I recently read a travelblog of a couple who said the thing they disliked most about Vietnam was the feeling they were constantly being taken advantage of. This is true not just here but in many of the places we’ve traveled. Locals feel we are wealthy and therefore obligated to overpay. Vietnam officially got rid of its two tier price system, which forced foreigners to pay exponentially higher prices for bus and train tickets, but it hasn’t yet trickled down to street vendors and some museums. The result is that almost every transaction is a guessing game where you try to determine a reasonable price before agreeing to fork over your money. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you manage to get away with a few remaining dong in your pocket.
In China, it was sometimes difficult to get information, but once we found a reliable source–a supermarket price tag, a hotel clerk, a friendly English speaker, or a fellow traveler–we could usually count on it being accurate. In Vietnam there is no such thing as accuracy. Like prices, everything, including the truth is debatable. For Westerners this is unfamiliar territory which is highly confusing and completely offputting. Many tourists seem to wander around in a daze, resigned to a state of suspended reality where you make decisions and simply hope for the best.
Now chances are if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Westerner and therefore probably also have no idea what I’m talking about. Because the Vietnamese MO defies logic and description, I will offer a summary of our trek through the center of the country as an illustration. When we settled in to our comfortable, clean sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue, a nicely dressed man entered our berth and struck up a conversation. Once he discovered we did not have a hotel in Hue, he gave us his card, told us his hotel could put us all in one large room with three queen-sized beds for $15/night. If we gave him our first names, the hotel’s driver would even pick us up at the train station. He assured us there was no obligation to stay, so we accepted.
As promised, the van was there to pick us up, but when we got to the hotel, the manager said he had no such room. The best he could do was 2 rooms at $18/each. We declined and hopped back in the van to go to his other hotel, a slightly older, smaller version of the first. They could give us two rooms for a slightly lower price and after looking at three other hotels located on the same block, we decided to reward them for driving us all over the city and stay. We did so only after the girl at the front desk confirmed, no less than 5 times, that the hotel had wifi. She explained it would not work in the room, but that it functioned in the lobby. She asked for our passports, and as I started to hunt for them, I asked Tom to whip out a laptop and confirm that it worked. Nothing. “Where’s your network he asked?” “My what?” she replied. The wireless network, so I can check and see why my computer doesn’t pick up a signal?” “What?” “You said you had wifi.” “Yes, we have wifi.” “But it doesn’t work. My laptop can’t access the internet from here.” She just smiled. “Yes, we have wifi.” As by now you might have guessed, they didn’t have wifi. She didn’t even know what it was.
This sweet young woman and the man on the train both fall into the first category of the Vietnamese information void: those who will say anything you want to hear because they truly want to make you happy. Let’s call them the pleasers. The pleasers have no ill intentions; they just believe life is easier if you always say yes. People smile back and are rarely around long enough to realize what you’ve told them is not true.
We moved down the street to a funky hotel which had a computer in the room and guys at the front desk who knew their way around the internet. While the information we got from them about the hotel was accurate, we soon discovered that they too were pleasers. They smiled and promised us that the DMZ bus would be air conditioned and that the food would be good, but instead we ended up with the “rolling sauna” and the worst food of the trip. We forgave them, figuring they couldn’t be blamed for the tour company’s poorly maintained bus. After explaining in great detail how important a/c was to our health and the moods of our children, they looked me in the eye, smiled, and assured me the 4-hour bus to Hoi An would in fact have functioning air. I believed them. They were wrong. Yet again, the a/c was completely ineffectual and yet again we arrived at our destination dehydrated and exhausted. We exited the bus with a new sense of wariness but with a remnant of faith that there was truth to be found.
