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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Hanoi hawkers

Never before have I been bombarded with so many hawkers. And never before have I met hawkers so persistent and who ask so much more than the real price. In the old quarter of Hanoi there are hawkers everywhere. When they see a westerner they smile because the sight of a westerner means an opportunity to make a lot of money.

I have experienced this latter aspect in Cambodia. But the Cambodian hawkers are not so greedy nor so persistent. They usually accept 'no'. Of course this phenomenon is created by tourists. Ask yourself, if you were an extremely poor vendor and every foreigner who bought from you gave you a tip, how long would it take before you put the price up to include the tip?

However, some vendors have another tactic they use on top of overcharging. They try to make you feel guilty if you refuse to pay their price. They argue, 'You very rich. I poor. You can afford to pay.' Among others, I heard this argument from a guy hawking pirate copies of books such as Lonely Planet guidebooks. He was asking only a dollar or two less than the recommended price of the authentic book. The quality was nowhere near that of the real thing.

I go out walking each day. The streets of Hanoi fascinate me and I take lots of photos. This morning I was walking through a market when a guy pushed past me in the crowd and told me he would fix my sandal for me. I bought these sandals soon after I arrived in KL three months ago. They may be cheap but they are still good. He put his stool down on the footpath ahead of me and got out his needle and thread. He's was pointing to my sandal and saying he would sew them up for only one dollar.

'You're kidding!'

'OK, 15,000 dong.' One US dollar is about 16,000 dong.

'No thank you.' I continued to walk on down the street.

'12,000...10,000' He continued to follow carrying his stool.

'If you do them for free I don't want you to sew my sandals.'

He turned, said nothing and walked away as if to snub me.

One morning I was walking along the lake shore. It was hot. I was a little tired so I sat on a bench to rest in the shade of a tree. An easy target.

A book vendor was the first to approach me. I'd been there long enough to know their prices and their quality. I got rid of him quickly.

A pretty young girl came and sat beside me with a basket of souvenir gift items. She sat with me for about ten minutes going through all her items one by one. 'You have daughter? She like purse?' The purses were very nice and she only wanted 30,000 dong for one. But I wasn't biting. She took out a fan and showed me the beautiful craftsmanship and began fanning my face.

'How much do I have to pay you to sit here and fan me like this all day?'

'100 dollars.' She smiled.

I told her that I really didn't want to buy anything but if she wanted to sit I was enjoying chatting with her. She stayed. Occasionally she showed me something else which I politely rejected.

While all this was going on I noticed there were other westerners walking along the lakefront. A vendor would approach and they would not engage with them in any way. They wouldn't even say 'no'. They would make no eye contact, just walk briskly past.

I think this is unfortunate. To me, the most enjoyable part of being in a different country is to be able to engage in some way with the local people and to try to see the world from their perspective. Tourists such as these might see the sights. They might go to a cultural show but surely the real culture is to be found in the people themselves.

After the delightful young lady had decided I was a lost cause and moved on, another came and sat beside me. She looked very young. 'I have to sell to make money to go to school,' she told me. Yes, I'd encountered this phenomenon many times at Angkor Wat.

'I'm sorry, I don't want to buy anything,' I told her. 'But if you want to sit and chat that's OK.'

She did but every now and then would hopefully show me an item. Unfortunately this didn't last long. A security guard came along, gave her a talking to and sent her away. When I got up to continue my walk she was on the other side of the road. She beckoned to me but I didn't bother.

So, am I totally as hard as nails? Four years in Asia has made me immune to even the most pathetic beggar but occasionally I do get caught.

In Vietnam many women carry their goods in a couple of baskets hanging from a piece of wood across their shoulders. One tried to sell me some pineapple or bananas. I declined. She followed. Then she offered, 'Take picture.' She smiled as she pointed to herself. She was quite photogenic. I was tempted but I figured that would have a price too.

Eventually she gave up. But it wasn't long before another started following me with similar goods and the same patter. When it got to 'Take picture', I said, 'I'd love to take your picture but you will want me to pay you.'

'No money,' she said.

'No money?'

'No money,' she was already posing.

'OK.' I took a few shots of her.

When I'd finished she put down her baskets and said, 'Now you buy bananas.'

I could have walked away but I didn't. 'How much?'

'30,000 dong.' I knew the price was over the top (for Vietnam) but I figured I'd been done, so I paid up gracefully. It would have been cheaper to just give her a dollar to take her picture. But then the bananas were quite nice.

No sooner had I completed the transaction when the previous vendor turned up. 'You buy from her. You not buy from me.'

'Tomorrow,' I said and walked off. She followed me for a few blocks but eventually gave up.

This happened the morning after I had arrived in Vietnam. I did a lot of walking that morning without any plan, in no particular direction. Some of the streets had sweeping curves and eventually I lost my sense of direction. I found a fairly major longish street and headed off in the direction I thought would take me back to my hotel. After a while a motorcycle-taxi driver offered me a ride. I took the opportunity not for a ride but to ask directions. I showed him the card I'd been given by my hotel. He pointed in the opposite direction to the one I was heading. I thanked him and headed off.

Five minutes later I had still not found any landmarks I knew. I stood for a while trying to make sense of the little map printed on the back of the hotel's card. I was approached by a little man with a bundle of stamp albums and sleeves of coin collections. He didn't try to speak English or even Vietnamese, just grunted as he shoved them at me. 'No thank you,' I said.

As he walked off I thought I could see that he had a map or two amongst the albums. But he'd gone. I was still standing there trying to get my bearings when he approached me again. Once again he tried me with the stamps and the coins, then he pulled out a map. It was a street map of Hanoi. 'How much?' I asked.

'Six dollar.' He could speak English. Well it was more of a grunt but I could understand.

Six dollars for a map printed on one single sheet. Does this guy think I'm crazy? 'No way! Forget it.' I would rather stay lost than be ripped off.

'Five dollar.'




'How much you pay?'

What is a fair price for such a map in Vietnam? Can't be much more than a dollar surely. I offered him 20,000 dong.


I accepted, paid my money, got my map and found my way home.

A few days later I was in another part of town. I discovered a bookshop and went in for a browse. I was interested to see what they had in English and also if they sold that map. They did. Their price? 7,000 dong.

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