It's funny how bad experiences contrast so readily with good. Last night we arrived in Dalat, the internal tourist capital of Vietnam. All the Viets have their honeymoons here. It's strewn with tacky tourist parks with Vietnamese dressed up as cowboys, cartoon mouse bins, the whole tacky deal.
After the bus arrived, we had a terrible time with tour and hotel hawkers demanding we come and see their places. We all got a bit stressed by all the attention and ended up spending 3/4 hour traipsing up and down the budget hotel district until a tip from a German couple on their way out of town clued us into a fantastic, cheap hotel. After all the stress, we weren't expecting much from this town. After checking in we got majorly hassled by the very poor hill tribe children trying to sell us shoe shines, cigarettes, maps and chewing gum.
Then this morning the air cleared and we started having fun! At breakfast one of the cigarette and gum sellers started talking to us. We were attempting to speak the language from our phrase book and she and her fellow seller ended up sitting with us for half an hour giving us lessons in Vietnamese. The hardest part is the tones which are quite complicated with different accents above letters (look at the next Vietnamese Restaurant you see) indicating different ranges of tone.
After that we negotiated a brilliant motorbike tour around the various sights in this town. Our guide was friendly, spoke excellent English and was great fun. Holly, who had some trepidation about hopping on the back of a motorbike, absolutely loved it.
Tonight we wandered around filled with much more confidence, which is all that is required to get by around here. A simple "khong moi" gets rid of the hawkers and the helpful addition of a smile gets you anywhere. These people are lovely, friendly and eager to help, but poor. What we initially saw as aggressive hawking is really just the result of real poverty. The moment you show you've been around more than a day or two, by speaking the language, they give up.
Also we've managed to work out and enjoy the process of bartering for prices, an essential tool for the third world. It's no to be approached as an adversarial, aggressive process but as a bit of sport. After all, for us at least, we're haggling over 20 cents or so but also want to conserve our funds for the rest of our trip and to brace ourselves for the appalling state of the Australian dollar. As with everything in this country a sense of humour and a smile go a long way. To barter for, say, a couple of dragon fruits (red, weird fruit that taste like kiwifruit) a Vietnamese "bow nyew" or "how much" will bring you something like 20,000. You giggle and go "no, 10,000". They find your price hilarious and offer something lower. Eventually you either arrive on a price or walk away to try the next stand. Of course as you walk away another price will be offered, hopefully to your liking.
The thing that has changed our experience most is realising that this isn't a nasty process of us versus them. We have way more money than they can imagine and have to keep this in mind and not be too focussed on getting the same price locals get.
Today's motorbike tour also let us into a little tip that anyone interested in travelling here should know. The Sinh Cafe open tour is not the way to get around this country. It's cheap (US$32) and gets you through the main sights, but they aren't the real Vietnam. Travel is more a process than a tour, so we would rather have caught a series of motorbike tours around the place than the sanitised tourist bus experience we are doing.
A motorbike driver we met tonight truly convinced us of this fact. He was friendly, had great English and the testimonials in his book were genuinely positive. He even organised a wedding for a couple of Americans in a minority (as in non-Vietnamese slash and burn minorities with different culture and customs) village in 12 hours!
Anyone thinking of travelling here, be sure to contact us and we'll give you the lowdown. When we get to London we'll write it all up and let people know.
Loving this country heaps. Tomorrow we catch a bus to Nha Trangh.