Finding Strength in Vietnam
I blinked twice in disbelief. “Are you sure?” I asked quickly, hoping that this was all a mistake.
“2.5 Million,” he repeated. He brought out a wrinkled paper, its edges yellowing with age. “I brought you to all these places. This is the standard package,” he reiterated as he pointed to the photos of each landmark. The pamphlet clearly says 2,500,000 Dong, but it includes the Mekong River tour and the Cu Chi Tunnels. I pointed this out to him, but he reasoned out that it was too far for us to visit. Besides, he said that he has given me the whole city tour and that’s enough for me to pay him in full.
We were sitting down in a coffee shop near the Saigon River. This was the last leg of the tour. I knew I should’ve been more careful, but the guy seemed trusting. He was nice and he knew how to tell stories.
“Since you’re a Filipina, I’m giving you a discount. 2 million for everything,” he happily said, hoping to bring my spirits up.
Ahh, the Filipino card. At one glance, he knew that I came from the Philippines and told me he had driven Filipinos around the city. He even has a small notebook where people would write nice messages for him. He puffed a smoke, looked at me with an impatient expression, just eager to take my money.
I no longer knew how I looked, but I knew that it might have been something like a thousand terrible tragedies have passed my lifetime. This couldn’t be happening! This was my first day traveling by myself and I got fricking scammed! I’ve read tons of warnings about motorbikes ripping you off, but apparently, it was not enough to keep me from experiencing it.
Let’s do the math here. I’ve exchanged 160 USD at the airport for my 2-day trip, hoping to score cheap ass bags for my family and shop for myself. Ho Chi Minh is known for its markets and its cheap goods, so I knew that I could use some extra money to burn. The tour fee that he was asking for was more than 100 USD (roughly 5,000 PHP). I could’ve bought tons of souvenirs. I could’ve bought food, or took that goddamn expensive Mekong River tour. But instead, I was stuck in the middle of the city, drinking coffee with a stranger who was asking me for money. I asked him if he could lower it further and he just said no.
Independence Palace, where it all began.
I was really hesitant when I first encountered Nim, my tour guide. I was walking down the street and just came from a quick tour of Independence Palace. I came all the way from my hostel and walked roughly 20 minutes to the place. I was sweaty, but I was proud of myself, for figuring things out and ending up in the right destination. By this time, I was still not accustomed to reading directions, so much so interpreting maps, and I knew that a ride would be helpful.
“Filipina,” he called me from across the street. I was busy reading the map, but I quickly responded to what he said. “You’re a Filipina, right? Would you like me to bring you around?” he asked. He had a friendly smile and speaks good English. He’s not fluent, but I can understand him better than most of his fellows. He knew that he had my attention and immediately showed me a notebook filled with testimonies about his services. He even has photos of his clients. I knew that I should be beware of these offers, but I caved in. I didn’t know what has gotten into me, but the next thing I know, I am on my way to Notre Dame Cathedral and have agreed to do a one hour tour for 250,000 dong.
Young Vietnamese in their traditional costumes
The area was crowded, filled with people on their traditional Vietnamese costumes. Since the New Year is coming up, people have started to prepare for celebrations for the holiday. It was nice to watch them walk around in their colorful silks, smiling and having fun with their friends under the drizzling sky. It wasn’t always that you get to see such energetic crowd. I obliged and took some photos, then proceeded to check out the Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Nim offered me to take some photos while I was on tour, and while they were not exactly the way that I wanted them to be, I was still thankful to have pictures of the trip. I went around and quickly went back to his motorbike, hoping to make the most out of my one-hour agreement.
Since I have only spent 30 minutes in the Notre Dame Church and the Post Office, I decided to ask Nim to bring me to the War Remnants Museum. It was a short walk from the church (around 10-15 minutes), but it’s already getting dark and the rain has started to fall. I didn’t have any umbrella with me, so I felt like it would’ve been a smart choice to ask him to drop me off at the museum. I went in, stayed inside, and explored the place. I strode past photographs of disabled children, dead bodies, and clouds of smoke. I read stories of terror and fear and resilience. I stayed for a while, lingering around the area, and hoping to understand a bit more of the country’s history.
By the time that I came out, Nim was already holding a plastic poncho on his hand, offering me to wear it as we go from one place to another. Some time while riding around the city, I told him that I only have a few money and could only offer him around 650,000 dong. He didn’t say a thing, smiled, and just continued to drive around. I knew I should’ve been more insistent, but everything was fine so far, so I just went on with the flow.
My first taste of authentic Vietnamese Pho
By lunch time, Nim brought me to a local pho place called “Pho Kim” where they serve freshly cooked noodles, paired with fresh greens and herbs. I didn’t know to properly eat it so Nim obliged and helped me out. He told me to put the veggies in and even assisted me in taking out the stems. He also ordered my food as everything was in Vietnamese. Since this was a local diner, the cashier was not really fluent in English, and everything had to be translated into their language. By this time, I have started to soften up and let go of my hesitations. Nim told me a little bit about himself, explaining that he’s done tours with foreigners a lot. He has also been to the Philippines, particularly in Davao, where he stayed with a friend for a while. The place was showing a noontime show, and he was kind enough to explain to me why the people were laughing. Apparently, it was a cursed love story and the main characters were fooling around just so they can be together. He thought I’d be interested to know.
