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Vietnam: A tourist at home

24th August 2012

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With the sounds of hundreds of motorbikes, shop owners shouting over each other, and a rather random tannoy that used to deafen me for a good few minutes every morning without fail, its no wonder my mother told me I didn't need an alarm clock.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

It was my first day in Hanoi, I was moody and jet-lagged from my 13-hour flight, and I just wanted to eat. Eating out in Hanoi is a lot different from home – and extremely cheap. One huge bowl of my favourite beef pho, the delicious traditional Vietnamese noodle soup dish, cost me just VND$30,000 – around £1.

Back home, I've had my fair share of tummy aches from dodgy kebabs, so when I saw signs around restaurants saying 'dog meat' – I knew that I wasn't prepared to take any risks and made sure to stay well clear of them. Then about a week in, I had lunch with an uncle who had ordered something that I was rather curious about, not because it didn’t look appetising at all, but because he had a hugely suspicious smile on his face – like a kid who had done something wrong and was trying to smile his way out of it.

After a long interrogation from me trying my hand at playing Sherlock Holmes, I'd finally got it out of him that he'd ordered dog meat for me, and I flat-out refused to eat it – I might have even gagged a little, especially since there were dogs walking freely around me.

Dog meat is a delicacy in Vietnam, where superstitions say we should only eat it at the beginning of every month, not the end… or be prepared for bad luck. I wasn’t prepared to eat it regardless of what kind of luck I’d get.

With 36 streets and guilds, Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake, is home to hundreds of shops selling things from jewellery and bags, to food and fruit the like of which I’d never seen in my life. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, haggling is a must if you want a good price for things. I learnt this the hard way when I was out trying to test my bargaining skills.

There's a saying; 'never judge a book by its cover', which is perfect in describing my situation. I blend in over there, being part Vietnamese myself, that is, until I open my mouth of course - I couldn't sound any more like a Londoner.

A lovely couple gave me a reasonable price of VND$100,000 for a necklace that caught my eye. My Vietnamese isn’t the best, and when the shop owners realised this – they tried to give me their ‘tourist price’, not realising that although I might lack in the speaking, I still fully understand Vietnamese. The VND$100,000 necklace had suddenly shot up to VND$400,000! Prior to what the locals here might think about Westerner's being made out of money, I'm actually still a student that's in as much in dept as the next. After a good ten minutes of a tough and heated haggle, I finally got it down to VND$120,000 – a very good price compared to the ‘tourist price’ they had previously tried to get me to pay.

In fact, after I had given the couple money for the necklace, they’d thrown in a small beaded ring for free and smiled at me… walking back home, I couldn’t help but think about what lovely people they were – how ironic, since I was getting hot-headed towards them just five minutes earlier when they tried to rob me of VND$400,000 for a necklace.

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