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The real Vietnam

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Vietnam before I arrived.  Or rather, I wasn’t sure if I should believe what I read about it’s people: how unhelpful they are, how unfriendly they are and how they routinely screw over visitors with the mentality that it’s the duty of white people to hand over fistfuls of cash.

Well, I haven’t yet seen all of Vietnam, but from what I have seen, this generalization couldn’t be further from the truth.

“But how do you know you weren’t being ripped off?” inquired one friend, subtly suggesting I was and perhaps too proud to admit it.  My answer?  “Oh, you know.  Believe me.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve definitely paid more for something than a local and I’ve walked away from price negotiations when I knew the merchant would not back down to a more reasonable price.  These were my choices and, for the most part, I made them consciously.

The difference is in the demeanor of the person with whom you’re interacting.  The sly smile, the confused expression of misunderstanding that’s too perfect when discussing money (I grew up in San Diego; I know this ruse all too well) or my personal favorite, the bait and switch (agreeing on a price and then claiming a higher one when you go to pay.)  I’ve seen a few of these, but only one time was I subjected to them outside of the backpacker area.

The fact of the matter is, if you’re in a location that is rife with tourists, there is ample opportunity for you to be taken advantage of, overcharged and harassed.  Plain and simple.  You are seen as a walking piggy bank, albeit a clothed piggy bank walking on two legs.

To be fair though, this assumption is made in any tourist heavy area, foreign and domestic— which is why I avoid these places like the plague.  If by some horrendous mistake I find myself in such a spot, I power walk down the street with my head down shouting “no” at every person that dares cross my path.  Yup, I’m super friendly like that.

So with such abhorrence for the tourism quarter, why did I go to Ben Thanh Market, the mecca for this exact abuse, twice?  Well, the first time was out of necessity; I needed shoes for class the next day.  But the second time?  That was for research.

I was so bothered by my first experience that I felt compelled to go back and see if it was as bad as I remembered.

It was.

Arm tug.  “Miss, miss.”  Poke.  “Miss, shirt, miss.”  Steps into my path.  “Miss, what are you looking for?”  Gestures to the ugliest piece of clothing I’ve ever seen in my life.   “Miss, miss, for you.”  Points to a Spiderman figurine.  “You like?”  “No!” my friend finally yells, “Too old!”  I laugh.  I didn’t say there wasn’t the occasional comedy bit; awkwardness breeds humor.

Funniness aside, this isn’t the real Vietnam.

The real Vietnam is the fellow shopper at Simply that asks if you live in the area and if so, to please let her know if you need anything while you’re in town.  The real Vietnam is the owner of the guest house that brings you and your friends a giant plate of fruit to share.  The real Vietnam is the other couple dining in the restaurant that show you how to wrap your spring roll because you’re clearly struggling.  The real Vietnam is the street vendor that provides you a sample before you commit to purchasing then smiles as you relish your first bite.  The real Vietnam is the woman at the cafe that tries her best to understand your offensively terrible less than perfect attempts at Vietnamese conversation.  The real Vietnam is the girl walking with her friends who stops to ask for a picture with you.  The real Vietnam is the restaurant owner that keeps pouring you shots, only to charge you for a quarter of them, and joins in with each pour.

I have these and many more stories like them because the people of Vietnam are so very kind, generous and happy to share their lives, country and culture with us, the foreigners.  Considering their gruesome not-so-distant past, I find their affection toward us not only commendable, but inspiring.

Americans may be known as “friendly,” but rarely do we go out of our way in our own country to interact with tourists.  We certainly don’t actively seek these strangers out offering to take them around and show them our favorite restaurants, bars and cafes.

No, that kind of behavior is reserved for the Vietnamese and I’m enjoying every second of it.

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