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We’re in HANOI, Vietnam’s capital: Bargaining is paramount

Friday, January 4th, 2008

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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.

Fear, or the lack there of

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

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Fear, they say, the people who appear in books, the people who author life, they, say, should speed one up, say, dilate the pupils, hasten the synapses, quicken the pace at which the heart squeezes the blood like a fist around a throat, or a fist around the pole of a revolutionary flag, a fist thrust upward, the direction of blood after it is deflated of oxygen, its second trip around the body.

Fear, they, say, if done right, ought to catapult a country into a full-fledged war, pink and brown and sand-colored fists thrusting the sky as if to beat the blue pulp out of it, pulverize it to red dust, the ground that was made to sleep at its feet like a dog without a name, sleeping on the doormat on the other, wetter side of the door.  Then ground and sky would have the same genitalia, the same initials: D.S. Dirty Sky. And where is the mystery in that? Where exactly would the unknown be if I’ve already seen yours and you’ve already seen mine?

I wondered this, nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, in the tiny room with the old yellow sheet thrown on the lumpy lofty bed on the fifth floor of a dirty apartment in Guanzhou, the new town, with the old smell of Garlic and methane flowing through the pipes of neighboring apartments.

I remember Beijing in these smells. When Drew and I moved from the college area to Downtown, the place where grown ups played. We liked this apartment because we had Chinese neighbors who would try to converse with us in the elevator, whose plastic garbage bag smells and after lunch breath smells we would get accustomed to. We liked that we could turn something so old and minty green into a kitchen. That we could scrape the grease layers from the stove and wipe the dust from the exposed pipes and hang our own useful things like towels and gloves and pictures from the newly whiter walls, and cook up our own garlicky, oniony, sugary, cofeeish, honeyfied smells that deafened the memories of past tenants into a dog’s whimper on the other, wetter side of the door.  

Life was slow then. We woke up wandering. Wandering up from our beds with the thin skin of sleep still stretched on our eyelids like a tent moistened by morning fog. Wandering to the bathroom to empty the remnants of sleep from our bladders. Wandering through the emptiness of the living room wondering where to place ourselves so that when the other person emerged from their bedroom they wouldn’t enter on the wrong side and set each other on an offbeat, wrong feet wrong shoes. The morning is tender. The night is more clearly defined.

I told the man in Guanzhou in a clear, tired voice, that I didn’t want to sleep with him.

I had arrived here by bus an hour before the sun went back to its velvet draped room to brood, and rode my bike, weighed down by luggage like an eleven year old girl with new breasts, for 4 hours looking for the cheap inns, the ones I was accustomed to paying 10 kwai a person for. I had been forewarned that Guanzhou was almost as big as Beijing so the likelihood of finding a cheap hotel might be slim, but thought I would emulate my friends’ unstinting, fist-thrusting, persistence, to find a bargain.  Hong Kong and a new visa has already started the slow torturous job of gnawing my bank account to green digital threads that translate to 0 balance in an ATM’s brittle ears.

It was speed that brought me here. 

Speed without the fear. Velocity. Torque. A roll roll roll. A swirl swirl girly whirl. A swivel and a curl that sent me tumbling down the sharp hill on the small country road that mirrored the interstate to Guanzhou. We had climbed, slowly, painfully, 16km up up up to reach the last fingertips of climax, before the road would begin its wobbly downward tumble into the flat, hillless southern end of Guandong province, its spiral into Guanzhou. We didn’t anticipate (who could?) the sudden slide into ecstasy.

I knew I was about to fall the minute my front handle bars began to rumble like a belly ache deep below me, a muscle spasm that I couldn’t reach, couldn’t control. My bike was detaching itself from my body because I hadn’t pressed the breaks soon enough after starting downward, hadn’t given it any warning. I knew I was about to fall and was trying to calculate where exactly to fling my body and where to place my limbs to achieve the least amount of impact.

I flew. Sideways vision. Sky curving. Silver and black pebbled.  Horizontal road. Blackness. Zip. Whiteness. Zip. I am on a porch being cleaned by Jim. I am cold. We go inside a place where there is a pile of women and children arranged across from me like a pyramid, a portrait hanging on a wall with eyes that follow moving bodies.  I am watching them watching me wash my wounds with tears. I lift my shirt and Jim says, “Ohhh.” There is pain. I weep. There are talks of raspberries and boiled water. I want some. Boiled water inside my cold, shivering body. 

We spend the next 2 days in a small town in the mountains where I am under diligent supervision, Jim and Drew taking turns redoing my bandages. I hobble up the stairs of our inn slowly, feeling all the inches and millimeters where skin moves over muscle, rediscovering through pain all the points where my body is connected. I touch my face, and for the first time realize that it did not go unscathed. There is hardened flesh smeared from my lips to my cheek, which is fatter now. There is a bandage on my cheekbone. I feel colder.

