Value of Leisure

Travel Advisory: How “Ethical Tourism” Wants to Kill the Joy of Going Abroad

Brock Eldon
January 2, 2024
As mid-winter takes hold, millions of Canadians are planning a getaway to someplace warm or mapping out a bucket-list trip for next summer. Travel has long provided both an escape from everyday life and a way to experience different cultures. Now it’s under attack from the “ethical tourism” movement that sees travel as shallow and destructive. It wants tourism curtailed in the name of social justice, postcolonial redress and ecological mindfulness. Some environmental think-tanks and at least one “ethical” tour operator even advocate “carbon passports” that would minimize the amount of travel people are allowed each year. Drawing on his personal journeys in Southeast Asia, Brock Eldon takes apart this phenomenon and makes the case for the beauty, tradition and economic value brought to the world through the mutual engagement enabled by tourism. Wanderlust is a deep human impulse, Eldon observes, part of what sustains us, carrying the promise of enlightenment and the spark of joy.
Value of Leisure

Travel Advisory: How “Ethical Tourism” Wants to Kill the Joy of Going Abroad

Brock Eldon
January 2, 2024
As mid-winter takes hold, millions of Canadians are planning a getaway to someplace warm or mapping out a bucket-list trip for next summer. Travel has long provided both an escape from everyday life and a way to experience different cultures. Now it’s under attack from the “ethical tourism” movement that sees travel as shallow and destructive. It wants tourism curtailed in the name of social justice, postcolonial redress and ecological mindfulness. Some environmental think-tanks and at least one “ethical” tour operator even advocate “carbon passports” that would minimize the amount of travel people are allowed each year. Drawing on his personal journeys in Southeast Asia, Brock Eldon takes apart this phenomenon and makes the case for the beauty, tradition and economic value brought to the world through the mutual engagement enabled by tourism. Wanderlust is a deep human impulse, Eldon observes, part of what sustains us, carrying the promise of enlightenment and the spark of joy.
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Even in the languid heat and the din of motorbikes in Saigon during my time as an overseas language teacher in 2015-16, there was that whispered directive wafting among the scents and fumes: that for travel to be truly moral, one must fundamentally “transform themselves” to “enact change” and to “manifest impact.” It was the gathering pressure to join the vanguard of “ethical” or “sustainable tourism” that, unbeknownst to me, was starting to sweep the travel culture. It was as if our individual travel came with its own editorial guidelines shaping not only our food choices, for instance, but how we experienced and commented on what we saw. It began gently, my experience in the East as one of the previous breed of “new tourists,” but it soon metamorphosed into something quite, quite different.

Is it any wonder in our post-Covid-19 “new normal” – with Ukraine and Russia at loggerheads, with Israel fighting for its life, with Western political leaders and international organization heads warning constantly about the “climate emergency” and “global boiling” – that travel has lost much of its remaining lustre? The figures certainly lead one to believe as much. To take one case, over the course of eight years I have witnessed the steady growth and subsequent implosion of the tourism industry across Vietnam.

According to Statista, Vietnam’s tourism sector accounted for only 2 percent of its GDP in 2022. From 2015 to 2019 tourism had been a star in a country that had grown its way into the world’s middle-income ranks (moving ahead of both India and the Philippines), rising from 6.3 percent to 9.2 percent of Vietnam’s direct GDP. In the last pre-pandemic year, Vietnam welcomed more than 18 million international arrivals. That flow all-but collapsed to just 3.6 million in 2020. Twenty-twenty-two did bring a recovery and Vietnam hit its target of 8.9 million international visitors. Still, the fact remains: a more than 50 percent reduction from pre- to post-Covid-19.

In a world once connected as much by the wanderlust of travellers as the transactions of trade, Vietnam’s silent corridors and empty market squares now echo a haunting reminder of a vibrant past. Countless souls who once danced to the rhythm of tourism are now, still, yearning for the music’s return. Surely now our “ethical tourism” will play a useful supporting role. Can it, though? The tortured internal ideology of the “ethical tourist” suggests its own eventual disintegration. More than merely reshaping how we travel, I believe “ethical” tourism is a smokescreen for curtailing global travel and tourism altogether.

