This past weekend we traveled to Hanoi and Halong Bay to take in the beautiful scenic UNESCO world heritage site and experience tourism in the North. Our first encounter did not turn out so pleasant. We rented a boat to cruise around Halong Bay and had specified with the owner of the boat what we wanted. Five excited Americans were off to experience something amazing…or so we thought.
About 1 hour into leaving the dock, they told us that we were stopping by a floating market to pick up lunch, so that they could cook for us on the boat. This sounded nice until they charged us 300,000 dong per kilo of fish. I was the translator for the negotiation, a skill that I never became an expert at even with great training by Professor LeClerc. The fisherman caught a fish and asked us if we wanted it. We asked him how many kilos it was and the answer we got was very vague “we can’t weigh it until we kill it”. As a fisherman who has sold many fish in his life, we knew that he most likely could estimate the weight. He continued to say “a few, maybe three or four”. So we agreed and when all was said and done, it was 7.5 kilos, which cost us $120 USD! After 30 minutes of negotiating, we gave in and realized that it was a lesson learned. Continuing on our journey, we docked on Cat Ba Island within three hours, when originally we had been promised a six-hour cruise. They insisted we pay the remainder of the fee or they wouldn’t take us home. All I remember is how upset I was at the way “my people” treated tourists. At one point, I asked them how they expect to retain customers or even referrals if they continue to do what they do. I felt ashamed and even as a Vietnamese American; I never wanted to come back to Vietnam!
Luckily, the next few days were amazing. Halong was just as beautiful as all those who visit attest to. We met people who were sincerely helpful and honest. What I learned from other tour guides was that the Vietnamese mentality is “One time customer only: get what you can this time around”. This mentality goes against everything hospitality and tourism stands for. Vietnam has been occupied by so many: the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. Although they strive to open up their doors to outsiders, there is still a lot of mistrust running through the Vietnamese veins. We don’t know if and when this will go away. Maybe it takes the new generations to rid the old thinkers of this idea. Maybe that’s why Thunderbird students travel the world and participate in programs like TEM lab. All I know is that in the 5 weeks, this team of five will do all we can to help initiate that change. And with the help of our stakeholders, hopefully Khanh Hoa Province will take one step closer to building a tourist friendly environment. As our client Ngoc said: “the only way change will happen is to first teach one person, then they will teach another. It’s what we call: PAY IT FORWARD.”