Bargaining in Bali

I learned how to bargain in Bali, and it’s serving me well here in Vietnam.  It’s a little disconcerting, because you can’t behave as you normally would in a store at home. There’s no casual browsing. The second you step forward to look at anything (or honestly, even just walking within 15 feet of the stall), they’re on you. “Come in, come in- nice things for you!” (or, in Vietnam, repeated cries of : “you buy something!”)

You’re either in it or you’re not. And like that date you might have had in college who you accidentally strung along, you have to avoid getting involved, or just commit.

You might think you’re being polite by chatting with the shop owner who approaches you and engages you in conversation, showing you their best stuff… but you will be in for a nasty surprise when your “thank you, but no” is finally accepted as an ending answer and you are immediately dismissed with a hateful look.  So, the lesson here is, look quickly and move on quickly if you’re not interested. Don’t even think about starting to bargain if you have no intention of buying –especially if you linger long enough to hear that starting price. But, do remember that you can bring that price down- sometimes by a lot.  In fact, if you’re feeling ballsy, your first counter offer can be less than half the price they quote you. I start a little higher than that because halving their amount feels insulting to me, but it helps to know in advance where you’ve decided to stop and set your limit. If all else fails, saying thank you and walking away can often produce amazing results.

I do always try to smile and be polite no matter what happens in the bargaining process, but I had an interesting experience in Kuta, where I couldn’t help my reaction.  I was out walking, heading back to my revolting and overpriced guesthouse in the light drizzle that had finally eased in after a 2-hour downpour. I walked past a stall with umbrellas on display and did no more than glance in their general direction (mostly with regret that I hadn’t gotten a deal on one earlier as I didn’t really need one any longer) without even pausing in my stride, when the hawker in charge pounced and seemingly thoughtfully tried to draw me in with a concerned: “oh, you need umbrella, miss”.

“No, thank you”, I replied.

”No, come in, come in- come see these umbrellas I have for you.”

“No, I’m almost home, thank you.”

<Kindly, and with pity in his voice for the poor, bedraggled foreigner> “No, no, you must have one.”

Curiosity gets the better of me and I stop and ask how much. The response? “For you,  <pause… then, dramatic flourish…> 150,000.”

Which is not only more than I paid for the last umbrella I bought at home, it’s also more than my hotel cost that night. In fact, it’s so ridiculously overpriced that I actually involuntarily laughed out loud and then felt no guilt about walking away, tossing a “thank you, no” over my shoulder. Well, his immediate response was a frantic re-grouping and a shout of: “ Wait, 50! Only 50 thousand! What you want to pay?”

And thus we see the magic of walking away.  🙂

Just a taste of Vietnamese food

Pate AND peanut butter? Well done, Vietnam!  I’ve sampled the massive hotel buffet breakfasts, and the meager bread and juice offerings. And I really liked the noodle soup breakfast, except for the fact that the soup was hot, and the dining room was hot, and because it was in the mid-90’s outside, I was hot, too…  this heat is making it a little difficult to sample all of the country’s best dishes. On a hot day, I just don’t usually feel like eating hot food. But I’ve managed some, of course, and will include a slideshow of Vietnamese food highlights in a future post.

It’s nice to have tea in the morning, and even nicer to be given sweetened condensed milk for it.

I have to mention that I keep finding mint leaves in my meals. It’s unexpected, but it works.

I haven’t eaten anything distinctively Western yet (except salads, I guess). Honestly, you could easily visit and eat no Vietnamese food at all. You can get pizza, sandwiches, and spaghetti everywhere. But since I haven’t been eating those things, I’ve found that I’ve been craving cheese. But I do see blocks of Edam, etc, in the little markets. Perhaps there’s some remaining French influence here after all.

Gorgeous Hoi An

Hoi An is a lovely place. If I previously awarded any other city the title of “Most Beautifully Lit at Night”, I hereby rescind it and bestow it upon Hoi An, the city of lanterns.



The warm, multi-colored glow is just gorgeous. It makes you want to buy a lantern in every color to transport the feeling back to home.




I even took a lantern-making class at Lifestart, a nonprofit where adults with disabilities make all the crafts in the shop.





Fellow traveler Elena did a much better job with her lantern than I did- I think I used too much glue.