We were immediately greeted outside the bus by the second type of Vietnamese disinformer: the liar. This guy will flat out lie in an attempt to lure you into his trap, which usually involves traveling to a hotel or gift shop which won’t follow through on his promises. While the pleasers may really believe what they are telling you, or perhaps want to believe it, the liars just want your money and have no scruples in telling you whatever it takes to separate you from it. The liars who greeted me in Hoi An assured me that the hotels I was looking for were “very far away…5 kilometers…must go by motorbike.” I sloughed them off and started walking using the map in my guidebook. The hotels I was looking for were right around the corner. While I was shopping for rooms with McKane and Kieran at the recommended places, liars were preying on Dax, Tom, and Asher. One man asked Dax if we were staying at the hotel where we had been dropped, which was clean and new but lacked a pool or internet. He whispered to Dax that we shouldn’t stay there because “they steal your stuff while you’re out.” When this guy disappeared, a woman from the supposed thief hotel asked Dax if the man had maligned her establishment. He said yes and she replied, “He’s just mad because nobody stays at his hotel.”
We ended up at one of the recommended hotels largely because of the friendliness of its staff. Though they were full the first night, three of the employees begged us to return the next day, eager to play with the little kids and fawn over Dax, who seems to hold the status of a rock star with the Vietnamese ladies. We laid low while in Hoi An, mainly because I went down for the better part of two days with a mystery fever. Based upon recommendations from our Halong Bay shipmates, we decided that our next stop would be Mui Ne, a tiny beach town discovered by the outside world only a few years ago. Most visitors arrive by the ubiquitous tour busses, but since it was a 14-hour trip, we were determined to avoid them this time. From my sickbed, I sent Tom to a travel agent who gave him a price list for train tickets and explained that a nice overnight train would drop us off right on the beach. A stretch perhaps, but it sounded promising. He then asked multiple employees of the hotel, who promised the same thing and charged significantly less to get the tickets for us from DaNang. Even though we couldn’t find any reference to a train online or in the guidebooks, we figured this many people couldn’t be wrong, and asked the hotel to buy us 6 hard sleeper tickets. We chose hard sleeper because even though it’s not as swank as soft sleeper, all 6 of us can fit in one berth. Soft sleeper compartments have only 4 beds and we prefer to stay together.
When we picked up the tickets upon checkout the next day, the receptionist handed Tom 5 tickets. “But I asked for 6. I told you at least 10 times I wanted 6 tickets.” “But the little girl is free.” “I know, but I explained to you many times that we wanted the whole compartment and that I would pay for a ticket for her.” “But she is free.” “But I want a bed for her.” This went on and on until finally the girl called the train station to see if anything could be done. The voice on the other end explained that the sixth ticket in the compartment had not been sold and would not be before the train’s departure in a few hours. We could have the whole compartment without buying the sixth ticket. We believed her.
What greeted us at Danang Station was the dirtiest, rustiest, rattletrap of a vehicle we have encountered on our trip thus far, let’s just call it the rolling roach motel. Taking a deep breath, we boarded our assigned car only to be quickly directed by the car attendant to a compartment different than the one designated on our tickets. “I’m sorry this isn’t right. And someone’s left his shoes on the floor there,” I explained. Tom immediately noticed that the shoes belonged to a small Vietnamese man sleeping in one of the top bunks and explained to the attendant that the station had promised us our own car. “But you only have 5 tickets,” she replied. “I know that. I tried to buy 6. I wanted 6. I still want 6. We need 6 beds.” “But you only bought 5 tickets.” “Yes, you’re right. But I would like 6. I will be happy to buy the 6th right now.” “If you buy ticket on train you pay double.” “I don’t want to pay double. I want to pay 1/2, a child’s fare.” “Nooooooo, you only have 5 tickets. You buy ticket on the train, you pay double.” “Fine, I’ll go into the station right now and buy the sixth ticket before the train leaves.” “Ok, ok, ok. You want 6 tickets. I sell you ticket half price.” She roused the poor man above from his sleep, hustled him to another compartment, pocketed our half fare, and refused to give us any sort of receipt.
