Sunday, July 02, 2006

Scamorama in Vietnam

Kunming, Yunnan, China
Well, I'm back in China again and thought I'd take the opportunity to give you the run down on my week in Vietnam.  It's hard to summarize without running on and on, but hopefully I wont bore you all with too many details. 
I'll start by saying that I really liked Vietnam.  It's so much more relaxed than China, the people seemed nicer, and more people speak English, so it's easier to get around.  The tourist infrastructure is much more developed there, so it really helps those of us who don't speak Vietnamese.  At the same time, it is a place where you have to be constantly on your guard.  I have never been anywhere where the people were so happy to lie to your face and scam you out of your money, all the while wearing a friendly smile and acting like it's totally normal.  Yes, I got scammed, more than once, as does everyone.  You can't avoid it.  Many times you know you are being scammed and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, which is so frustrating.
I've heard stories so much worse than any that happened to me.  One person I talked to met a guy who was given a "candy" by a new "friend" on a bus, and by the time he woke up, the friend had made off with all his valuables. This is a common one with drinks and even dropping pills into open water bottles.  One girl was attacked with a pair of scissors by some people in a tour agency.  Many people have stories about not getting what they paid for or agreed to.  One guy I met said it took him four tries to get somewhere once, as he kept getting on a motorbike, only to stop halfway there so the driver could demand more money to take him all the way.  And absolutely everyone in Vietnam has gotten in a taxi and been dropped at a hotel they did not request, where either the driver tries to pretend it's the one that was requested or he just flat out refuses to go anywhere else.
Here's the first one that happened to me: upon arriving at the border, all tourists are treated to the same - they are picked up by a taxi at the border, the only way to get to the nearest town, and the taxi says it is taking them to the bus to Hanoi. He then drops the poor tourists in the middle of nowhere, where conveniently only one bus goes to Hanoi, and it costs three times what the locals pay.  Even if you know there is a bus station, if you don't know how to get there (and nobody does and there are no signs and no Vietnamese people will tell you), you have no choice but to suck it up and pay the money even though you know you are being scammed.  Welcome to Vietnam.
After a 25 hour journey, I arrived in Hanoi.  I shared a dorm room with two British guys who exemplified a large number of the travelers I see here - couldn't stop talking about beer, soccer, and Asian women. I get the impression a lot of the solo male travelers here are running away from something - and hoping to run straight into the arms of the Asian women.  It's interesting to me to see the kinds of people who are traveling here, though I can't really say I approve of traveling around Asia to look for women.
My second day I spent wandering around Hanoi, which is quite a colorful city.  I don't think I've ever seen so many motorbikes in my life.  For the first day I was in Hanoi, I didn't even realize there were traffic lights there - the army of motorbikes on each street just does whatever it wants.  The Lonely Planet has some advice about crossing the street that I laughed at before I got to Hanoi - basically it says that you have to just take a deep breath and start crossing the street slowly (don't try to run across) and pray that the motorbikes will go around you.  And it's totally true.  It's very scary, but you have to just walk right out in front of them, and somehow they always manage to manoever around you.  The Old Quarter of Hanoi is filled with little shops selling everything you can imagine, and I ended up giving in and buying some and mailing it home.  They have so many beautiful things.  I also visited the "Hanoi Hilton" - the prison where they kept Vietnamese political prisoners and, later, American POWs, and that was quite interesting.  Didn't look like a fun place to live, but they did their best to show how happy the Americans were there.
I've been debating whether to share with you what happened next, but in the name of telling a good story, I feel I should.  I'll preface it by saying that I asked around and found out that at least turtles are farmed here, so no species should have been endangered in the making of this story.
So here goes:  when I travel, I like to get to know local people if I can, to get a better idea of the culture, etc.  When you don't speak the language, it limits who you can talk to, and I now know not to trust people here who speak English.  A lesson hard learned.  I was sitting by the lake on my first day and started talking to a very friendly guy.  He ended up showing me around the city and joining me for a tour of the Temple of Literature.  After spending several hours with him, I thought he seemed nice enough and agreed to go try some "local food" with him.  Now, I will take the blame for this part - I initiated the food idea, but I was intending to get some noodles in the local market.
He instead took me to a nearby town, where I was shown a cage full of turtles and a bag full of cobras.  Upstairs were huge jugs of snake wine - rice wine with whole cobras preserved in it.  Supposed to be good for your health.  They are awfully scary looking.  We sat down and they brought us a bunch of little appetizers.  Then up they came and put a flopping turtle on the ground for my new friend's approval.  I was horrified but didn't want to offend him, so I didn't say anything (I know, but it's hard when you are trying to be polite in a foreign culture).  After a little while they came up with grilled turtle pieces, and then three water bottles with dark liquid - one red, one green, and one gold.  Turns out that the custom is to take the fresh turtle's blood and mix it with rice wine - the red drink - and also take the turtle's bile and mix that with rice wine - the green drink - and all this was accompanied by the third bottle, the snake wine I saw earlier. 
Well, I managed to get down a little bit of the one with blood in it, but I think after seeing me turn green in the face at the thought of what I was doing, my host did not offer me the bile.  The snake wine was somewhat sweet, but I kept thinking I must be getting poisoned or something.  Anyway, this was followed by turtle stew made with the rest of the turtle, and then the usual tea.  And here's the worst part - at the end of dinner, my new "friend" did not have enough money, and I was left to pay an enormous bill, which I'm sure he then went back and split with the restaurant later. 
