﬁne individual biographies in globalized and deterritorialized ways. This observation is not a cheerful one, as it implies ‘that even the meanest and most hopeless of lives, the most brutal and dehumanizing of circumstances, the harshest of lived inequalities are now open to the play of the imagination’ (1996: 54). The role of imagination is no longer that of ‘escape’ – when the imagination becomes crucial in the construction of everyday local realities, escaping by means of the imagination takes us straight back to that from which we are trying to escape (Rojek, 1993). The
world Appadurai describes resembles in part one described by Heidegger:
‘[t]he fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture’. ‘Picture’ should here be understood as in the phrase ‘to get the picture’ concerning the world, which, in turn, should be understood as a positioning, as in, ‘we are in the picture’. ‘World picture’, then, ‘does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a
picture’. This is a world where Being is sought and found in ‘representedness’, which is set forth and lived out, thus becoming life-experiences (1977:
At the heart of modernity lies consumption, in its widest sense, through which people are engaged in daily practices of imagination and nostalgia that evoke wishes and desires. To consume other cultures and places has become a marker of modern citizenship, and tourism is an ultimate form of this culture consumption (Urry, 1995: 165). This leads us back to my initial claim that, in the afﬂuent part of the world, tourism is big-businessas-usual. Daydreaming of potential destinations precedes every act of voluntary travelling. The building blocks of these everyday-dreams are large-scale repertoires of images and narratives provided by what Appadurai has labelled ‘mediascapes’, which blur the boundaries between the realistic and the ﬁctional. Consequently, ‘[w]hat travellers bring to [their destinations] is more than baggage, and entails a complex “worldview” which must be seen in the context of a technologically complex international scene’ (Hutnyk, 1996: 35). In its apt wider social context, international tourism is an ideologically saturated nexus where culturally speciﬁc identities and worldviews – through practices and narrations – are continuously being represented, consumed, reconﬁrmed, negotiated and modiﬁed. Aiming at
dislodging static dichotomies – here/there, now/then, imagine(d)/experience(d) – to arrive at a better understanding of this nexus, I will employ the term ‘touristic phantasm’.