Readers' Submissions

Fatally Stupid

  • Written by Lewis
  • August 6th, 2003
  • 16 min read


Fatal Stupidity



A very common sub-topic is attempts at the cheating of us by the locals along with official and unstated dual pricing policies. But no one notes (Stick's correspondent, Dana, is an exception) that those who think they are clever in trying to cheat us are actually costing themselves very, very significantly by losing our business forever. However, they are so empty-headed, they don't realize it. Almost all the following is based on my experiences the past five years in Vietnam, but there's no doubt it applies to Thailand too. I'm almost flabbergasted when reading descriptions of Thais' (and expats-in-Thailand's) behaviors and attitudes, because almost all such descriptions, if not all, apply to Vietnam too. (Another one just cropped up with Stick's documenting (not quite his exact words): "You know how a Thai woman has to eat right now when she feels hunger pangs, and if you don't cooperate, she goes out of her mind"; well that's incredible, for he's describing my Vietnamese wife!)

First let me say that many of the locals are, of course, honest. For example there have been times my wife's had me go out and buy some diapers (nappies in the British dialect I believe) or infants' formula milk, telling me exactly what she'd paid for them before, but then the merchants would quote a cheaper price for me. The effect is they keep my business forever. It happens all the time. Secondly, the locals are often cheated by the locals; more on this later.

No sooner than arriving in Vietnam, I was introduced to the practice that ends in the locals losing your business forever – and for a one-time gain. My means of transportation when the destination was too far to walk was motorbike taxis. There were two of them always parked just up the street from my rental house on the edge of the campus where I was studying Vietnamese. I always used Mr Bay's because we had good rapport and his charges were reasonable. But one weekend, I was running late for an important visit with my fiancee (now wife) and her parents. Mr Bay was gone, and I didn't have time to screw around and bring what this other guy wanted down to what the price should be; hence, I accepted the overcharge he proposed. He seemed to try to justify it by "getting lost," but I knew the street (Lac Long Quan) I was going to was well-known. Anyway, because of the guy's overcharge, he found his face being rubbed in it for the remainder of my stay in that neighborhood. I'd always walk right by him, although he wanted my business badly, and opt for Mr Bay. The guy never learned, for he'd always try to get back my business despite his pleas being ignored on almost a daily basis.

Another example. I have a very good relationship with a family next door to us. The man's a scarred combat veteran of the Vietnam War, his wife works down the street at what may be Vietnam's biggest wine company, Thang Long, and they have beautiful daughters of 14 and 17 years old. (This place is amazing regarding the women situation – The vet says that were I single, he'd be more than happy for me to marry either of them, because I'm "a good guy.") I liked his wife's wine that he'd serve me. And with the purported health benefits of grape wine, I started going down the street and buying it in quantity from her wine company's retail store. Then I noticed this bitch in the store two times in the roll trying to cheat me, either quoting a higher price or accomplishing the multiplication wrong (or both). I'm good in math and know within a second that 4 bottles of 9,500 dong wine is 38,000 dong, not the 45,000 she was asking for. (She'd probably cheated me prior to those two times, but I hadn't picked up on it.) I let her know how displeased I was and embarrassed her in front of a couple of employees who'd dropped in. What we ended up with was another case of for a little extra money, she'd lost my business forever. I started looking around for other brands of local wine, found one that was about the same at about the same price and then really found the answer – a reasonably priced grape-mulberry wine, even better for your health, superior tasting and quite reasonably priced. I have
the wife's father go to their headquarters here in Hanoi and buy two cases at a time.

Drinking a competing wine was hurting the feelings of my next-door neighbors, but the effect became worse when because of financial difficulties in the wine company, they started paying vet's wife partially in cases of wine with the idea that she should sell them and make up for decreased monetary salary. I would have been a likely customer, she approached us to buy a couple of cases, but I'd become sold on the Kinh Do grape-mulberry wine. Yes the bitch back at the store's going for a little extra money generated the effect of a loss of business forever. I would really like to help the next-door neighbor, but after thinking it over, opted for the product I liked better.

Another example. I'd come back from fairly deep in the provinces (Nam Dinh and Thai Binh) where I'd gone for material for writing a travel article, and had fatally damaged both of the Honda Spacy scooter's tires. I stopped in the small repair shop we always used, and had one replaced. When my wife's father heard what I'd paid for the tire, he said I'd been overcharged, then had the mechanic put the bad one back on, and then went someplace else to buy the tire, two it turned out were needed. For an attempt at some extra money, that first mechanic had lost our business forever. The father easily found an alternative.

