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The Pandemic Has Us Rethinking Adventure Travel Post-Virus

When the virus began to spread rapidly in China in early January, I was celebrating the marriage of one of my closest friends to a Vietnamese woman in the provincial city of Phú Thọ, Vietnam, an hour northwest of Hanoi.

By: Jonathan Stull + Save to a List

Much more important than our cares about a little bug from Wuhan was trying to adjust to the two-wheeled and three-tongued chaos of a country in between retreating colonialism and amphetaminic growth.

“Look,” said one of our Vietnamese hosts in broken English, gesturing like Vanna White to the bustling cafes and sidewalks of Hanoi’s French Quarter. “Everybody happy.” (She was trying to set me up with her daughter, and her husband fed me beer after beer in a not-so-subtle bid to shave my refulgent red beard, for which I routinely received comparisons to Osama bin Laden.)

It was true, though. Everyone was very happy and very busy in a country that made me feel as if I had stepped back in time to early twentieth-century New York City. So much growth. So many influences. So much optimism for the future.

After two weeks nipping the heels of the wedding party around Vietnam, checking off tourist prerequisites in Hội An and Mỹ Sơn and kittens in Da Nang (which to my delight are pretty much exactly like American kittens), head spinning from rice wine and Vietnamese coffee and thuốc lào, the fiercest drag off a tobacco pipe that I’ve ever drawn, and exploring the island retreat in Phú Quốc, where there is now a strange amusement park, themed with the veneer of Roman antiquity and Caribbean tiki bars, that you access via the world’s longest oversea cable car, a frankly overwhelming and incredible demonstration of Chinese engineering—which I think is the actual point—after two weeks in neo-Vietnam I was ready for the ur-, a pastoral solo retreat via motorbike in the country’s northern provinces.

Quietude. Cultural heritage. Karst mountains. Motorcycles.

A picturesque hairpin turn near Mã Pí Lèng, Vietnam, patrolled by an elder Hmong. Photo by Jonathan Stull.

If I planned a journey into a personal paradise, that’s pretty close to what I found. Riding a bike along treacherous mountain passes in the absence of formal driverly decorum gets me fired up. But one of the most surprising discoveries that I found on the road to Mã Pí Lèng Pass, while I raced locals around blind corners and nearly decked my bike twice in the rain, were much larger numbers of Westerners than I expected.

And the local people are adjusting. On the road to Hà Giang, beckoned by an apparently quaint Hmong elder, I stopped to snap photos at a particularly beautiful bend overlooking a misty karst horizon and an emerald valley characteristic of Đồng Văn, a tilt-shifted landscape in which everything is green and white and scale seems perpetually distorted. After I shot my photos and packed my camera, the Hmong elder surprised me with a sign demanding 10,000 Vietnamese đồng (about $0.50) for photography. She was particularly insistent with the Dutch couple behind me, who asked me with raised eyebrows if I had paid for this tourist trap.

Motorcyclists snap photos at an overlook near Mã Pí Lèng, Vietnam. Photo by Jonathan Stull.

Of course I did, eagerly. One would think she would take much better care of this place than a distant government or corporation. But notable in all of this is a foreign presence that is decidedly conspicuous and a local culture learning that it is more profitable to hit up foreigners for money than practice a way of life that may, perhaps, be more symbiotic with the landscape and more representative of the legacy for which the region was preserved.

Admittedly, I didn’t intend to take this stance with respect to travel post-virus. Instead, I intended to write about all the amazing places I'd like to go that have actually improved since the coronavirus lockdowns started as a reason for going there once lockdowns end. For a few weeks now, dozens of stories have been circulating about clearing waters in Venice, goats reclaiming city streets in Wales, lions lyin’ about in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, clearing skies above India.

Although these stories appear to be legitimate, others that caught fire were fake. Thank you, social media. But it’s also hard not to believe that, in our absence from the world’s most visitable destinations, the creatures who fear not a respiratory virus are thriving while we’re away.

Video courtesy of the L.A. Times/YouTube.

Round up as many of these destinations as you can, I thought, and bring them to the Outbound, here, now, in a convenient list that our audience can use to power their post-virus plans. See? Here’s Yosemite in almost pre-industrial glory, where bears play in parking lots and songbirds sing all the clearer. Get ready to go there, because once the world reopens, they’ll scatter right back to the park’s margins.

If that idea doesn’t make you a little nauseated, we probably wouldn’t get along. In reality, yes, places like Yosemite are going to fill back up anyway, and wildlife will retreat just like it did following the government shutdown of 2019. If the trend holds, emissions will rebound like they have after every economic recession. But besides lounging lions and abandoned national parks, there are other, more impactful developments in the animal kingdom that might give us and our travel plans pause.

