Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa, Vietnam

Five Ways to Find Authenticity on the Road

In the travel industry sense, ‘authentic’ has devolved into little more than another hollow buzz word, rendered almost meaningless in a world where the lines between authenticity –by definition simply something that is genuine– and modernity have become impossibly blurred by the expectations marketers thrust our way and the lack of knowledge about the world many travelers have.

The examples are numerous and I won’t spell them out here. Let’s just get to the list.

No. 1. Leave your expectations and stereotypes at the unclaimed baggage counter.

Vietnam 109Better yet, dump them in the non-recyclables bin before passing through security. Because if you arrive at a destination with some vague notion of authenticity in mind, it’s quite likely that your entire journey will be shrouded by a dark cloud of disappointment.

Unfulfilled expectations always suck, but they can be painfully brutal when you’re traveling. One brief vignette from a visit to Sapa, Vietnam, a few years ago as a case in point:

I was sitting at a restaurant waiting for a glass of a local wine described as ‘Good for Men’ when a group of half a dozen twenty-something American English-speaking travelers entered. They hastily claimed two tables, spread out and sat down.

“Sapa is bullshit, man,” one said as he leafed through the extensive wine list. “This isn’t Vietnam. There’s nothing authentic about this place. What a freakin’ joke.”

Sapa is northern Vietnam’s thriving gateway town for day trips and overnight treks into the area’s highlands and visits to its more remote mountain ethnic communities. They had just returned from a trek to the summit of the 3,148m high Phang Xi Pang, the country’s highest mountain, and were clearly disappointed that Sapa fell short of their preconceived notions of precisely what a 21st century Vietnamese highland tourist town should be.

A friend agreed. “Yeah, this just isn’t real,” he said. “Totally sucks.”

A few moments later he connected to the restaurant’s free wifi and began tapping on his iPhone in search of a proxy server so he could break through Vietnam’s Facebook block to presumably tell his friends just how unreal and sucky Sapa was.

Just as his medium rare Australian strip steak and small Chef’s salad –he asked for a light dressing on the side—arrived, so did success.

“Ha! I got through.”

So by allowing themselves to confuse modernity with their personal notions of what was or should be ‘authentic’, they contributed to the ruin of what should have simply been a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience in a strikingly beautiful corner of the planet. I can only hope that broadcasting his disappointment via Facebook helped him reach some closure.

5 Ways to Find Authenticity on the Road - From Piran Cafe
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No. 1 above is the only one that really matters, but since blog readers like lists here are four more ways –plus a bonus!– to help you have an authentic experience, in no particular order:

  • In cities, check out immigrant neighborhoods. The best meal I ever had in Brussels was at a modest family-run west African place with the finest jukebox on the planet. Brussels is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. That meal was a helluva lot more authentic than the dime-a-dozen over-priced mussels joints near the Grand Place.
  • Go to a local dive bar. The kind you wouldn’t go to at home. Preferably one that doesn’t sell t-shirts. Although those are authentic, too.
  • Don’t go to malls. Not because they’re not authentic (they are). Just because you shouldn’t.
  • Sharpen your senses. Free them to work over-time. Taste the dust. Smell the diesel.

In short: Ignore the marketing hype. In one way or another, it’s all authentic. Let your mind be blown.





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