Massey describes place essentialism as the innate and usually unchanging essence to a place. To me this idea describes the shallow layer and stereotypes of a place and ignores the dynamic and ever changing nature of place.
Lonely planet describes Vietnam as “astonishingly exotic and utterly compelling, Vietnam is a country of breathtaking natural beauty with a unique heritage.” This is somewhat true in parts of Vietnam, mostly tourist destinations, largely untouched and natural. However, this is an essentialised view of Vietnam and does not take into account the many other layers of place.
After some research into the Vietnamese environment it was very surprising to discover that Vietnam ranked 123rd in air quality and 79th out of 132 countries in the general environmental index, carried out by Yale University. This is quite poor for a country renowned for its ‘breathtaking natural beauty.’
A reason for this poor ranking may be due to an increasing use of machinery by a booming population along with uncontrolled deforestation and lack of environmental regulations.
Another aspect to consider is the lasting effects of extensive bombing and spraying of herbicides, such as agent orange, during the Vietnam War. Being a pilot and spending three years flying and training in Vietnam during the war, my grandfather understands the full extent of the damage. It is estimated that 72.4 million litres of herbicides were sprayed over South Vietnam, destroying 44% of the overall forest wealth. Today, around 40% of Vietnam is considered ‘wasteland.’
When travelling it is important to identify the real relations and dynamic sense of place, as well as the multiple identities that a country may offer. To avoid essentialism and to understand Vietnam as a place, this would involve looking past the picturesque tourist destinations and appreciate the past histories and current evolution that affect the environment.