A Tourist’s Guide to Love (2023) is not, as I initially thought, a cutesy documentary or a reality TV show, but is instead a middling destination rom-com where the location just might end up being your favorite character. While this is a (blessedly) misogyny-free movie that aims to highlight the beauty of Vietnamese culture and the importance of being open to life’s adventures, as a couple its leads, sadly, have all the allure of slipping into a still-damp bathing suit. Plus, one of them sounds like they took an oath to fashion all their lines solely from an Inspirational Quote of the Day calendar. BUT! Individually, the leads are pretty charming and the supporting cast is appealing and Vietnam is, well, I mean, it’s Vietnam and just astoundingly gorgeous, so there are still reasons, as one character might say, to open yourself up to this movie-watching experience and see where it takes you. Ha! No. It’s absolutely formulaic, so you know exactly where it’s taking you from the first scene, which is a perfectly fine thing for this kind of comfort rom-com.
Amanda Riley (Rachael Leigh Cook) is an executive at Tourista, an American tour travel company based in Los Angeles, where most of her job seems to be getting people out of avoidable mix-ups. You hopped on the wrong booze cruise? Send Amanda a picture and she will track you down based on hidden clues, reroute your original tour, and get your vacation back on track. I guess just dropping a pin with your location would be too straight forward? Her boss Mona (Missi Pyle) is very hyped up about breaking into the Vietnamese travel market by buying up Saigon Silver Star Tours, a family-run tour company with amazing reviews. She wants to send Amanada as their secret shopper to check it out, but she’s convinced Amanda’s long-term boyfriend is about to propose, so she won’t have time! I mean, she could probably spare a week to go to Vietnam. Diamond rings don’t weigh that much. Anyway, nothing spells a doomed relationship like someone being this sure a proposal is on the way. Mona even books Amanada a manicure before sending her home early to meet John (Ben Feldman) so they can talk. Now, two important things. After MUCH hemming and hawing at the nail salon, Amanda will end up picking the same pale pink color she’s already wearing for her nails, because it’s reliable and comfortable. And, Amanda demonstrates her inability to cross against the light at an intersection, which will be VITAL to the plot. So, remember, she likes safe, comfortable, reliable choices that do not involve risk, and there is nothing a rom-com despises more than a person with those traits. Well, no, actually, in this case, a rom-com hates (justifiably) the man who bails on a long-term relationship with little to no explanation or warning, which is what John is about to do.
Amanda gets home expecting romance and a proposal, but instead she gets a chat about an opportunity for him to head up the new Forensic Accounting division of some company in Ohio, and he asks for a relationship hiatus. They’ve been together for five years and he doesn’t even invite her to go to Ohio with him! What a putz! He’s not a true villain, just a self-important toad who is afraid of confrontation and marriage and thus has screwed the proverbial pooch and lost out on a lifetime with Amanda. Of course, this is fantastic news for future Amanda because it means she will be upset enough to accept the challenge of going to Vietnam for the company.
So, off she goes to scope out Saigon Silver Star tours, a completely lovely family-run business, to see if it should be purchased by an American company without a single lick of knowledge about the country or the culture that wants to give their customers a “five-star experience” at every tour site. Upon arriving in Vietnam, she meets Sinh (Scott Ly), her Genetically Blessed tour guide, and they have one of the most well-intentioned but stilted meet-cutes I’ve ever seen. I cringed for them both. She tries to ask if he knows where the baggage claim is using Google translate and goes along with it even though he’s fluent in English and knows who she is because he has her photo from the travel company. Actually, does that feel like a bit of a power move on his part? Okay, maybe he’s being playful, but if I just got off a long-ass international flight and some absolute stranger was playing light mind games with me I’d be less than impressed. Her luggage has, of course, been lost, but she ignores his suggestions that he “knows a guy who knows a guy” and insists they leave it to the airport professionals. Wait. Isn’t her whole job about knowing people to get other people out of scrapes? She cannot possibly only rely on the mainstream channels to solve all the travel woes into which people will thrust themselves. I realize this is to highlight the Differences Between Them ™ , but it feels very contrived and makes the actors feel unnatural. No worries, she is at least a seasoned enough traveler that she always packs a clean shirt in her carry on. (I’m assuming she also packs some clean underwear and was just too delicate to mention it!)
In the evening, Amanda meets up with the rest of the people on the tour, which includes an older couple taking the honeymoon they couldn’t afford when they were younger (Alexa Povah and Glynn Sweet); a married couple (Nondumiso Tembe and Jacqueline Correa) and their teenage daughter (Morgan Dudley), who are all trying to disconnect from phones and work; and a young, earnest, awkward guy (Andrew Barth Feldman) on a gap year before he starts at Iowa State for agricultural engineering, who keeps live streaming himself on Facebook. They’re all good and just this side of so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but I’m not complaining because it’s endearing to watch their stories play out in the background, and some of them have more chemistry than Amanda and Sinh. I wish we saw more of their stories. I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention Anh (Thanh Truc), Sinh’s cousin and the tour driver, who also keeps the plot moving forward when necessary. (I was going to make a pun about driving, but I restrained myself.)
