rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-04-15 10:04

Friends and Enemies

As so often happens in Asia, when one thinks things are going smoothly, something is just waiting in the wings to fuck you up. I'd left a bond of 140,000d (about US$9) for the chilly bin, and ought to have been more skeptical about doing so. In places where there is no real rule of law, no consumer guarantees act, nobody who cares if you get ripped off, once you hand over money you've effectively lost it; so it was no surprise when the people who'd been so friendly the day before refused to give back my bond for the chilly bin. I hassled them about it, and the whole family was eventually brought in - husband, brothers, little sister about ten years old. After about ten minutes of arguing the toss, they got around to making an actual claim to the money, instead of just "It's ours, you can't have it, so there." The claim consisted of the fact that I'd not brought the empty beer bottles back to them for recycling - I'd given them to an old woman up the road so as not to have to carry them. Ok, fair enough - they want some compensation for not being able to reuse bottles - but they wanted 5,000d (US$0.30) per bottle, by 14 bottles, meaning they were prepared to give back only half the money. This is bloody stupid given that a FULL beer costs 6,000d, but no amount of good-natured banter, mathematics, argument, logic, swearing, taking additional beers as collateral, threatening to take the chilly bin back, etc, would make them budge from it. There were five men and three women, only one of me, and I was in their house so there was only so far I could push it. After half an hour chasing after five bucks, I decided to give up, and as a parting gesture (or as a sign of victory, or compensation) they gave me a big glass of rot-gut moonshine out of a yellow jerry can, which I had to down in one to preserve what little self-respect I had left. I was hot and tired and pissed off and hadn't eaten; the stuff made me feel ill, then drunk, then sleepy. We had lunch in town and got a room, where I slept most of the day.

By the time I awoke it was night-time, and had been raining for a few hours, and had cooled down from high 30s to mid-20s. We went to a restaurant recommended by one of the cafe owners, and they were utterly unable to serve us. They had food, but showed no willingness to make any, to bring us a menu, to make use of our phrasebooks to tell us what was available, or basically to do anything other than stand and stare. This is a problem We encountered never in Korea and rarely in China, but seems to be quite common in rural Vietnam - people just don't have any clue what to do with you, so they do nothing. The Vietnamese are generally outgoing, tend to share a laugh and do have a very strong can-do attitude, but occasionally you just run up against people who are unable to grasp the fact that you need help, or are just too fucking stupid to actually help in any way. Where there is a will, there really is a way, and there's nothing more frustrating than walking into a restaurant (ticket office, shop, hotel, post office, taxi, etc) and having to deal with someone who just won't help you, even though it's their job, and in their financial interests to do so. So we decided to go to the Sao Mai Floating Restaurant, moored on the river, where we encountered a slightly different variant of the abovementioned attitude, consisting of two parts: 1. Not Having A Fucking Clue What's Going On and 2. Being Cynically Literal. The first part manifested itself in trying to take an order by committee, and simply not being able to tell us what was on the menu and what not. Roast Salt Crab was on, then off, then on again, then finally off. Sweet and Sour Prawns were on twice, then off twice, then finally on again. Grilled Fish and Fish With Vegetables were different dishes, but when they came out, they were identical. The second part, and most egregious of all, Ben and Ossie pointed to prawns and held up one finger, the universally recognised symbol for 'one dish of these' and got ONE prawn each, for US$3. Big prawns, but still beyond a joke. These are not issues with translation; it took us half a fucking hour to order the fucking food with phrasebooks. These are issues arising directly by people being fucking idiots, or arseholes trying to rip us off, or both.

