Good Morning Vietnam!

Trip Start Jan 07, 2008
Trip End Jul 22, 2008

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What a debacle!! After sadly leaving lovely calm Laos..i wasn't quite prepared for Vietnam as much as i shouldve been. I was warned from other travelers be ready to haggle, etc but no one warned of how completely crooked they are and just plain not nice. When traveling you rely heavily on the kindness or people and that's what makes it so amazing, the people. Laos has to be one of the most relaxed and easy-going places in Asia, and the people are generally honest and friendly. Vietnam is close to the other end of the spectrum. Overcharging, lying, cheating, scamming and hassling are common...never experienced a country where it really feels everyone is out to get you. I don't like it needless to say.

My experience crossing the border was a good example of this. I walked across the border with another canadian, david (from saskatoon) who i had met in Sam Neua at dinner. Right away we were approached by motorbikes for a ride to the next town (who knows where that is and what was there) for $10 US and told there's no bus. We walked to the wee village and were told by various people aboot 5 different bus times. We learned very quickly not to trust the Vietnamese so we just waited and waited. There was no bus that day. There was one hotel where they wanted $40 for one night which is just ridiculous (should be $4) for a basic that wasn't an option plus i only had $18. So we slept rough, under the stars, just me and my sleeping bag. It was alright, had a nice fire and it was cheap..haha..felt like i was really traveling after all these tourist towns. Of course i was happy i had company. I wouldn't have had the same enjoyment and sense of humour if i was alone i'm sure. Im sure the local thought we were gonna cave eventually with either the hotel or motorbike ride but when they are soo crooked and unfair, it makes me sure that i won't cave. And all the locals work together as well...we tried asking a truck for a ride but then some old lady came out yelling, shoving us away saying we take motorbike... no help at all!!! It's really discouraging!

The next day we were waiting again (or still) at the side of the road and a canadian couple who i also met at dinner in Sam Neua caught up to us. There ended being a bus a couple hrs later that day but our experience was far but over. I'm gonna cheat here and copy what Phil wrote aboot our get a different perspective for a change that way. He posted this on a travel's very detailed...

"The song thaew trip from Sam Neua, Laos to Na Meo was perfectly straightforward. The truck was crowded when it left Sam Neua but locals got out at various villages en route so that by the time we arrived at the border there were only 4 Westerners and half a dozen Vietnamese. The driver charged us 25,000 kip each, the same amount he charged the locals.

Laos immigration and customs was quick and courteous. No requests for extra money or anything of the sort.

Vietnamese customs is slow. They kept us for the best part of an hour as they examined our passport and searched our luggage and such. There was a quarantine fee of 2,000 dong which appeared to be legitimate (it's a tiny amount of money anyway). The man who appeared to be in charge was in plain clothes. He asked if we had any leftover kip. We had 290,000 kip with us - we had overestimated how much we would need to get to the border. He offered to change it for us at a rate of 8 dong for 5 kip. That seemed like a bad rate to me (it should be almost 2 dong to 1 kip) but he said that the US dollar had lost a lot of value against the dong and was now trading at 14,500 to the dollar. Given the recent US economic problems that seemed plausible, and since I had no way to check the information and kip are worthless outside Laos I changed with him. When I later had a chance to check the rate I found that it's still 16,000 dong to the dollar, the rate that's used almost universally everywhere in Vietnam. The man in charge told us that there is now a bus every day to Thanh Hoa, seemingly an improvement on the information in LP which states that motos are the only onward transportation available.

Once we cleared customs we walked a few hundred metres to the town. There we met up with a couple of travellers who we had met in Sam Neua who crossed the day before. The bus didn't or wouldn't run the day they arrived and although they had been swarmed by moto drivers offering to drive them to the next town at extortionate prices they didn't want to do that for safety reasons. There's a guest house in town but they demanded $40 for a very basic and none-too-clean room with marginally-clean shared toilets. They felt like the guest house was demanding a ridiculous price (10 times what the room should cost) because they knew they were stuck in town and had no other options. They ended up sleeping rough.

