Talking ranges from communicating mundane facts to building meaningful relations with other human beings. Communicating personally with others generally requires the establishment of a shared language but it seems to me that something more is needed, such as a shared ‘conversational context’. What I mean by this is a language-use which is underpinned by a structure of shared associations, references and situations that facilitates mutual understanding on a personal level. Even though two people speak the same language this is not enough to guarantee communication of this sort, since they might not share the same context that has shaped their individual language-use. They might use the same word and yet mean different things by it because of differences in cultural background, life experiences etc. This is not to say that people must come from identical backgrounds in order to speak meaningfully to each other; nor am I saying that personal communication is impossible. All I wish to point out is that talking involves more than just speaking the same language.

This was running through my mind when I was in Vietnam for two weeks last November; with no knowledge of the language and little time in which to learn it. I was lucky enough to have a friend working in Hoi An for several months who willingly took me to all his favourite noodle places, drove me on a motorcycle around the countryside and introduced me to his friends. As a result, I did not feel like the average tourist coming to Vietnam and having to discover everything for herself. This feeling of belonging, however, often made me forget that I was still a tourist to many of the Vietnamese people. Indeed, there were various episodes during my trip that forcibly reminded me of this indispensable fact.

One moment for reflection came to me during my trip to the famous fish market in Hoi An. Wandering around the market, assailed by wonderful smells and sounds, I decided I wanted to talk to some of the vendors. Stopping to buy some Vietnamese coffee, my gaze fell on a beautiful wooden box. The sharp-eyed vendor noticed immediately and launched an offensive involving discounts and a cut-price hand massage. I foolishly took this is as my chance to try and talk with her – How is the box made? Is that gorgeous smell inside cinnamon? She answered all my questions in good English and I was excited because I thought that I was ‘getting to know’ this woman. Of course I immediately realised that I was not ‘getting to know’ her because we were not actually having a conversation in the strictest sense. She was responding to me but she was not talking to me because her words were merely part of her sales pitch.

As soon as I realised this I felt guilty since I had no intention of buying the box; I just wanted to talk to her but instead I was unwittingly misleading her and wasting her valuable trading time. Of course it seems obvious that this would happen: the market space is for selling and not for idle chit-chat. Yet, a similar situation arose in a wholly unexpected place. I was being taken on a tour of an old house in the ancient part of Hoi An by the owner. The first thing she told me was that it had been in her family for generations; the second thing she told me was that the family trade was embroidery and that I could buy some tablecloths for my mother. The tour lasted five minutes but for twenty minutes her cousins tried their best to convince me to buy a buffalo-horn pipe for my non-smoking father whilst we drank green tea. Again I tried to engage the guide in conversation, but she would only go as far as to answer me in short, well-spoken sentences.

The more I observed and interacted with people in Vietnam, the more I came to the conclusion that any space is space in which to do trade. In these ‘trading spaces’ it seemed to me that I was not being related to as a fellow person but as a role, which for them was that of a tourist; and that this determined our ‘conversational context’. As a traveler who had a taste of a more personal side of Vietnam – I spent time chatting in cafés with Vietnamese friends, I talked to a friendly man at Hanoi airport about US politics – I felt it was possible to have a shared, responsive conversational basis with someone from a different cultural and linguistic background. However I realised that not many western travellers would be lucky enough to experience this, I think, due to their presuppositions about Vietnam and vice-versa. Their only chances of talking with locals would probably be exclusively within this nebulous space of trade. Meaningful communication between locals and tourists does not even begin because of their assumptions about each other, which is actualised in these ‘trading spaces’.

I don’t think this phenomenon is exclusively Vietnamese but is arguably common to many rapidly developing countries experiencing economic growth and tourist booms. According to the Financial Times UK banks have been set to expand in Vietnam, tourism statistics on the blog Vietnam Travel show that 4.2% of the country’s GDP is accounted for by tourism which, ignoring the recession for the moment, has been rapidly increasing over the last ten years.

Due to the huge influx of tourists a certain image of the foreign, notably western, traveler appears to have been cultivated; an image of great affluence and naivety both in equal measure. Hoi An notably markets itself primarily to wealthy tourists as seen by the abundance of exclusive resorts and chic hotels that have opened along the coastline. Cloth and antique shops feel comfortable charging higher prices every year because they know that westerners won’t haggle and will often accept the first price offered. Then there is the two-price system in restaurants; going out for dinner with my Vietnamese friend would invariably be a few dollars cheaper than eating only with western friends, once more because western tourists are unaware of how much things generally cost. The only way of finding out is, of course, talking to a local about prices. But as I have suggested, this is not always easy.

It seems therefore that tourists are caught in a trap. They are unable to engage fully with local people because of Vietnam’s economically effective tourism policies which unfortunately constructs the problematic divide of ‘us’ and ‘them’. As a result, travelers to Vietnam are forced into certain patterns of behaviour: taking packaged trips, frequenting western-style bars and cafes, rarely eating street food, which in turn reinforces their categorisation as a ‘western tourist’ by the Vietnamese.

Indeed, I would say that the Vietnamese are caught in exactly the same trap as the tourists. It is not solely Vietnam’s responsibility to end the self-reinforcing cycle of this kind of de-personalised tourism. Vietnam is arguably responding to ‘outside’ perceptions of itself as an economically viable business sphere, a novel cultural experience and a piece of colonial history. Indeed, the ‘trading spaces’ I mentioned previously seem to be generated by this economic and political climate which allocates social roles to individuals: such as ‘locals’ and ‘tourists’. These individuals find themselves inevitably acting out their given roles namely because they are treated in terms of these roles by others, and this self-perpetuating cycle is vindicated by wider socio-economic practices.

This cursory picture is not intended to be wholly negative since the number of travelers coming to Vietnam is increasing every year, with the resulting boost of the nation’s economy and political prospects. Yet it seems to me that ordinary travelers are getting a rather shallow experience of Vietnam and I suggest this could be partly remedied if the ‘conversational context’ was decoupled from trade. This might go some way to enable people create spaces in which they can meaningfully talk to each other.

Jagruti Dave is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University.