We'd decided, for the next day, to head out to the old DMZ at Vinh Moc, on the way to Hue (pron. Hwey), but that entailed catching the open tour bus again the next morning. The bus was due at about 0400, but since the bus we'd caught had arrived about 0600, we were skeptical of the need to be out and waiting so early. Nevertheless, we were indeed out there and waiting for two hours for the bus to arrive. We got into Ho Xa about 0730 and settled in for coffee and noodles at a roadside cafe. Not 30 seconds after leaving the bus, we'd been swarmed by the Motorbike Taxi Mafia, trying to gouge us 100,000 each to go 14km to and from the VC tunnels at Vinh Moc, on the DMZ. A reasonable price would have been about a third of that. Then there was the issue of what to do with our packs; a perennial problem when you travel with all your worldly goods in a bulky 20kg sack. My attitude towards this is that, no matter what you do, you have to put your trust in someone - whether a luggage room attendant or a hotel owner or a ticket officer, that person effectively holds your worldly goods at ransom, and there's nothing you can do about it except be polite, pay money for them to look after it well, and if they have a shop, patronise it in the name of goodwill. After some debate about other options, we decided to leave our gear in the care of the old lady who ran the cafe in the front room of her house. The Taxi Mafia weren't budging from 80,000d per person, so we decided to walk and see what transpired. It was cool and overcast, and only about 0900, and after all, 14km isn't THAT far for a nice walk in the countryside. The Motomafia thought we were insane, and they eventually offered 50,000d each, then finally 40,000d each, but by that time we'd decided they and their belligerence and their price-gouging and their hassling the old lady for letting us store our packs (for which they'd gleefully charge extra, and then charge a minder's fee for, and probably open anyway) could go and fuck themselves.

It was a nice walk, quiet and calm and cool, with kids on bikes and young adults on motorbikes and old men in old banger trucks and old women herding water buffalo very curious indeed as to what we were doing and where we were going. At about KM 3 (Vietnamese roads have markers every kilometre, for addressing purposes), an old guy in an ancient IFA truck offered us a lift. Three of us in his cab, and Ben and Ossie riding on top of the load of wood in the back, it was a crazy old ride on a bumpy dirt track. These are the sort of trucks which keep Vietnam running. I think they're French, though they might be Russian, and seem to be of 1950s vintage. They rattle and shake and look and feel as if they're going to fall apart at any moment, but all indications are that the engine was in fine form - oil pressure, battery charge, temperature gauge all squarely in the green, pulling a full load of wet timber. He dropped us off at KM 7 without accepting any payment, and a short while later a kid on a bike started riding alongside us, just looking and listening. Soon enough we came to his village, and decided to have a beer (though it was only 1000, we'd been up for nearly seven hours already). About a dozen local kids turned up for the spectacle, and our little dude on the bike was clearly the English Scholar amongst them. His name was Duong Minh Vuong, he was in class 6E at the Big School (not the Little School, he was sure to advise) and we chatted for ages about where we were from and where going, how far it was to Vinh Moc (either 2km or 2 hours, he wasn't sure), about Chelsea and Frank Lampard and Manchester United (though he'd never heard of David Beckham), swapped addresses so we could send him photos. In rural Vietnam on a Friday school doesn't start until 1130, so when we saw him later, he was in his school uniform and racing off on his bike. A few minutes after leaving the village, another old geezer waved us down, and beckoned us into his house - a dark building with a dirt floor, bare rafters made of tree branches, and a corrugated iron roof. He offered us something from a metal samovar, which we couldn't decide whether it was weak tea or just vegetal-tasting drinking water, but nevertheless it was what he had to offer, so we drank it. He lived there with his betel-chewing wife and two children in their 20s. He and his son are wood carvers and cabinetmakers cranking out ornately carven and lacquered liquor cabinets, coffee tables, bedsteads and dressers, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and shipping out to furniture shops the western world over from their dirt-floored cabin in central Vietnam.

Only about another hour later, we came to Vinh Moc itself, and had noodles outside the gate. A couple of Quebecois were there, having come on a tour on the back of motorbike from Hue, more than 100km away. Vietnam's biggest motorcycles are 125cc, and the trip from Hue takes about three hours, which meant they'd gotten on the bikes at about the same time as we'd started walking. I bet their arses hurt more than our feet, and I hate to think what a trip from Hue costs if 14km from Ho Xa is 20,000.