Ghost of the past: After surging to 9 percent of national GDP and generating significant prosperity, tourism in Vietnam (as well as the East Asia/Pacific region generally) all-but collapsed in 2020 and has only partially recovered since then. Shown, empty beaches and tourist-free markets in once-thriving Nha Trang, December 2023. (Sources: (photos) Brock Eldon; (graph) Our World in Data)

“Ethical tourism” has a somewhat convoluted and decidedly leftist ethos: a melange of concepts and claims that would likely come as irrelevant if not bizarre to the stressed-out working mom trying to put together an affordable week in Cancun or the well-heeled professional comparing wildlife safaris in South Africa against kite-boarding packages in the Seychelles. To university-aged travellers, though, the terminology will be familiar.

With its emphasis on equity, sustainability and communion with the marginalized, ethical tourism is woven with the threads of social justice, postcolonial redress and ecological mindfulness. In its entwinement with postmodern identity politics it champions the virtues of the collective over the volition of the individual. It bears the stamp of cultural relativism. It requires of the individual, in essence: advocacy, stewardship and above all “allyship.” Within the embrace of such an ideology, one does not navigate so much through places as through histories, politics and the shifting dynamics of power and privilege.

In recent popular travel literature, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2007) offered up the predecessor model to today’s “ethical tourist.” Played by Julia Roberts in the popular 2010 film of the same name, Gilbert writes – unknowingly, it seems – as a representative of that era’s “new tourist.” Gilbert’s wildly best-selling memoir – surprisingly long and substantive for such a popular work – was omnipresent in expat circles when I began travelling in 2014. Copies now sit in every new or used English bookstore across Southeast Asia. Vicariously, almost, channelled by Roberts for Amazon Prime viewers today, Gilbert still embodies that form of traveller, pre-Covid-19 and prior to the proliferation of the “ethical tourist,” the new backpacker, as it were, emerging out of social-justice-oriented university faculties wielding a woke lexicon sufficient to destroy the entire beauty, tradition and economic value brought to the world through the mutual engagement enabled by tourism.

The new tourist was something much lighter entirely. Admittedly, there is abundant hypocrisy in the memoir’s almost overflowing narcissism: Gilbert, a care-free recent divorcée gallivanting from the sexily pasta-sauce-drenched streets of Italy, through the most mystic corners of India, and finally to Bali – ostensibly in search of herself whilst only, in actuality, “sampling” from these different cultures, affected as an outsider by their moment-to-moment effects.

How can the individual concentrate on their own self-discovery, and self-transformation, without sacrificing some understanding of genuine human-to-human interaction? How could this sort of self-appointed journey through Italy, India and Indonesia serve any purpose beyond self-gratification? (I ask my Canadian and international readers: Have you ever experienced a moment of such profound revelation chewing over a bowl of pasta?)

It’s a gross oversimplification to visit a place for two weeks, or two months even, and think that you understand said place or said people to the extent that you have been transformed by them, never mind having the audacity to preach about it, or to lay claim to speaking for an entire population, as Gilbert does frequently, painting Bali as “a matrix, a massive and invisible grid of spirits, guides, paths and customs.” Is Gilbert truly speaking for all Balinese in the next line, as she writes: “Every Balinese knows exactly where he or she belongs, oriented within this great, intangible map.” The “new tourist” has this to their fault: exotic cultures only appear exotic because they’re exotic to the traveller/perceiver.

Eat, Pray, Love was a form of theatre, a charade, each locale bringing with it only one real character: Gilbert herself. Foreign souls, cloaked in local fragments, the greys and the brutalism of daily life rendered into a more palatable pastel narrative mediated through Facebook or Instagram. Gilbert’s take, returning to the high point of that era in international “down-and-dirty” backpacker travel, seems more like an escapist’s daydream than a genuine exploration of the world’s rich, interwoven cloth.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s (top right) huge bestseller Eat, Pray, Love and its movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts (second from bottom) depict a self-centred and care-free traveller of the pre-Covid-era, roaming from Italy to Indonesia (bottom). But already by the last pre-Covid years, Gilbert’s “new tourist” was being elbowed aside by the virtue-signalling, social-justice-fuelled “ethical” backpacker. (Sources: (top right photo) Erik Charlton, licensed under CC BY 2.0; (middle movie still) Columbia Pictures; (bottom photo) Authentic Indonesia)

Emerging about a decade after Gilbert’s new tourist, the ethical tourist that quickly came to dominate discourse in travel circles and the hospitality industry – taking over entirely after Covid – is largely a product of the academic postmodern meltdown in the social sciences, arts and humanities. The evolution from the vague awareness of ostensible “social justice” issues characteristic of the new tourist to the identity politicking of ethical tourism often manifests as yet another species of virtue signalling. And under the guise of respecting local cultures and supporting local economies, it often conveys a condescending attitude towards those very cultures.

