Being in Asia has been wonderful so far. The scenery is so different then anything I am used to, and beautiful beyond words. The prices are wonderfully cheap and there are so many things to see and do, it’s a wondrous place in so many ways. But, amongst all this beauty and wonder, there has been a slight darkness hiding just under the surface.
We are tourists in an up and coming country, and we are largely staying places that make their money off of tourists. From the moment we arrived we have had the feeling that we were going to have to watch out or we would be taken advantage of in one way or another. The simplest analogy I can think of to describe it is that feeling you get when something goes wrong with your car in a place you are unfamiliar with, and you have to find a mechanic to fix it. Though most mechanics are for the most part honest, you just can never be sure if the one you go to is going to rip you off or not. It is this mindset that has put us on edge from the very beginning, and it hard to get out of.
So why do we have this feeling? What is it that is causing it? I have heard a few stories of theft and various forms of extortion, perhaps more in Thailand then Vietnam, but I have heard them nonetheless. But thieves and cons are a part of life in every country, not just here in Asia. Matter of fact, since I have been here I feel like there is more to worry about in terms of theft in youth hostels and schools in the western world than there is here. We take our precautions, don’t leave our stuff lying around where it would be easy to steal, and so far we have had no problems. That being the case, I don’t think that is really what is at the heart of it.
For me, I think it began with reading our lonely planet guide. While the author of the books has almost nothing but positive things to say, there are of course warnings about shady operators of things like taxis that you have to watch out for. There is no denying there are people here who will take advantage of you if they can, and they are more likely to target tourists who, so they assume, have money and don’t know better. But again there are people of this sort everywhere.
The more I think about it, the more I think a large part of it is the language barrier. Obviously, we don’t speak any of the languages. Though many people, especially those that make their living off of tourism in one form or another, speak some English, it is rarely easy to communicate beyond the basics. Abstract discussions are pretty much out of the question. What this means is two fold:
First, when I am somewhere new, I have found that one of the best ways to get to know a place, its culture, its intricacies, and get any information that might be helpful to know, is from the locals. Also, we enjoy being tourists, but one thing we always try to do when traveling is get away from the tourist zones and try to mingle with the locals on their turf for a bit. Here it’s not really possible. This means that the only people we can really talk to are other travelers, and often they are in the same boat as we are. It makes me feel like I am at a disadvantage from the very beginning, which puts me on edge.
Second, if we have an issue with something, for example a motorbike we rented, it becomes very hard to have a discussion about what to do if neither party can really understand each other. Because neither party is fully capable of explaining our thoughts and positions, any sort of debate can easily become quite tense. I am not one who likes conflict at all, but having a conflict with some one who I can barely understand, in a country where I am a visitor, is something that I find frightening.
Something that ties in with the language barrier is the cultural difference. While we have done some research on the subject, we know very little about it. Since our ability to communicate is limited, again I feel like I am missing information. To give you an example, one of the biggest differences we have come across here is the haggling. When is it OK to haggle? How does one haggle in a way that is in line with the culture? How do I know what a fair price is? Without answers to so many questions that I would normally just ask some one, we have had to go with a trial and error approach. While we seem to be doing ok I don’t really have a good way to evaluate results. (This is something that has gotten easier as we go.)
Why does that bother me? As with every person, there are some things that really grind my gears. One of the biggest is being intentionally deceived. For some reason the idea that we are likely being charged more for everything then they would charge their countrymen offends me for some reason. But the issue I have is that in the end I cannot say for sure if they are or are not. Also, I hate to think I am being rude, or contributing to a stigma against backpackers and western visitors by being cheap.
There are a few other little things that add to the issue. For one, they are much more vocal with their advertising then I am used to (more so in Vietnam then Laos. We shall see what Cambodia and Thailand are like). I quickly get a little angry when we are being constantly harassed to buy stuff. It gets hard to remember that they are all just individuals trying to do their job or run a business. And I have noticed that with many of the vendors that walk around in the big cities, its not just westerners they bother.
To add to all the emotional confusion, they are all actually really nice people. If we have a question they are always happy to help point us in the right direction. They are always willing to go the extra mile in terms of customer service. All the places we have stayed have been clean and tidy. Even the small family run places seem to have some one around who is willing to help for at least 18 hours a day 7 days a week. They work so hard it’s amazing. If the person we asks something of, even just on the street, doesn’t understand or can’t help, they will take us to some one who can near by. And on top of all that, regardless of whether or not we are being over charged, its still amazingly cheap compared to the Western world.
All of these factors play a part in the strange feeling that has been lurking under the surface of all the happiness we have been experiencing on our travels. Thinking about it all and getting out in writing has certainly helped me to get a handle on it, as at least now I can identify what it is. It would be an interesting conversation to have with some one who is more familiar with the culture and I do hope that one day I will have a chance to learn more about it all.
About a week after initially writing this, we did have one bad run in with a street vendor in Hanoi. Rather then hiking boots, I am in the habit of buying military/ police boots because the have a high ankle and come in wide sizes. The pair I have are black, and I will admit that at the time they were in need of a polish. At one point I had said no to a shoe shiner multiple times. Courtney was looking at something at a local shop, so I was standing still and looking at her. I looked down and sure enough the same guy I had already said no to multiple times was in the process of shinning my shoe. I just couldn’t bring myself to be so rude as to pull my foot away so I gave in and let him do it. I gave him my boots and sat down to wait. He not only shinned my shoes, but took it upon himself to add new stiches to the toes, which required poking holes in my waterproof boots, and doing some other “repairs” that were completely unnecessary. He then tried to charge us 800,000 dong for the whole thing. I very nearly lost it as we were now being charged about forty USD, for a service I didn’t want in the first place. Courtney got him down to 500,000, about twenty five dollars, because I was just too pissed off to speak. It took me a few days to get over. In the end I consider it a twenty five dollar lesson, and so far it has been the only bad experience we have had, and it has only been in Vietnam. Laos has been so much more laid back.