Mutual exploitation

December 20, 2006

Tourism in general – and tourism in countries poorer than your own – is based on mutual exploitation. You want something they have to offer – beach, food, interesting sites – and they want something you have, ie money.

This is totally fair enough and reasonable, but travelling in poorer, developing world countries can be a bit trying when everyone just sees you as a walking ATM or bank vault. Which sometimes people explicitly rob. After a long, somewhat stinky train journey up the northern half of Vietnam (great views, suprisingly good leg room and seats; could have done without the incessant racket of TV, the smelly food, the manky old women’s feet stuck through from behind onto our arm rests) we arrived at Hanoi, around 9pm.

This being a capital city, it’s inevitable there are unscrupulous people. The first person we met was one such. A taxi driver who, despite having a meter, still took the piss. The meter running was one thing, but he did the proverbial round-the-houses route, then did his piece-de-resistance, a trick of the crappest sort.

With the meter showing 75,000 dong (they really need to lop off some zeroes), we gave him a 100,000 note, not having the right change. He quickly shoved this into his pants or somewhere, then proferred a 10,000. We thought this was his idea of change, so asked for the other 15,000. Oh no though – he was saying something along the lines of “This is just a 10,000, where’s the rest?” as if that was the note we’d just given him. We might be tired, wide-eyed foreigners, but we’re not so stupid after 10 days in Vietnam that we can’t tell the difference between a 100,000d note (large, green) and a 10,000d (smaller, green and red). What a scumbag. You can’t argue the point without a shared language, so it was just a case of anger, exasperation and resignation. We just walked off, with him cursing us for not paying, despite him having actually made an extra 15,000d. Sure, it’s only about US$1 / 50p, but it was a shitty, shitty trick.

Even without such out-and-out thieving, the mutual exploitation does get a bit frustrating. It’s understandable that people in a poorer country want to suck on the foreigner’s financial jugular, but there’s still something weird about ‘tourist prices’, ‘foreigner prices’. Even if tourist prices are still cheap (say a third of home prices; though not in the case of Pringles – they’re about the same), the two-tier pricing system can grate. On the train, we got some food included in the price (a price already doubled by the agent we booked our tickets with; 10% commission is one thing, but 50% sucks), then they come round with trolleys. Fran got a chicken leg – which we could see was costing the Vietnamese only a few thousand, but the guy told Fran 10-15,000d. Most of which goes straight into this pocket as a nice little earner.

Do we do this at home? No. Do we do it with rich foreigners, tourists markedly better off than the vendors or agents or hotel staff they’re dealing with? No. Sure there’s mutual exploitation in the UK tourist industry, but it’s not quite so… I dunno… devious. Is it?

I’ve been really enjoying SE Asia and can rationalise the two-tier system as part of the machinery of mutual exploitation, but the past few days – with our double-price train tickets, stupid hiked up prices here and there, and the thieving taxi driving – have started to wind me up. Going to Australia and NZ we’ll be back to high Western prices, but at least they’ll be fixed and every commercial exchange won’t involve haggling, argument and potential grievances.

(Oh, and if you’ve been reading this blog since the start in India when we were sick and weary, sorry to reprise a negative tone. Tired… Can’t wait for our Xmas getaway on the beautiful looking Koh Tao. Hope the place we’ve splashed out on lives up to expectations! It certainly looks spiffy on its site)

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