I could give some more examples, but the point's been made. The same phenomenon affects the locals too. You want to see one of them mad, see them after they've found out one of the live crabs they've been sold is missing a claw! That's what happened to my wife, and the lady had now lost her business forever. On another occasion, my wife went across the street from that lady's to another shop selling live crabs. My wife picked out some live swimming ones, got home, and found the seller had switched one of her live ones with one that had been dead for quite some time. She too had just lost my wife's business forever. I asked my wife whether they knew they were selling the flawed crabs, and she responded they did. She also responded that they knew they'd lose her business forever. So I asked her why they'd do that – for a one-time small gain, lose her business forever and the associated long stream of profits? "Because they are stupid," she responded. And that's my wife's explanation for about all these cases of where they irrationally lose business forever by trying a one-time fast one – "They're stupid." I'm sitting at the bar in the American Club and this old Southeast Asian hand in construction responded that if you laid down a hundred dollar bill and then laid down next to it $2, and gave a Vietnamese a choice between the $2 now or $100 in two days, they'd opt for the $2.

More crab wars! I was waiting outside on the scooter for my wife while she was shopping, and here comes a country girl with a basket of live crabs. So I flagged her down, but had her wait for my wife (who loves fresh crab and could handle the transaction better than I, or so I thought). This country girl (they and the Hanoians have quite a strong dislike of each other with each side thinking the other is trying to cheat them – I think the relationship may be rather like the Bangkokians and the Isaanians), it turns out, had tried cheating my wife four different ways, and was successful on two of them. First she tried an excessive price, but my wife called her on that one. Then she tried flawed multiplication, and my wife caught her on that one too. Then when the wife arrived home, her mother said she'd been cheated two ways – she'd been shorted on weight (the country vendors are old hands at manipulating the scale), and half the weight she had received was from the oversized-for-the-job rope the country girl had bound the crabs with! It all worked out well. My wife found a live crabs' vendor in a different area where they were much cheaper – 45,000 dong/kilo rather than the former 80,000 dong – and has been going there for a couple of years with no problem. (The exchange rate is now 15,490 dong/dollar.)

Both here and in Thailand, one needs to ask the price in the beginning to preclude unhappy surprises later. I was in Bangkok a year ago and thought I could relax on that stuff. I mean everyone loved the Thais, I'd always heard. A beautiful and sweet Korean (actually now a Korean-American – she's causing my breathing pattern to change at this moment) where I'd worked in the States (Indianapolis) and who'd married her US Army civilian English teacher, had traveled around Asia and concluded the Thais were by far the best – "They are beautiful both inside and out." I took a long walk from Khao San Road that included looking for a place for a haircut. I finally found a place I liked the ambiance of and yes was interested in the lady's spin-off services, including a massage, she encouraged. Thankfully after the haircut I asked her what I owed her, and felt I was being ripped. Forget the spin-off services; I was gone. I was out of my element; in Vietnam she wouldn't have pulled that crap off on me. A block later I realized a mistake I'd made; I'd unknowingly circled back to within a block of Khao San Road, and knew that in such close proximity to a bunch of tourists, prices would be inflated. I felt strongly enough about the charge that I stopped by the tourist police box at the other end of Khao San Road, and the police-lady responded that they couldn't help because I hadn't established the price in the beginning and that even Thais had to do it that way.

In that regard, I've learned that our SE Asian wives can learn from us. My wife and I were at a popular seaside resort just south of Hai Phong (Do Son Beach), we stopped in a beachside restaurant, and she was about to order. I'd learned on my trips coming back up north on Highway 1 to Hanoi after gathering material for travel articles deep in the provinces (Thai Binh, Nam Dinh, Thanh Hoa and Ninh Binh) that two things could happen when you order without establishing the price in advance. You may find you are being charged little more than nothing for a feast of food and drinks or you may find that a lady has thrown in an extra egg and has tripled the price of the soup. (And my intellectual sidekick and the lady are then in a tremendously fierce altercation that is on the verge of becoming more than just a mere altercation. I mean she's even armed herself with her broom!) So I recommended my wife establish the price before she ordered. And she learned we'd have been ripped. So we walked down the street to a competitor, which, unlike the first place, was crammed with customers. Why – because they were serving good food at non rip-off prices.