Where the new tourist’s internal makeup was primarily narcissism with heavy doses of fantasy, presumption and plain foolishness, the ethical tourist is a stew of condescension, guilt, sneering disdain, anger, pity and cluelessness. While the first group set themselves apart from “regular” tourists, the second are in open opposition to them. The ethical tourist presupposes that the regular tourist is inherently harmful, while the ethical tourist – among their many virtues – nobly minimizes their environmental footprint. An ethical tourist may object to a Hanoi resident’s planned cruise the next morning around Hạ Long Bay on the grounds that it pollutes the local waters, leaving aside the obvious emissions expended on their own long flight from their home country.

At least Gilbert’s book did some demonstrable economic good in promoting its brand of tourism. The demand for new experiences through travel was never higher than in Eat, Pray, Love’s heyday. Despite its self-centredness, this brand of travel yields mutually beneficial transactions across peoples and between nations. Even if our contact is culturally or spiritually superficial or even fake, the good of the economic transaction remains.

Prosperity itself is the enemy: In their anti-tourism polemic Tourism and Sustainability, Martin Mowforth and Ian Munt simply brush aside the economic benefits tourism can bring to poverty-stricken areas, the potential for mutually enriching human interaction and the promise of incremental reductions to environmental impact. Shown at bottom, a poor neighborhood of Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.

New tourism was unapologetically about the self capturing moments in exotic locales. Ethical tourism demands something of the traveller: at root, an apology for their wanderlust. The resulting void is filled with something far less attractive, for the underlying premise of ethical tourism – as with much of woke culture – centres on the tourist’s self-perception as enlightened and morally superior (even if angst-ridden). Ethical tourists claim to oppose not only colonialism but neocolonialism, but they often give off more than a whiff of each.

Martin Mowforth and Ian Munt’s depiction of the ethical tourist in works like Tourism and Sustainability: Development, Globalisation and New Tourism in the Third World (2016) has become a darling of the academic world, relentlessly pushing a narrative of tourism’s inherent evils. Other titles in this genre include Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future and Lonely Planet’s Sustainable Travel Handbook (2020).

In Tourism and Sustainability, Mowforth and Munt choose to see only the dark underbelly of the tourism industry. Theirs is an incredibly cynical worldview, overlooking the countless instances where tourism has brought genuine prosperity and cultural exchange. Rooted in the anthropological thought of Margaret Mead, Edward Said and Clifford Geertz, cultural relativism enters the picture so that ethical tourism might target both objective truth and global development. Fretting over the “erosion of culture,” the authors approvingly cite the “post-development movement” and its rejection of economic progress in poor countries because it’s part of a “new religion of the West” that aims to Westernize impoverished countries.

“Ethical” or, interchangeably, “sustainable” tourism has become near-ubiquitous in the modern travel lexicon – adorning everything from blog headings to brochures to hotel amenities made of all-sustainable materials. The trend raises a disconcerting thought, though: could our pursuit of ethical travel signal the end of an era in travel itself? To me, such a thing would be tragic, needless, outrageous and mutually damaging. Travel deepens our touch and senses, a rich tapestry woven of symbols and soil. Through it, we learn not just with mind but with every pulse and palpation of the land.

Personally, I prefer Hanoi and Vietnam’s North over Saigon and the South. In the cradle of time, Hanoi breathes its age. I live in Hanoi because of travel. In Hanoi, I fell in love, got married, and built a career and a family. I have the impulse to travel to thank for everything I have today: a roof kept over my head, a library built up over years of work, investment in settling, and two of the three people I love most in the world.

My first encounter with self-consciously “ethical” tourism – the first time it truly hit me – came in Sa Pa in 2016, during a trip through remote and often impoverished Lao Cai Province. I was exploring North Vietnam for the first time, having finished up my English-teaching gig in Saigon, formerly the capital of South Vietnam. There were only two months left before my university resumed back in Canada and I was already studying. Downloading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with the train’s wi-fi and lying back, the steady cadence of the train’s heartbeat was like a lullaby. Closing my eyes, I travelled out from the cacophony of the capital city to the promised, pastoral, otherworldly scenes 320 kilometres northward.

