A weekly ode to the joys of moaning about your holiday, by Tim Roxborogh

"An absolute must while in Vietnam is seeing a water-puppet show." I can still remember the line in the guidebook, but it wasn't limited to merely the dog-eared book I was lugging around Southeast Asia. Every brochure I picked up in Vietnam told me the same thing. Seemingly in the same league as a visit to the limestone peaks of Halong Bay or the tunnels of Cu Chi was a night in the presence of these historic puppets.

So off we went. About five minutes in, a growing sense of panic began to consume me: this alarmingly, catastrophically, monumentally boring show was due to last an entire hour and a half. Splashing about in a tank in front of seating for about 100 people were a handful of puppets. A non-translated story was being told via limited movements, evidently something to do with old-time yarns about fishing, the monsoon and harvests.

At the risk of sounding like a patronising tourist who is neither interested nor sophisticated enough (too late) to appreciate a key local touchstone like splashy-splashy water puppetry, a couple of points in my defence. One, the rich, varied culture of Vietnam is something the country's huge population (almost 100 million) is rightfully very proud of. Two, I've been transfixed by so much of what I've seen during my visits to Vietnam. From the history to the architecture to the food to the wonders of nature, Vietnam is genuinely one of the most rewarding tourist destinations on the planet.


To which hopefully you're now saying, "I get it already! You're not some cultural imperialist culture-phobe!" Regardless, I'm hoping you'll appreciate honesty that's coming from a good place. And that honesty is irrespective of the fact that although Vietnamese water puppetry dates from the 11th century, witnessing a show in the 21st century does a breathtaking job of redefining boredom.

So why the exuberance in the guidebooks and tourist brochures? I suspect it's because liberal folks like me generally avoid criticising traditional performances for fear of sounding dim-witted or even worse, racist. But if you're going to Vietnam and you've read this, consider yourself off the hook. By all means, explore some of the oldest temples and universities in the world, absorb the history and lessons of war, get lost in the wondrous mazes of urban alleyways, laze on the beaches, swashbuckle through the jungles and yes, even take in a water puppet show. Just don't feel the need to pretend you enjoyed that last item on the list.

The aisle seat v mid-row seat scramble

There's the same size of screen, the same technology and the same width for all manner of buttocks. And yet the difference between an aisle seat on a long-haul flight - especially if you're flying alone - versus a mid-row seat with strangers either side makes it feel you're comparing a Rangitoto Island bach with a Remuera mansion.

On a recent flight I was in the middle seat with people on both sides whom I didn't know.

It was a great airline - one of the best - but I'd forgotten just how much our idea of personal space changes when we're isolated and semi-trapped. Seated next to someone you know, elbows can touch and arms can even rest on each other. You can bung your magazine in their storage area and if you need the toilet you don't think twice about making them pause their movie and jumping up for you.

Compare that to when you're on your own. You shrink your personal footprint, you're careful not to knock elbows and toilet stops are delayed until you're risking a UTI.

If given the option to pick your seat, take it.


Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's The Two, Coast Soul on Coast and writes theRoxboroghReport.com.