Candles lit up as offerings at the Jade Emperor Pagoda
A part of our whole day tour was a stopover at the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Unlike most of our stops, Nim insisted on coming with me inside the Pagoda. He went with me and started to teach me about some of the Buddhist inscriptions. One of the stories that he told me was about the guardians in front of the gates, who usually have different expressions — one who’s happy, and the other, angry. He told me that this was to balance the energies, with each guardian representing Yin and Yang. He was telling me their Vietnamese names, but since he’s speaking fast, it was a little hard to catch what he was saying.
He toured me around, pointed out the beautifully carved walls and ornaments, explaining to me which of the Buddhas inside were for fertility, which ones for health and good luck. He pointed me to a statue of a horse, which he says is a representation of youth and strength. He taught me how to pray and ask for blessings by touching the horse. He quietly prayed in a corner and told me that he had prayed for me, hoping that I have enough strength for the body and the mind as I go and ventured on my trip.
Before we left the pagoda, he brought me into a small room crowded with people. He told me that this is a place where people ask for luck and guidance when it comes to money. It was hot and the burning incense just kept on creeping up to my nose. “People who visit here goes home and earns many, many money. Some people I brought here went back years after, only to bring donations because they earned a lot,” he explained to me in his broken English.
He brought me to one side of the room, where a small jar filled with folded red papers were in place. He took one of those small ‘charms’, prayed, and gave it to me. “You take this. Do not open the folds. Put this in your wallet, and you will earn many, many money. You’re a nice person and you will definitely be blessed. You come back here and visit me when you are rich, huh?” he jokingly said. It was a very kind and sincere gesture, and I was really touched. He told me to take more photos as he went outside to grab a smoke. What he did create an impact on me — maybe it was because he took the time to pray for a stranger, or maybe it was because he didn’t know who I really am and yet he was so sincere of his actions. Of course, I didn’t know what was bound to happen, but he was truly a nice man, and in that moment, I felt that he have a kind heart.
After the tour, I ended up like this Vietnamese coffee — strong and slightly bitter.
By the time that the tour was about to end, he brought me to a coffee shop near the river and boasted about the fresh beans that they produce. Little did I know that this is where everything would go to in a different way.
“2 million,” he insisted. “This is already a discounted price,” he said, looking a bit annoyed. My heart was thumping fast and I could hear every beat in my ears. He was still nice, but I feel very terrified. I was afraid that he would leave me in a place that was miles away from the hostel. I really wanted to argue, but I didn’t have the energy and the courage to do so. I was alone in a foreign country, and God knows what could happen to me if I pick a fight with a man. I handed him the 2 million dong and asked him to bring me back to my hostel. He took the money and snapped back to his old, smiling self again.
While we were riding back to my hostel, I continuously asked him if he could still give me a refund. I told him over and over that I no longer have money, and that my budget for the tour was just 650,000 dong as I have mentioned to him earlier. He didn’t say a thing and just continued to drive. I bet he started to get annoyed at how insistent I was.
We stopped by at the Saigon Market as we initially agreed upon. I went down from his motorbike absent-mindedly, and he weirdly said goodbye. He was about to ride the bike and run away (I think he wanted to get rid of my sorry ass), but I was swift enough to reclaim my seat and demand him to bring me back to my hostel.
“You’re supposed to bring me to the hostel,” I demanded.
“But I thought you’re going shopping and you’re going to change your money.”
“No more. I have no more money. I can’t even afford to buy dinner. Please bring me back to the hostel,” I quietly said.
I was nervous and anxious and on the verge of crying. How can the universe do this to me on my first day of traveling abroad? I know that my unwavering faith in people’s kindness can sometimes be stupid, but how foolish of me to actually believe that these could save me from possibly being ripped off by people? An overpriced tour around the city was definitely something that I did not expect, much more being betrayed by someone whom I thought was ‘kind-hearted’. I wanted to punch Nim’s face and cry a bucket of tears, but more than anything, I just wanted to go back to my hostel, hole up inside my room, and feel safe.
I know he might have been pissed off, but I never stopped on insisting that he lower the price of my tour. I’ve already come to a point where I begged him and told him that I could no longer do the other tours for my trip because I’ve given him all my money. This is a lie, but his tour was too overpriced and I know that I have to convince him to give back some of what I’ve paid him. I know that he was ultimately taking advantage of me, but somewhere along the line, I know that I was at fault too. I wasn’t upfront enough with the charges and I should have thought over before I continued to tour around with him. I know Pinoys are also guilty of overcharging foreigners, and while I know that most countries also share the same mindset, I just didn’t expect it to happen to me too. I looked Asian and Asians don’t scam each other, right?!
