In Defense of Tourist Traps

Washington Post photo by Natalie Compton
A restaurant overlooking Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake.

The first sign I was breaking down was at a fruit stand in Hanoi. I kept handing the vendor the incorrect amount of money as she kept shaking her head and repeating the price. Finally, she put both of us out of our misery by taking the correct amount of my hand.

I had done my best Anthony Bourdain impersonation for eight days in Southeast Asia: eating street food on sidewalks, taking Muay Thai classes, venturing out of city centers to meet locals on their farm and try their mom’s home cooking. I’d spent roughly 38 hours on overnight trains, sleeping on questionable bedding and bathing with baby wipes. By the time I got to Hanoi, I was ready to throw in the towel on doing as the locals do.

Somewhere between leaving the train station, eating pho and taking a motorbike in the wrong direction – there it was. An oasis beyond the treacherous traffic: A tourist trap.

These places aren’t the hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pops hiding down an alley; they’re the easy-to-find spots on the beaten path with big menus translated into many languages. Their proprietors may charge exponentially more than a locals-only establishment, perhaps to cover the high rent of operating near popular sights. Or just because they can.

But tourist traps aren’t just bars selling overpriced drinks or souvenir shops pushing kitsch. They can be museums and monuments – places that hover at the top of Tripadvisor lists. There’s a time and place for them, too. As much as we want to see new destinations like locals, it would be criminal not to see some of its most well-known sites. The idea of going to northern India and skipping the Taj Mahal is absurd.

My tourist trap was a charming restaurant on Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, not far from where visitors flock to see the city’s famous water puppet show. It had a terrace with yellow-striped awnings, and I asked to sit at one of the tables under a red umbrella. I sloughed off my heavy backpack and tough-guy persona; I finally had permission to rest.

These days, everyone wants to be a “traveler,” not a “tourist.” Both mean you’re away from home, exploring someplace foreign to you, but one term has cachet while the other gets a bad rap.

But being a “traveler” can be exhausting. After peeling myself off my train bunk bed, I trudged with my backpack (I go carry-on only – no wheels – for the practicality and the bragging rights) around the neighborhood in search of lunch before I could check into my hotel. Along a narrow and chaotic road, a passing motorbike caught one of my backpack straps and nearly dragged me to the ground into traffic. Shaken but okay, I finally found a street food stall with enough room for one more, sat down self-consciously and overanalyzed how I was eating.

Being a “tourist,” on the other hand, is freeing. There is no pressure to be cool. You are allowed to be a guidebook-toting, comfortable shoe-wearing, selfie-taking outsider – all enthusiasm, no shame.

The tourist trap welcomes the tourist with open arms. You’re not just allowed to be there, they want you there. And they have WiFi, bathrooms and English menus to prove it.

But there is a line. I wasn’t going to waste an entire meal at my tourist trap. A snack? Fair game. I ordered an iced coffee and a cup of coconut ice cream. I gazed at the lake, wrote postcards, read a few pages of my guidebook, watched a tourist at the table next to me ask the server to take her photo with her towering sundae. It was glorious. And instead of being humiliated by my capitulation, I owned my decision to embrace my inner tourist and posted a photo of the scene on Instagram. Like a tourist.

Once I paid my bill, which was three times as much as I could have paid for the same fare elsewhere, I felt refreshed. I hulked my backpack back on and resumed roughing it.

Washington Post photo by Natalie Compton
An ice cream break at a tourist trap in Hanoi.