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Day 80 – How’s Your Capitalism Treating You?

May 22, 2010

Dateline: Hue, Vietnam – Saturday, May 22, 2010

I’ve been outspoken that in Vietnam there’s no such thing as overcharging. I stand by that; if you willingly agreed to a price, then whatever you paid for it is worth it to you, even if later you find out someone else paid a lot less.

Not getting what you paid for, being lied to about what you’re getting, or paying for something you didn’t agree to are totally different things. That’s not someone taking advantage of a market inefficiency or working for price discovery. It’s a plain old swindle.

Here in Vietnam, I’ve had a pretty good experience. Of course, I’ve been overcharged. This mostly happens when I’ve just arrived at a place. After a bit of experience though, as I learn the market, I slowly am able to find the best price. There have been few cons.

That’s surprising considering the horror stories about Vietnam. Tales of cab drivers taking people to hotels that imitate reputable institutions; tour operators lying about the amenities included on a tour; or hotels pressuring patrons to buy tours from them or else kicking them out into the street. With all my good fortune, I’ve admittedly let my guard down.

I arrived on the morning bus from Hoi An to Hue (pronounced: hway). The ride was relatively uneventful, though again, I did find a bit more of the Top Gear road I’d found a few days earlier. It made me wish that I could make my way up the coast on a motorbike instead of a giant bus. We arrived in Hue around noon and I checked into the second hotel I visited, took a quick shower to wash off the travel grime, then headed out to find some food.

I opted to hit the Dong Ba Market to grab a bite to eat. This is an outdoor market that’s geared towards locals. It sells produce, meat, and household supplies. It’s the Hue version of Wal-Mart, but run by a hundred small-time proprietors. I wandered the stalls looking for a hawker stand.

I decided to take up an older lady’s offer for a bowl of pho. Immediately things started going awry.

She insisted that I sit at a table instead of at the little mini metal counter of her food stand. Without me asking, another older lady in the stand next to her plopped down a glass of sweet halo halo-like drink and some ice. Not necessarily a bad thing, because I needed a drink.

The bowl of pho came out and I started eating. Then the hawker lady put two beef balls in the pho. Okay, that’s fine. Then she brought out a plate of shrimp wrapped in rice paper. Then pork skewers, which the lady started pulling off the skewer real friendly like. Then some fried spring rolls. Then fresh vegetable spring rolls half-dipped in peanut sauce.  I declined each successive offering.

After the second dish, I knew I was going to be in trouble. This lady was going to charge me for everything, even the stuff I didn’t ask for. I finished the pho, and out of curiosity tried one pork skewer and one rice paper wrapped shrimp. Mediocre at best.

I got up to leave and immediately the battle was joined. I asked how much and she said, “80,000 dong.” Now, this isn’t a lot of money in absolute terms. It’s only about $4.50. But, I’d had a bowl of pho with beef balls at a hawker stand with one pork skewer and a rice paper wrapped shrimp. At most, I expected to pay 30,000 dong or about 30% of what she wanted. This is even knowing that 30,000 is a bit more than the locals pay.

I threw up my hands and said, “80,000?” Pointing and saying numbers, I showed her I’d only eaten the pho, one pork skewer, and one rice paper shrimp. As I argued, I asked the drink lady how much and she said, “20,000 dong. “ A bit much, but fine. I paid her.

I went back to arguing with the first lady. She then pulled out some paper money and started matching a bill to each item. First she waved off 20,000 for me paying for the drink. Pseudo-generosity, since I’m sure she didn’t include that item in her 80,0000 quote. She then held a 20,000 note over the pho. Okay, I’m with her there.

Then a 20,000 note over the bowl that used to contain two beef balls. Not fine. Two beef balls is as much as a small bowl of pho. Then she held a 20,000 note over the uneaten skewers and the shrimp. As I suspected, she was trying to get me to pay for what I hadn’t eaten. She tried to get me to pay for the fresh spring rolls too, but she dropped that when I pointed out I hadn’t eaten them at all.

I argued a bit more, but she kept pointing and holding up money. I gave up, realizing that this was way more trouble than it was worth. I looked at the other hawker ladies and shook my head. I looked at my pho lady and said, “Really? Still 60,000?” She nodded.

I handed her the money in disgust and that was it.

In the cool, rational world that is some time after the incident, I can see where I made my error. I should have asked what the price was before I sat down. Then, no matter what she put in front of me, I’d have just been able to pay what I’d agreed on. That was in my control.

That doesn’t absolve this woman, who’s probably my mother’s age, from her deceit. She pretended to be friendly, “helping” me eat by putting food in front of me, but she knew I could never eat it all. She also knew I had a language deficit and that, at the end of the day if things go bad, she has home court advantage. She could get away with a lot of stuff that I, as an interloper, cannot. Best part is, the whole thing went down so fast that I’m positive this lady had done this before.

In the end, I learned my lesson. Little old ladies can be just as deceitful as any other operator. You can’t let your guard down just because she seems friendly and helpful. And, always agree to a price before you sit down.

