Our evening in Ho Chi Minh City closed with a sense of familiarity. After a long day of sweaty, sticky excursion, my friends and I wanted nothing more than a cool sweet dessert melting from the heat.
Amidst the dangling lights of buildings and the sound of motorbikes, a fellow traveler and I convinced our group of friends to meet us for dessert. There was a little sweet-shop only steps from the hotel. We went with high hopes.
Pushing the glass doors open, I was hit by a wave of saccharine pleasantness. On the walls, lined with laminate wood panels, hung fiercely colorful characters smiling down from their two-dimensional posts. The music, surging from hidden speakers, reminded me of the animated cartoons I used to watch with my cousins.
Even the menus were sticky, an unexpected aide-mémoir of summers spent munching on ice-cold popsicles, artificial goodness dripping down sun-tanned hands.
There was just one slight problem. As I opened the menu I saw spongy layer cakes and delicious ice creams, panna cotta, paper-thin crepes, and gooey lava cakes. All with green tea. An explanation was due. While the food enthusiast in me squealed with culinary delight, the dessert lover protested. Some things I simply could not mix.
There are many things that don’t go together. Among them, irresponsibility and travel. As someone who’s traveled from a young age, I can empathize with the desire for abandonment and freedom. Travel is a beautiful release of truths we normally hold dear. We move slower and learn to appreciate moments, because time seems to dissipate. We grasp onto every single thing a province or country offers because it is different from what we know.
But are we doing this for the right reasons?
Admittedly, the spirited stereotype of the millennial nomad—with salty hair cascading in the wind and feet blistered on (new) Birkenstocks—has its attractions. Travel kindles a desire for freedom and exploration. And as the world continues to shrink, it’s only natural we crave to discover as much as bank accounts allow us.
But traveling for the sake of traveling isn’t enough. It should be for an honest appreciation and willingness to learn from different cultures, not to tally up a travel list. And certainly not for the gratification of taking a yoga-pose picture with an orange sunset sinking into the horizon (which is why articles like this drive me crazy). I’m not saying to give up photo taking or forget traveling if you don’t know a place’s history front and back.
Too often, though, I’ve seen travelers approaching new destinations as just an extension of their homes. They, maybe unknowingly, ignore cultural customs and behaviors in favor of their own—the worse type of ethnocentrism. As travelers we need to be responsible. Exposing sunscreen-glazed buns in the afternoon heat may be tasteless in many a locale, but so can an improper nonverbal gesture or dress choice. Because at the end of the day, responsibility is what travel is all about—responsibility to yourself and responsibility to the peoples and cultures you are visiting.
When all is said, I guess in the grand scheme of things the unholy combination of green tea and dessert was not entirely blasphemous. My taste buds, although a tad confused, would be fine after a beer or two. Less reparable, however, are the dire impressions we leave on different cultures and countries when we are not responsible—when we disregard closely held customs and traditions of foreign lands.
An avid reader, curious global-trekker, and writer-in-training, Kaitlyn wants nothing more than to explore the world one country at a time, exposing the stories she finds along the way with a pen and paper. (Or computer, whatever’s easier.)