The Viet Cong tunnel complex at Vinh Moc is the largest still in existence in Vietnam, if you exclude those which the Vietnamese army has maintained in active use in case of another land war. These comprise almost 2km of tunnel on three levels, all dug by hand in 1966 and 1967, and are connected into central Vietnam's 2,000km covered-trench network. They differ from most of the other tunnels in that these were built and mainly used not for fighting, but for living in - there was space for 96 families, a meeting chamber which doubled as a schoolhouse and theatre, wells, even a maternity hospital. There are 13 exits, half out to the coast, where this complex formed the northern end of the Ho Chi Minh Sea Trail, and half up the hill near the river which formed the border between North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. It all sounds very grand, and it is - a massive feat of labour and design and engineering - but the fact remains that these are tunnels carved from bed rock, and there's no comfort in them. The ceiling is about 1.5 metres high - low enough that you have to walk hunched over. A family living area is about two square metres; the maternity ward was about the same, perhaps a little larger. The most grandiose chamber of all, for councils of war and propaganda movie screenings and concerts is sixteen metres long, two metres wide, two metres high, and could supposedly accomodate about eighty people. There were ten of us in there and the heat was unbearable. The tunnels were in constant use from their construction in 1966 until 1972, when the Viet Cong had mostly taken back control of the DMZ. Seventeen children were born and lived their childhoods there, and nobody knows how many people died.

Getting away from Vinh Moc was a comedy of errors. The Mototaxi Mafia were still gouging, wanting 40,000d each for the one-way trip this time. There was one taxi driver there, who wanted 45,000d each. When I told him we'd pay 50,000d for the whole car, he told me to walk and refused to negotiate further. A young guy turned up with a family of fat Americans (ok, I have no way of knowing for sure they were Americans, but the LOOKED like Americans) and a guide in a rental car, the guide and family went off down the tunnels, and he agreed to take us back to Ho Xa for 100,000d, but took a wrong turn, and ended up driving about 25km and dropping us off back on Highway 1. He gave me 50,000d back, because he had to get back before his Americans finished their tour, and drove off before realising that I hadn't yet given him his 100,000d for the ride. Poor bastard. I had realised, but was so pissed off about being driven out of our way and dropped off in an unknown location, with no means of getting back to our packs, that I hadn't said anything. As it turned out, Ho Xa was only 6km North, and we crammed ourselves into a minivan. We flagged down a bus to Hue for 200,000, a trip which took three hours instead of two because the bus stopped for an hour for dinner, and got dropped off on the Hue-Da Nang turnoff in the dark and rain.

Here is where it became clear again that the Motorcycle Taxi Mafia are the lowest scum in Southeast Asia, except perhaps for German sex tourists. Hue City is 20km away, they said - we'd seen a sign which said 6km. We had to pay 100,000 per person, and we were lucky, because the packs should cost extra. Bear in mind that we'd just paid 200,000d for all five of us AND our packs to come more than 100km from Ho Xa, and even THAT had been the Special Foreign Millionaire Price. We told him we'd call a taxi and get a bit of healthy competition going. There are no taxis here, they said - I'd seen one from the bus not five minutes earlier and we had the phone numbers of no less than FOUR taxi companies in Hue. I went across the road to call a taxi at a house with a smart little kid who spoke good English, asked for a dollar for the service - which I gave him, just to spite the Taxi Motherfuckers, who'd come into the house to bully the kid's mother into not helping me, and, failing that, to get her to jack the price up withe the taxi company. The 30 minutes we then spent waiting for the taxi was very tense. The Scum knew they'd lost the fight, but they hung around anyway, to intimidate us, and the hapless taxi driver, when he eventually turned up. All pretense of jocularity and goodwill had gone by now. One guy of about nineteen sat his bike in front of Jen, not a metre away, and revved it, looking at her with a 'You'd better move or I'll run you over' smirk. Jen, wearing a pack bigger than the kid's 50cc honda, stared him down and he buggered off. It was a situation which could very easily have gotten ugly, and although we outweighed and outmuscled them, there were about 10 bikes worth. There hasn't been real, impartial rule of law in Vietnam since before the French - well over a century. Perhaps there never has been, and nobody bothers to go to the police. Disagreements are settled by the wronged party being paid money by the other party, and disputes as to who is the wronged party are resolved by fighting. What this means is that, regardless of right or wrong, the locals are always the winners of any dispute. This goes double for foreigners. So, nothing to do but wait for the taxi driver. He looked at a hotel card Ben had gotten from one of the drivers in Vinh Moc and agreed to take us for US$10 - 150,000d. After we piled in, we saw him outside talking with the Evil Motherfuckers, and we saw him give them some money - protection money. Clearly they considered him to be taking their business, even though we'd chosen his company at random. We made him turn the meter on, and he got us there for 130,000d. Sure enough, he then asked 20,000d extra - what he'd had to pay the motorbike fuckers.