The author remembers his first hike in Sa Pa in Lao Cai Province, Vietnam, for its breathtaking mountain landscape, terraced hillsides, views of new resort construction – and for his first direct encounter with “ethical” tourism. (Sources of photos: (top) Brock Eldon; (middle) Pixabay; (bottom) vietnam.vn)

Once outside Lao Cai’s train station the next morning at a small bus stop leading up to the mountain town of Sa Pa, the faces of the ethnic minority women peered up in long, heavy traditional garb. There were stories woven through every thread. I thought the same of the vibrant textiles and crafts on display at the small market: scarves, various types of jewellery made from all sorts of local crystals, carpets large and small, smoking pipes, pop-up cards, a box for your dime bag of marijuana or opium if you seemed like the type. Shaken from the urban jungle of Hanoi, I strolled my luggage through, overstimulated with the sights, looking for the first available coffee vendor, dizzied by the commotion, the fresh, new mountain “smells” (a certain texture to the air, lighter and thinner in these parts), along with the rising chorus of chattering local tongues.

By early-afternoon I had embarked on my first hike in Sa Pa, sitting some 1,500 metres above sea level and flanked by mountains that eventually rise over 3,100 metres. The new resorts, hotels and hostels set up for tourism in the outpost shimmered. Today, their heights obscure the image of the encroaching mountains entirely. One is then jarred by the contrast if one traverses even a kilometre through the curving, then forking paths down the mountain. Within a few hundred metres, bare cinderblock houses come into view, concrete domiciles built on dreams, not bricks.

A local elder espied me, smoking his pipe seated upon one of those short, pale plastic blue stools so common in Vietnam outside the makeshift convenience stores, coffee stands and beer joints lining every alley of a city like Hanoi. Goatee catching in the sun, he gestured out. Not a wave, not an “extension of hand” exactly either. I paused. The eyes of such men are clouded by deepening decades of hardship.

On the following morning’s group hike – booked quickly and rather carelessly online back in Hanoi – I found myself in the company of two Belgian women, former college flatmates. Margot, the more extraverted of the two, draped in an air of long unemployment and leisure, hinted at a longing to dive deeper into the world of fashion, perhaps starting her own company. As much as we spoke over the two-day hike, her current state of affairs remained somewhat ambiguous. This was a sabbatical, time allotted to contemplating the career shift.

Madison, her more introverted companion, had the unmistakable aura of a young woman nursing the wounds of a romantic fallout. The specifics of both women’s lives eluded me. Nonetheless, their presence, understated yet engaging, was a welcome distraction. Ordinarily reserved on these sorts of large, 12-person outings, I found myself uncharacteristically engaged in most group conversations, socializing with 11 other hikers from all over the world. Margot and Madison became welcome company.

There are three main ethnic minority groups in Lao Cai. I knew enough Vietnamese – the “majority dialect” – to be able to identify when our guide shifted from the Northern Vietnamese dialect to the H’Mong, Dao or Tay. By “ethnic minority groups,” I refer to the 53 internationally recognized ethnic minorities “comprising an estimated 14.1 million people or around 14.7% of the country’s total population,” as recorded by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. The tribes are each distinct in their dress, with the H’Mong people’s dark indigo hemp gowns, the vibrant red headdresses of the Dao, and the more modest though sombre shades of blue-verging-on-black of the Tay peoples. Children from as young as two or three to well into puberty ran around in the background naked, occasionally leading a goat over a nearby hill. It painted a Blakean or Rousseauian scene, I thought, jotting it down at one of our stops.

Among Vietnam’s 53 internationally recognized ethnic minority groups are the H’Mong (top), Dao (middle) and Tay (bottom) people, each distinct in their dialect, traditions and dress. (Sources of photos: (top) Trekking Sapa; (middle) Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock; (bottom) Ovu0ng/Shutterstock)

It was dangerous. It was alluring to other travellers, the illusion of some sublime “happiness” that these villagers were accustomed to. It was motorbikes in Mediaeval times. Though we praised their lifestyles, romanticized them, relegated them to the “good” in our political discoursing, would anyone on our hike trade places and circumstances with these villagers?

