From left, Scott Ly and Rachel Leigh Cook fall in love in “A Tourist’s Guide to Love.”

‘A Tourist’s Guide To Love’ Takes the Hollywood Rom-Com to Vietnam

A familiar movie in an unfamiliar place, the Netflix comedy has little cultural insight, but enough charm to get by

From left, Scott Ly and Rachel Leigh Cook fall in love in “A Tourist’s Guide to Love.”


A traditional American romantic comedy grafted onto a Vietnamese setting, A Tourist’s Guide To Love—now streaming on Netflix—comes pre-loaded with potentially iffy optics. However, director Steven K. Tsuchida and writer Eirene Donohue attempt to circumvent this cultural imposition, by making their film first and foremost one of cultural appreciation, albeit to a fault. It plays more like a lengthy tourism ad than an entertaining story, but its actors have enough charm to keep it afloat, even amidst its hodgepodge of rom-com conventions. Familiar isn’t always bad, and when it arrives in novel packaging, the results can be interesting, at the very least.

There’s an amateur quality to A Tourist’s Guide To Love that mercifully fades once its premise kicks in, though in the meantime, its setup meanders across far-too-lengthy scenes with foregone conclusions. Self-absorbed L.A. travel executive Amanda Riley (Rachel Leigh Cook) is too much of a workaholic to take time off and travel to Vietnam, where her corporate firm, Tourista, hopes to set up shop by acquiring a local mom-and-pop tour company, Saigon Silver Star. Her boss, Mona (Missi Pyle), also has convenient and inexplicable communication with her boyfriend of five years, John (Ben Feldman), and she convinces Amanda that he’s about to pop the question. Another painfully drawn-out sequence later—in which Amanda repeats all these plot points to her Southeast Asian manicurist, with a naïve glimmer in her eye—and the other shoe finally, predictably, drops, leading not to a proposal, but an inevitable breakup.

Once all these rom-com cards are in play—the uptight, professional white woman who just needs to loosen up and find a guy totally unlike herself—the film quickly concocts reasons to send her on her work trip after all, with the dual intent of taking some time to heal and find herself, while scouting out a business deal. Amanda’s naïveté goes hand in hand with some grating cultural ignorance, wherein she behaves like she’s never met an Asian person before (despite living in L.A., and despite prior scenes to the contrary), but her surprise that her handsome, easygoing tour guide, Sinh (Scott Ly), speaks English is met not with scorn or discomfort, but with playful banter. The bumbling travel exec clearly has much to learn, but she’s also open to the idea, taking quickly to Sinh’s advice on how to approach his home country—with an open heart, and an open mind, rather than through the pages of a printed guidebook.

Then again, while Saigon is now home to Sinh, the film is quick to reveal that he spent his youth in the United States—the actor playing him is American—which some viewers might be able to clock based on his pronunciation of “Vietnam” (with the second syllable rhyming with “psalm,” rather than how a local might pronounce it, to rhyme with “Sam”). Sinh is both Amanda’s and the viewer’s gateway to various Vietnamese cities, including Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi, but his supposed bi-cultural upbringing doesn’t inform any aspect of his outlook or character, and feels more like a convenient explanation for why Ly’s English is often tinged with an American accent. Despite Sinh’s musings about giving in to the local culture, what follows feels in line with an outsider’s view of the country as a tourist location, with Vietnam 101 explanations about cultural differences, and the meaning behind the upcoming Tết celebration—the Vietnamese lunar new year, which brings with it new beginnings. This, of course, serves a key thematic purpose for Amanda, who’s in desperate need of renewal, but that’s all it ever is in the movie’s purview.

From left, Scott Ly and Rachel Leigh Cook in “A Tourist’s Guide to Love.”


That said, Ly exudes flirtatious charm with every word. At one point, the camera even affords him the Bond Girl treatment, à la Ursula Andres emerging from the ocean in Dr. No (a shot eventually applied to Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale). Between his glistening abs, his flowing hair, and his thoughtful eyes, Sinh is the perfect physical object of Amanda’s desire—a type of role unavailable to Asian actors in Hollywood until recently—but despite also being her gateway to a new place, he’s seldom much more than a romantic pursuit. All we really know about him as a person is that he wants to take over Saigon Silver Star from his uncle, an unseen character who brokers a deal with Tourista unbeknownst to him. It’s another narrative convenience that creates a potential blockade, since Amanda elects not to reveal her job to Sinh and the rest of the tour group, and thus the reason she’s there in the first place. So, when the two begin falling for one another, it creates complicated dilemmas for Amanda, though Sinh is none the wiser for reasons simply hand-waved as familial, with no elaboration.

However, even when these looming conflicts feel inorganically conceived, Cook’s conception of Amanda hints at emotional dimensions, and helps elevate the character beyond the mere bumbling western outsider she initially appears to be. Cook carries Amanda with a somber undercurrent despite her lively interactions, giving her an anxious, self-pitying vibe, like her recent breakup has left her hollow. There’s a certain beauty to the way Cook plays Amanda’s melancholy, though it’s one that Sinh rarely gets to see; both leads are attractive in isolation, but they’re rarely allowed to share emotional or physical chemistry.

In theory, Sinh and Vietnam are Amanda’s elixirs, though in practice, they form a pristine backdrop geared towards one white woman’s self-fulfillment, with little sense of place or lived experience of their own beyond fleeting establishing shots.

Since the film zips from place to place, and location to location, it rarely spends enough time on any one cultural experience that might impact Amanda—she often talks about how Vietnam has changed her, in some unseen way—but Cook sells what seems like a profound impact on the character, a sense of rejuvenation whose end-result is fascinating to consider, even if its emotional process is invisible to the audience. In theory, Sinh and Vietnam are Amanda’s elixirs, though in practice, they form a pristine backdrop geared towards one white woman’s self-fulfillment, with little sense of place or lived experience of their own beyond fleeting establishing shots.

There are other characters in Amanda’s tour group, too: an older straight, white British couple on their delayed honeymoon, a middle-aged African American lesbian couple with a teenage daughter, and a goofy, college-aged American vlogger with whom the daughter has a sweet romantic spark. But despite the film’s occasional focus on each of them, they end up serving no real narrative purpose, even though they represent romance at various different stages of life. The camera might capture them in isolated moments, which are sweet in and of themselves, but Amanda is never around to actually reflect on them in any way. If they were excised from the story, little about it would change.

The tour group in “A Tourist’s Guide to Love.”


This is, unfortunately, how nearly every element of the film ends up feeling. It’s filled with rich and vivid details, but they appear so often and so quickly that they soon become blurs, and there isn’t a single local character beyond Sinh who’s given enough screen-time or narrative agency to leave a lasting impact (or even some exotic wisdom, in keeping with the movie’s western gaze). However, when the film cycles through familiar rom-com tropes, the mere fact that it does so in a setting unfamiliar to the genre is at least visually refreshing. In the case of its big reconciliation moment and public display of romance, one might even call it inventive, given the way it’s staged.

A Tourist’s Guide To Love may not be entirely new in its perspective on romance, but that it arrives in a new packaging is enough of a selling point for it to get by. It also ends up being (just) enough for its actors, who draw from emotional ideas that exist in the story’s margins, creating characters who feel alive in the process—even though their inner workings remain a mystery.

Published on April 26, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter