Saturday, November 21, 2009

Losing the War in VIETSCAM

You know that old adage... If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Well, that's the main reason for my silence about Vietnam. It's not that I don't have anything nice to say. It's just that for every good experience here, I've had about 20 bad ones to follow.

I came to this country with the same earnest and excitement with which I entered the 7 countries that preceded it. I had heard great stories. I wanted to love Vietnam. But every time I started to warm to it, something incredibly annoying, insulting or underhanded occured.

A few examples...

I left Cambodia with two sisters, Gill and Amanda, who I've been traveling with for the last few weeks. We hopped on a bus from Phnom Penh at silly-o-clock in the morning to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known as Saigon. We arrived completely knackered, so instead of trying to figure out where we were on the map, we simply hopped in the first taxi we saw. When we told the driver the name of our hotel, he looked at us in complete bewilderment, drove around the corner, then told us to get out of the car. He pointed to the exact spot where we flagged him down and he showed us that we were standing directly in front of it before he picked us up. He then had the nerve to charge us 9,000 Vietnamese Dong for the mishap. Our belongings were locked in his trunk, so we figured the only way to get of the situation was to pay him his $0.50 and get on with it. Since we were fresh off the bus and had just procured some cash from the nearest ATM, the smallest note we had was 100,000 Dong. We handed him the bill and waited for our change. But instead of giving us the 91,000 we were owed, he handed us 10,000. Gill looked at me and said, "Should we just forget it?" accepting defeat. But I adamantly said, "NO!" and proceeded to have a 5 minute argument with the shady taxi driver in which I whipped out my calculator and did the math for him, demanding the rest of our change. At long last, he handed over the other 80,000 and cursed us under his breath as he got back into the car.

Not exactly the warm welcome we were expecting! Considering this an isolated incident, we tried to have a positive outlook and forget about it. But the scams were only beginning.

In Sapa, we booked a 3 hour tour of the countryside. After driving a mere 6 miles out of town, stopping at a couple villages where we were harassed to buy cheap handicrafts, the driver informed us that our tour was actually over and he would need to take us back to town after a mere 45 minutes. I demanded to get the booking agent on the phone to clear up the discrepancy, but he informed us that the tour only takes 3 hours if we spend quite a bit of time in the villages. Considering that we had no interest in spending our afternoon selecting which annoying lady to purchase a tacky embroidered handbag from, we decided to head back to town. The tour operator suggested we ask around town about the same tour, and if we were able to find another company to offer the same tour for less money, he would refund our money. So we headed straight to the first company we saw, got a quote for a lower cost, and marched right back to his office. When we provided him with the information, he refused to hand over our money. After a heated argument and the realization that he was not ever going to refund a cent, I determined the only course of action was to park myself in front of his office and tell every passing tourist that they should avoid this liar and cheat at all costs. I would have preferred a refund, but causing him a loss of business was nearly as satisfying.

When we arrived in Hanoi, we decided we would avoid tours of any kind and take a walk to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. It turns out his body had been sent to Russia for re-embalment, so there wasn't really anything to see. Gill's feet were aching, so she suggested grabbing a taxi back to town. There are only a couple of legitimate taxi companies in Hanoi, but after about 15 minutes of trying to track one down to no avail we finally gave up and grabbed the next one we saw. BIG MISTAKE!!! After about 10 blocks, I glanced at the meter and saw that the cost was skyrocketing at rate of about $1.00 per second! I started screaming, "Stop the car!" "Pull over!" "STOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!" The driver rounded the corner, pulled over and asked us to pay the equivalent of $9 US dollars for the 2 minute taxi ride. When we refused, he got very angry and started screaming at us to pay. Trying to open the doors and roll down the windows, we realized that he had locked us in the car and was holding us hostage. The girls got scared and whipped out a 100,000 Dong bill (about $6) and handed it to him, but this wasn't enough. "$50,000 more!" he screamed. He then began fidgeting with the window lock and accidentally switched it off. In that split second, I managed to get the window down and began screaming, "HELP! HELP! POLICE!" at the top of my lungs. I guess we found his weak spot, and the doors miraculously unlocked. We scooted out of the car faster than bats out of hell. I said goodbye with a few of my favorite 4-letter words and kicked the door as hard as I could, denting it only for a moment before the ingenuity of Japanese engineering popped the metal back into place.

It was then that I realized how strongly I hate this country. After 3 weeks of being given unfavorable exchange rates by hotels, being overcharged at restaurants for food or drinks never ordered, and just generally feeling like a walking ATM, I've reached my max on being swindled. The bank of Miranda is closed. Operating hours are over. This ATM is out of service!

But the thing is, there is always a silver lining. Despite the stress and frustration that this country has caused, I have found an amazing group of cohorts to share the pain with. Last night for the final dinner of this journey, I enjoyed the company of 6 friends, a couple bottles of good wine, and many laughs about the underhanded schemes of the Vietnamese. We licked our wounds and bonded over war stories. Truth be told, it really does feel like I've been through my own version of a Vietnam War, only I've more aptly named this one the Viet-SCAM War. And like the War waged 50 years ago, the Americans have lost again. Only this time, the casualties aren't human lives, but bank accounts, credit cards and sheer dignity.

I'm headed to the airport in about 30 minutes, and I have never looked forward to a 17 1/2 hour journey with such relief and enthusiasm. I am more ready to go home than I ever could have imagined just a few short weeks ago. Pinkberry, Annie the cat, and playing cards with my family are just a few of the simple pleasures that await. Clean laundry, dry toilet seats and the ability to walk down the street without being solicited to buy a moto taxi ride, photocopied book, or bruised bananas will be a little slice of heaven. There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.

And because I can't end on a completely sour note, I'll leave you with this video clip that should provide a chuckle or 2. The sense of accomplishment of crossing the road in Saigon was equivalent to what I imagine Michael Phelps felt after winning his 11 gold medal. Check it out!


  1. as one of the fellow inmates that has just got parole from Vietscam with Miranda, she's probably been too kind to this country.... Just want to thank her for making the worst moments bearable and even funny - and her attempts at pushing back on the circus we encountered can hopefully only make at least one person think twice before trying it again. Her stamina is so impressive and together with the other GIs she has been our Nam highlight.... Lee :-)

  2. I see vietnam made it easy to come home, I was worried you might travel for ever. Dad

  3. Sounds like a Southeast Asian version of Tijuana. So sad, but hoping it made returning home all the more alluring.

  4. Glad you're out of THAT place. Millions of manicurists can't be wrong!! Cheryl

  5. Sorry your trip ended with such a bad experience, but we are very happy you are back. Nice to see you win at the game of human Frogger, too!