Opportunity Knocks

Our last two days in Vietnam were full of more rip-offs than all the other days there combined. We cycled north on Highway 14 as far as Thanh My (Nam Giang). We were originally planning on riding to Ta Lu (Hien), but when we arrived at Thanh My at 11am and temperatures were approaching 40 degrees Celsius, we decided to start looking for a bus. Some locals also told us that the road to Thanh My was extremely steep with some long climbs, so that cemented our decision and we stopped at a cafe to ask if they knew of any buses to Ta Lu. Its always a struggle to get information on buses here. You always get mixed information and the bikes make things even more complicated. After some discussion, the cafe owner (who spoke some English) told us there were no buses to Ta Lu, but that she would help us flag down a bus to Da Nang. Da Nang is on the coast and in the opposite direction from the way we wanted to go, but from there we could catch a bus to Lao Bao on the border. We ordered a couple of coffees and ended up waiting in the cafe for three hours while the owner made a couple of half-hearted attempts to flag down passing minibuses. It became pretty obvious that we were never going to get on a bus that way, so Sarah went to the other side of the road where a couple of women were waiting to try to flag down a bus herself. I was still sitting the cafe and I heard one of the customers say “bicycle” in Vietnamese and “ten dollars” and then everyone started laughing and looking at me. Looking back, this must have translated as “Screw these guys. I’m gonna help these foreigners get on a bus and make some money in the process!” He then went over to the other side of the road to wait with Sarah and the women. I had a hunch he was going to rip us off, so I gave him a Marlboro as a peace offering, but it didn’t work. After a couple of minutes, an empty minibus approached and we waved it down. There was some discussion in Vietnamese and then the back hatch was popped and we started to load our bikes into the van. After everything was loaded, we started to get into the van and everyone started yelling that we had to pay. I first offered 200000 dong (~US$12.5), which was wait we had paid for our last bus ride. This was refused and there were more yells of “ten dollars” so I offered 160000 dong (~US$10), but this was refused too. It became clear they wanted US$20. We were low on dong and I didn’t even have that much anymore, but luckily I did have one twenty dollar bill stashed away. It was accepted after some examination of its validity. Now, you know you are getting ripped off when everyone in the immediate vicinity of you, including random customers at the cafe, take a cut of the money you just paid for the bus fare. After the divvying up, we were on our way to Da Nang. I was up front with the driver and Sarah was in the back with the women. When they didn’t pay for the ride, we realized we had paid their fare too, but we didn’t mind too much as they were really friendly. They were extremely interested in Sarah’s tan lines and one of them was petting Sarah’s helmet while saying “beautiful.”

After about two hours, we arrived in Da Nang and checked into a hotel. We then set off to figure out how to get a bus to Lao Bao. We went to a local tour company to try to get some information and the guy tried to rip us off three different ways. First he told us that it was too dangerous to bicycle in Laos and that we should take his bus all the way to Savannakhet, but we just stonewalled him on that one. Then he changed tack and told us he could get us to Lao Bao but we would have to either spend a night in Hue or Dong Ha. We told him that was not an option for us so he then made a couple of phone calls and finally told us that we could get to Lao Bao tomorrow by taking two air-conditioned, tourist-class buses with a switchover in Hue for US$46. That sounded pretty steep and we were getting sick of his conniving, so we decided to roll the dice and try our luck at the public bus station the next morning. Even as we were leaving, this guy didn’t give up. He told us he could “help” us find a bus tomorrow morning for a small fee. We just ignored him and walked out.

We arrived at the bus station early the next morning and I started looking around for a bus to Lao Bao. After a couple of different ticket windows, it became clear there was no scheduled public bus. I went back outside to discuss what to do with Sarah and we were approached by a bunch of minibus drivers who wanted to know where we were headed. We said Lao Bao and indicated that we had two bicycles and one driver said he would take us there for 700000 dong (~US$43.75). The cramped, hot minibus was only a few dollars cheaper than the nice tourist bus! I think the main problem Sarah and I have in these situations is that we base our counter-offer on the ridiculous price we were just quoted. We should have offered something like 100000 dong, but instead we offered 500000. Everyone made a show like that was way too cheap and pretended to walk away, but after a few minutes they came back and we got them down to 600000 (~US$37.50). Nice work Team Welle.

We loaded our bicycles into the back and squeezed into the tiny seats we were allotted, thinking we would be on our way. However, instead of leaving, we spent the next hour sitting in the van while the driver’s wife tried to recruit more passengers. Every time we thought the van was full, one more person was squeezed in. The people getting on the bus had one of two reactions to us. They were either amused and stared at us like we are exotic zoo animals, or they were disgusted and frightened by the mere sight of us. One Asian women was so obviously repulsed by us she looked like she might puke. I am sorry to say this, but she herself was the shortest, fattest, and ugliest person on the bus!

We finally hit the road and we had a small panic attack when we had to switch vans and drivers at Dong Ha. We thought we were going to be asked to pay again, but the driver assured us that we needed “no money” and we arrived safely at Lao Bao in the early afternoon.

I think the worst thing about getting ripped off like this is that it makes you suspicious of everyone. When people are truly being friendly or helpful, you keep your guard up and turn down their offers because you don’t want to get conned. Overall though, Vietnam wasn’t nearly as bad as we heard it could be. It seems like everyone has a horror story, but Vietnam is probably our favorite country in southeast Asia so far because of the people, scenery, and food. Maybe that is because we stuck to the highlands or maybe Vietnam just has a poorly-deserved bad reputation.

One Response to “Opportunity Knocks”

  1. anthony vega Says:

    OMG!!! I cant believe you were already in laos! I love it there – one of my foster kids is from there and we visit every couple of years or so. Sounds like you are in Thailand for a couple of weeks? Cool! you should let me know your route – anthony@avaseattle.com – as we we have friends in strange places, and id love to help out if i can. im so glad i found your website – email me and keep us posted! aloha for now! AV

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