“Please, Nim. I really don’t have any more money. Can you please give me back some of my money?” I begged. My voice is already breaking — a mix of frustration, anger, fear, and anxiousness. Eventually, he agreed to give back my 200,000, giving me extra budget for dinner. 1.8 Million Dong is still a whole lot of money, but at least it’s much better than the original price that he was asking me.
He stopped at a banh mi place just a block away from the hostel. I told him over lunch that I wanted to try good banh mi, and he recommended me this local shop.
“You told me you want banh mi. Buy here, this place is the best, and it tastes amazing,” he said. He bid goodbye and gave me a sad smile. I suppose he also felt defeated, not being able to get all the earnings that he anticipated. But at the end of the day, I was the one who came home as a much bigger loser.
I walked back to the hostel, feeling heavy and stressed out. As soon as I stepped into my room, I immediately messaged my mom, Cza, and Mark. I told them about what happened, and while it was hard for me to type everything through chat, the adrenaline just kept me going. My mom told me to just let it go, and said that it could’ve been worse. She said she’s just happy that I made it to the hostel unscathed. Cza shared the same sentiments and empathized with my feelings. Mark was unable to reply ASAP, but as soon as I received his messaged, I called him up and just broke down.
“The money was supposed to be for souvenirs. It was supposedly for my mom and dad’s bags. It was supposedly for my gift to you,” I said in muffled cries. I was literally bawling, devastated and terrified of what had unfolded in the past hours. I know I should’ve been smarter, but there I was, defeated, lying on my bed in a strange city, crying my eyes out.
While everyone kept on assuring me that it was okay and it will be okay, it was hard for me to let go of the anger and regret that I felt. It was only a couple of minutes past 4:00 PM when I got back to the hostel, but I felt drained. I know that I could do so much more but I didn’t have the energy to go out at all. I stayed in, contemplated if I should just go home and accept my defeat. I spent an hour or so in my bed, overthinking, hugging my pillow tight, and just crying. A few moments after, I fell asleep.
I woke up at around 6:00 PM. I checked the weather and since the rain has already stopped, I fixed myself for a bit of an afternoon exploration. I braved the streets and walked towards Ben Thanh market, a popular shopping place in Ho Chi Minh. It was a 15-minute walk from the hostel, but I didn’t mind. The place was cramped and reminiscent of Manila’s Divisoria — stalls sprawled out in small alleyways, with men and women asking you to buy their goods. I shopped for some ref magnets and bought a pack of 3-in-1 coffees as pasalubong. I also scored a coffee drip for home.
As I walked backed to the hostel, I couldn’t help but rethink of everything that had happened on that day. From when I met Nim, to how I felt as I was exploring the city. I ran around in a plastic poncho, listened to stories, and took mental images of what was a glimpse of the city. It was, honestly, an amazing tour, if only I could just forget how I was ripped off by my guide.
I am a very anxious person, and most often than not, worries defeat me. I don’t get over things quickly and my recovery time is usually longer than a normal person. I walked around and looked at the street signs staring back at me, flashing me with their weirdly looking language. I know that I was alone, and while the place can feel a bit familiar because it somehow looks like Manila, its vibe is still way different from home. “I am by myself in a foreign country”, I told myself. I let it linger for a moment and let it sink into my bones. I am alone. I am alive, and while something unexpected had happened, I’m still okay. The world will not stop just because I feel bad. People continue to live their lives, the bikes continue to pass by, the crowd continues to walk on the streets — everything is moving forward, except me. In that moment, I let myself drown in the business of Ho Chi Minh’s streets and just experience how everything is moving. I refused to get stuck. And so, I moved on.
While the experience may be traumatizing and it definitely made me very angry, I know that I couldn’t do anything much about it. The negative feeling is like a black cloud that kept on following me, but as I was by myself, there is definitely no time for self-pity. It’s either I feel bad about it and waste my time being all sappy or I just pick myself up and make the most out of what was given to me. It’s hard to think positively, especially because this happened to me on my first day of traveling solo, but I guess what helped me to get through it all was the thought that my adventure is just starting. It may have started in a bad light, but it had given me valuable lessons that would help me become a smarter traveler. I guess my biggest takeaway from this experience is that not everything will go the way that I have planned it to be. There will always be accidents, and at times like this, all I could do is to just drag my sorry ass and face the challenges head on. Being afraid and miserable wouldn’t do me any good. In fact, it would just keep me from exploring and experiencing more great adventures. It was bad, sure, but the mishaps should not hinder anyone from making the most out of their lives. As cliche and too positive as these all sound, I realized that sometimes, you just have to cling to whatever makes you feel better. Sometimes, the answer to the most heartbreaking situations can be the most cliche, corny, and cheesy pieces of advice.
I always told myself that if I want something, nothing should stop me. I wanted this solo trip to happen, and I decided that this bump in the road will not stop me. And so, I soldiered on and faced the next days with a stronger heart.
Thankfully, I never got scammed again since this misadventure happened. I suppose the universe has its way of teaching us lessons in the most inconvenient ways.
A photo of me outside of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo taken by Nim.