Traveling is a passion that runs in my family – my grandparents have been to every continent (including Antarctica), my sister is currently living in Spain, and my aunt had an amazing destination wedding in England. As for myself, I've studied abroad, gone on volunteer trips, and been a tourist in countries all over the world. I have to say, though, that out of all the different traveling experiences I’ve had, being a tourist was actually my least favorite means of exploring a city.
Recently, I took a trip to Southeast Asia and was backpacking around for several months. I quickly got tired of walking around and sightseeing – there was something deeply unsatisfying about it. I was learning about a culture, seeing its art, meeting its people – but all of it was just surface-level knowledge. I could barely grasp how important the museums and monuments actually were to the city or town I was in.
This is just my opinion, of course – some people love the whirlwind traveling experience, and honestly, any kind of traveling will culture you. However, I noticed that I was enjoying myself the most when I was setting down roots. At the beginning of the trip, I only spent a few days in each city. Towards the end of the trip, however, I found myself spending weeks in one city, exploring it inside and out.
One of the most transformative experiences on the trip was when I volunteered in Hanoi, Vietnam for five weeks, teaching English to college students. This was an extremely different experience than the previous ones I’d had. Instead of staying at a hostel in a backpacker’s area, I stayed in one of the poorest areas of the city. Instead of chatting with other Westerners over a beer, I went out to lunch and ordered hotpot with my Vietnamese students. I learned Vietnamese words, I saw poverty-stricken families, I memorized the bus routes, I made deep, lasting friendships with the other volunteers. I found out where the local expat Westerners go to hang out instead of frequenting the most popular spots in the Lonely Planet guidebook. I learned the customs and traditions of Hanoi – and more importantly, what not to do. Most of all, I saw more clearly through the eyes of the Vietnamese.
Although I understood the culture much better than I did before, I can’t say that I’m an expert on Vietnam. Even just writing that makes me laugh, because I’m so far from it. It takes years of learning about a country and visiting it over and over again before one becomes an expert. Then, only then, can you consider your opinions of the country to be sound – but they still won’t be as complete as an actual local’s. This is why the local perspective is so important, in regards to architecture and everything else.
I have a lot of respect for people who love to travel and sightsee, because to me that means they have an interest in a culture that’s different from their own. It’s also difficult to take time off of work or school to spend a long time in a certain place, so if a short trip is all you can do, you’ll still have an amazing, eye-opening experience. That being said, it’s important to remember that your views of a country and the perspective you have of it might not be fully accurate just based off of a short trip. Ultimately, the local perspective will be the most honest and accurate interpretation.
Cultures around the world are constantly changing and evolving, so basing one’s conclusions on a snapshot of time can be an issue for those working on humanitarian projects. It’s important to know that certain information can’t be learned from travel, but from the people that live there (who have internalized the history and context of where they live). One thing you’ll notice is the deeper you go in learning about a culture, the more nuanced and multi-faceted it seems. There are infinite opinions and perspectives making up just one country’s culture – or even just one community! Fortunately, one thing that I’ve found is that many locals absolutely love sharing their language, food, beliefs, and values with others, which makes the process a very satisfying and meaningful journey.