I’ve been waiting for a day brimming with positive Vietnam stories to update the blog, that day where traveller serendipity has kicked in and obliterated some of the not-so-good days. I’m beginning to think that this just may not be possible for us in Vietnam so I’ve settled for a reasonably good day, except for my orange roots.
But I’ll start at the beginning.
On the woeful side, my derailer packed it in at Cuc Phuong Park. We had seen the primate rescue and rehabilitation centre which was wonderful and had a short but nice visit with some turtles at the turtle conservation center but we only experienced about 8 km of park road through the jungle when my chain broke and took my derailer with it. We might have delayed going back to Ninh Binh to get a part so we could do some hiking and see the rest of the park but by that time we had been scammed by the park shop owner, paying 18.00 for a bottle of water, a bag of peanut brittle, a small container of nuts and six wedges of La Vache qui rit cheese – local price would have been about 4.00. Adding to our woes, the food was truly terrible at the Mac Lake Restaurant and then someone tried to make Ian pay 1.00 for parking his bike…Enough of Vietnam we said. Let’s get back to Ninh Binh, get the part and get on the road to Laos.
Back in Ninh Binh we searched for a derailer with the help of our hotel owner. No luck but we appreciated his efforts. Ian found a shop in Saigon that spoke English but they didn’t have the part. Ian fixed the chain on my bike so I could ride it – I just can’t change gears except for the back sprockets. We enjoyed a nice afternoon cycling slowly around Ninh Binh, part of our excursion to buy train tickets to Hue.
Our 11 hour daylight train trip to Hue, with bikes following on the night train, was not spectacular but certainly pleasant. It is the hands-down winner compared to any bus I’ve seen – night buses are really popular here with the tourists (or I suspect with tour operators who strongly promote them – from the outside looking in they look cramped especially as tickets are sold to locals who sit in the aisles when seats fill up. This might be ok for a few hours but 9 hours on an overnight bus under those circumstances is not my idea of a good time.)
Daytime train trips can be long but at least you can get up and walk around and enjoy the views. The views between Ninh Binh and Hue were great on some parts of the journey, through karst mountains and past rice fields in every stage of growth and harvest. We were alarmed by the TVs hanging from the ceiling when we first boarded but I have to give RailTV credit – there were some decent documentaries and music shows mixed in with the odd Tom and Jerry cartoons. It was interesting watching the commercials and music videos. I would say communist propaganda has been absolutely replaced with western-style propaganda for buying lots of consumer goods – whacks of commercials for everything from shampoo to bank services with smiling happy models living in western-style houses with all the modern conveniences – most of which is still out of reach for many Vietnamese.
We got to our hotel in Hue without incident or scams and just laughed at the brazen copyright infringement. We are staying at the Google Hotel – logo, colours and font all prominently displayed in neon over the font door. Ironically the internet connection here sucks and the ISP that serves the hotel is victim to government censor on Facebook. However, staff is helpful and friendly, the beer is free (yes free) and our room is pleasant. 25.00 a night, breakfast included.
Our friend Dave was kind enough to go pick up a derailer from the Bike Doctor in Vancouver. He has it on standby – meanwhile we are heading to DaNang on Sunday (a two hour train ride) to pick up one sent up from Saigon. Hopefully it works. Otherwise we are looking at getting Dave to send it by Canada Post (7 days) and then who knows how long in Vietnamese customs. Plan C may be to get a bus to Thailand and just get one there, significantly rearranging our itinerary. Time will tell.
Our first morning in Hue we picked up our bikes from the train station, grumpily paying another 4.00 charge we weren’t told about (we had already paid to ship the bikes when we were in Ninh Binh and not told about any other fee and so did not know if it was legitimate). However, we enjoyed cycling along the river and then off to a FedEx office to see what we might have to arrange to get my bike part from Canada. We really liked what we saw of Hue along the way.
As we sat waiting for the FedEx office to open after lunch (they have siesta hours here) a man named Lee came up to us. He was well dressed and spoke good English. He told us he was waiting for his daughter to arrive from Saigon; his whole family was gathering for some kind of party. He asked where we were from (everyone asks) and when we told him he said he had a cousin in Victoria. This is typically the opener for a sales line but it didn’t come. He chatted to us for five more minutes about Victoria and Hue and then invited us for lunch. Ian and I hesitated.
It was me who said yes. On other trips saying yes has often led us to new people, places and good adventures. We both have had a rough time here I thought, perhaps this is the beginning of something more positive. Lee asked the woman who owned the drink stall where Ian and I were sitting where we could find a lunch spot close by (Lee told us he was also from out-of-town) and we jumped on our bikes and followed Lee to a small outdoor restaurant. He ordered for us, checked that we were good with 50,000 dong each price for lunch (about 2.50) and we said yes. We enjoyed an hour together talking more about Victoria, Hue, and Vietnamese history.