For example, now-empty tourist beaches in Thailand have opened up nesting ground to the vulnerable leatherback sea turtles in a country where tourism accounts for about an eighth of gross domestic product. In Thailand, the species is listed as endangered, partly because the species likes spawning grounds that are dark and quiet, and few beaches remain with those characteristics. For comparison, consider an evening stroll on Venice Beach and tell me it’s ideal for breeding turtles.

A typical day in Hanoi's bustling traffic. Photo courtesy of paolo candelo/Unsplash.

Hạ Long Bay received 10 million of Vietnam's 18 million annual visitors in 2018. Photo by Ammie Ngo/Unsplash.

The biggest question facing our planet this decade is whether or not the globally dominant species will choose to prioritize and act in the defense of the millions of others with which it shares global space. This is not a matter of survival for only non-human life.

So no, I’ll save that list of destinations for another week. This week is Earth Week. Perhaps rather than promote destinations, as we’ll do for the rest of 2020 and beyond, let’s talk instead about how we’ll choose to balance our travel itch with the myriad other forms of life that rely on Earth’s natural systems to get by. Right now, I’m thinking critically about how I travel and making a choice about what it means to me. I’m planning to avoid places that might better serve different, non-dominant forms of life. And I’m asking you directly to do the same.

For the record, I love my time alone in the mountains. My travel in Đồng Văn was life-altering in the way that only total immersion in a foreign culture can be, and a separate, simple solo road trip throughout North America's Mountain West yielded the most powerful moment that I’ve ever experienced in the outdoors, alone, in complete and very much appreciated isolation of Colorado's San Juan Mountain wilderness.

But to be a trendsetter in the adventure travel industry, it is often our task to dig up and investigate travel spots, whether natural or cultural, that are under the radar and bring them to light with the expectation that audiences be able to go there and experience something genuine. “Genuine,” more often than not, is shorthand for “no other tourists,” and an outdoor adventurer’s desire for wild, uninhabited spaces also translates to a desire for untainted cultural experiences in a foreign country.

Đồng Văn promised both. Take, for example, this New York Times article published in 2010. "Expatriate friends implored us not to squander any opportunity to experience this holy grail, far from the country’s deeply trodden tourist track,” Jennifer Bleyer wrote just 10 years ago of the same Đồng Văn I visited. Historically one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, in 2015 UNESCO designated Đồng Văn a global geopark for its cultural heritage and natural beauty. While there, Bleyer bumped into just one other couple from the Western world, to whom "We excitedly said hello but they responded curtly, making clear that they did not want to chat, and we wondered if we had punctured their Livingstonian fantasy of being the sole foreigners in town."

This is not quite the Đồng Văn that I experienced. And truly, the entirety of Vietnam is transforming, also visible elsewhere in places like Hạ Long and Phú Quốc, where Chinese-built condo complexes and villas, all vacant and mothballed, await the seemingly inevitable explosion of growth and wealth in Vietnam. Although the freedom to roam as we once did is still a ways off, now is the time to start thinking about the amazing places we’d like to go. When lockdown finally lifts, though it is unlikely to happen all at once, are we going to go back to the way things were?

Blue hour in Hội An, Vietnam, also known as Lantern City. Photo by Patrick Pellegrini/Unsplash.

Look, I don’t do shame. We live in an age of gray areas; for my own sanity, I make the assumption these days that we are all thoughtful adults capable of holding in mind two seemingly contradictory ideas—like caring about climate change while also loving to travel—balancing sacrifices for one without divorcing from the other.

But regardless of whether we are powerful as people, we are more powerful as a species. When in the outdoors, Leave No Trace recommends two seemingly contradictory practices for those who travel overland in groups: to limit impact, small groups should spread out, while big groups should concentrate in single-file.

Cultural heritage, natural beauty, wildlife diversity—on an intergenerational timescale, all of this will recede to the margins in Vietnam, elsewhere reduced to kitschy, albeit charming and beautiful, tourist amusements like Hội An's lantern city, because that's just how tourism tends to impact its most celebrated places. When lockdowns lift, it will be very tempting to spread out, to find those quiet, secluded hideaways where no one else will go. But when you make your choice, I hope you’ll consider all the other people who think the same way you do and remember that just your presence will push everything else away.

While we're in the middle of this muddy puddle, the virus is teaching us that, in some places, it’s simply better for everything when we just stick to the beaten track.

Cover photo courtesy of Constant Loubier/Unsplash.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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