Drew says I walk like a gangster. It hurts to laugh. All the boys curl up around my cracked body seeping into gauze like moist cold, like winters in Tropical countries where the cold creeps into your coat, like The Bahamas, which is still warm enough to wear flip flops and tank tops now. They watch movies with me as my body begins its healing process. They send me ahead on a bus to Guanzhou, our destination, the place of a friends’ wedding we’re invited to attend, scared for me to ride again.

 The bus rides at 4 times the speed of a bike (80 km an hour), giving me know time to admire the river slicing through the sandy mountain cliffs.

But I am not scared. No fear to deliver me from the slow, achy movements above my bike. I am chary and unsteady, my bike and I getting to know each other again after the obliterating crash that split us apart. I ride slowly, aware of what accidents can do to bodies, darting between the wheels of buses and the curbs of sidewalks, slicing through the electrified, carbon emitted city heat that pisses on my legs like a dog tired of sleeping on the other, wetter side of a door.

I am slow, getting slower, more exhausted. So that when the man flags me down on the fourth hour of my hotel search, I think that he is just trying to practice his English and that he is just excited to meet a foreigner, like the people in the countryside who fawn over us, treating us like royalty because we are new. I stop my bike, unnew, dented, wreckage weighed down by bags, my body, unnew, dented, wreckage seeping into sagging bandages.

Fear quickens you.  Exhaustion slows you down.

He says that I can stay at his place tonight. I am amazed at my luck and ask him if I can pay. He says it’s ok. I’m exhausted and it is 9:30pm. He rolls my bike along, lifts it up to the fifth floor of his smoke-webbed apartment that has smells of Beijing in it, opens the door to his room, puts my bags down on the floor and puts his arms around my waist, one of them on the raspberry gash in my side. I flinch and tell him that I do not want to sleep with him and that I have an American boyfriend who is 198cm tall (In case of any misunderstanding, Peter is NOT my boyfriend). He says that he has many girlfriends and that he likes foreign girls. He lays his hand on my wound again. I show him the dressing and he tries to touch the skin around it. I pick up Drew’s phone (which I have with me for safety) and threaten to call my 198cm boyfriend who is on his way to Guanzhou. He relents, and I roll my things back down the stairs nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, suddenly no longer feeling the pain in the wound on my waist.

I descend into the hot night city air that hovers like a ghost in an alleyway, like the sour, hot breath of a man on heat. I am not scared. Nothing in me quickens or thrusts fists. I am not even angry. The city is like other cities – busied into fluorescent haze like a techno music video, silhouetted bodies popping and locking against blazing advertisements and moving subway trains.

I consider sleeping at a net bar and breathing in cigarette smoke as i dosed in front of a computer screen for 8 hours. I consider going to a 24-hour McDonald’s where i can block the flourescent light out with my sleeping mask and use my laptop bag as a pillow. There is a park across the street and I am tempted to go sleep in it. Anything seems a better alternative to what I just experienced.

I go for one last ride around the block and find a hotel for 100 kwai. I weigh this against the park option and decide it’s worth it to have a clean, private place in which to change my bandages.

I stay inside the hotel for the whole next day feeling empty and cold. Feeling slow and limp.  My thoughts are blurred by the blue underwater haze of too much sleep. The only thing reminding me that I am alive is the pain reawakened in the naked flesh in my side that glimmers like a diamond medallion in the sunlight beaming down from the one window of my hotel room.

The Cozy In Betweens

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

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I sat on a bus yesterday that catapulted me into today faster than I could say “sit back and enjoy the scenery.” But maybe I talk too slow. A writerly friend of mine once playfully called me verbose. Milan Kundera might say i was expressing the“sudden density of life,” a case in which a writer loses sight of the limitations of prose and logic and stuffs his scenes with a surfeit of actions (The Curtain). And that’s why I love Kundera. He puts a name and a face to my narcissism, which, by the way, I had no time for yesterday on the bus.

The minute I sat down with the sun slapping me on the forehead and the whiplash of motored acceleration pinning my back against the seat, I felt very very tired. I bid my comrades goodbye and fell asleep watching the scenery speed by faster than I could ride a bike. I woke up to the scenery latent and slightly agitated by people clanging luggage and skimming plastic bags against my knuckles. Next, the scenery was asphyxiated by an evening scarf as stygian as ink that hung from the windows of the train, which stopped 12 hours short of the 24 I expected and spat me from my top bunk onto the inchoate morning platform like something bitter.

Suddenly, public transportation is making me its bitch, twirling and slamming me into curbs and harsh morning temperatures ever since I ditched it for the slothful, but sexily steady 2-wheeled bicycle that my muscles and crotch have come to know intimately.

I am in Hong Kong now on business if business can be defined by the Olympics, foreigners, small unpronounceable countries, visa expiration dates, consulates, and passport photos. At least that’s what I wrote on the departure form: business. I left the guys behind somewhere in the dusty mainland. I hope that by now they are swigging baijui (rancid Chinese rice wine) with farmers who wear green oversized blazers and smiles pressed into their faces like wrinkles. That’s what I crave now in the midst of arbitrarily stylish boots and balloon skirts, where I must wear my serious city face so people won’t mess with me.