And that's something I noted quite some time ago about these vendors who try to cheat or overcharge you – they have no customers! With that type of mentality, it spreads to their Vietnamese customers too, and the place of business has no customers.

The word "bargaining" is not in my vocabulary. The travel guides do mean well, but I've evolved beyond them. I like dealing with honest people and before I make a purchase of either a product or service, I make sure I know the price. Or else I don't buy. I'd rather do without than be cheated. I'll know the price and then test them for their honesty. If they are in that mode of "30,000 dong…20,000 dong…how much do you want to pay?," they've established themselves as the type who wanted to rip me, and I choose honest people who will then gain my business forever. (My barber, across the street from our house, had closed shop, maybe because of becoming pregnant, and I'd gone out to find another one who was also skilled at dyeing hair. Finally after a score of places wanting to set the price high and if necessary then bargain or else I didn't like the ambiance, a place with a cute 17 year old employee caught my eye, and when her boss responds 15,000 dong for a combined dyeing and shampoo, cheaper even than my old place of 18,000 dong, I knew she was honest, and she's had my business long-term. Forget the bargaining – I deal with the honest.)

Yes, with there being that element who try to cheat or overcharge you, they end up causing us to never buy out on the streets, for example, some nice looking tropical fruit. I never buy it, because I'm just not equipped to deal with them – the price and the weighing. So the whole bunch of them, etc are losing a lot of business although they think they are clever because they rip off someone sometimes. Go into these modern department stores there are so many of now, and you'll note there are many Westerners in them. Yes, we'd rather pay a little more in a place where the prices are fixed than be cheated out on the street and in the small shops. Paying extra is not in my vocabulary. We shouldn't be tacitly condoning any racist dual pricing. I often walk around this beautiful huge lake, Hoan Kiem, in the middle of downtown Hanoi. On one of the two little islands in the middle is a popular temple. I've never visited and never will, for it's free for the Vietnamese and Westerners must pay.

In touching on dual pricing, I am broadening the scope a little. When I gave Wink Dulles, author of Fielding's travel guide on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; "Southern Vietnam on Two Wheels;" and also co-author of "World's Most Dangerous Places," a lead resulting from the Vietnamese incredibly stupid policy of how they administered foreigners for the boat trips to the Perfume Temple, he responded that clip shops are a peculiar form of Asian racism. When it came time to hop on a boat for the trip up the stream to the Perfume Temple, the dock administrators decided I had to be separated from my wife's extended family and be on my own more expensive "foreigner's" boat! I told my wife that they should go ahead on the trip, and I'd find my way back by myself to Hanoi. But before I could act on it, she had the two of us in a separate boat with the rest of the extended family in another. This created problems, for the two "coxswain" were in no mood to stay together. A spin-off story is soon after, Wink Dulles was killed on a motorcycle accident in NE Thailand on his way to the market. His fiancee, riding on the back, was seriously injured. A Thai motorcycle collided with them.

I'll give the Vietnamese government credit – they've accomplished a lot in eliminating this two-tier system, but sometimes the provinces have a mind of their own. My intellectual friend out here told me he'd been beaten up by the administrators of a notable temple next door in Ha Tay province. He found it galling not only being charged to go into a place of worship but also to have to pay more than the locals. He let them know he was a lawyer, and they were not in sync with Vietnam's law. The temple administrators responded, "Who do those (government officials) in Hanoi think they are? They are acting like the old feudalists. The law ends at the village gate."

My intellectual friend and I both have come to the same conclusions. Soon after arriving here, we noted that the Vietnamese think differently. But then later we noted that it's not a case of their thinking differently, rather it's that they just can't think. Frankly, I often refer to them as Pleistocene man. I was watching with my wife one of her DVDs for her Executive MBA course, and it showed the interior of your typical US house in 1950 – you know – clean, the walls aren't mouldy, there's your routine nice furniture, and one of those old-time televisions. And it hit me that Vietnam's at least 53 years behind the times. Again, I should add that many Vietnamese are sweet, even some of the guys, and are second to none.

Stickman says:

Great stuff. I often wonder if a lot of this type of behaviour is due to the survival instinct that so many Thais (and Vietnamese) have. Remember, a lot of these people are only one generation from living in the jungle, scavenging food and quite frankly, worrying about where their next email will come from. I often feel that some Thais give the impression of being modern, city people, but really, they would be much more at home in the jungle, where such attitudes would be a lot easier to understand. The Thais do tend to live for the moment, and the future seldom comes into their way of thinking.