A perennial theme for popular travel writers is the discovery of Shangri-La, the fictional paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Some are also aware of the travel writer’s version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: when a writer observes a place and writes about it for broad circulation, it is forever altered.
In Wednesday’s New York Times Jennifer Bleyer writes about her experiences in Ha Giang province in northern Vietnam, invoking the hoary Shangri-La myth while acknowledging the principle:
My first glimpse of the place that some call Vietnam’s Shangri-La came on a brisk spring afternoon as we were careening along a narrow road hemmed in by sheer limestone walls. …
My husband, my daughter and I had been in Vietnam nearly a month before we visited Ha Giang province in the northern reaches of the country. It was a place I had never heard of, but Vietnamese acquaintances talked about the region as if it were the Land of Oz, their eyes widening as they incanted its name (pronounced Ha ZAHNG). Worldly young Hanoians said that one could not truly consider oneself Vietnamese until having been there. Expatriate friends implored us not to squander any opportunity to experience this holy grail, far from the country’s deeply trodden tourist track.
Such reverence, we soon learned, was warranted, and it wasn’t just because of the region’s spectacular landscape. In an ever-shrinking world, Ha Giang, with its uniquely preserved tribal culture (nearly 90 percent of the population is ethnic minorities), is one of those rare places that hasn’t been corralled by modernity or prepackaged for visitors. At least, not yet.
The article had a predictable effect on me: I want to go to Ha Giang province and contribute, in my own small way, to its ruination.