I am in Hong Kong now and the scenery is a passive aggressive flash of neon light suspended above labyrinth alleys flooding with African tailors, Eastern European accents, albino Chinese, and Philippine guesthouses. It rings in the ears like mantras: Do you need a single room? I know where you can get suits made cheaper than in your country. Where are you from? Ooh! Where is that?

Signs are everywhere, ricocheting messages of somebodies’ home; countries left behind: Namaste Indian Restaurant, Forest Green Vietnamese, Sushimasa, Patty’s Irish Pub, the Kangaroo, Tony’s Ribs. Food is the fastest way for a country to get around within another country. The best meeting place for a family of Indian migrants discussing business and counting one’s blessings over lunch. It’s the best way for me to fulfill my cravings of garlic nan and spinach chutney, momentarily forgetting the mainland’s steamed dumplings and tasteless cake.

But my senses are overloaded in this megalomaniac carnival. I’m too used to brown rice paddies, the candy green of tea bushes, the soft tresses of corn fields and sugar canes.

This is probably why I am fighting to push my writing fast between the time it takes for my laptop to run out of battery in this socketless café franchise, in between frantic sips of froth from a parched paper cup before the steam stiffens, in between the insipid drawl dripping between taffy mucked teeth that talk about the rich suburbs of Dallas over my shoulders from the other table. Elvis is on the speakers above my head and a red two-tier bus is having problems moving its massive hind from the minute parking space in front of the glass wall of this socketless café franchise. 

My mind is immersed in the memory of the books I saw at an English bookstore. Delillo, Marquez, Murakami, Achebe, Kundera. My mind floodlighted with the thought of all these ideas summersaulting onto the shelves like an animated puzzle coming together. If I could I would lick them all one by one.

This is like Shanghai again. Everything is too immaculate. The ketchup sits in shiny plastic bottles. Skinny Malboro lights sit between the fingers of skinny girls and skinny boys in skinny jeans and anime hair, clinking hips beneath the bamboo scaffolding. The shiny plastic signs and the white walls of the 7 Eleven’s glimmer like a jar of candy in a doctor’s office.

I feel safe enough to stay here all night if I have to. Chocolate covered matcha cakes and Japanese Pocky’s are sealed in plastic covered boxes. They are sealed so we can eat them.

There are signs everywhere telling us it’s safe. There are signs with girls in smoldering eyeliner nonchalantly hanging off the shoulders of boylike male models in tuxes, laughing, simulating good clean fun. Signs telling me it’s ok to come into this hotel and that bakery where the best blankets and the best treats lay awaiting me like a nipple to a newborn. Signs become symbols of security in a big, bombastic city like Hong Kong.  They have meanings deeper than their message.  I seek them out like I seek out food. 

But i know that i am homeless without my bike. I wonder around waiting for Monday, loosing myself through the alleys. The scenery screams and slithers beneath my senses like wet cold through a coat, creeping in through the button holes and collar until I am completely exposed. I struggle to capture the fleeting moments of people walking by, but all they do is blur. This city is too big for me.

The thing is when we ride bicycles, I never have time. We must ride, we must talk to the locals, we must see the moving landscapes, the billboards, the sugar canes and the farmers and the mountains. We must experience. The signs in the countryside indicate towns and distances in Chinese characters and numbers. The billboards sport propaganda messages to protect the environment that will be used to give Chinese citizens better homes. We glimpse monumental images of cooked dogs on plates and stock photos of the same Lithuanian blonde smiling on store signs.

We cannot get too involved in our own thoughts while riding less we get distracted and slow our strides or get sucked beneath the wheels of a moving trailer. We cannot get involved in owning things. We own nothing. We share everything, even our time.

I’ve grown accustomed to squeezing myself in the tender in betweens, knees to my chest, book on my knees, body cradled in a bed covered with luggage and loose clothes and open guitar cases. I’ve gotten comfortable with sliding sideways in the 5 minutes it takes to stop and pee or ask for directions or fix a flat.  I wake up at 5am while the others are still sleeping and fit my words in the tight urgency of the morning fuzz, where I must be terse if I am to outrun the REM that will eventually pull my comrades out of their delicate sleep and into the embryonic morning with me. 

In the city, I am dwarfed by the larger than life humans laughing down at me from their skyscraper wallpaper. Everyone looks different here and I’m not sure what language the passerbys are speaking. Indonesian? Vietnamese? German?

 I am alone. No one looks over my shoulder to see my notebook. No one asks me where I’m from unless they want to sell me something. No one cares. Not even me.  I am wearing my city eyes like dark car tints. I am alone and my time to myself is vast. I make sure to keep it that way, dodging soliciting Indians inviting me in for puri and dosa. I have a mission.

With my bike temporarily amputated and stuffed into the trailer (that Adam affectionately calls the hearse), I crawl into the box that is my hostel room, and sit Indian (ok, Native American) style at 2am, typing steathily while my teammates are dreaming in the mainland and everyone else in Kowloon, Hong Kong is downing vodka and dancing to a deaf hip hop beat on a Saturday night.