Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sharks of Saigon

It's my last day in Ho Chi Minh City, and I'm on a mission: find a post office, ship some posters I've bought back home.

The sun is already promising a roasting day as I leave the hostel and head down the street.

Ho Chi Minh's District One, old Saigon, houses the major banks, government offices, museums, malls, and thousands of mom-and-pop shops, storefronts no wider than a mobile home. You can also find a few of the city's rare postage-stamp sized parks, and broad, treed boulevards.

I'm heading to one of the gems of HCMC's historic housing stock, the old post office, a French colonial building from the 1880s.

The walk is pleasant enough at first but the heat and humidity got to me, so I started looking for a pedalcab. Those are Saigon's version of the tuk-tuk, human-powered one-passenger bicycle taxis.

Attracting a cabbie wasn't hard, and in a few seconds one asked me where I was going.

“Post office. How much?” I ask.

“You say.” he says obliquely. “You tell me.”

I have learned enough on my Asia travels to get a price first. And I really don't want to play haggle games. So I insist he tell me how much.

“150,000 dong,” he says. About $7.

I snort and walk away. I spent a third less to be taken twice as far the day before. I didn't even give him a chance to counter-offer. Better to just get the exercise, I told myself, as his calls faded behind me.

I'm usually not so brusque, but five days in HCMC had made me a a little fed up with this 'rip-off-the-tourist' shtick. Earlier in the trip I had paid a buck apiece for two oranges (more than they would cost in Whitehorse), $1.50 for a pair of socks I was assured would stretch to my size (nope), and six bucks for a pair of incredibly lousy headphones. Turned down a dozen other bogus deals. One guest at my hostel bought a $10 fake watch that stopped working in minutes, and another had been hijcked by a pirate taxi and extorted for $60 for a $10 airport ride.

Saigon is the economic engine and driver of the Vietnam economy Wikipedia will tell you. You don't get that way by easing up on the tourists.

So if the driver didn't want to give me an honest estimate up front, I wasn't going to give him the time of day.

About half a block down the street, I'm still fuming from the encounter, when another pedalcab slides up alongside me.

“Excuse me sir,” he says. “I will give you ride to post office for $1 US.”

I stop. Now that's not only reasonable, it's cheap. I climb on the pedalcab while my driver introduces himself.

Minh is originally from Cambodia, he tells me, but has lived in HCMC for 40 years. He remembers the end of the war as a child, when the North stormed into the city and reunified the country.

Minh offers up himself as a tour guide for me, and hands me a small notebook. It's crammed with recommendations from other tourists about how great he is, how he showed them different parts of HCMC and found them great deals. I thank him but tell him I'm in a bit of a rush; plane to catch and all that.

Minh drops me off at the post office, and offers to wait for me while I do my business. What the heck, I figure. A buck to get here. Give him five bucks to get me back to the hotel and I'm good. I take him up on the offer.

The ride back is as pleasant as a pedcalcab can be. One feels rather imperial in a pedalcab. The curve of the seat has you reclining, your feet up like a hammock. The smooth pulse of the pedalling, the sheer decadence of having someone pushing you around town, makes the stares of people watching you on the street almost agreeable.

Minh certainly fills the roll of a guide and new friend. He tells me about his wife and kids. He shows me several buildings I had walked by earlier in the week, and tells me what's inside. He points out great places to eat, buy shirts, or shoes- he'll haggle for you, and help you avoid the tourist rip-off. All the while Minh is cracking jokes, smiling, and rubbing your shoulder in a buddy kind of way.

“Why did I not find you three days ago?” I ask him, and I mean it. As fun as independent travel is, as much as it's nice not be part of a herd, a guide can save you time and money and open you to new experiences so much faster. In a place like HCMC, where it's easy to fall prey, I think I'd recommend a guide.

It's only 9:30, I don't have to be back for an hour. 'Why don't I take you on a short trip though Chinatown?” Minh asks. Why not, I think. The pedalcab is pleasant and the day is fine.

It's more of the same in a part of town I hadn't seen. Minh shows me Flower Street, a street decorated during Chinese New Year. I note great places to get coffee, electronics, laquerware that aren't tourist ripoffs. I get a lot better feel for the city,

Ho Chi Minh City isn't so bad, I think. A good guide, a smooth ride, an insider's glimpse into the city. That's what travel's about.

I write a glowing review in Minh's notebook as we come to a stop near my hotel. Wish I'd found him three days ago, I say Great tour at a great price.

I take down his phone number so you can call him if you need a guide in Ho Chi Minh.

Then it's time to settle. If it was 20,000VDN to the post office, 100,000 should be generous for the return trip. I pull out a bill.

No no, says Minh. Ten- 100,000 dong.

I'm not sure I understand him and pullout another 100,000. “Is this enough?” I ask.

“No no,” he says. He pulls out his company chart of rates. “I spend one hour and a half with you. One hour is 800,000 dong. You owe 1.2 million dong.” He smiles at me, now all sharp teeth and gums. “I have to pay company, feed family.”

Sharks come in many shapes and sizes. Some sell you oranges. Some ride bikes. Some try to rip you up front. The good ones disarm you with a smile first .

I hadn't asked for a price after the trip to the post office. And now I had to pay. I handed Minh two $20 bills and the 200,000. He nods, satisfied.

“You want coffee here?” he asks, all friendly again. The stop is probably part of the hook as well, Minh bringing business to his buddy's door.

“No thanks,” I say. I walk back to the hotel to pack, determined to get out of the city as fast as I can.

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