When it came time to leave, Lee offered to pay. We said no of course and he insisted. We said no again and he said, ok well how about I pay for lunch and if you want to do something for me you can buy a bottle of wine for the temple tonight (he had explained he was meeting his family at a temple for their party). We said sure. So he paid for lunch, and then we followed him to a small store. I watched the bikes while Ian bought the wine. As Ian paid I asked to take Lee’s photograph. He demurred saying no because he was going to the temple that night. I thought that was weird but shrugged it off given I don’t know local customs.
It wasn’t until we’d ridden away from him and stopped that Ian told me the wine cost 900,000 dong (45.00). We were both a bit stunned for a bit; it took a few minutes of trying to give Lee the benefit of the doubt before we realized it was an elaborate scam. It took me a few hours to get really angry and a whole day to get over it. I searched google for scams in Hue and found he had been written up by a British tourist; he had gone by the name Lee and story was pretty similar except of course Lee had relatives in Britain.
Being robbed or pickpocketed (which has happened to me in Canada, Thailand and Mexico) is less of a violation that this kind of scam. This man didn’t just take our money: he took advantage of our generosity, our desire to be respectful and our trust.
I’ve posted a very crude drawing of Lee based on my rudimentary drawing skills. He has salt and pepper hair, and very high and prominent round cheekbones. He’s in his fifties. He’s lean. He’s a bit long in the tooth and one of his front teeth has a fair amount of decay on it. He is well-dressed, well spoken and charming. He was hanging around the Gold Hotel on Ba Trieu Street.
Although I’m over it now there is collateral damage – we generally don’t like or trust most of the Vietnamese people who work in the tourist industry. They seem to look at us and see us simply as dollar signs. I’ve been to 28 other countries in the world and I’ve never been scammed like this (although, ironically twice in Vancouver by well-spoken drug addicts). There is also collateral damage to the Vietnamese tourist operators — its unlikely we will come back to Vietnam and we certainly won’t be recommending it.
Comparable experiences in Thailand after 12 visits there over 24 years? On one of my first trips there I was walking on the street and saw a temple in a construction lot. There were people buying offerings and milling about. I went into see what was happening. A well-dressed local woman came up to me and explained it was a temple for a new building that was about to be built. She bought me a coconut and showed me how to make an offering. She shook my hand. That was it. She wouldn’t let me pay for the coconut and didn’t want anything from me. There was another woman in Thailand, a banana hawker, on the side of the road. Ian and I stopped our bikes to buy bananas. She wouldn’t take any money; she wanted to give us a gift. There was Mr. Charin who owned the guesthouse in Kampang Phet. He asked us if we would like to spend a day with him in the country. We said yes. We drove off for a great drive through the countryside, entertained by Mr. Charin’s stories and eating stall food he bought for us. He refused to let us treat him to anything and we paid for nothing the entire day.
Yep. Some cultures promote giving and generosity and ethics. Some don’t. Lonely Planet says the government here might partly be to blame as they used to charge one price for foreigners and one for locals with difference as much as 10 times. This may have set an expectation with the tourist operators.
But there have been some wonders – the old imperial city and the citadel complex are worth a visit or three. It was the afternoon we spent there wandering about old temples and royal residences built in the early 1800s that got us over our anger. In fact, Hue is my favourite city here I think, possibly beating out Hanoi which we got to like after the first few days of adjusting to noise and traffic.
We also had a terrific dinner at the Imperial Hotel last night, a five-star, with a reasonably priced Asian set menu that was very generous in terms of servings and great value at 40.00 for two of us. It gave us an opportunity to try some Vietnamese specialties (rice pancakes, pho with all the fixings and no fear of the raw veggies and herbs that come with it) and we had a great view of the city from the bar on the top floor.
Oh yeah. The orange roots. Neither wonderful nor completely woeful (but only because I have a sense of humour) is my latest Vietnam hair experience. The slightest hint of grey was starting to show at my root lines and given we are in rural territory after this week for some time I thought I would deal with it here. There is a salon in the hotel. The woman who runs it picked a colour I thought might be too light but I figured she knew what she was doing. Wrong :-0 I now have an orange stripe covering all my grey. When it grows out in a month I will be black orange and grey. Too bad Halloween is over. We should be in Thailand in a month where there are Tescos and Boots in the bigger cities so I will hopefully find a home kit and fix it myself.
Off to buy our train tickets to DaNang.