Sunday, November 9, 2008

Getting ripped off in Saigon

They say things happen in threes.

In Saigon, we had three experiences where they either tried to rip us off or came very close. These situations didn't make us very happy but they made us a lot wiser.

1) We were walking down a very busy street and just so happened to pass a Hindu temple. As you can see from the picture below, it was quite colorful and (I thought) very inviting. I figured that since it was a religious building and we were obviously tourists, they wouldn't mind us having a quick peek inside. Just a quick peep and maybe a picture or two.

As we entered, two ladies thrust some packages in our hands. When I say "thrust", I mean thrust. We didn't want to take them but they literally grabbed our hands and smacked the packages into our palms. I looked down and there was incense, some candles and some strange green fruit, all bundled up.

We both wanted to hand the gifts back but the ladies wouldn't hear it. They seemed like very angry women and I was starting to get the feeling that this temple visit wasn't going to be exactly free.

Patrick didn't want anything to do with his new gift so he dumped it as soon as he got inside the temple. I held mine onto mine briefly but then ditched it too after I felt a little weird carrying around Hindu offerings when I still consider myself quite Christian.

We didn't stay long. Just enough time to wander around, have a look at the colorful statues and feel very awkward about invading this religious edifice.

Maybe it was just me (and I'm only saying this because they treated us so badly) but their statues looked a little barbie doll-ish. Like you could dress them up in different clothes depending on your mood. Apparently they even came with accessories.

We tried to make a quick exit but the ladies stopped us. They demanded 200000 dong from each of us apparently for the "gifts" that they forced us to take.

The Vietnamese currency is the dong. Yes, I know, it made me laugh too the first time I heard it. But it's their currency and they get to name it what they want.

Anyway, after some heated discussion I was able to get the price down to 100000 dong for both of us which is about 6 dollars. I figured that this was the cost of visiting a museum and so was reasonable. It would have been nice had we been given some cost options BEFORE entering the temple but it's a different country and obviously different rules apply.

2) Our next great experience was with the cyclos. Cyclos are like modified bicycles. A guy pedals while the tourists ride in the front. They probably aren't very safe but they seemed like a good way to see the town without killing your feet and really, is anything safe in Saigon?

While we were walking through the town, we were approached by one of the cyclo drivers. Even though we tried to brush him off, he was VERY persistent and he even showed us his book filled with glowing reviews from tourists just like ourselves. We finally gave in. For 15000 dong from each of us, he and his friend would take us to the War Remnants Museum. That seemed fair. A buck from each of us. It wasn't too far to walk but a bicycle ride seemed a lot easier.

After the museum, we wanted to see the Pagoda of the Jade Emperor. It was a little further away but I asked the cyclo drivers about the price and he told me that it was the same price as before. I figured that this meant another 15000 dong from each of us. Once again, very fair.

This is how Patrick looked in his cyclo. See the smile on his face? He's faking it. He's actually terrified and has every right to be.

This is the traffic that we were facing. Did I say that Saigon was crazy?

The Pagoda of the Jade Emperor was one of my favorite places in Saigon. It's a fairly bright temple on the outside but once we got inside, it was like entering into a different world.

It's very dark inside and since it is an active temple, there were quite a few worshippers milling about and putting gifts in the appropriate places.

Actually, the inside reminded me of an Asian depiction of hell. Lots of dark carvings, floating incense and cramped rooms. This is no coincidence; the Jade Emperor apparently decides who gets to go to heaven and who gets sent below.

Our cyclo driver came into the Pagoda with us and explained the serious nature of some of the carvings. Since he spoke very quickly and his English wasn't all that good, I missed out on quite a bit of information. I figured I would have to do a catchup with my guide book later on.

After we were done touring, the two cyclo drivers took us to a restaurant for lunch. The food was pretty good and the four of us were able to put away 16 Heineken. Thankfully, they were only about a buck a piece.

Then the subject of money came up.

The price of the two cyclo drivers for the morning was now over 1 MILLION DONG. No matter how you look at it, that was a lot of dong and certainly WAY more than what we were expecting or had negotiated. They told me that I had misunderstood them; instead of 15000 dong, they had said 150000 dong for each trip and that didn't even include the guided tour of the Pagoda or the waiting time. I got up from the table and put 200000 dong (equivalent to 12 dollars) on the table, ready to walk out. The cyclo drivers threw it back at me with completely disgusted looks on their faces.

This made me really mad. Now they weren't going to get anything. I wanted to walk out of the restaurant right then and there but there were two problems; the first one was that Patrick was still sitting on his chair with a stunned look on his face and the second one was that it did occur to me that the cyclo drivers might put a knife in my back or at least give me a really mean Asian curse once I left the building.

As it turned out, Patrick was the nice guy and gave the cyclo drivers what they wanted which was $80 for five hours of work. This was outrageous given that the going rate for a cyclo driver is about $10 to $20 for the WHOLE day. I knew that they had quoted me 15000 dong initially and it was a complete scam but at least we weren't going to be tracked at night and get jumped in a dark alley.

My only fear is that these cyclo drivers are going to try it again on some unsuspecting tourists. To try and prevent this, I have posted his picture below.

See that smile? That is the smile of someone about to rob a couple of tourists of $80!

This is a better picture. The horns and tail are real. They appeared after we handed over the money. D'oh!

There were three situations of getting ripped off. The final situation was with the money exchanger. The lady tried to give me 200000 dong less than what she was supposed to. I happened to catch the error as I was walking away.

When I told her about it, she exclaimed, "so sorry! so sorry!" and gave me what I was supposed to have. So sorry my ass. Yeah, she might have made an honest mistake but something tells me that it wasn't the case. She changes money every day and she misses out on 200000 dong and she even used a calculator?! Hmmm, call me a little cynical but I think she wanted a little tip for all her hard work.

And keep in mind that this incident happened after our Hindu temple debacle and the cyclo driver crap. I wasn't in the mood to be f%^ed with.

Saigon had a way of making me feel like that.

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