‘Everybody hates a tourist’, sang Jarvis Cocker, the one phoney note in the most inspired song ever to emerge from my home town.
It isn’t true. Tourists who engage – and part with much needed dollars – are liked and appreciated; even on occasion respected, though that’s harder won and rightly so.
A moment of shared humanity, no matter how banal or fleeting, can transcend barriers of language and skin colour, oceans of lived experience. For me, a lottery winner at birth, that’s above all what travel is about.
Sometimes it really is just a fleeting moment, as with the guy I saw today catching grasshoppers outside the crumbling brick walls of Hue’s Forbidden City. I pointed to him, then my lens, raising my eyebrows in query. By way of answer he threw a huge grin and toted the polythene death row in which those insects most recently caught hopped out their last seconds of sentient existence before collapsing on a mounting pile of their lifeless brethren.
Had we been able to converse I’d have told of summer days in meadows round Parson Cross, northern Sheffield, circa 1960, stalking grasshoppers for the thrill of the chase and feel of their frantic dance in the prison of my palms. But the information that I then let them go wouldn’t impress him. “We eat everything but the leg”, a Viet girl told me on my last trip. “The table leg!”
I happen to know from a stall on the night bazar in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, that deep fried grasshopper is a real treat …
Sometimes, though, the encounter is more substantial. Across the road from the Forbidden City’s southern wall stand two rows of military hardware: Russian tanks, MiG jets and items – helicopters, armoured vehicles and a fighter-plane – “captured from American Imperialists in War of Liberation”. As I snapped them, Thinh approached: in his late thirties, I guessed, with English good enough for us to have an ẹnjoyable conversation.
“Terrible times”, he told me, pointing my flash gun at a T-54 Soviet tank while I triggered it from a radio transmitter on my camera. “My father … killed In Tet Offensive, 1972.”
Surprised, I reappraised him. This is a young country, most were born after the American war. Surely this man would not remember his father.
“How old were you when your father died, Thinh?”
I guess my incredulity showed. Slowly he raised his cap to reveal a face more weathered than I’d first thought, but still amazingly unlined for a man born in 1961.
And sometimes the encounter is just plain funny. Like the middle aged woman who wanted to sell me a pineapple. When I said I’d just eaten, she reached out to give my belly a rub.
I love Vietnam. And Jarvis: great song, but on this one small point you’re completely wrong.