Even though I didn’t have room for it, I bought a gorgeous fabric lantern from Lifestart. (They do collapse down a little.) What? It’s a good cause!  But now something else is going to have to go in order to make space.



The rich fabric on the lanterns even looks good during daylight hours. Walking down the street, we passed several stores where people were in the process of making the lanterns. So if we had any doubts as to whether they are made in Hoi An or not, those were taken care of!  And they made their lanterns much more quickly than I made my own.




Here’s where I stayed- I just wanted to reassure you that I’m not still living in squalor.




There are also many shops here selling beautiful paintings on silk and canvas of Vietnamese scenes. In an effort to get you to buy something, sellers demonstrate how they can roll these paintings up and put them in a tube for you. Which would certainly make them easier and less delicate to transport…



… and yet since the tubes are made of grey plastic, they might also too closely resemble pipe bombs and thus make my next flight a little too eventful.



Even the Japanese Bridge was lit with lanterns at night. This covered bridge was built around the early 16th century and has a Buddhist pagoda on the other side of it. It is guarded at either end by a monkey at one side, and a dog on the other. There seems to be disagreement about why, but it likely has something to do with the year of the monkey and the year of the dog.



With all the palm trees and colorful boats, the town bears a slight resemblance to Key West. Except for the constant exhortations to buy a boat ride, of course.



Even though this town is known for its tailors, who will custom-make any clothing you could possibly desire, in just a few days, and for very little money, I didn’t get anything made. The pyro in me wanted that lantern, and there just wasn’t room for anything else.   🙂

Independence Palace / Reunification Palace

Disclaimer: I know very little about the Vietnam War.

I didn’t really do my research before I came here. In the course of hitting 8 or 9 countries, it was inevitable that I would slack on getting a good history on a few of them. But this outing made me want to gain some understanding and research the Vietnam War. From what I’ve learned so far, it seems extremely complicated.

First of all, there was a lot going on in Vietnam before the war, which is called “The War of American Aggression” here. And the video we watched at the end of the Independence Palace tour in Ho Chi Minh City gave me a whole new set of propaganda that did not at all match with the propaganda I was taught in school.  I know that the US didn’t win the war, and that some only admit that reluctantly, but I had no idea that (per the movie) the Vietnamese had such a glowing and complete victory over the “US Imperialists”. Or that all the POWs were released and went home when the US gave up in shame. I know that’s not right at all.

I’m sure I was not taught 100% truth about what happened, but that movie I watched was certainly not all truth, either.

It’s funny…when I first thought about coming here, I thought I might get a bad reception because the war was not that long ago, and we did invade and kill a large number of people, so I assumed there could be some difficulty in being an American tourist here. But, except for some cultural and opportunistic rudeness which might be worth a future post, people for the most part have been really friendly, and nice, and helpful. Well, the movie I watched at the Independence Palace would explain that nice, friendly attitude as belonging to a smug, dominant victor, laughingly tolerating the wide-eyed, insignificant American tourist, whose country foolishly invaded and then went home with their tales (sic) between their legs. But that doesn’t feel like truth, either.

I think that people tend to be kind to foreigners in spite of our respective governments, and that foreign policy is sometimes a hurdle that people get past to realize that we’re all just human beings, sometimes living at the mercy of our country’s policies and decisions. I’ve found that I feel well-treated when I travel, despite anyone’s feelings about what my government may be doing or may have done. It’s so good to be accepted just for being a person, and not have to worry about being held accountable for your government’s actions. This goes both ways, of course. There are many governmental policies around the world that I do not agree with, but I try not to hold that against ordinary citizens of those countries. It wouldn’t be fair, right?

The following photos are from the Palace- which was preserved in time and reminded me strongly of a Mad Men set. There are beautiful rooms and offices, and there are a large number of war rooms consisting of nothing more than an office chair and one of those old metal office desks with a rotary phone on top. I found the “recreation room” delightful- especially the wine barrel bar at the back. And here’s a link to their website.

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Lotteria Shrimp Burger!

What luck! My train to Nha Trang was cancelled! Which gave me an extra 3 hours in the train station… to discover Lotteria! Now, just because it’s fast food doesn’t mean you have to start judging. It’s not McDonald’s, right? So, I’m justified in eating there. Especially because I don’t have any other options… plus- they have SHRIMP burgers!!!  Just like the delicious one we had in Japan. Why don’t we have these in the US? They’re perfect! It’s a light, melt-in-your-mouth patty of hot, fried shrimp! Crispy on the outside, and delicately buttery shrimpy on the inside! Like a crab cake, but far better. Mmm…  And at 38,000 Vietnamese Dong, it’s not half bad.

