Daily Archives: February 7, 2009

Stories from Viet Nam

One of the big tourist spots in Sai Gon is Ben Thanh Market — it’s a large flea market that is a shopper’s nightmare and paradise all in one.  If you like to negotiate and bargain, it’s the place for you.  But if you bruise easily — mentally and physically, mabye it’s not your cup of tea.  Especially before new years, it’s crowded and you can expect you’re gonna get bumped into, pushed, stepped on, etc. 
There are stalls and stalls of merchants many of which sell the EXACT same things at outrageously different prices.  For example, the same souvenir starts at 25.000VND at one place will start at 10.000VND.  (Note: 17.500VND = 1USD)  Ok, maybe that’s not so outrageous… but when you’re thinking in THOUSANDS of Dong, it seems like a lot more than it actually is.  Keep in mind, a lunch from a street vendor costs from 15k – 30k.  So, I did the same thing I did in China… pick a place at random, bargain it down to where I walk away and they aren’t calling me back and now I’ve got my low point.  Now that I know the low point, it’s a point of reference for future bargaining.  At markets like these — especially high tourist attractions — the mark-ups are extraordinary.  Here’s where mental stamina is necessary — 
  • you have to be patient and willing to hit several places if you really want to get a good price
  • you have to know how much you’re willing to pay and stick to your price.
  • you’re gonna face some pretty hard sales, people swarming you, people clinging, people following you, and sometimes people insulted by your low offer.  You have to be able to withstand it
  • you might think you got a great deal one day (e.g. my mom thought she did an excellent job bargaining down to 100k) but the next day hit another vendor selling it for cheaper (in her case 50k — half as much!).  Over and over again we’d go from one vendor to another and see lower and lower prices… it was SO aggravating — particularly when we bought bulk at a higher price.

My brother had a whole new tactic.  Every where we went and everyone we spoke to always commented that he looked like a foreigner.  We all look like foreigners to Vietnamese in Viet Nam — we’re what’s called Viet Kieu — Vietnamese who immigrated away.  However, my brother wasn’t even thought to be Vietnamese at all.  This, my brother quickly learned, worked in his favor.  His gig was to bargain in English as a half Thai / half Chinese living in America.  This was pure genius!  As the vendors consulted each other in Vietnamese, my brother understood everything!  He knew when they’d be willing to make the sale, how much profit they’d be making, etc.  It was hilarious!  One night, he was mid-bargaining (in English) and pretty close at getting his asking price (and enjoying the inside Vietnamese conversation amongst the sales people).  Then my mom, finished with her night’s shopping, walks up to my brother and hands him the money leftover from her purchases.  My mom… who is CLEARLY Vietnamese… handing money to my bro who is supposedly half Thai / half Chinese… the gig was up!  =)

Besides the shopping and the eating in Ben Thanh Market, one day we saw a huge crowd starting to form.  Apparently, what happened was a thief pickpocketed from the city and ran into the market hoping to get lost in the crowd.  The guy was smart though.  He changed he took off his shirt while in the market.  As he was running, he was calling out "THIEF!" making it seem like he was chasing after the thief himself.  About 5 minutes later, the crowd barely dissipated when it formed back up again… they caught him!  A handful of cops, had cuffs on him and were leading him back through the Ben Thanh Market hands behind his back.   I’m sure in part this was meant to be a lesson for all to see as well as reassurance to tourists — thieves beware and tourists be at ease, for the VN cops are on top of it! 

Besides that incident, VN seems to be a much much safer place than 6 years ago when I was myself almost the victim of purse-snatching.  It was even worse 8-10 years ago when my mom saw a guy getting pick-pocketted right in front of her while her friend whispered in her ear quietly, "Don’t scream or he might hurt you."  These days VN enjoys and values tourists and what it does for their economy so these petty thefts have diministed quite a bit.  I noticed a large number of tourists in Sai Gon, many of whom walked obliviously with backbags on their back, digital SLRs dangling around their necks and faces in a street map and they were perfectly ok.  I’m glad Sai Gon is more inviting to tourists these days.  It’s a beautiful city and more of the world should see it.


