Notes From a Vietnam Train: Is Authentic Travel Possible When Gazing Out a Train Window for 16 Straight Hours?

RIDING THE SLEEPER TRAIN is a meditative experience. You’re stuck in one place for perhaps a very long time, and come to realize that to simply sleep or read it all away is a waste of good travel. So you look out the window. What’s there? Green leaves, rice paddies, farmers in straw hats, decrepit brick homes, brown rivers, other trains, pink and yellow. It’s all beautiful, and creates Vietnam.

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But you can’t gaze thoughtfully out the window for 16 straight hours. The peaks of “cultural experience” found on a train are conversations with locals (difficult), eating train food (not hungry? Too bad) or shitting directly onto the train tracks through a hole in the bathroom floor (optimal).

VietTrain2So let’s say you listen to music, or a podcast. This American Life. Does that de-authenticate the experience? Aren’t you too busy thinking about what Ira Glass is saying to remember that you’ve traveled across the world, that you’re in Viet-fucking-nam? 

But then, it’s fair to say that nobody, not even a Vietnamese patriot, would stare out at their country on a 16-hour train ride. This is merely transit, a time-casualty in the war of new experience. So the balance of distraction and appreciation is kind of authentic after all, because your experience mirrors the locals’. In that case it’s not your gaze that’s the focus of your trip, but the backdrop that counts: the mere existence of Vietnam as a passing sight in the corner of my eye may be enough to validate this moment.  Constant awareness, in some nook of the mind, that I am, in fact, in another country, at the whim of another culture.

Again, I refer to the toilets as sufficient evidence of this.

My Vietnamese bunk-mate, with his thin graying mustache and light-wash blue jeans, has been on his iPod all morning. That doesn’t seem fair to me, as I struggle to justify my existence as a traveler. If he rides the same train for 16 hours and spends every waking moment on his iPad, can I do the same and claim “authentic experience”? Is this not how the locals act? Or is he exempt because he lives here?

I wonder how many others worry about this sort of thing. I see Europeans cramming Bui Vien at night, sitting in plastic chairs in audience formation facing the street, across from an identical set of audience formation chairs staring back at them. They’re all eating burgers and fries, drinking cheap import Heineken and speaking their native tongues. That bugs me. What is this country to them? What does it mean to them, to travel to Vietnam? Why did you come here?

Maybe, before answering that, I ought to decide what it means for me.

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