Four days in and we’re naturally still adjusting to some big differences in culture and language that the China - Vietnam border divides. A funny thing, international borders are. We are new in this culture, and now clearly see how comfortable we were in China - that we understood much of the daily culture, knew the pricing, and could speak the language.
We had been cold under grey skies in western Guangxi prov, China for more than a week. Though rather symbolically, the day we pedaled out of Pingxiang city to the Friendship Gate 18km away, the sun began coming out and was full force by the time we reached the moutainous border crossing. It has been warmer since, however the nights remain cold: 5 Celcius (41 F) on Jan 2, when we woke up from camping in a dry rice field near Bac Giang town. The first 2 days were beautiful and amazing biking - slightly down hill for over 100km, winding through a gorgeous moutainous valley following a river. 50km northeast of Hanoi, the land flattened out into fertile fields of rice and corn.
The language barrier has been tough, and it comes through mostly when we have to order food. Jim’s phrase book has helped us, but so much that we were able to easily communicate to people before (about our trip goals), is now lost to non-English speakers. Although we have run into 1 or 2 English speakers each day, most people don’t speak English northeast of Hanoi.
A major cultural difference that I am slowly learning how to handle, is pricing, negotiating, and rip-offs. The Vietnamese play hardball.
Adam shared a proverb he’d heard, “The Cambodians plant rice, the Laotians harvest it, and the Vietnamese sell it.” Moreover, an old Frommer’s travel guide at our current guesthouse discusses how Vietnam is more expensive than other SE Asian countries and how the Vietnamese always seem to be on the go (by motorbike), from 6:30am when the roads are clogged, until they fall over exhausted in the evening…go go going forward, up, ahead, making money where ever possible. I’m slowly beginning to accept this as a different cultural characteristic, but I must admit that for the first 3 days, I was quite upset and put off by it.
To be fair, on all three days in Vietnam so far we have also run into a nice person who is eager to help us (a guy helped us find an inexpensive guesthouse and restaurant our first night and talked with us for a while about Vietnam, and a highschool senior tried to help us find a guesthouse in Bac Giang, though failed), and there were a few people in China who tried to charge us more than the going and fair price (so thankfully we’re experienced when it comes to negotiating prices and handleing those uncomfortable situations). However over our 3.5 months biking in China, I can maybe remember maybe 5 such unpleasant instances. In our first 3 days in Vietnam, we’ve had 2 major situations and I’ve had 2 or 3 minor situations. I think in addition to the basic cultural difference and our lack of language power, the fact that Vietnam has so many more foreign tourists (I saw over 100 in Hanoi just biking to our guesthouse in 15min) with plenty of money and who are weak bargaining rookies, has contributed to my sour impression that Vietnamese will rip me off at every turn if I’m not on my guard - and this has nothing to do with my being specifically American, just my being a Western tourist. I’m sure most westerners just pay the first price quoted without thinking much beyond, “wow, only 5.00 dollars or euros? That’s CHEAP!” when in fact $5.00 for a room or 1 meal is quite a bit in these economies, and to some extent disrupts local economies.
Our two big attemtped rip-off instances involved two different small restuarant owners in two different small towns. Without language, we immidiately started writing down prices to bargain and to confirm them after we entered Vietnam - espcially since EVERYTHING has to be negotiated and the current conversion is confusing: Vietnamese Dong run 16,000 / US$1.00. (Vietnamese small town restaurants, like Chinese, do not have menus, one simply looks at the meat and vegetables available, and orders from those, so there are no “listed prices.”)
In a noodle restaurant one evening (for a late night snack), Adam, Nakia, Drew, and I asked about noodle prices, and the female owner wrote down 6,000 per bowl. We asked for 3. When it came time to pay, she asked for 45,000 total, over twice the price she’d written down (6,000 x 3 = 18,000). She was adamet and confident that we owed her 45,000 (we’d recieved nothing else, no drinks or other side items). We had a body language banter for a few min, mostly involving each of us pointing earnestly at the old and new written prices. Confident that we were in the right, though confused and trying to find our error, we forgave 2,000 and left her a 20,000 Dong bill. When we walked out, she didn’t yell, follow us out into the street, or otherwise make a big fuss as we would have expected if we really did owe her 45,000.