When she came back later, she was all smiles…our new best friend since we had just made her $10 richer. “You get off at Muong Mao.” Yes, that’s the Mui Ne station, right?” “No, no. No station at Mui Ne. Mui Ne two hour by taxi from Muong Man.” Our jaws hit the floor with a deafening thud. “You’ve got to be kidding. This train doesn’t go to Mui Ne.” “No, no train to Mui Ne.” We turned to each other with exasperated looks and realized we had just been the victims of a well-intentioned but misinformed group of pleasers. (The travel agent might have been a liar, but the sweet hotel girls had to be pleasers.)
As the night wore on, the absurdity of our situation only increased. Our compartment seemed to be the preferred location for a steady stream of roaches, which we assumed were entering from under the carriage. Tom slept in what seemed to be their favorite spot, the lower left bunk, and I took the one on the other side. We pulled the drawstrings on our sleep sacks so no prehistoric insects would scurry across our faces in the night and made a noble attempt at sleep.
We arrived at the Muong Man station early the next morning. It was largely deserted, a single room with a few noodle shops outside, and nothing remotely resembling a beach anywhere nearby. We were greeted by a few guys who promised big taxis to take us to Mui Ne for about $20. The Germans who had also gotten off the train said they should have been $12, but since we had no other options, there wasn’t much we could do but accept.
The ride to town was only 45 minutes. We told the driver, who had informed us that we were to pay him an additional $2 above the negotiated price, that we would pay his fee if he would take us from hotel to hotel as we searched for a room. We went to three or four and after not finding exactly what we were looking for, we told the driver to drop us outside Good Morning, Vietnam, an Italian restaurant. Tom rented a motorbike and went on the prowl for hotels further down the strip. He returned an hour later with few prospects, so I took a turn on foot. I found something suitable but way beyond what we wanted to pay. Frustrated and unimpressed with the scenery, we discussed whether we should just skip Mui Ne altogether and head straight to Saigon.
By this time, the kids had spent hours eating pizza at Good Morning, Vietnam, and Tom had struck up a conversation with the restaurant manager, a tall red-head with the perfectly melodious Italian name of Andrea Piccolo. Andrea took Tom to see a few hotels and then volunteered to buy bus tickets for us to Saigon. We opted to buy tickets for the following afternoon, book one of the hotels he suggested for a night, and hire a guide to take us out to sled the sand dunes the next morning.
Andrea was even so kind as to drive us in the Good Morning, Vietnam van down the street to hotel. He made two trips and by the time the little kids and I arrived, Tom was arguing with the receptionist, a diminutive and seemingly shy Vietnamese woman. “But these are the rooms you showed me. You told me they were $28, not $35.” “They’re garden view deluxe. They’re $35 per night.” “But you showed them to me 10 minutes ago and told me that you’d give them to me for $28.” As Tom’s voice grew louder, tears welled in the woman’s eyes. Sick to death of being promised one thing and delivered another, we turned to leave. Andrea followed us, trying to mediate the minor dispute. He admonished the receptionist never to let a guest make her cry and assured us that we had been the victims of “bad business” and had every right to be angry. We settled on a price of $30 per room, hugged the receptionist, and bid Andrea farewell. Before leaving he explained that after 5 years of living in Vietnam and trying to run a business here, he knows that the Vietnamese people have a lot to learn about service professions and pleasing tourists. Giving out consistent, accurate information hasn’t quite made the training manuals yet.
As McKane will explain in his upcoming post, we woke up at 4:30 the next morning and had a great time sledding the dunes outside Mui Ne. The hotel proved lovely and its restaurant more than adequate. After 10 hours of bliss, the real Vietnam, the suspended reality one, came lurching back in the form of…you guessed it…another rolling sauna. The bus Andrea had helped us book pulled up outside our hotel, fully loaded with passengers, steam billowing out the windows. We asked in disbelief, “Do you have room for six?” The usual, unequivocal “yes” was the answer. After 10 minutes of rearranging other passengers and interrogating them as to where they had purchased their tickets and when they had boarded, we were finally on the road to Saigon, a little worse for the wear, but oh so much wiser. Never again will we trust a pleaser, no matter how genuine their smile, nor will we be surprised when things are not what we’ve been promised. Life’s so much more interesting this way.