Apparently this is an extremely common scam - I've since heard from many people it's happened to - but I was unprepared, given that I've had great experiences doing the exact same thing in many other countries.  It took me a long time to get over being angry about that one, but it was a good lesson to me about Vietnam.  And at least I got a better story about it than most people, who just have a standard noodle dinner and then lose all their money.  The dinner I had is one that is a "special occasion" meal and expensive enough that there is actually a small possibility that I wasn't scammed and indeed just had a very expensive dinner.  But it was a very uniquely Vietnamese meal, and definitely makes for a funny, if slightly embarassing, story.
So anyway, the next day I determined to make a fresh start of it, after staying up all night feeling upset about the scamming and the turtle killing, and I got a tour to Halong Bay.  This was beautiful - karst formations jutting out of the ocean and a lovely cave that is nicely illuminated.  Unfortunately our guide spoke completely unintelligible English, and so half of us did not bring our cameras on the nicest hike with great views of the bay, since we all thought we were going kayaking.  And when we did go kayaking later, something was up with the water or the boat and we all kept turning in circles. 
However, the boat ride was very relaxing and we slept on the boat in the bay, which was really nice.  The next day we spent the morning going back to town on the boat, with a short stop for swimming on the way.  I wasn't feeling in the mood but decided to go in anyway, and after a few minutes I felt something bite my arm.  As I was looking down trying to figure out what was going on, my legs were suddenly besieged by an army of something.  I started yelling and swam as fast as I could out of the water, where they poured vinegar on my legs and I stood there in excruciating pain.  I never even saw the jellyfish, but he managed to sting the backs of both of my legs pretty much all over, so he must have been humongous.  To top it all off, the crew told me I couldn't lie down because we had already "checked out" so I had to lie on the wood floor for the next two hours while I was in the most pain. The pain didn't subside for about two days, and I still have huge red marks on me.
Anyway... the next day I spent again in Hanoi again, wandering around to the lakes, checking out temples and enjoying fresh lychees.  I did my shopping and was planning to stick around another day, when I found out that I had to leave that night or I would be stuck for three more days.  So I packed up and took the overnight train up into the mountains of the northwest to Sapa.  The ride up there was fantastic - beautiful mountain landscapes and minority groups dressed in their traditional dress and going about their business, including herding water buffaloes up the mountain. Once in Sapa, I got myself on a little tour of the surrounding villages, which meant a fairly long and precarious hike down into the valley and through rice terraces to visit villages of Black Hmong and Red Zao people.  They raise corn, rice, some small vegetables, and, most amusingly, hemp (only for clothing, not for smoking), so we walked by all of these crops. The little girls followed us around as we walked, asking a set group of questions to "get to know us" before they made the hard sell of their handicrafts.  They were adorable, and most of us ended up buying cheap things, even though I didn't really appreciate the tactics, which later included pushing me and yelling at me when I didn't buy something from a girl who had walked with me for a while. 
We had an overnight in a home in a village, and it was very nice.  Although they still live pretty much the way they always have, our house included a real western toilet that even flushed and had running water, though only bucket showers.  Tourism has really reached even the most remote parts of Vietnam.  It's not too hot there because it's high in the mountains, so I finally got a good night's sleep.  I was slightly nervous, though, as the guy sleeping next to me kept referring to his "illness", and when I finally asked, he had told me it was "psychosis", though evidently his medicine is working well enough for him to be out of the home...  yikes.
The next day it rained like nobody's business, and the 8km hike back was ridiculously muddy and slippery.  I was lucky and didn't fall, but only because I had a walking stick and some help from the tribal girls.  I got back totally soaked and fortunately the tour agency let me take a shower there and put on some dry clothes, before heading off to the border.  I bought a ticket from them all the way to Kunming, and in Vietnam's final insult, I got scammed one last time.
I do believe that the girl who sold me the ticket thought she was telling the truth that I was to be on a nice, new, air-conditioned sleeper bus.  However, her boss had other ideas, and he knew that once I crossed the border, I couldn't come back and get angry with him about it.  The border crossing was very complicated, and Vietnam not only took away my visa but never even stamped my passport, so it appears like I was never even there!  And the Chinese guys had a very long discussion, made me sign my name again, and compared me to my photo for a while before finally letting me through.  At the bus station, some guy showed me a badge that said "license" and tried to get me to go to his office to "ask me some questions".  I don't know what he wanted, but when I said he had to ask me the questions in public, he tried to sell me water and then to change my money before finally giving up.  And of course I was not on the nice sleeper, but one that was better than but quite similar to the horrible one I took to Vietnam in the first place, closing up a nice little circle for my sojourn in Vietnam.  Some guy on the bus kept yelling at me - I have no idea why - and the bus broke down in the middle of the night and they spent 90 minutes trying to fix the engine in the dark.  And to top it all off, they broke my backpack - ripping one of the straps right off the front of it.  At least they didn't steal anything, which is what I was expecting to happen.  The road was horrible, and there were times we bumped so hard I was bounced totally up off my bunk.  I had to hang on to the window for most of the night to keep from falling, and though I read a lot of my book, I didn't get much sleep.
And now I'm back in China.   It's weird to be back - it's much more challenging to travel here, and I was kind of enjoying the ease of travel in Vietnam.  In fact, I liked Vietnam so much I was very tempted to stay a lot longer.  It's definitely a place I'll return to.  But China is nice too, and actually the people I've met here have been extremely nice as well, but fewer of them speak any English at all, so it's hard to find out how nice they really are.
Well, I've rambled on, but it's been quite a week.   Hope I've kept you all entertained.  It's certainly been an adventure over here.
Till next time,

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