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Vietnam :: First impressions

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Thursday, 18 November 2004

After Cambodia, I find the Vietnamese pretty intolerable. Everyday, I get shortchanged around $1. when you point out that you are missing some change, they act as if they made a mistake in counting. But it happens all too often and I have noticed that their math skills (adding up restaurant bills) are unrivalled and fast. One day, after checking out from a hotel and receiving $16 change, I counted the money twice only to find $15. As I turned to the girl who had handed me the money, I noticed she was carefully looking at me from the corner of her eye, and without saying a word her hand came springing out from behind the counter with that $1 bill. This has happened three or four times in different hotels. As for restaurants, clubs and bars, I have lost count.

There is an obvious division between tourists and the Vietnamese. They can sell you things at 5 times the price it would cost a local (which was the case for a very cheap raincoat, where some people had paid 10,000 VND, myself 5,000, others 3,000 and a Vietnamese guide got two for us at 2,000 VND each). And when you try to haggle the price down, they tell you to just sod off in a very rude manner. Friends here were refused a hotel room because they found it expensive at first! After visiting that hotel, they looked elsewhere but couldn't find anything better. When they returned five minutes later, they were told they could not have the room because they had refused it earlier on. Everyday I hear new stories about how people get ripped off.

As for the division, in some night clubs, if you go and dance with a group of Vietnamese, they walk off to another area. Buses: the Vietnamese sit together on one side, away from tourists. If you happen to sit next to one, they'll move away to another seat (this happened quite a few times on all the buses I took).

Bad jokes about the Americans and French always end in "but we're just joking, we really do love them". Yet you sense hidden feelings. This is even made prominent at the many War Museums dispersed around Vietnam, which all illustrate the atrocities committed by the Americans during the late 70s. Not that I am pro American for such actions - or their presence in Vietnam - but the Vietnamese will happily illustrate only one side of the gruesome story.

Vietnamese have not forgiven and forgotten like Cambodians have. And in many ways, the wars Cambodia has seen were many times worse: wars where you could not trust your own children, friends or family! Regimes where if you found time to sit down and chat with someone you were considered a burden to society and were most likely eliminated.

Cambodians do see you as tourists, but a little chat will open them up and you soon find authentic people. Yet living standards in Cambodia are well below those in Vietnam. Cambodia survives entirely on tourism - Vietnam doesn't. And whilst Cambodian vendors smile at you regardless of whether you buy something or not, Vietnamese vendors make it seem like your dollars are all they have to live by. But is this really the case in such an industrialised and booming country? Where agriculture and oil are the country's main riches - not tourism?

However, I can't generalise this for all of Vietnam. I have encountered a few genuine people, whose hearts were not set on gold (I was left perplexed the first time such genuity was shown - after I got a free moto ride back to my hotel. This truly puzzled me for a few days). But I have come across too few of these people and now everytime someone strikes up a conversation with me, I immediately wonder what they're trying to sell.

In a few days, I will be out of here. I'm going to try and cross a border which is not open to tourists. But I'm ready to fork out $80 to get through: taking that route will truly be an amazing local-mingling non-touristic journey!