After all this, the hotel was a breeze. The simple pleasures of people saying a room will be $7, and it actually being $7; saying there'll be a double bed and there actually being a double bed; saying the aircon works and it actually working. It didn't last long, though - we went to a restaurant attached to another guesthouse a couple doors own; they took half an hour to get us a beer, ran out of local beer, so we had to drink tiger which is both shit and expensive; most of the food didn't arrive, and they ran out of rice. A restaurant in Asia running out of rice! Koreans would die of shame if such a thing happened - you're supposed to always have rice and tea on hand, and traditionally anyone who turns up at your house is entitled to ask for and be given rice and tea, as a common courtesy. I flew off the handle at this, went and tore strips off the hapless owner, and we came back to our own hotel for a beer (which they had, as well as rice).

A very long sleep followed.

The next day we set off in the rain for lunch, stopping at a fairly swank place with fishtanks and cane chairs in a covered courtyard. It had a good menu of mostly Vietnamese food, so we thought here might be a chance to actually get a good meal in. Not so. Bread and chips never arrived, noodle soup with crab came in a thimble-sized bowl, and grilled pork chop and pork in banana leaf were identical - except one was twice the price of the other.

At this point, after ten days in Vietnam, several things occur to me:

1. There are two kinds of people in Vietnam: those who are in or stand to make money from the tourist business, and those who aren't. 90% of the former are crooked as a barrel of fucking snakes, will take you for everything you have, will take you for a fool, and will smile and be very polite to your face while laughing behind your back. 90% of the latter are decent and reasonable, and are prepared to treat you like a normal human being who expects a good or service in exchange for money, and doesn't appreciate being treated like a fucking idiot.
2. Vietnam is a country sorely lacking in thinkers. Of schemers it has plenty, but people who can plan, organise, test and implement systems for improving their country are few and far between. This is unsurprising, since for the last couple of centuries those people have been systematically killed off by local despots, the French, the Viet Minh, the Americans, the Viet Cong and the Communists.
3. Vietnam, after abovementioned centuries of strife and misery, now knows nothing but war, and approaches tourism as war, and tourists as an enemy to be fought and vanquished. Weapons have changed, and the prize is no longer independence as a nation: it's getting as many foreign dollars as possible while expending as little effort as possible.

I'm being simplistic, and cynical, but it is the cynicism of the Vietnamese which inspires it in me. I can literally count on one hand the Vietnamese I've had any meaningful interaction with who haven't either tried to screw us over or promised something they were never able to deliver. Virtually everyone I've met in this country treats us like enemies to be plundered - they practice their techniques and take pride in their exploits; they laugh when you lose, but they do not laugh when you don't lose. In most, there seems to be no spirit of goodwill, no inclination to treat foreigners as people, no hospitality or respect. I think (it's certainly true for me) that this encourages cynicism and meanness on the foreign side, as well. I've come to treat all Vietnamese with suspicion and eventually hostility. Bargaining here is a matter of winning, not a matter of coming to an agreement over the value of something. Let's be clear about something: I'm not wanting special prices or special treatment. I'm not stupid enough to think that I can get (or deserve) to pay local prices for food or services or anything. All I want and expect is for things to be reasonable. It appears that not even the laws of economics hold sway here - we sometimes can't get a good or service for even double the price the locals would get it for. Because we're foreigners, the seller wants triple, even when it becomes clear we won't buy the fucking thing for triple. The seller misses an opportunity and I get nothing; nobody wins.