The next night, in Bac Giang town, we ate at a small street side family run restaurant (as we always do). We almost left before ordering because their first quoted prices were too high. Nakia stayed on though and bargained the prices down to nearly half the original prices. With these prices, the rest of us agreed to stay and eat there, dispite being a bit put off by the attitude of the young woman from the famiy doing the bargaining. The prices were written down: 15,000; 15,000; 20,000 for the 3 dishes, plus 15,000/big communal bowl of rice which we had 2 of, so 80,000 total Dong, but the total wasn’t written down. At the end of the meal when I went to pay, the young woman totaled the bill, and wound up with 175,000 Dong. It seemed high, I looked confused, and asked Nakia what she had negotiated and told the others the total to which they all were surprised. Nakia came over, and noticed the written prices per dish were different, and actually was a whole new sheet of paper. When we motioned that we thought the total was too high, and we wrote down the old prices, the young woman loudly said, “No, no, no,” and was clearly upset. Had we not been sure of the other prices, her confidence and anger probably would have convinced me just to pay it to avoid continuing the unpleasant confrontation. However since our money is tight, we’re seasoned travelers, and the total was SO much higher than it should have been, we continued to assert that we knew 80,000 was the agreed upon amount. The young woman walked away flustered, back to the family’s dinner table were they were eating, and continued eating her rice. An older woman got up from the table and came to the desk where we were standing with the bill. She’d watched the previous scene and looked at the bill as we continued (as best as we could) explain that we’d agreed on lower prices before ordering. She quickly agreed to what we were saying, wrote down the correct total (80,000) herself next to the 175,000 total, and even gave us proper change for the 100,000 bill we paid with.
We were all troubled by what the young woman had tried to do, and were confused that she’d even try to rip us off after writing the prices down. Curious about the whole situation, after I’d paid, I took the sheet of paper with both her and the older women’s totals to the table where the family was eating to ask the younger woman about the difference. I remained in silence since I don’t speak Vietnamese, shrugged my shoulders to show my confusion at the difference, and I tried to have an inquisitive and neutral facial expression to be non-aggressive about my inquiry. The young woman was clearly upset upon seeing the paper, pushing it out of her sight, and speaking quickly and nervously while motioning for us to leave. One of the young men at the table spoke a few English words, saying that she was wrong or bad, and that they were sorry, to which a few others at the table agreed. We left upset and disspointed that we must have seemed like such fools to the young woman that she attempted such an obvious rip off.
We initally thought there must be something in the language that we’re not getting, some how there must be other symbols that mean higher numbers, like letters that we’re mistaking for numbers that mean larger amounts. However the other restaurants we’ve eaten at have been straightforward and stuck to the originally written down prices.
Finally, this morning I came down to the small front desk to ask about the washing machine we’d been told we could use yesturday and to ask for a map. The washing machine turns out to be a service, for which it costs 20,000 per pound, and the front desk attendant estimated my rather small load to be 3 pounds and gave me a total of 60,000 dong (about 30 yuan, US$4.00, or 3 nights stay for me in other guesthouses). I told him I thought it was too expensive, so I’ll just wash it myself. “Ohh, You can’t wash clothes in your room.” This was a surprise to me, we had a bathroom sink that would work just fine for my essentials. “Oh, then I’ll just not wash my clothes,” I repled. He reminded me, “You can’t wash clothes in your room, or you have to pay.” “OK, don’t worry,” I said. “I’m also looking for a map, do you have one?” He found a small clearly used map in a drawer of the front desk and opened it up carefully as something had been spilled on it and the creases were sticking. “Is this map free?” I asked. “No no,” he said. “Its 10,000.” Since I’d seen Nakia’s bigger map for the same price she’d purchased yesturday, this seemed high to me, and I told him so. I then noticed an old price tag up in the corner that said “5,000.” I brought this to his attention, which embarrassed him, and he said, “Ok, 5,000.” Seeing a clear and recurring pattern in my interactions with Vietnamese selling me things, I told him that I’d read Vietnamese are known for being business-minded people and often look for ways to make money. Is it a part of the culture? His unclear response told me he really didn’t understand what I was asking about, but he said since I’d been traveling for a long time I wasn’t like other foreign tourists who didn’t pay as much attention to prices. I then told him, “Since this map is small and its obviously been used, how about 3,000.” “Ok,” he said, and I went off to find a bowl of noodles for breakfast of which they first told me the only noodles they had were 20,000, until I saw a hidden poster-menu that listed different styles of noodles including 8,000 and 12,000 kinds.
On day 4 in Vietnam, I’m slowly coming to accept this different, more aggressive bargaining culture and I’m much less upset than two days ago. I keep reminding myself that I’m a guest here and its my responsibility to learn how to play by Vietnam’s rules. Maybe the ambitious Vietnamese business attitude is connected to global economic justice (see previous post, “Is there a just way to make US$1 million?”). I can imagine it might seem quite just to the Vietnamese (and others) to play Robinhood with their comparatively wealthy foreign tourists, and if the foreigners don’t realize or mind that they’re being ripped off, then there’s nothing wrong with it. Maybe I should even let myself get ripped off and knowingly contribute to righting past injustices. But no, for this one, I will strive to better learn how to play the bargaining game, Vietnamese style.