Story from Hong Kong to Thailand — the hunt for Starbucks…

My bro collects Sbux mugs and all throughout Asia, wherever we spotted a Starbucks we dropped in to check out the mugs… and a cup of joe.  Cheap as the food may be, a Starbucks latte always cost the same.  It’s quite insane actually.  For $7, we got a delicious chicken & rice lunch with a free soda and a latte still costs $4.

In Singapore, the really nice sbux city mug was the one with the merlion on it.  Our hotel was right on the main strip of Singapore.  It was probably the best hotel we stayed in and was right next to all the malls, shopping, etc.  From the day trips, we knew sbux was right around the corner from us, so off we went.  We hit one starbucks and didn’t see the mug we wanted.  So I asked where the next closest mug was.  Thankfully, it was right next door in the mall.  Swell!  So off we go!  We get there and again we’re dismayed by the lack of MerLion mug.  So I ask the two guys there if they have any more mugs and they don’t.  They offered to call around to the other starbucks to see which one had it.  So while my brother & I sat, they offered us the new promotional chai vanilla latte.  Then the other sbux guy meanwhile tracked down the MerLion mug for us!  Even though the other store was close, the sbux guys even drew us a map!  Hands down, this was the best sbux service we’ve ever had!  So we walked the 3-4 blocks to the starbucks and voila!  MerLion mug!

In Thailand, Sbux was a rare thing.   I think I saw all of 3 or 4 the whole time we were there.  There were 4 starbucks within as many blocks from our hotel in Singapore!  On our way back from our day trip on the tour, my bro & I started paying closer attention to sbux we saw on the road and counting blocks back to our hotel hoping we wouldn’t have to trek too far.  I didn’t have to say it, but I think he knew that if it ws more than a few blocks away, it was a journey he’d be taking on his own.  =)  Low and behold though, there was a sbux only 2 blocks away!  And another mug secured.  Success!!

If the trip were shorter and if I didn’t have to lug so much baggage around, I would have gotten a few mugs myself, but as it was, I left the collecting to my brother and instead just enjoyed the sweet nectar that is caffeine and milk.


Story from Malaysia

One of the things our tour guide in Malaysia was really excited about us experiencing was this fancy buffet dinner with cultural show.  She did everything she could in preparation of that evening to cram as many facts and stories she could so we could fully enjoy the show and even understand some of what we were seeing.  It was a great dinner and a lovely show.  At the end of the show, the guests were invited on stage to have their picture taken with all the beautiful performers.  Dinner guests cycled on and off the stage.  Finally my mom & I got on stage and smiled nicely for my brother and dad who stood in the crowd in front of the stage taking our pictures. 
Then all of a sudden I hear my brother calling out my name and pointing up.  I look up and there’s a FIRE!  One of the spot lights was directed straight up at the ceiling and caught fire.  It was a small fire and I stood kind of amazed more than scared but then snapped out of it and grabbed my mom and started heading off stage.
As I’m heading off stage, I hear the evening’s emcee say in a very calm, almost serene voice: "Everyone, please stay calm.  Everything is ok.  If someone could please find a fire extinguisher."  A guy gets a fire extinguisher and starts spraying the small fire.  The emcee, "Yes, good.  Everyone, stay calm.  The fire is almost out."  And then the fire erupts again.  Heheh.  By this point, I’m almost outside the restaurant (as is most everyone else) but I steal a few glances back when I hear the emcee say, "Sir, please, a little more fire extinguisher."  You have to imagine this emcee saying all this as if she were saying, "Yes, a little more cream in my coffee please."  She was unbelievably casual about the whole thing.  It was hilarious.
I make fun, I’m sure her calmness prevented people from just stampeeding out of there and hurting themselves or others.  It probably wasn’t memorable in the way our tourguide wanted it to be for us, but it’ll be memorable nonetheless.