“I just think it’s beautiful,” the taller, darked-haired Belgian traveller, Margot, said from beside me later that night. We were seated on barstools on the hostel veranda at the base of a mountain in the Dao village. Sipping a cocktail dished up to her in a coconut she’d finally managed to pierce through, she continued: “It’s just so ‘real’that they’re allowed to live this. They can just be themselves: completely, authentically.”

As Margot spoke Madison appeared occupied filtering her Instagram photos for that day. She had a large following: at least 12,000. I did not expect her to chime in but she did: “Not for long though. You saw the construction. It’s gonna’ pollute the whole damn’ thing. These people are probably the last to have it the way it is and they need our support, but – ” she stopped, rifling through her purse for a pack of cigarettes – “the colonial legacy goes on, doesn’t it? It’s all going to be run by foreign companies in a year.”

Generally I avoid confrontation in interpersonal encounters. Not wishing to spark a conflict at that point in our meeting, our short-lived friendship, I soon after retreated to the cool detachment of the small private room I had booked for the mountain tours. In the curiously sterile embrace of our separate rooms, there were those wooden toothbrushes all embossed with the proclamation: “PROMOTING ETHICAL TOURISM”; it was the first time I had come across the slogan. A token gesture intended to allow us to sleep at night, I guess, convincing ourselves that we were inching closer to some sort of cosmic epiphany.

The shadowed hills of provinces like Lao Cai take on a more sombre hue upon further inspection. Bound to the land as much as to history, minorities in Vietnam are weighed down, not just by their geographic chains, but dealt an unfair hand in economic terms. “Attired curiosities” constituting more than so large a percentage of the population, they are paraded for the “ethical tourist” without shame under the watchful eye of Hanoi.

By casting them out as the perpetual “other,” the Communist Party of Vietnam consciously or unconsciously taps into a market very much appealing to our current generation of ethical tourist. The narratives of the truly marginalized are but a shadowplay, a fleeting spectacle for those who pass, lens in hand, through a place like Sa Pa. The politicization of our travel all too frequently serves to perpetuate the Party’s ongoing oppression. It is a similar though even worse story in Vietnam’s dirt-poor, prodigiously corrupt neighbour to the west, Laos. It, too, crawled with Westerners indulging the same combination of romanticization and pity. Not ethical tourism so much as just poverty tourism.

Poverty tourism: The Communist Party of Vietnam (top left) appears indifferent at best to the economic hardships of the country’s ethnic minorities – while parading them for profit before “ethical” tourists who are captivated by their “authenticity” and want them to stay that way. (Sources of photos: (top left) X/@Scs_Connect; (right) Vietnam Timeless Charm; (bottom left) VN Express)

It was 6:00 the next morning; I’d been awake for an hour. In the hushed embrace of a mist-clad morning, the second of the group hike, I rose to watch the rice farmer across the dirt path that ran in front of our hostel. Other minority men drove their wives by motorbike up the mountains, back up to Sa Pa Town, where the wives could don their traditional garb and pose for pictures or sell traditional snacks or toys or beers to the tourists. The only other drivers I saw were construction workers, usually heading back up through the mountains into town, hauling 2x4s trailing dust, or refilled buckets of cement stacked up on the small metal trailers hitched to the backs of their bikes.

I heard the rhythmic swaying of hooves upon the damp earth for a few moments, as a minority farmer drew closer, resonating with the spirit of his agrarian predecessors. The sounds of the water buffalo’s hooves echoed amidst the lush greenery. A humble tiller of the soil, his weathered hands gripped the plough’s wooden handle and its single rein with unwavering determination, guiding the beast – his pride, his most important piece of property – up and down through the deep though narrow expanse of land. Industrial farming would never come to the Lao Cai minority farmer. It was out of the question.

Seemingly harmonious with his surroundings, he in fact bore the weight of an entire system – a pawn in a political and economic game without hope of personal or intergenerational advancement. His labour – unacknowledged, undervalued – was but a sacrifice. After all, the Party needed poor farmers. Poor farmers are easily dealt with, “not a lot of trouble” I’ve heard it said. His suffering is lessened with each digital share – an object for two seconds’ admiration on a smartphone or computer screen – his silent cries muted by the distant observers who presume to speak on his behalf.