The day wasn’t all nasty experiences that for a time made me irrationally hate senior citizens. I ran into Michelle and Reuben, the Irish/Spanish couple I met on the Mekong Delta tour. I’d run into them in Hoi An, as well. Seems we’re on the same travel trail up the Vietnam coast. We agreed to meet up tomorrow to rent motorbikes and visit the historic citadel and nearby emperor’s tomb.

Tonight, we had dinner at an outdoor local spot by the river, sipping on local beer that was “brewed by Danish technology” which could mean that something in the brewing process, perhaps a metal spoon or a thermometer, was owned by a Dane.

As we sat in our little plastic chairs at our little plastic table with hordes of Vietnamese around us, I told them Reuben and Michelle my story. After a good, rueful laugh, we made sure to ask for menus. As I flipped through the pages with prices and items, I sneaked a peak at all the waiters and waitresses. Nary an old woman in their midst. And just like that, I let my guard down, just a little.

GALLERY: Click to see today’s gallery which includes pictures of the Top Gear road, pictures of a gate to the old citadel, and a giant flag pole.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becca permalink
    May 28, 2010 6:23 am

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience but I have to disagree with you on this one. I don’t think that agreeing to a price before you sat down would have avoided the hawker ordeal. Had you eaten only the pho, you would have had only the pho to pay for. She can’t make you pay for stuff you didn’t eat even if she puts a ton of it on the table (and she agreed to not charge you for the dish you didn’t touch, right?). Also, don’t know if it would be wise in Vietnam, but you could always call the cops to decide these things. 😉

    On the other hand, once you consume part of a plate, even if just a taste, the plate is yours to pay for.

    • May 28, 2010 8:20 pm

      I wrote the entry poorly because I was in a rush. Let me clarify a few things:

      1. Every time she put something front of me after the bowl of pho, I said, “No.” Every time.

      2. She cooked the stuff for me. She pulled the meat off two of the skewers and put them on a small plate in front of me. She wrapped spring rolls and put them in front of me already half dipped in the bowl of peanut sauce. The point is, she knew what she was doing. She was presenting me with food that she KNEW she wasn’t going to be able to resell or repackage. The spring rolls were unsellable once already dipped. The skewers were unsellable after they came off the skewer. She was forcing food on me whether I ate it or not.

      Also, there was so much food that no one–and I mean even a fat ass American like me–would have been able to eat it all.

      3. I had eaten at a pork skewer place in Hoi An and there they charged PER SKEWER. In other words, they put a pile of skewers in front of me and I only paid for what meat I pulled off the skewer. When they totaled my bill, they counted the empty skewers on my plate.

      For this lady, I assumed it was the same system. I also assumed the same for the shrimp. Now, this may have been wrong, but I don’t think so. There’s a reason why she pulled the meat off the skewer: she knew that when the meat comes off the stick, you have to pay for it.

      I’m not just making this up. Her actions confirm this “buy only what you eat” system. When she tried to charge me for the skewers, she held up the two sticks from which she’d removed the meat. When I pointed out that I’d only eaten one, she cut the price down.

      Again, she knew what she was doing. Her plan was to charge me for as much of the food sitting in front of me as she could, regardless of whether I (a) agreed to buy it, (b) actually ate it.

      I talked with my editor about this and he came at me from a similar angle as you. (Unfortunately we talked after the entry posted.) My point is that this is different from the “price discovery” which I talked about way back in the Capitalism in Saigon entry. There, you agree to a price for a service or good. If you pay more, you can’t complain because you agreed to it.

      Here, I did not agree to a price or what goods was buying (my fault, of course, which I note in the entry). I did say, “No,” to everything after the pho. My mistake was that I did not agree to a price and what I wanted to eat beforehand and that I ate a pork skewer and shrimp thing and put myself into the position of having to argue about items I’d already said, “No,” to.

      That doesn’t mean she comes off clean. On her end, she had every intention of charging me for everything, even the stuff I didn’t agree to or eat at all. You can see that because she tried to pin me with the spring rolls which I didn’t come even close to either touching, accepting, or nibbling at.

      If I had agreed to a price, I would have also avoided paying 40,000 for a tiny bowl of mediocre pho. According to her hand signals (bills over food), she charged me 20,000 for the pho and 20,000 for two beef balls, which she added to my pho without asking after she’d put the pho down in front of me.

      I’m at fault here, of course. I let my guard down. I will not, however, pretend like her hands aren’t dirty on this. While my editor seems to think this could just be an instance of ill defined terms in a contract, I disagree.

      I point to one more thing. She wouldn’t have done this to a local. I’m not talking about an inflated price (a local would have asked how much first, like I should have), I’m talking about the shoving food on the table.

      That’s possibly in the gray area of “business” and “fraud.” Was she just trying to sell me food? Or, was she doing the equivalent of painting my house without my permission then asking me to pay?

      The fact that she wouldn’t and couldn’t have done this to someone who didn’t have my language and cultural disabilities tells me that her she wasn’t being “helpful” when she put the food in front of me, she was trying to put me in an uncomfortable situation hoping that I’d just pay up instead of going through the hassle of calling the cops or making a scene.

      Unfortunately, she was right, which means she’ll probably do it to another foreigner.

      I accept that I was an idiot. I will not, however, accept that this woman was just doing business.

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