March 26, 2013

Hello, you buy something! or How the Vietnamese Won the War

Apparently, 95% of people who visit Vietnam never return. After two weeks in Vietnam, we can definitely understand why. Our time in Vietnam has been filled with beautiful scenery, good food and horrific service at almost every turn. At this juncture of our trip, we've learned to find the unfriendly service, the stares, the dishonesty and the constant attempts to rip us off comical. Jarrad and I have come up with names for the different scams we think people are plotting: the Long Grift, the Dump, the Hoi An Hustle, and the Cincinatti Shake, just to name a few.

I would say that we came into Vietnam with an open mind a a positive attitude. Even after the taxi driver tried to rip us off, the hotel lost our reservation, even with everyone gawking at us, the bus attendant refusing to give us water, and vendors laughing at us, we chalked it up to a bumpy start and cultural differences. Ok, yes, the Vietnamese don't smile as much, but big deal, half the people at my old job had a permanent scowl on their face. Plus, we spent two marvelous days in Dalat, and we felt like our treatment in Saigon was an anomaly. Well, we were wrong; our time in Dalat would be the exception to the rule in Vietnam.

I had no idea before visiting Vietnam that it was such a polarizing country amongst people who've visited. A simple google search "love hate Vietnam" will result in hundreds of blog posts, with some extolling all the virtues of the country and its people, and others blowing off steam from all their negative experiences. The things that travelers most struggle with, the things we've most struggled with, is the outright dishonesty, the aggressive touts, and the incessantly unfriendly service. Oh, and the scams, but that kinda falls in with dishonesty.

Customer Service, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of B.H.
The thing is, there are scams everywhere in the world, but the Vietnamese seem to scam with fervor. We've been lucky enough to avoid being the victims of any bad ones, but that's mostly because we've avoided taking cabs, and we've done our homework on how much things should cost. Of course, the cost for foreigners is often inflated 400%. The Vietnamese have a word for us stupid tourists, and it roughly translates to fatty chicken. Of course, some scams are unavoidable. For example, we wanted to stay two days in Hoi An, but we were taking the train up from Nha Trang. As Hoi An has no train station, you have to take the train to nearby Danang and then take a bus, minibus, taxi or public bus to Hoi An. Of course, this whole process is one big ripoff.

We decided to take the public bus. Fares for locals? 15,000 dong. Fares for foreigners? 50,000 dong. Of course these fares aren't listed anywhere, it's just the price that bus attendant chose to charge us that day. There was another couple on the bus with us and they tried to argue, but the bus attendant just stuck to her guns and kept repeating "50,000" over and over. So we each paid 50,000 dong, and I hope she bought her kids something nice with that extra cash. Every step you take in Vietnam, someone is yelling at you to buy something. In Cambodia, kids and adults would wave at us, smile and yell hello. We would return the greeting, and that was it. In Vietnam, there is no smile, and the hello is accompanied with the demand: you buy something! It is so offputting.

And this is the thing: we always try to remind ourselves, ok, well they are just trying to make a living. Wages are low and tourists are a quick way to make easy money, can't blame them. Or, when service is bad, we'll think: ok, the US invaded and fought an awful, unjust war on their land, they have a right to be resentful (although, come on, I'm Mexican!). Or, when they are pushy, like the cab driver who literally shoved me out of the way so he could hawk his services to Jarrad, we think: of course they are pushy and aggressive, it's their fighting spirit! First they fought the Chinese, then the French, then the Americans, it's just a part of their history and culture. And you really can see the remnants of those years in their actions; the Vietnamese are nothing if not resourceful and tenacious. Nonetheless, it's difficult to not feel like all this behavior is also just downright rude.

Honestly, sometimes we even admire their ingenuity when it comes to swindling tourists. In Hoi An, we saw two Vietnamese people try and tell a large group of tourists that walking down an alley and into the old city required purchasing tickets from them. Of course they were lying, and Jarrad interjected and said that was untrue, that they could continue down the public alley and into town at no cost. Or, the ticket vendor in Hoi An who told me there was no art performance that night(entry is included in the pass you purchase), but another show would be on later for 100,000 dong if I wanted to pay for that. She was lying about the cancelled performance. Often maps are blurry or mislabeled so that you have to rely on the services of a guide. They really are quite clever.

I certainly don't want to give the impression that all the Vietnamese are this way, because that would be an extremely unfair generalization. The staff at our hotels have been so lovely, and the families running the local restaurants we've eaten at have been very sweet. It's  just unfortunate that the majority of people we've encountered haven't been the friendliest. Whether it's the men on cyclos yelling "hey!" at you and then hocking a loogie in your direction when you decline their services, or the vendors who have openly mocked us, or the groups of Vietnamese who stare, point and laugh at us, the people of Vietnam have been a source of struggle for us.

This is not to say we haven't enjoyed our time here. Dalat was one of our favorite parts of the entire trip, and we've learned and seen a lot in Vietnam. I, unlike Jarrad, refuse to let the rudeness change my attitude, and I continue smiling and being polite, even though I rarely ever receive a smile in return. Although most people say you either love it or hate it here, I wouldn't say that's true. We've certainly had quite a bit of downs, but overall we like the country, and it's remarkable to contemplate how much Vietnam has achieved in the past 38 years. Would we return and form part of that 5% of visitors who come back a second time? Probably not. But we have yet to see Hanoi, a city I've dreamed of visiting for ten years. These fatty chickens are hopeful for another exception to the rule.


Claudia said...

My dear you are ever the eternal polite one! I don't know how I'd react, but I wonder if I'd do it with such understanding :) I'd hope so, but who knows!

Anonymous said...

I've traveled from Ho Chi Minh to Dalat, with the towns being breathtaking in their own ways and the people very nice and gracious. Today I ventured off the beaten path and am staying in the seaside town of Tuy Hoa. The constant starring and laughing to the obnoxious yells of "HELLO!" Is really putting a damper on the part of my Southeast Asia trip I looked forward to the most. I can relate to your story 100% and would have things to add. I now know how racism feels.