Huế, the Imperial City
After spending four days in the Phong Nha area, it was time to leave. The next morning, I drove to Hue, the city that separates Vietnam into north and south. I had 235 kilometers to drive, which is about six hours.
For over a century and a half, Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam. The ruins of the city where the Nguyen dynasty lived can be found there. Despite being heavily bombed during the war, Hue has retained a charm and sophistication not found anywhere else in Vietnam.
My arrival in Hue also marked an important milestone in my journey. I was geographically halfway through my motorcycle trip, and psychologically halfway to reaching my goal.
The drive to Hue was easy and pleasant. I arrived at my hotel in the late afternoon. Since it was too late to do any sightseeing, I decided to take the opportunity to do some shopping.
The first and most important one was to have a complete check-up of my bike. The road I was planning to take afterwards would be somewhat deserted. I wanted to make sure that my bike was in perfect condition before continuing my trip.
During my stay in Phong Nha, I had talked with Ben, the owner of the farmhouse where I was staying. "You see a lot of men, alone or in groups, riding through Vietnam on motorcycles. You are the first woman I've ever met riding alone," he told me.
The morning of my departure, as I was doing my usual preparation, Ben asked me:
- Would you need to see a mechanic in Hue? I know one who is excellent. He speaks English and he is honest. His name is Kim Nguyen.
Ben added that he was out of business cards but that I could easily find some at the nearby hotel. At the entrance of the hotel was a large wooden sign. Kim Nguyen's card was there. I took two of them and put them in my pocket.
When I arrived in Hue, I dropped my luggage off at the hotel and went to the garage. Kim greeted me with a smile and excellent English.
After taking my bike for a ride and assessing the repairs, Kim asked me to keep it until the next day. Happy to know it was in good hands, I left my keys with him and walked away.
Before going back to the hotel, I had two other things to do: buy sunglasses and a bathing suit. When I left Hue, I would enter the south of Vietnam. I planned to go and rest on a sandy beach on the east coast. However, I did not bring a bathing suit with me. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was in a big city to get my hands on the beach items I was missing.
I was painfully bargaining for a pair of fake Ray Ban sunglasses with a merchant who didn't speak English when a young man approached.
- How much? he asked.
I glanced over my shoulder.
- I'm sorry?
- How much do you want to pay?
- Five hundred thousand dongs.
The young man turned back to the merchant and picked up where I left off. After a few exchanges, he turned around and said:
- It's OK. Five hundred thousand dongs.
What efficiency. This young man had done me a favor because I had no negotiation skills. In fact, I did it only with great reluctance.
One of the main annoyances in Vietnam is the tendency of merchants to rip off tourists. Since it is often difficult to assess the value of things in local currency - and in the case of brands, to verify their authenticity - one is easily cheated.
In my case, I don't negotiate much. Most of the time, I pay the price I'm given. Some will say that this is heresy, but I have my reasons.
Negotiating makes me deeply uncomfortable. This discomfort stems from the premise that the seller is entitled to be opportunistic and set an initial price that exceeds the value of the item or service in question. Negotiation is therefore the means by which the buyer attempts to remedy this imbalance. The fiction of this mode of transaction is that through negotiation, both parties would ultimately arrive at a fair price.
I don't like to be responsible for remedying the opportunism of others. I also don't like to have the fairness of the transaction rest on my ability to manipulate my counterpart. And I don't like to enter into relationships with strangers on the basis of a power struggle.
I am fortunate that in this country, even when I am charged twice or three times the price, my loss is in dollars. When I find it abusive, I let my counterpart know that I am aware of the scam. My look communicates to them that by doing so, they are not disrespecting me, but themselves.
I was asked for money for asking for directions. I was asked for a million dongs ($50) for a cab ride. I was sold my North Face coat at a high price when it was a cheap knock-off. They tried to overcharge me for a soup listed at different prices on the English and Vietnamese menus.
Unfortunately, in tourist areas, one scam doesn't wait for another.
I'm not combative because I don't want any trouble. Vietnam is a very safe country and since the beginning of my trip, I have not had any problems. No problem at all. I have never even been afraid for my safety. Day or night.
But I have heard stories of violence. They were all related to negotiations that had gone wrong. A cab driver who demands an unreasonable price, a foreigner who doesn't want to pay. Physical intimidation ensues, sometimes with a knife. I've heard many stories like that.
There are many risks related to my trip that I can't control - traffic accidents, theft and loss, for example. Here's one I do have control over. And for a few dollars, I decide not to take it.