To travel is not inherently misguided; it is not inherently to play the knave – though, hypocritically, “ethical tourism” ends up what the Palestinian-American historian and polemicist Edward Said called “the artifice of empires.” In his seminal work, Orientalism (1978), one of the cornerstone texts in postcolonial theory, Said posited: “Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” Said’s reflection can be applied to the web of power relations and the hazards of seemingly benign interventions discerned in the guise of ethical tourism.

The act of journeying, long celebrated in the annals of our humanist and scientific endeavour as the grand illuminator of the mind, now peculiarly stands at the crossroads of intellectual contemplation and the broader cultural discourse. In her influential recent piece for The New Yorker,The Case Against Travel,” University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy Agnes Callard paints yet another caricature we have seen before: the traveller merely walks along familiar groves, nodding at the mirrored reflections of their own longstanding beliefs. For Callard, travel diminishes to the level of yet another item on the supermarket shelf, either satisfying the consumer’s whims or falling disappointingly short. Callard (the uncompromising scold!) wants us all to just quit travelling – or for travel to be made ruinously complicated and expensive if we won’t. The culmination of ethical tourism, then, is anti-tourism.

Anti-tourism: University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy Agnes Callard’s sneering view that regular travel is a selfish analogue to mere supermarket purchases is used to justify her condemnatory demand that tourism be radically scaled back or halted entirely. (Source of photo: UChicago Creative)

Callard’s perspective casts the traveller in such an unflattering light that I feel more sympathy for earlier writers like Gilbert, now often under assault from left and right. Eat, Pray, Love was no breakthrough in great travel writing, but at least it and the Roberts film refrained from imposing any politically charged worldview, presenting the “new tourist” fairly, as a breed that was at least open to the world and the insights of other cultures. Neither is a cynical work.

We travel solo or with friends or lovers or family, and we reflect back. Are photographs not our visual anchors to moments past, and journals the scripted echo of adventures lived? Experience in this world is an invaluable thing. The “bucket list” in nearly every traveller’s mind is there for a reason. We thrive on adventure to the extent that it is a part of what sustains us, counting down days until mid-winter or spring or summer holidays.

I see travel as an escape from the mundanity of the everyday. It carries with it the promise of enlightenment, the spark of joy, the thrill of the novel. For the starry-eyed duo, the allure of romantic seclusion. For families, a delightful breakout promising joy and discovery for both young and old. Travel is not a pulpit one should preach from. But the age of the adventurous backpacker has reached its culmination. Travel is politicized. What lies in store for us, looking to the current realms of education and popular media, should prompt deep-seated concern. It is a matter of global significance.

After seven years in Vietnam, I am now a domestic tourist. Cát Bà Island has become the place I go for retreat. It lies just off the main northern port of Haiphong but is another world. Appearing in Vietnam as a kind of serendipitous co-invention halfway around the world from England, in fly-fishing with bamboo rods there is also a cherished conduit to my Canadian roots. From Cát Bà, accessible by ferry from Haiphong, my ritual unfolds by settling into the hotel I’ve booked, venturing out to the floating sea markets, engaging with locals who share tales and laughter. A fisherman with an English-speaking son, daughter, or grandchild is always curious enough to take a visitor out to sea.

Another world: Cát Bà Island is part of a stunning archipelago off Vietnam’s northern port of Haiphong, where the author has repeatedly found solace, renewal, recreation and meaningful human interaction, shaping his conviction that travel and tourism are legitimate activities that should be defended, praised and preserved. (Source of top right and left bottom photos: Brock Eldon)

One of the “seven natural wonders of the world” according to organizations such as The New 7 Wonders of Nature, Hạ Long Bay is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Southeast Asia’s most popular travel destinations. Hạ Long Bay had 12.2 million tourists in 2018, a 24 percent increase from the year before, of whom 5.2 million were foreign visitors. That dropped to a mere 1.5 million in 2022. These were hard times, to say the least, for the people I’d seen time and again working and investing in tourism. Whatever country you were in, it was the worst of times for the hospitality and tourism industry since perhaps the Second World War, or the briefer aftermath of 9/11. These fishermen and their families were struggling to make a living on their little island.

With precision and grace early the next morning, the fisherman meticulously prepares his gear: the rod, the reel, the line, the leader, the tippet and the carefully selected flies. Each cast is a dance, an art form honed through years of practice and patience.

Approaching the revered archipelago of Hạ Long, suddenly amidst the vast expanse of the more than 1,600 islands with the age-old pull of the river, the fisherman speaks through his son’s translation, in legends etched in the canyon ridges of his face. The son casts a linguistic bridge between worlds. Rocking on the seas in his father’s rowboat, our conversation is soaked in the rains of wars. Vietnam is a country just over four decades into an era of peace.

Frequently the local inhabitants guide me to one of their secluded little islands, an intimate secret shared amidst the vastness of the sea. As they skillfully prepare fish with their age-old techniques – in this instance, a large crucian carp, looking strangely flattened out, deflated somehow over the flames, still eyeing me even as its skin was grilling to a grey-brown crisp – or fumble with the ignition of a fire, efforts are usually fruitful. Sometimes my fly-fishing attempts fail, which is just as well, because the fisherman always has so many other fish. Amid the imposing, silent sentinels of limestone, there’s an almost otherworldly resonance.

A past of radical contrast: While previous generations fled the ravages of war by retreating to a subsistence existence in Ha Long Bay’s archipelago, today’s youth yearn for education, prosperity and a sophisticated urban lifestyle. Could tourism be their bridge to the future? (Source of photo: Vietnam Timeless Charm)

The people of these fishing villages may indeed not have ventured out on the perilous journey to Hong Kong or Malaysia, braving the vast expanse of ocean to flee as “Boat People” and seek refuge in America in the turbulent post-war late 1970s (an exodus that would total 2 million individuals, of whom Canada accepted some 60,000). Yet, fleeing the mainland, the fisher folk of Cát Bà have assembled a sanctuary for themselves in these floating hamlets.

The waters are a mirror to the vast sky as the boy, translating for his father, speaks of a past of radical contrast held up against the still-relative prosperity of the present. He wants to study in Haiphong, he tells me. He wants to drive bigger boats. Circumstances have changed. Four decades after war’s end, the grandchild yearns for the mainland capital, Hanoi – or at least Haiphong. There is a pause. Under the canopy of the infinite, we discern the weight of sacrifices offered at the altar of destiny and epoch.

Brock Eldon lives in Hanoi, Vietnam with his wife and daughter. His debut nonfiction novella – Ground Zero in the Culture Warcan be found here. He can also be followed here on Substack.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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A second “D” has been added to DEI. But where diversity, equity and inclusion use complaints of oppression and racism to seek power within existing social structures, decolonization seeks to tear down those very structures. It’s the most violent and dangerous threat yet to emerge from the left’s war on Western civilization. It’s showing up where you might expect – in Canada’s Indigenous politics and in the anti-Israel protests following Hamas’s atrocities – and in some places you might not, like grade 9 math classes where students are taught that 2+2=4 is just another subjective Eurocentric construct. Brock Eldon digs into decolonization’s European origin story and explains how it became such a pervasive and dangerous phenomenon in Canada.

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part III: A Refugee at Home

Back in Canada and midway through his M.A. in literature at an elite university, Brock Eldon has almost fallen apart, bottoming out during fruitless therapy. He finds solace in trusted family, reviving his determination to return to campus and confront his tormentor. Things don’t go as planned, as woke professors roil the department in a slow-rolling intellectual coup while M.A. and PhD students virtually beg to be shielded from the world’s greatest literature. In the concluding installment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon’s conviction solidifies that wokism is little more than remixed radical Marxism and that, to survive, he simply must not give in. (Part I is here and Part II is here.)

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part II: Descent to Madness

The purpose of great art and literature is to nourish the human spirit on an individual level. Or so Brock Eldon saw it. What he encountered in graduate school at an elite Canadian university was literature warped into a political tool of intimidation and compulsion, debauching even Shakespeare and destroying nearly everything in its path. Eldon watched the descent of PhD students into angry shouting nihilists and the incipient disintegration of a literature department. He descended a long way himself, fearing for his sanity and for civilization. In the second instalment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon melds his years spent in East Asia, where he found greater intellectual freedom than in Canada, into a penetrating and original take on the Vietnam War’s centrality to the postmodern/neo-Marxist capture of Western culture and institutions. Part I is here.

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