Tuesday, January 27, 2009

News about a New Culinary Tour in Vietnam

Less than three days after returning from Vietnam, where much of my travels were geared toward following a personally designed "food itinerary" that included specialty dishes in Hue, Vung Tau, Phan Thiet, and Ho Chi Minh City, I came across an article about a new "luxury culinary tour" in Vietnam.


Exotissimo, the company that has organized the culinary tour, is geared toward the high-end tourist, and I was definitely not doing much during my last trip to Vietnam that could be considered high-end. And even if I had been, or if Exotissimo offered culinary tours for varying travel budgets, I have to say that I would worry about such a tour taking what should be a cultural immersion experience and turning it into a kind of false entry into the eating life of the country.

This kind of tour, even if it's limited to luxury travelers, is certainly useful for introducing foreign visitors to Vietnamese cuisine. On the other hand, the joy of discovering new foods in a foreign country seems so scripted on a tour like this that it rings of inauthenticity, and it worries me that important food traditions will shift away from local consumers, who are poor, to busloads of tourists, who bring in lots of money (but only to the few who operate these tours). And as the cultural landscape changes with the influx of wealthy tourists, as it has all over the country, there's a danger of important cultural attributes being watered down in order to satisfy the palates of foreign visitors.

I've seen culturally unique places in Vietnam succumb over time to the power of tourist dollars, becoming less accessible to the Vietnamese, and even made off-limits to them unless they're well-off and willing to pay inflated tourist prices. This is true of famous, beautiful beaches and culturally significant traditions such as water puppet theater in Hanoi and Vietnamese opera performances in Hue.

Maybe I come across here as if I don't want to share my experiences of Vietnam with other people (the dreaded "territorial traveler"), but once you've lived in a place long enough, and you've witnessed the negative effects of inexorable cultural change -- partly a result of the country opening itself up to poorly regulated business practices -- you don't want to see a deeper slide take place in the name of "tourism."

No, I think this is a good thing that is happening, especially for older travelers who might not otherwise be able to travel around Vietnam and taste its wide-ranging cuisine, but I only hope it's done well, with a view toward preserving Vietnamese culinary traditions rather than exploiting them.

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  1. "[T]here's a danger of important cultural attributes being watered down in order to satisfy the palates of foreign visitors." It's almost a devil's bargain - tourism dollars are a boon to the local/national economy but at what price to the culture? At the same time, if such luxury tours opens the eyes of more people to a wonderful culture such as Vietnam's (which must deal with a not-yet distant connotation of conflict), then perhaps it may be viewed as an opportunity to disseminate their traditions to a wider audience. And I am hopeful that the 'polished' tourist version of culture can never supersede the one that thrives among the locals and is supported by travelers such as yourself.

  2. Hi Noodle (as in Tangled): Yes, I think you’re right that this should be viewed as a positive development. I’ve always bemoaned the fact that so few people in the U.S. are familiar with Vietnamese food, though in recent years that’s been changing. And the creation of a culinary tour such as this surely indicates that foreign interest has finally reached a significant level. I’m not sure why I got so touchy about the article! Maybe I’ve seen too many other tourism trends arise in Vietnam, play themselves out, and leave the local culture worse off. Or maybe I just need to lay off the coffee…Thank you for the considered response!