  (20,000 VND = $1)


Also, the lemonade was thirst-quenchingly delicious. Sweet, citrusy, and non-carbonated. Ahhhh…


And the mini-blizzard was barely 50 cents!

Ho Chi Minh City markets

Markets seem to be an integral part of any major town here, or maybe I just make them a priority on my walks around. 🙂  I think it makes sense, though. In the absence of big box superstores and massive grocery stores, you need markets.

(Photo: Shopping at the night markets can be so tiring!)

If you come by Ben Thanh Market at lunchtime, you will be knocked out by the heavy smell of fish sauce. And where Ubud had its batik, HCMC has its embroidered silk. Why didn’t I get a bigger suitcase???  And, to be honest, I walked around for about an hour before I realized how much else there was- there are so many shops selling designer knock-offs that I know of a couple of people who would be in heaven here amongst the purses and shoes and bags. I, of course, am more like a magpie and continue to be drawn to the colorful native-looking crafts. Want! And if you miss the markets during the day, you can come back at night when they all open up outside of the marketplace, lining the streets with alluring goodies and spilling light into the night.

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Ho Chi Minh City roads

Do not attempt to cross the road!!!

Wow. Talk about adventure sports. I never considered being a pedestrian to be quite this dangerous before. The crazy traffic patterns in Saigon remind me of the street crossing in Tokyo where it looks like a herd of wild animals all moving as a pack in a flowing march of humanity. Except here, it’s motorbikes, and cars, and people trying to cross amongst them.

So you try to avoid crossing the street for as long as you can. Then you realize that to get to that tourist spot on your map, you have to cross a street sometime. So, first you cheat and try to cross only when you can glom on to a confident local daring the traffic. But so few people walk in many areas, that at a certain point, you’ve got to take the plunge yourself. But here we have the problem.

You have to do everything the OPPOSITE of how you would in the west. If traffic is coming at you, you don’t run, you slow down. What? That would never work! Oh, but it does. Once you’ve successfully fought all your instincts and DEcreased your pace when traffic is flying at you, you can see how the traffic patterns rely on the pedestrian being slow and deliberate so that cars and motorbikes can drive AROUND you, based on where they predict that you will be when they get close to you. Yeesh. But it works. I mean- not always- I’ve read that pedestrians get hit all the time here, but you can see it working right in front of you. And it’s kind of fun. It makes you feel like you’re in that old arcade game Frogger. Just try not to get squished!

I even thought it would be great to take a video of the experience to share with you all, but decided I was too terrified and unwilling to split my focus long enough to pay attention to both the camera and to not dying. But then, finally, the other day, when I was crossing at the edge of a roundabout near the marketplace, I found myself in a pack of about 6 other people, with equal numbers on either side of me. And I decided to make a quick movie while I relied on my fellow man… as human shields. So, here’s a short video to give you a slight taste of the experience (and thanks to Fay for being one of those human shields :-).

Mrs. Saigon

I made it to Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh City is an intimidating place to arrive at – in a downpour with a darkening sky and having to cross the busiest roundabout with the craziest traffic I’ve ever seen. It’s noisy (so many horns honking and motorbikes revving) and polluted (many people wear masks over their noses and mouths) and the streets feel really crowded. But after some time here, I feel more comfortable and can appreciate its energy and life. It’s lit-up nicely at night, and the markets make the streets come to life with random, bright, stuffed-full shops lining the sidewalk. Actually, not so random.

There’s a Simpsons episode that kept coming to mind, in which Homer decides he needs some hammocks, but he’s living in a new town and doesn’t know where to find them. He asks his new boss, who muses on the names of several stores that carry hammocks… and Homer replies: “Oh! The Hammock District!”