There were now 6 Westerners wanting to go to Thanh Hoa, which apparently was enough for the bus driver. We piled on along with a couple dozen Vietnamese. He drove a few hundred metres out of town, stopped the bus, and demanded $25 from each of the Westerners. He was an evil-looking bastard, and kept rubbing his fingers together and saying "money, money". He didn't ask any of the locals to pay. We said we wanted to go just to Thanh Hoa but he said the bus wasn't going there, it was going to Hanoi. If you look at a map you can see that there is a route from there to Hanoi which doesn't go through Thanh Hoa so it was possible he was going to Hanoi but we really didn't believe it. Anyway, there was no choice other than to pay $25 or get off the bus. That's way, way more than the fare should be - you can take a bus from Hanoi to Saigon for less.

The bus wasn't the greatest but it held together over the mountain roads until we got to the plains where we roared through villages at a terrifying speed, missing bikes, motos and pedestrians by millimeters. That's absolutely normal in Vietnam. Around 7:30 pm we arrived in Thanh Hoa. That's as far as we wanted to go and we were pissed that the driver lied to us. He told us we had to change buses here. We could see another bus right behind us, a much better one than the one we were on, with air-con and everything. The first driver hustled us out of the bus, opened the luggage department and literally threw our bags onto the ground, the whole time saying "no money, no money". The second bus driver was standing right there.

We weren't the faintest bit surprised that the first bus wasn't going to Hanoi but in theory we had already paid to Hanoi so the second bus should be free. We were strongly inclined to stay the night in Thanh Hoa but the other travellers wanted to go on to Hanoi because they had paid for it. It's only 130 km away and we were hopeful we could cover that distance in maybe a couple of hours.

Once we got underway we crawled slowly through town trolling for passengers. Eventually the driver rounded up a few more people and we started going faster once we cleared the outskirts of town. However, even though the traffic was relatively light at that late hour we made really poor time. It was close to 9:00 when we got to Ninh Binh which is just 40 km further north. At that point my wife and I were both tired of travelling and didn't care if we had paid for Hanoi or not - we just wanted off the bus. I went up to the driver and said we wanted off. He was very reluctant to pull over and I had to ask like 6 times before he did.

As soon as we stopped he jumped out of his seat, blocked the only exit door with his foot and placed his body firmly in the aisle blocking our way. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and demanded "money, money". (Do Vietnamese sleazeball bus drivers all go to the same school to learn this stuff?) He was a nasty customer and I wasn't certain what the odds would be if the confrontation turned physical. My wife was closest to the driver and he was shouting right in her face in a very intimidating manner. I had an inspiration and got out my camera and started taking flash photos of the driver. He covered his face with his arms and turned around to avoid being photographed like some dime-store thug doing a perp walk on TV. After a few minutes of this he suddenly reached over, threw open the door and told us to get out. He shouted at us as we got out, but he noticed that we wrote down the licence plate number as soon as we were off the bus.

I was worried that the other couple were going to have problems once they got to Hanoi. It would be very late, and who knows where the driver would take them. I got an email from them the next day saying that there were no problems at all when they arrived.

And in case anyone is thinking that this was all a big misunderstanding, and the first driver had scammed the second driver, I don't think so. The second driver was standing right there when the first driver was telling us "no money". (We should have been savvy enough to confirm that there would be no extra fare while the two drivers were still there, but we didn't - a month in Laos had dulled our spidy sense and although we were suspicious it didn't seem necessary to be paranoid.) If it was a misunderstanding, the driver would have innocently asked us for the fare when we went to get out. Instead, he jumped out of his seat and blocked the door - he knew a confrontation was about to start. And if he really hadn't been paid, why in the world would he let us out in Ninh Binh without paying, and why would he take the others to Hanoi without even asking them for the fare when they arrived?

Sorry for the length of this message - I kind of got carried away. I guess the short message is "be aware of potential problems if you use the Na Meo crossing".

But to be completely honest, as I sit in my hotel in Hanoi after another day of being hassled and overcharged and lied to, I'd recommend skipping Vietnam all together. It just isn't worth it. The things to see and do aren't really that great and to me it's not worth the trouble. We've had many great interactions with ordinary Vietnamese people, but I'd say the interactions we've had with Vietnamese people who deal with tourists (drivers, bus conductors, vendors, food stall owners, restauranteurs) have been overwhelming negative. These people seem to view Westerners as idiotic money bags who deserved to be cheated."

So finally made it to Hanoi, the capital... the experience continues in Vietnam as i try to survive...haha....
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