(If you are looking for the free chapter as featured in Tourism Concern's recent Newsletter, see the Volunteering section)
Is it wrong to order a double cheeseburger and chips in Vietnam? It depends on your mood really. It would be a shame to only eat cheeseburgers (though if you really want to eat like the locals do in Southeast Asia, rice and noodles will form the basis of your diet, but you will also have to have at least one meal a week in KFC, Burger King or McDonald's. Asians love fast food). I’m a big fan of listening to my body when it comes to nutrition. Sometimes it says ‘salt’, other times ‘vitamins’. Sometimes it will say ‘I’m not sure what I want right now. Let’s go to the pub while I figure it out.' Given the horrific nature of industrial food production I know I ought to be a vegetarian, but I'm not. The French make a distinction between a gourmet, who knows about food, and a gourmand, who just likes eating it. I am a gourmand. I've eaten foie gras in France, stuffed frog in Cambodia, and freshly slaughtered goose in Kashmir (the live goose I'd chosen disappeared into a back room, met its halal end, and its filleted flesh came back in a plastic bag, still blood temperature). I ate hu-hu grubs and grasshoppers at a bush-tucker festival in New Zealand after I’d been at the fruit cider. I even had a Big Mac once. But I'll always arrive home thinner than paint stripper. Keeping the kilos on is a losing battle and I’ll basically try anything, but not for breakfast. Breakfast is sacred...
'Nam...' Is there any other country which can summon up so many images in a single word? Distilling a country’s history down to a single 8-year period is like finishing a seven-course meal and only remembering the fish bone that got stuck in your throat. But is it really that surprising? What eight- or ten-year period in any other country’s history has cinema taught us so much about before we arrive? My mental image of ‘Vietnam’ is populated by GIs, Hendrix, actors called Sheen, books like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Wagner, and ‘the girl in the picture’ but my understanding of say, the French Revolution (whose side was Richelieu on?) or what Gandhi did (rather than who he was) is far more vague. It's inevitable that our expectations of countries we visit for the first time will be proven either inaccurate or simply wrong. New York is an exception because it features so heavily in films or on TV that it looks pretty much exactly as you expected, but other places get very little coverage in our daily media or focus on one particular event (the Vietnam War in this case) and so of course our view of that country before we go there is going to be populated with that imagery. I’m not a fan of ‘war’, have never read anything by Andy McNab and have absolutely no desire – especially since reading Dispatches – to go running round a jungle with an M16, and yet sitting on a bus watching the countryside roll by, Vietnam was still full of columns on patrol, Hueys passing overhead and every lake or duck pond I passed was ‘probably a bomb crater’. It’s the same with the people. Seeing anyone over the age of 60 makes you wonder, ‘What did you do during the war?’ (You can half imagine Prince Philip on a visit here asking old women if they were ‘the girl in the movie in black pyjamas running towards the fighting carrying an AK47 or the girl in the movie in a white ao dai running away from the fighting carrying a baby?’ But we would never be so crass as to think something like that, would we?) The 'Nam narrative has more recent references for the backpacker too; picture Leonardo DiCaprio running around the jungles above ‘The Beach’ for example. Now I’m a boy so I spent a good deal of my childhood racing around the garden making machine gun noises but I don't see why that should make me more susceptible to this ‘Nam nonsense. I’m pretty sure girls don’t think “Oh, My Little Pony!” every time they see a horse.
What do backpackers do all day?
In that Saigon cafe, everyone was being very well behaved, whiling away the day over smoothies, iced teas and bottles of Saigon beer. The day's sight-seeing had been done, and if it hadn't, the Vietnam War wasn't going anywhere. If anyone benefits from the popularity of backpacking then it's cafe, bar and restaurant owners. All you need in Asia is a few triangular cushions, some flat-screen TVs showing re-runs of American sitcoms, MTV or BBC News, a good supply of toasted sandwiches and a working fridge and the backpackers will come running. And they'll stay – all day. In William Sutcliffe's very good backpacking novel 'Are you Experienced?', he poses one of the better questions that has been asked about travel: 'What do backpackers DO all day?'
Have you ever 'done' a country? Sniggered down your nose at the tourists in their five-star, all-expenses paid air-conditioning while you teach hundreds of years-old civilizations the value of teamwork? Bought a sarong and then actually worn it in England while you inform a captive throng of the true meaning of helping the natives and bemoaned the 'westernization' of the Khao San Road? Then, this book is important for you. Equally, if you've ever had to sit on your hands listening to one of these knights in saffron armour, then this book is all you need! Funny, informative and at times downright shocking and depressing, 'More than Footprints' really puts our preconceptions to the sword and wonderfully mixes cynicism and world-weariness with a fresh look at our impact on the world.
In the era of Air Asia and Easyjet, where 'anyone can fly' and package tourism has proved that travel isn't for everyone and anything can be sold if it looks 'authentic', Martin Stevenson looks at the heart of backpacking culture and voluntourism and simply asks 'what happened here then?'
Required reading for anyone looking to travel 'the proper way', this book is a well-measured, researched and witty call-to-arms for anyone wishing to take responsibility for their actions and, almost accidentally, manages to be a truly gripping and hilarious read! John Merva, London
Just from reading the Foreword I wanted to go on a journey with the writer. From the off 'More than Footprints? How backpacking lost its way' gets down to the nitty-gritty of backpacking and travel in general. Good questions posed and his personal experiences already offer us some interesting answers. As the chapters progress Stevenson gives us a travel book that looks closely at important aspects of travel and also one that gives you the writer's own interesting observations of his wanderings. Well written, factual and funny, but this book also offers us fresh ideas about travel; new perspectives on how we travel, and great insight into what the hell is going on out there in the world of travel! Not since Paul Theroux has a travel writer really gotten to the dirty bottom of the rucksack of travel writing. Every would be travel writer, backpacker, even package holiday-maker should read this book; along with anyone who enjoys travel writing. In fact anyone who enjoys good writing should read it. Nick Clarke Gerrard, Writer and author of 'Travelling for the Hell of It', Pisarov, Czech Republic
"Compulsive, lol, good reading - and that's from a book snob who has never had the slightest inclination to go backpacking in Asia!" Hazel Fairbairn, Vancouver
"The debauchery of the Banana Pancake Trail is revisited with Stevenson's vivid and entertaining take on this well-trodden path." Fiona Cassell, Brisbane.
"For all of us who have stepped off a plane in Bombay / Bangkok / Bali, Lonely Planet in hand, flip flops worn in and with a stash of travellers cheques in a money belt, this book is laugh out loud funny. Be warned - it'll also make you cringe, as the anecdotes remind you of your past travels, naivety and backpacker snobbery (I'm a traveller, not a tourist). Satire-full like Sutcliffe's 'Are You Experienced', but far funnier. The best bit, though, is how the book recognises change and uniqueness in places. Place X is not like place Y 20 years ago. Both are unique, and this historical queue towards sameness that this mentality creates isn't inevitable." Oliver Picton, Beijing.
"More than Footprints brings travel to life! Its wit disarms you; its insight opens you to self-examination. You'll never see backpacking the same way again!" Kristy Lee Gogolen, Breckenridge, Colorado