The Tyranny of Guidebooks

We’re in Ninh Binh, Vietnam now, just for the night, after a few days in Hanoi sandwiched around a trip to Halong Bay.  I’ll blog about that separately, but will mention that we overpaid for a trip with a decidedly mediocre tour guide.  But, despite our tour guide, we managed to see the world’s rarest primate, a Cat Ba langur.  We watched the five – of the only 50 or so remaining on the island – frolic on the side of a cliff for about 15 minutes.

A Cat Ba langur

A Cat Ba langur

We said goodbye to Hanoi this morning after visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  (He’s real, Chairman Mao is not.)  Hanoi was overrun with fat tourists and all sorts of entrepreneurs out to milk them for all they’re worth.  It was really tiresome.   Given that, and our bad experience with the tour of Halong Bay, we decided we needed to break away a bit.  So, we figured we’d get of the beaten path and go to this town and the national park that neither of us had heard of before, just a couple hour’s drive from Hanoi.

We arrived in Ninh Binh at 3 and checked into our hotel (Lonely Planet‘s “Our Pick”).  Within five minutes, the proprietress had done all she could to sell us on her tour of the national park which matched step for step Lonely Planet‘s inferred suggested itinerary down to the homestay with a minority family.  (It doesn’t help that everyone has LP’s guidebook here in Vietnam as a pirated photocopied version is commonly available on the street for $4.)  However, we remain intent on proceeding by ourselves as planned to Cuc Phoung, guidebooks, tour buses an touts be damned.  But it’s frustrating.

Our question for the seasoned, independent travelers is this:  how do we avoid the tyranny of the guidebook?  In other words, how do we avoid doing what everyone else is doing, and the the things the touts think everyone wants to do?  We know that at places like Angkor Wat, that’s going to be almost impossible.  But outside the tourist meccas how do we find the unique experiences and places that aren’t covered exhaustively in the guidebooks in a place like Vietnam that’s so exhaustively covered and where everyone seems so keen on milking tourists?

In the past, getting off the beaten path hasn’t been so hard.  But something appears to have changed.  Help!


4 responses to “The Tyranny of Guidebooks

  1. Mark & Cece,
    Great posts!

    One small idea which you probably do naturally anyway….

    Follow your personal interests. You’ll be going towards things you want to visit, and possibly you’ll encounter like minded strangers and hopefully locals who you might be able to connect with because of a similar interest.

    For me, a couple of the big ones would be Soccer, Art/artists, and locally produced unusual food.

    Also, staying in one place longer and making a new friend are good methods.
    happy trails,

  2. let me know when you start planning thailand. having traveled there for a month or so, i may have some suggestions.. definitely stay away from tourist spots (bangkok and phuket). at least you’ll be there in the (relatively) off season so shouldn’t be too bad.

  3. Now THAT is a fine piece of tail! Har har.

    As to your question… the countries that you visit with Peace Corps Volunteers, ask one of them — they’ve had two years to explore their countries and know the good places that aren’t overrun or cheap. Barring that, maybe look for and ask ex-pats that aren’t the Jimmy Buffett types (maybe NGO aid workers, that sort of thing)…

  4. WOW!! He is really cool!! I cannot believe what a great picture you guys got!!

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