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Published: February 6th 2008
“I don't like dealing with money transactions in poor countries. I get confused between the feeling that I shouldn't haggle with poverty and hating getting ripped off.”
This quote comes, ironically, from a book I purchased from a tout in Ho Chi Minh City. Emma and I were sitting at a bar having a meal, when a little Vietnamese man walked up with a huge stack of books, nearly as tall as he was. Unconcerned that we were eating, he said “You buy book. Good book. Very cheap.”. We weren't that interested, but somehow, 5 minutes later, I owned a copy of the Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrase Book, and The Beach, by Alex Garland. I paid 190,000 Dong for the two books, even though I really only wanted 1. He walked off with a massive grin on his face, and so began a feeling that hasn't left me for the entire time I have been traveling in Vietnam. I'm pretty sure that in any given moment, I'm about to get ripped off. It bothers me that it bothers me, because getting ripped off here usually means getting something for a steal at the prices we pay in
Australia. The books, for example, cost about AUS $13. I probably would have paid more for one of them in Australia.
The problem is that we have a lot of money in a developing country. “Boohoo” I hear you say, “pass the tissues”. However, this colours a lot of your interactions with Vietnamese people. Many tourists probably don't bother to bargain, or argue when they are getting scammed, because the sums of money involved aren't worth the hassle to them. That is what keeps the touts and conmen (and women) continuing to hassle people.
The list of tricks people go to in an effort to relieve you of your money is quite extensive. In one bar we went to, the money was handled by a separate cashier when you pay your bill. When your waitress takes the money for the bill to the cashier, they put the money in the till, close the till, and just wait. We sat for about 5 minutes watching the cashier, before they noticed us looking, re-opened the till and gave our change to the waitress. Another time, we asked for an automatic scooter to drive around on - automatics cost $7 a
day, manuals are $3.50. The shopkeeper's wife took $7 from us and went out the back of the shop, while the shopkeeper got the bike, which we found to be a manual. His wife dis not return with change, and we had to ask for it. Needless to say the bike fuel gauge was on empty too. There are children pretending to be students at temples, who "Take your donations" (though there is a donation box at most monuments) and so on. It happens enough to make you a little paranoid about the Vietnamese people, which is a shame, because since we have moved on from Nha Trang to Hoi An we have found the people to be much nicer.
That being said, just this afternoon we were wondering through the Hoi An backstreets, and met some kids. The funny little buggers all wanted a photo, and asked us where we were from. They also kept putting their hands in my pockets, pulling at the zips on my backpack and asking for “Candee!” or “1 Dollar!”. They are very cute though.
We've just spent 3 days in Nha Trang, and it is quite a pretty beach resort town.
The madness on the Vietnam roads turned Emma a little crazy...
You can hire a beach chair with a mattress and sit underneath a straw umbrella all day if you like (which we did) for about AUS $2 per person. You can also buy a large plate of fresh crabs, prawns and lobster from people cooking just behind the beach, for about AUS $12 (which we also did). You can get a 40 minute massage for AUS $5. None of this would be possible without an exchange rate of 14,500 VND to the Aussie Dollar. Thank you Aussie Dollar.
What you can't do is read a book on your beach chair for more than 20 minutes without being harassed by someone trying to sell you something. Sunglasses, books, necklaces and beads. The masseuse you have just had a massage from, and have just paid, will walk up to you at least another 5 times and sit (uninvited) on your sun-bed, stroke your leg, and say “I give you massage”. When you politely decline, she says “OK, I come back later.”. Tremendous.
As much as you want to help people, it's impossible to buy from every tout that comes your way, because in Nha Trang at least, we were approached
about every 5 minutes while walking through tourist areas. Some of the touts are quite aggressive in pursuing you as well. There are several ways to handle these situations without buying something.
1. The least effective way to do it, is to say “No, thank you” politely. This is fine in areas where there are fewer, less persistent touts (like Hoi An) or when you are walking. If you are sitting down, more insistent touts view it as an opportunity to keep talking to you, find out where you are from, tell you about their starving children, and then try and sell you something again.
2. Don't look at any Vietnamese person who is loitering on a street near a motorbike, stall, or who is carrying a tray of anything. They interpret this as an invitation to try to sell something.
3. When approached, shake your head 'No' but don't speak anything. This feels rude, but it's effective.
4. As the guide books say, never give money to a beggar, regardless of how unfortunate they look. Go to a temple and put your money in a donation box instead. Some of them definitely are faking it
- one lady at Long Son pagoda was chatting away normally to her mate, and then noticed us, turned, rolled her eyes back in her skull, and started waving a hat around like she was blind. Others are missing limbs, as there are still a lot of land mines and unexploded ordnance in Vietnam, which farmers plough up - and you do feel sorry for them - but I think it is better to donate directly to the temples, who can share the money around.
5. “No hablo ingles, no lo quiero”.
It means “I don't speak English, I don't want it.” in Spanish. I thought of this tactic in Nha Trang, when I got sick of being pestered. The touts never reply. They look completely dumbfounded too, which is funny. Save this for when you are really pissed off.
Having said all this we don't want to put anyone off Vietnam - touts aside, it is a really fantastic experience.
The train journey and Nha Trang
After HCMC we took the train to Nha Trang - which is a great way to see some of the Vietnamese scenery outside of the big cities.
I got a cold beer and two packets of peanuts roasted in coconut milk for $1. We also had a very nice Vietnamese lady near us, who spoke some sort of Vietnam - English that didn't make sense most of the time, but she was very helpful getting people out of the way when we were moving luggage anyway.
Nha Trang is very touristy, and parts of it are resort-style and cater almost exclusively to westerners.
However, we were able to hire a scooter for $3.50 a day, and we took-off to the end of the city where the locals live. We zipped in and out of the traffic with a minimum of difficulty (much quieter than HCMC) and visited the Long Son Pagoda - which is home to an enormous statue of Buddha, who serenely watches over the city from his hilltop home. It's also good to sit at a beach-side bar, sip your $2 cocktail, and just watch the world go by. Despite the touts, we were definitely able to relax and enjoy ourselves here. We could also allow ourselves guilty pleasures like western food, since the town caters very much to the tourist.
How the other half live...
Some of the local housing in Nha Trang
saw some fascinating Cham temples in both Nha Trang and Hoi An that date back 1000 years and more. The Vietnamese government is attempting to restore the temples, but the Cham people used a type of bricklaying that they can't reproduce. Each brick is long and thin, perfectly smooth and fits into the next with only the most minute of gaps. The areas where new bricks have been laid with mortar between them to reconstruct the temples is now decaying faster than the ancient bricks. The ancient workmanship actually surpasses the quality of more modern techniques.
We're now in Hoi An - an old town halfway up the Vietnam coastline. More to come about that in the next installment...
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