PACKAGING VIETNAM: THE NARRATIVE
OF VIETNAM TRAVEL LITERATURE
With these tourist amenities in place, tourism agencies must still lure visitors to Vietnam, a task complicated by the necessity of creating a new image of the country in the minds of Western travelers. The tourism literature describing travel packages to Indochina is one of the most significant venues in which a representation of Vietnam is offered. While potential travelers to Vietnam can obtain information about the
It is the task of these tourist organizations to create, through travel guides and brochures, a narrative encouraging a potential tourist public to visit Vietnam. Travel brochures, by their very nature, tell the stories of the places tourists will enter into and experience through their various expeditions. These brochures, as narratives, are configurations of “symbolic actions—words and/or deeds—that have consequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them.” Thus, the essential human behavior of storytelling serves the rhetorical function of “adjusting ideas to people and people to ideas.” The stories in brochures, then, mediate tourists'travel experience even before it has begun.
The narrative analysis of tourism literature for Vietnam that follows is based on catalogs, most of them from 1996, supplied by upscale packagetour providers. The catalogs were richly designed guides with heavy, embossed, fullcolor covers, artful photographs, and painstakingly worded text. We also examined a guidebook prepared by the travel industry for its own members: Vietnam: A Travel Agent's Guide, published in 1994 by the Pacific Asia Travel News. These catalogs and guide use words and images to introduce the “new” Vietnam through a narrative replete with ancient mystery and colonial charm.
The travel brochures employ five tactics to frame Vietnam for the targeted publicof wealthy “pioneer” tourists: the establishment of a Europeanized identity; ambiguity in describing the events of the 1945–75 conflicts; depiction of those wars as provincial events; portrayal of U.S. involvement as a social activity; and historical minimization. Through these tactics, wouldbe tourists who remember the Vietnamese as enemies are provided with representations of Vietnam, which suggest new constructs for remembering the country without its nemesis status. The represented landscapes offer Western tourists memories of a past that stabilize and authenticate not the past so much as the tourist's position within it. As Dickinson suggests, memories are “utilized in these sites to create intriguing spaces for [tourists'] consumption.”
The tactic of establishing a Europeanized identity permeates the
The French character of Ho Chi Minh City is highlighted as well. Indeed, the same publication that described Hanoi as the “Paris of the North” notes that “during the French occupation, Ho Chi Minh City was known as the ‘Paris of the East.’” In the course of its nineteen-day tour of Vietnam, Geographic Expeditions promises “a beautiful overnight at the hill resort of Dalat, redolent with touches of the French colonial past.” So as not to completely exclude American travelers from this colonialist experience, InnerAsia Expeditions'brochure describes Dalat's charms as an “old artdecoey French resort favored by Teddy Roosevelt in his post-Presidential hunting days.” By establishing identification with France through their tourism literature, the agencies present Vietnam as an ally rather than a former enemy.
A second persuasive tactic employed in the tourist literature to facilitate a different view of Vietnam by Westerners is the ambiguity of references to the wars of the twentieth century. The brochures give little information, for instance, to identify the opponents in the conflict, the length of military engagement, or its final consequences. In the sixty-five-page Travel Agent's Guide, for example, the war is not mentioned until nearly halfway through the brochure, and then only briefly, in a description of the Marble Mountains of Danang. The first visual image of the U.S. military presence in the country is presented on page 40 of this brochure. A photograph of an American helicopter is placed next to a paragraph listing the “Old Battlefields” in Ho Chi Minh City that tourists can visit. Weeds and deep grass have grown around the helicopter, suggesting that the Vietnamese give little attention to the remnants
Many well-known battlefields and locations of the US army are found here, including Da Spring; Tay Ninh, Chon Thanh, Iron Triangle; D Marquis; Hamburger Hill; Khe Sanh Base; Carol; Rockpile Caps; Con Tien; Doc Mieu; Que Son; An Hoa; Bo Bop; Nui Thanh; and Chu Lai.
Unlike the other descriptions on this page, the list of old battlefields contains no discourse that would associate the Vietnamese people and culture with the sites of war. Like the lone helicopter, American military battlefields appear to be dismissed by today's Vietnamese. Abercrombie and Kent offers similar reassurance, opening the description of its “Images of Indochina” tour by noting, “The turbulence of the recent past has faded.”
Conspicuously absent from the tourist literature are photographs of males who would have been of military age to fight either with or against Westerners. The majority of the pictures included in the brochures are scenic views of landscapes, shrines and other architectural points of interest, and food. Photos with discernible individuals are unusual and exclusively portray young women and children. With fair, flawless skin, the women are models of loveliness who characterize the Western concept of Asian beauty and pose no threat to Westerners. The children who appear in the photographs seem to be calm and well behaved, and surely too young to remember the hostilities; the TBI Tours brochure includes only one photograph, of a gaggle of schoolchildren giggling and waving to the camera, captioned “A Warm Welcome in Vietnam.”
Through an apparent inattention to warrelated incidents, areas, and people, this second tactic creates a present-day Vietnam that is distanced from the past both chronologically and conceptually. The recent war history that most Americans would associate with Vietnam is shown to
Unable to ignore completely the conflict between the United States and Vietnam, the tourism literature employs a third persuasive tactic: depiction of the war as a localized and isolated provincial event. References made to Vietnamese soldiers imply that the fighting involved neither cohesive, organized battalions nor, apparently, any identifiable foreign aggressors. In the Marble Mountains of Danang, for instance, “during the Vietnam War, [the] caves were used by local guerrillas as field hospitals and shelters.” Similarly,
The Cu Chi District, a well-known part of “The Iron Triangle,” features the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels constructed by the local guerrillas and militia in 1945 and then expanded during the Vietnam War. Cu Chi is often called an “underground village” because of its labyrinth of interlaced tunnels used by the guerrillas during the Vietnam War. At certain locations, the tunnels'three floors contained rooms large enough for a commando training center, surgical operation, and army supply stations. It was also the birth place of the historic Ho Chi Minh campaign.
In Abercrombie and Kent's description of events occurring on day 10of an Indochina tour, Cu Chi is offered as “one of the most intriguing battlefields of the Vietnamese War.” The copy goes on to explain that “during the height of the conflict, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces dug an extensive network of tunnels which served as hiding places, storage halls, medical center and dormitory.” In these examples, there is no mention of the enemy against whom the local guerrillas fought. Shaun Malarney notes elsewhere in this volume that Vietnamese historians have generally presented war as sacrificial defense of the motherland against foreign aggressors. In these brochures, those aggressors are rendered not merely anonymous but invisible and unknowable.
Further displacing foreigners from the site of wars in Vietnam is the photograph of the Cu Chi Tunnels that accompanies the copy in the Travel Agent's Guide. In this picture, two men squat in front of a shelter that covers the opening to one of the tunnels. One man appears to be a Westerner, perhaps fifty years old. He is dressed in casual clothes and is
A final depiction of the war as being “localized” to factions within Vietnam occurs in the description of Vung Tau. In addition to beaches, colonial villas, cafe´s, religious sites, and other outstanding views, “one can also see some of the spectacular antinaval guns, a reminder of Vietnam's lengthy territorial struggles.” To whom these guns belonged, or the targets at which they were aimed, remains ambiguous, as is the reference to the unspecified “territorial struggles” in which Vietnam has been involved. Foreign tourists may thus exclude themselves from specific military actions that occurred in the region.
On rare occasions when the U.S. military presence is mentioned in these brochures, it is portrayed as part of a fun, social activity—the fourth tactic. In descriptions of Ho Chi Minh City, the Rex Hotel is often said to have served as the U.S. Army's “bachelor officers'quarters.” To those without a military background, this allusion conjures images of swinging singles and a life of parties rather than living within a state of war. Further emphasizing the social aspects of the country is a featured attraction, China Beach, “the site where American soldiers used to relax.”
The final persuasive tactic that appears in the tourist literature on Vietnam is historical minimization. Interactions between Vietnam, France, and the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are all but lost in the grand expanse of Vietnam's history, from the ancient to the modern. In this way, even if the contemporary travelers recognize the previous antagonism of the countries, it is presented as a historical moment of comparatively little significance in the context of Vietnam's long and culturally rich past.
Historical minimization is achieved in the tourism literature in two ways: by skipping over details of events during the years the U.S. military was active in Vietnam, and by focusing on the distant past of the culture and country. Few references are made to events in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975. In an article documenting the fortyyear history of Vietnam Airlines in the Travel Agent's Guide, for instance, there is commentary about its beginnings in 1956; then the chronology of the airline skips to 1975, when unification “brought a boom in air services due to the dramatic increase in economic, political, cultural and social activities.” The intervening years simply are not mentioned.
Steeped in romance and history, the ruins of the city of Hue (“City of Romance”) receive a two-page color spread in one travel brochure, followed by a third page of photographs and copy. Only time seems to have affected this city that, according to the Travel Agent's Guide, was “considered the most splendid royal capital in Vietnam from the 1700s to the 1940s.” King Khai Dinh's Tomb, built between 1920 and 1930, and the Thien Mu Pagoda, which dates back to 1601, are located near Hue, off the Perfume River. In Danang, My Son Sanctuary, “once the capital of the Kingdom of Champa (from the 5th to the 12th century), was graced with 68 magnificent palaces and temples.” Remnants of the temples were excavated earlier this century. With visible ruins a thousand years old or more, Vietnam is promoted as a country whose importance to the world extends far beyond a comparatively insignificant war of the twentieth century.
Through the strategies of establishment of a Europeanized identity, ambiguity in references to the 1945–75 conflict, depiction of that war as a provincial event, portrayal of U.S. involvement as a social activity, and historical minimization, the tourist industry writes a narrative of Vietnam as welcoming, nonthreatening, and steeped in a history that transcends recent animosities.