So you’ve arrived in a theoretically cheap place to visit, and are intent on enjoying yourself with your new found purchasing power. So why is it that you keep getting parted from your hard-earned money? There is going to be a certain amount of frustration as you get chipped away at. The locals don’t understand your frustration and resentment at being nickel and dimed for dollar after dollar, they only understand that you have money and that they don’t, so they are forced to continually come up with new ways of parting you from your money. In no particular order:
1) various forms of begging designed to tug at your heart strings. There’s a victim of landmines everywhere you look, whether as a member of an orchestra or simply begging with hand outstretched. In Vietnam, a blind relative seems to be a source of income, a young child leading on an elderly blind person, cap outstretched to receive your cash. In Cambodia young girls about the age of 8-10 are dispatched into crowded tourist areas with a baby in their arms asking for money for their baby to eat.
2) Your friendly cyclo driver is absolutely notorious, continually bargaining and rebargaining everything. Same goes for your tuk tuk driver. They’re asking you for cash from the moment you get started. They then drop you off at remote locations “to eat”, the menus have outrageous prices (charging $5 for something you can get at a great restaurant in downtown Siem Reap for $2 max). Meanwhile your driver eats behind a screen with his buddies who own the restaurant, sniggering all the while. If you don’t want to eat at that place, he’ll whip out the magic words “hygiene” and “sick” for any other place you want to go to. As you eat, you won’t have any peace since you’ll be continually bothered by peddlers of cheap souvenirs and kids trying to interest you in post cards. Even worse is being stuck on a boat, where the boat owners will continually pester you to buy things during the journey. If you manage to bargain your way to a decent price, expect some resentment on occasion, but don’t give in. A deal is a deal! I managed to extract $1 less than the going rate from a boat trip, and you would have thought I just took a kidney from a small child by the look on the face of the woman. Remember key terms like return, items included like drinks, and whatever else you can think of. Just ignore the tales of woe, and fire back with your own. Keep in mind that if you are a typical backpacking moron dressed in the latest North Face with a $1000 Nikon dangling from your wrist, you aren’t in a great position to insist how poor you are. A boat trip for one hour started by someone asking me for $35. A few quick belly laughs later the price came down to $10, and was settled at $9 plus drinks. A cold coconut drink vendor asked for $7 each, from coconuts which cost 1,000 VND (5 cents CAD). I don’t blame him for trying, since asking “how much” is essentially asking the guy “how much, in a perfect world?” Don’t feel hard done by since you are the one who didn’t bother to inform himself before buying.
3) At the restaurant, nothing is free. From the cool moist towelettes to the appetizers, nothing is free. Get into the habit of asking “how much?” for everything. At a Chinese restaurant in Saigon, the appetizers which were presented ended up costing more than the rest of the meal. Don’t feel rude in rejecting things which aren’t what you ordered, unless your server tells you they’re free.
4) Taxi drivers at the airport will try to get you to pay for their parking, don’t. If they go through toll gates, it’s on you, but be wary of the “invisible toll.” Just refuse and don’t be afraid to play the angry tourist card. If you took a taxi at the airport, you should pick up a taxi card with the taxi number and licence from the dispatcher. Make sure his meter is on as well, decent taxi companies like Vinasun or Meilinh shouldn’t be a problem.
5) I lost count of the number of times I made eye contact with anyone, and they would try to sell me something. Want to take pictures of something? Expect a prompt demand of one dollar, the first term kids learn before they even go to school. Expect also to be followed by cyclos everywhere, harassed by that nasal Vietnamese/Khmer whine of “cold dreeeeenk? You want massage?” If you take them up on their offer you’re in for a rough bargaining session. Even restaurants offer better prices for a can of coke.
6) Shops with “no bargaining” signs. Everything is for sale, but don’t expect to get a good price unless you are willing to walk away. Speaking of walking away, just stay away from the backpacker ghetto in Ho Chi Minh. Brutally overpriced goods and outrageous prices for food, all bought by goateed and flip flop wearing fools and lesbian earth goddess vegans who are “seeing the real Vietnam.”
7) Crazy prices for Vietnam and Cambodia extend onto the Internet. Look at a service which will buy you your train ticket and have it delivered to your hotel for $14, a trip from Da Nang to Hue. A quick trip to the train station would reveal that ticket to be $3.50 CAD. An easy profit of more than $8 for the enterprising site owner, who figures rightly that you’re too lazy and intimidated to go and buy that ticket for yourself (for the record, it takes less than 10 minutes, the lady at the kiosk spoke enough English to help out, and all in all it was a fun experience). What you think of as a full service hotel ($130+ CAD) is basically the equivalent of a luxury hotel. There is absolutely no need to pay more than $40 CAD to get a clean and pleasant room with great service (try the Orchid Hotel in Hue), unless you plan on spending all your time there. Your dollars go even further in Cambodia, $40 CAD got a room at the the Golden Temple hotel with a free tuk tuk driver to and from the airport, a free massage, WiFi, breakfast buffet, a packed lunch or breakfast, and a level of service that simply doesn’t exist in Canada.
If you do get taken for a few dollars, try and think logically. Are you really expecting to beat people who have been bargaining their entire lives? You, who was afraid to even try and get your credit card company to knock a few points off your interest charges? It’s a couple of bucks, and nothing to get worked up into a fury about. Bargaining skills take practice, knowledge of the local economy, and good observational abilities.