That’s what HCMC is like- I was walking down the street and passed aquarium store after aquarium store. And I realized:  I must be in the Aquarium district! Until the stores changed to infant formula stores, and I was then I was in the Formula district? Which melded distressingly (or in sequence?) with the alcohol and cigar stores district. It’s an interesting way to do business- with all your competitors clustered tightly around you. I wonder how it works out for all the stores. Maybe they see more traffic, because everybody knows exactly where to go to get exactly what they need?  Regardless, it’s always good to see a different way of doing things. But I never did find the hammock district…  🙂

Kuala Lumpur

I had a long layover at the airport here, and thought I’d got it made- time to try some regional food, a chance at getting some small denominations of currency for souvenirs, potential interaction with people in yet another country, and a cozy, quiet, modern airport (rated runner-up in the “” guide) to spend the night in. Well, the plane was late, and the shuttle bus between the cramped low cost carriage terminal (LCCT) I arrived in, and the fancy nice one (KLIA) stopped running at 12:30 am.

So, I missed it. The LCCT was packed with masses of people just lying on the ground to sleep for the night. By the time I got to the sleek modern terminal when the buses started back up in the morning, it was already after 6am, and the overhead announcements had begun. I still managed to get some sleep, but nothing like I was planning. So it could have been lack of sleep that led to my feeling the most foreign and out of place so far on this trip, despite the fact that Malaysia is not usually a country you’d put at the top of the list in SE Asia to make a westerner feel out of place.

But, I sat down in “Taste of Asia” for lunch, and besides a guy who walked in 20 minutes later, I was the only Caucasian in a room packed noisily full with over a hundred people. It was nice to observe them to see that they ate with either two forks, or a fork and a spoon- pushing their rice and sauces into a compact and cohesive shape to eat each bite.  But since my mouth was burning from the heat in my Nasi Lemak, and I stared feeling concerned about the lack of physical heat in the lukewarm dish (I’ve been advised- even by a Malaysian, just hours earlier!- to make sure to eat only hot food- not food that’s been sitting out at all, cooling and becoming bacteria-friendly.) and the tiny dried fish that came sprinkled on the dish were tasty, but were a bit hard and had started to cut my mouth, which was already burning… I called it quits and got up to leave.

Unfortunately, I must have dragged my sleeve through something, and then must have rested my hand on my knee and also my bag, because all were bright orange at that point.  Ah… traveling.  I’ll have to go back another time to give KL another chance. Maybe I’ll even make it out of the airport next time.  🙂

Kuta highlights and lowlights

I have more to post from Bali (and Australia), but maybe I’ll do an extra highlights reel at the end of this journey so I don’t get too far behind my current travels. I’ve met so many nice people of all nationalities already. I haven’t met many Americans, though- mostly British, German, Australian, Dutch, and French, so far. It’s nice to sit and chat with somebody with a shared language, and shared travel itineraries where you can exchange advice and experiences. Speaking of experiences, let me catch you up on Kuta.

I have really mixed feelings about Kuta. If you just want a beachy holiday, and you don’t mind spending a little extra, I’m sure it would be fine. But if you’re not quite into sharing a dorm with 5 other people, but you don’t want to spring for one of the plush rooms in a resort for 5 times as much, there seemed to be a dearth of decent stuff in the middle (unlike Ubud). 

Here’s the bathroom of the revolting place I stayed in for one night, the bathroom which didn’t have a sink or a mirror… just a constantly running leaky filthy shower. 







So, coming straight from somewhere in Australia, you’d probably think everything was (comparatively) a cheap dream. But coming from Ubud, I found the town dirtier, the hawkers pushier, and the rooms at similar prices to be of lower quality. That said, I did have a nice stroll along the beach, and the town streets were interesting, if a little more pre-packaged and manufactured than the more home-spun feeling you get in Ubud.

But I finally got to see the Doctor Fish!! I wanted to try this out in Tokyo with Kristi 2 years ago, but it was prohibitively expensive. I’ve been hearing they have this in malls all over Britain, but I haven’t really seen it in Chicago yet, so I tried it out here! It was hilarious.

(It turns out that it’s difficult to take a photo of your feet underwater without making yourself look like a Hobbit.)

There were so many fish delicately nibbling all at once that it felt a bit like I’d imagine that a small electric current might. The experience was made even better by having all the salon girls calling me “darling” repeatedly. I felt like I should be in feather-lined pink robe, with a skinny cigarette holder clutched in my hand.



I also had a decent time at the post office, though the road there should, by rights, never legally be called a road.





Classic. Close, but not quite.

All in all, Bali was good. But I think that, as with anywhere else in the world, the more you’re willing to pay, the cleaner and sweeter (but more sanitized) you can make your experience.