Small Demon
May 262009
 

This is my last day in Hanoi and the truth is I’m ready to go. I haven’t done much this last week except walk around the Old Quarter and buy presents for friends at home. Playing the tourist. It is of course very difficult if not impossible to get inside another place, another culture; but these last days I have felt mostly as if I’m just bouncing off the surfaces of the city. I am solitary under the best of circumstances, finding it difficult to throw myself into social rituals either abroad or at home, and I have not tried very hard these last few days to see people or go places that would require testing my language skills. The exception to this is in a few shops where I use Vietnamese to buy things. When I first came, I was adamant about using Vietnamese even in places where people speak English, but this last week, I have simply gone along with the English spoken by the waiters at my favorite restaurants. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been feeling very well until the last few days, but I think I’m just culturally worn out. I don’t know how anthropologists who spend a year doing fieldwork can take it — I can adapt for a while, but then I want to get back inside my own assumptions about the world.

So, I’ve been bouncing around, bouncing off of things. Literally, in one case. A couple of days ago I was crossing a street near my hotel in the established manner, walking slowly and letting the traffic flow around me, when a young woman on a new Honda Dream (with granny on the back) came barelling around the corner while talking on her cell phone, hitting me a glancing blow and knocking me backward a couple of steps, though I stayed on my feet. She stopped, said “Sorry” in English, then sped off, granny giving me a dirty look as they drove away. The traffic is perverse, drivers’ behavior apparently calculated to extract maximum short-term advantage at the expense of safety and order, to say nothing of simple courtesy. Among family and friends the Vietnamese are deeply cooperative and supportivcce of each other, but in the broader public spehre, such as driving, there seems to be no sense of an abstract set of rules to which one ought to adhere. Even walking on the sidewalk, there is no standing aside to let another pass, but always the pressing of individual advantage.

This attitude shows up in economic relations as well. Twice in the last week, I’ve been cheated by street hawkers. It embarasses me to admit that I was an almost perfect victim in both cases. In the first case, I decided to finally give in and buy a couple of tee-shirts from one of the hawkers who work the streets around the hotels south of the Old Quarter. The shirts have pictures of Uncle Ho or a cyclo, with Hanoi or Vietnam under the image. The shirts should cost about three dollars, five for one with embrordery. I bought one shirt and went to dinner. On my way back, I was approached by another hawker who had missed the sale. “I saw you before,” she said. “You work in Hanoi. Why you buy from that other girl, not from me?” she asked, putting on a big pout. That’s when I should have walked away. For one thing, I was tired; for another, I’d already let her begin to manipulate me. I wanted to be a nice guy. She was pulling out shirts and handing them to me and talking a mile a minute and I was asking how much for this one how much for that one.* Did I mention I was tired? By the time we were finished handing shirts and money back and forth I had paid eleven dollars each for two shirts, a fact that only fully came into focus for me when I got back to my hotel room and my calculator. When I saw her a couple of days later she tried to tell me I had agreed to pay her another ten dollars! I told her I could have bought two silk shirts at one of the big shops for what I had already paid her and she asserted that “Those shirts are fake — real silk shirts are very expensive” and offered to show me. But when I told her I was going back to the hotel to get the shirts she had sold me so I could give them back to her, she disappeared. Haven’t seen her since. I gave the shirts to one of her competitors, gratis.A couple of days later, it was the shoeshine and shoe repair guy. I had previously paid about three dollars for a shoe shine, which I didn’t really need, my shoes being a wreck. I had seen this guy work before, pulling his tools out on the sidewalk to repair the shoes of both Westerners and Vietnamese. He’s older than the shoeshine boys, who really are boys and who only clean and shine rather than repair. My first mistake was not establishing the price and the scope of the service at the start. I wanted to be a nice guy and so when I was approached I sat down on the HSBC bank steps and took my shoes off, where I was quickly shoed away by a security guard, so we moved across the sidewalk and the shoe guy got to work. He reglued a flapping bit of sole, and actually glued new rubber onto the heels, trimming it expertly with a knife, all the while talking to me about his children and asking where I was from and so on. I was standing there thinking, I’ll be happy to pay 100,000 for this, so one can imagine my surprise when he asked me for 800,000, about thirty dollars. I took out my pocket calculator and we went over the numbers again. In the end, I wound up paying him more than ten dollars for a five dollar job, with him all the while saying it was a “good deal, fair price,” but I also heard him laughing with the security guard as I walked away.

Both these incidents made me angry, not because of the money, which, while not negligible, doesn’t make that much difference to me, but because I felt my good intentions had been violated. Of course, the charge that I was being patronizing can be leveled, but I was after all being a patron, using a service or buying a product. Clearly, though, I was opperating under a different ethic than the tee-shirt woman and the shoeshine man. I think the ethic for the street hawkers is to extract maximum profit for the short term without any sense that there is either a social compact to play fair, or a practical insight that routine overcharging will simply ruin the business. (Another tee-shirt hawker who heard my story — word travels fast on Hang Trong Street — did have this sense, saying, “You can only cheat someone once, so the street ethic I’ve described is not universal.) There is something similar in the hawker’s ethic to the way Vietnamese drive. There’s no sense that such behavior “ruins it for everbody.” Perhaps this has to do with living in a society in which authority is seen to be arbitrary, which leads to the conclusion that rules (and social compacts) are for suckers. It stands in stark contrast, at any rate, to the way I’ve seen Vietnamese interact with friends and family. It may also simply be poverty. The shop owners with whom I’ve had dealings — a much more prosperous class — have driven a hard bargain, but there was alwas a sense that there was in fact a bargain, that is, a contract, being established between seller and buyer. There were rules. That sense was completely missing in the two encounters I’ve described here.

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*The basic unit of Vietnamese currency is the dong and the current exchange rate is about 1785 dong to the dollar, so the most common bills are denominated 50,000, 100,000, and 500,000 — 100,000 is a little over $5.00 US.

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