Their tour begins in Ho Chi Minh city and will eventually coincide with Tet, which, Sinh tells them, is all about “letting go of the past year and opening yourself up to new possibilities.” I mean, that doesn’t seem pointedly specific for Amanda or anything. Like the whole Vietnamese New Year is set up to be a life-changing experience just for her! How convenient! But don’t worry, there will be lessons for her to learn around just about every corner, and Sinh is going to point out each and every one with an uplifting phrase. Remember that Amanda likes to have an itinerary, a guidebook, and a crosswalk at all times. Meanwhile, Sinh explains that travel is good because it “forces us out of our comfort zone.” He admonishes her to put down her guidebook because “a tourist wants to escape life, a traveler wants to experience it.” Fair point, but did we need to squeeze the prose until they’re quite so purple? Then they debate whether escapism is ever good, which I find amusing while we’re watching an incredibly escapist movie, you know? Sinh concludes that “you never know how long life’s gonna be. Why waste it on escape? Spend it on experience instead.” First of all, you see what I mean about swearing an oath to speak only like an Inspirational Quote of the Day calendar? It’s a lot. Especially for the first 36 minutes of the movie, where it’s non-stop. Secondly, spend your ENTIRE life on experiencing every moment because you could go at any minute? My friend, this is very intense. Maybe take a deep breath and, like, watch a middling rom-com and chill out. Third of all, I feel compelled to point out that it’s slightly exotifying that Sinh is the one blabbing on and on about the importance of travel pushing us out of our comfort zone when he’s a tour guide traveling the same routes over and over again. These are his comfort zones. They just might look new and exciting from the viewer’s perspective if Vietnam is unfamiliar. I’m not at all saying that travel isn’t an important experience. It is. I’m just saying that perspective is also important.
Obviously, Sinh’s one-line life advice starts to open Amanda’s eyes to a new perspective on travel, life, and just how much she would like to get naked with Sinh. And I guess Sinh is very into the organization and order that he keeps trying to convince Amanada to let go of? I was also confused when Sinh seems to teach Amanda about haggling when they visit a market. I thought she did nothing but read the guidebook? And that she traveled a lot? But she has no concept that people in markets in some places in the world expect you to barter? And why does he take over? Like, if she wants to pay full price, isn’t that her choice? I have questions like that a lot when he’s doling out his inspirational advice. I mean, it’s a personal thing, but I don’t particularly like people just telling me who I should be. “Don’t limit yourself.” Um, thanks stranger for that useless advice. We’re all limited in certain ways. You’re just assuming that the ways you think I’m limited are negative. I mean, why doesn’t he try to see things from her perspective at all? There are probably benefits to her carefulness and planning, though her character isn’t really developed enough for us to see what those would be. I admit to spending a fair amount of time wondering, aside from the fact that they were flung together on this trip where everyone else conveniently has a travel buddy (or, in Anh’s case, is driving the bus), why exactly they were into each other. Plus, there’s the fact that she’s lying her face off to him the entire time about her real reason for being in Vietnam. To be entirely honest, it’s sometimes more exciting to watch Rachael Leigh Cook’s hairstyles battle with the obviously unrelenting humidity than watching these two flirt.
But where they falter, Vietnam is there to pick up the slack, and this movie does an excellent job of flirting with the whole damn country. Because we’re locked into a guided tour with the characters, we ride along as they experience, among other things, going to a market, riding a cyclocross through Ho Chi Minh, making wishes on lanterns, getting clothing made, visiting a beach (where Sinh suddenly emerges from the water half-naked to sultry music, and I snorted with appreciation), and then venturing to places more off the beaten path, which allows for relationships to deepen and for us to see traditions, foods, and customs. Obviously, Sinh gives us, I mean the people on the tour, brief explainers about everything, which mostly feels natural, and I’m willing to let it slide when it feels slightly forced because I enjoy factoids mixed with my comfort rom-com.
Without giving too much away, though you know where this movie is going plotpoint by plotpoint, I was disappointed with both the energy and the actual mechanics of the ending. I felt like they could have given one character more agency and another character could have been held more accountable. Please do remember in all this that I kvetch because I care. I say, with only a slight exaggeration, that movies like this one are my lifeblood, and unpicking them is how I understand them. All that said, I think this movie is probably best enjoyed, as Sinh might say, by “soaking in the atmosphere” and dare I say it, letting your brain escape into it.