Thursday, June 15, 2006

History and Hassles, then Redemption!

Central Vietnam has a variety of different experiences for the traveller. The city of Hue is perhaps not as culturally attractive (museums, architecture, etc) as one might hope, so we took a day trip by "dragon boat" outside of the city, on the Perfume River. Hue is unique in having a lot of attractions along a river, making a boat tour a viable option. And it was only $1.50 per person, which seemed to good to be true. More on that later.

Looking back at the photos, I see some beautiful tombs built for various generations of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled from the citadel in the center of Hue. Unfortunately, the citadel is not what it once was due to bombing during wars with the french and americans.~> read more

  China and Vietnam have had a long and complex relationship, most notably that Vietnam was part of China (or occupied by, depending on who you ask) during 110BC–AD40, 43–544, 602–906, and 1406–1427. before, after, and in between, Vietnam has been independent but not always ruled by the same groups.

Because of this long relationship, we noticed Chinese influence throughout Vietnam, and this was unexpected for us, because we did not know about the long relationship but also because the 3 nearby countries we have visited have little Chinese influence visible. This boat trip certainly enlightened us!

However, the boat trip enlightened us in less pleasant ways that at moments made the beauty of the tombs and pagoda harder to enjoy. The aforementioned $1.50 fee for a full-day tour was indeed too good to be true. As soon as we boarded the boat early in the morning we were asked to order basic vietnamese dishes for lunch at $5 each, where these things normally cost around 1 dollar in restaurants. Lunch was supposed to be included in the ticket price, but it was said to be "only tofu, very small!" While we didn't expect a fancy lunch in the tiny price of the tour, neither did we plan to be 5x overcharged for a meal! We initially acquiesced, then I decided against it and, to my suprise, was able to talk the money back.

The first tomb was too far from the riverbank to reach on foot, especially within the total 45 minutes we were alloted for our visit. we climbed the steep path from the riverbank, and ran headlong into what can only be described as a motorcycle mafia. This thick band of men were backed right up to the end of the road, revving the engines and waiting for tourists to get on. The trick is, you have no idea what the trip is supposed to cost, and if you don't negotiate a price ahead of time, the price given after the service has been provided will likely surprise you!

We already knew this, so I negotiated a price of 20,000 dong for a trip we had been told by our boat crew was about 4 km. We prepared to both get on the back of this driver's bike, which is totally acceptable for the Vietnamese, and for tourists as well in cambodia. you can see 5 people on a motorbike quite often in some places. This was met with yells, the kind of verbal noise that could only signify an impending fistfight in America. No, this cartel was dead-set on employing one driver per tourist. OK, fine.

Of course, when we arrived at the tomb, which in fact was around 1/8th as far away as our boat drivers had told us, each motorcycle driver demanded the 20,000 for the one-way trip. Tiffany was just about hitting her limit on vietnamese scams at the time, and she basically told them they could each have 10,000 or stuff it. (Those of you who know her realize that she still did it in a diplomatic way). One of the drivers appeared to turn red and turned away in a huff. We also walked just about in a huff into the walled tomb area, after paying an exorbitant entry fee to the provincial government (and who knows who else is taking a cut) and tried to enjoy it, which we actually did. Upon return, suprise of suprises, we easily found our drivers and just hopped on the bike. They took us back to the boat in short order, and of course then demanded 40,000 for each driver. We told them no, it was far too much (which it was), and gave them each 20,000 and walked off.

At the next tomb, we opted out of the moto and ticket extortion (and therefore the tomb visit) and rested in what shade we could find, because we had been showed the night before by a nice deaf-mute guy who runs a restaurant in town that this one wasn't worth it. The best part was, when we got back to our boat, the old lady who drives the boat was on us like a rash. she was saying "tu duc tomb, you don't pay enough." We had no idea what she was talking about, since we had paid the clearly posted, though exorbitant, 55,000 dong for entrance. "No, for motorbike" she said, clearly angry. Keep in mind, we were miles away from the original moto drivers by now. She said "You pay another 40,000!" We told her politely no frickin way. We eventually figured out that though we had never seen any contact between the boat driver and the moto drivers (and we had paid attention), There is a kick-back scheme involved, and in fact multiple drop-off points for the boats to find the particular moto drivers they are in kahoots with.

Needless to say, this was all a bit stressful and making us wary about the whole thing; we would have rather spent much more on a no-nonsense boat ride but that just isn't the way it works. Sitting around our tiny tofu lunch (which was acutally quite tasty), one of the vietnamese tourists on the boat, who were apparently used to this sort of thing (and I guarantee they paid nowhere near 20,000 each for motorbike rides), offered us some pineapple she had bought, and pushed her rice bowl our way in case we needed extra. She offered us a toothpick at the end of the meal, as well. I'm sure she was from another town since she was sightseeing, but otherwise she looked like so many other middle aged vietnamese ladies we had seen in every town. She didn't speak a word of english, but continued to make gestures to give us a place to sit, and offer little things (like a wet-napkin you might get at a BBQ restaurant) along the way. This little bit of kindness, generosity without expectations cracked the hard shell we were building up against vietnamese people, just when we needed it the most. She inspired us to look further and make an effort to talk to people about things other than "business", and showed us that even in difficult circumstances there are almost always great people around.

A few more photos of this river trip are here:

Inside the boat at lunch. The lady next to Tiffany is who I spoke of above.


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