I'm still in Singapore, trying to buy a camera. I like the place a lot more after eating a beautiful meal in Little India: mutton Hyderabad, bhindi masala, naan, served on a banana leaf - enough for two. Two hippos. Last night I ate in Chinatown: sliced pig trotters with jellyfish, followed by a congee with abalone, fish, meatball and dried pig's intestine. Lovely.
I'm still in Singapore because my attempt to buy a camera has been delayed. I have found prices in at least ten stores, and returned to the best yesterday only to find that I could not buy at that price because it was a 'superduper' price that only the manager could sign off on (S$250 below standard quote), and he was absent. At least I know I got a good price. I'm buying a Canon EOS 400D with a Sigma 18-200 OS lens, with international warranty. The combination is much heavier than my current camera, but not as heavy as carrying two lenses, and I use the zoom a lot, as you can see from the animal portraits. I'm buying an SLR for better performance in low light/high ISO/fast shutter speeds; better lenses; filter flexibility; hotshoe attachment; faster focusing; RAW data. It's costing S$1450 minus the 7% VAT reclaim. To get to sterling, multiply by three and divide by eight. Do it in your head, right now, and help delay senility.
In the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, one of the authors recounts a story in which his bike broke down in the countryside. A friendly soul helped him out and refused payment. His conclusion: this was the real Vietnam and the real Vietnamese, the people the tourists don’t see.
If you broke down in the countryside in Montana, someone would probably help you out. In my experience the highest proportion of people who are sincerely friendly and helpful is to be found in Canada, the United States (outside Manhattan) and rural Scotland. In Canada, you wouldn’t bother mentioning it in the guidebook. In Vietnam it’s worth mentioning, precisely because it is out of the ordinary. About 95% of the Vietnamese you meet as a tourist – and my sample size is very large – are brusque and charmless. There are heroic exceptions – I would want to mention people in Ninh Binh and Dalat in particular - but they are in a small minority of the people who deal with tourists.
The Vietnamese haggle as if at war, aggressively and without humour. If you don’t offer a price they are prepared to accept, they look at you as if you just spat your spleen at them. It makes no difference if you smile. (A lot of the Thais are out to get you too, and some can be just as charmless. But a good many are very ready with a smile, which makes the process of bargaining much easier.) The only code is: screw the customer; he’s a cretin; the more you diddle him, the greater the triumph. Try offering ten times the real price and see if he accepts. I don’t think this is directed to foreigners alone, although the Vietnamese are in general understandably nationalistic and xenophobic after over a millennium of Chinese rule and nasty wars with the French, the Americans and their imperialist aggressor lackeys (not to mention the Mongols, and China in 1979).
In England, if a bus driver tried to charge double the price, people would disapprove and someone would probably speak up. Occasionally you hear that some taxi-drivers rip off unsuspecting foreigners on the route from Heathrow to London; they are condemned as thieves. In Vietnam, when the same thing happens the other passengers will support the bus driver. Foreigners are, by tacit agreement, there for the taking.
In every country where there are tourists, people are out to get to the tourist dollar, but there are different ways of doing so. Just because you want to trade with someone doesn’t mean you have to treat them as an enemy.
Now, there is a strong selection effect here. Most of the people who talk to you as a tourist are selling cigarettes, books, sunglasses, drugs, transport or erotic experiences; but in fact four in every seven Vietnamese works in agriculture. But from the tourist’s perspective the touts are the real Vietnam, and a guidebook should be honest about it instead of burbling an apologia for the invisible.
This is not just my twisted opinion (and I should mention that I quite like the Thais, Malaysians and Singaporeans and very much like the Laos); almost every traveller finds the same thing.
To aver that the real Vietnam is what you don’t see, while what you do see is not real, is asinine (that Plato did it does not make it valid). You could use the same reasoning to assert that, at home, the Vietnamese have two heads, green skin and can fly. Not only is there no evidence for it, it contradicts the evidence; this is the sort of failure of inference on which superstitions (and religions) are built.
After that, I'd better mention some good things.
Best Vietnamese restaurants: Nam Phương, Hanoi; the Temple Club, Saigon; Quán Ăn Ngon, Saigon; Cafe Can and Café 96, Hội An; the live fish restaurants on the beach at Hội An; Khanh Kat, Nha Trang.
Best beer: the pilsner at Le Lousiane, Nha Trang, head and shoulders above the rest. Honourable mention: Tiger, Heineken (brewed in Vietnam). Raspberries: everything else.
Best spot for a coffee: Highlands Coffee on Nguyen Hue in Saigon, from where you can see the Rex Hotel, the Hotel de Ville and the Municipal Theatre; Highlands Coffee, next to the Opera in Hanoi; anywhere on the lake in Ðàlạt; the posh hotel in Quy Nhơn.