15 Hundred Dong

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“15 hundred is different from 1,500,000. 15 hundred is one thousand five hundred,” I explained. I thought the man was just poor in Math, but it didn’t seem so. Our conversation escalated into an argument with each one raising their voices. I saw two middle-aged Caucasians passed by and I had the slight urge to ask them for help. I could already feel my hand shaking and I was constantly trying to maintain a fair amount of space between me and the man to keep him away from the wallet I was holding and to protect myself from any possible physical injuries he might inflict on me. The male Caucasian looked like he didn’t want to be involved in what was going on so I didn’t bother. I kept walking backward while still having an argument with the man who was my motorbike driver.

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delicious Bánh mì and iced coffee at Charm Bakery

It was a beautiful morning in Ho Chi Minh City. I just had a satisfying breakfast of Bahn Mi and iced coffee in a bakery. I stopped in front of a central area and got my camera to capture the scene highlighting the chaos of motorbikes that filled the street. After a few minutes, a man riding a motorbike stopped near where I was standing and said hello. He was maybe in his 60’s. He reminded me of a grandfather which made him seem harmless. It was New Year. I was in a good mood. I didn’t have any reason not to respond to questions of a friendly local while I finished taking photos of the street scene.

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When the man found out I was planning to go to Ben Thanh Market, he told me it was still closed. I knew he was lying because I did my research about that place. His lie should have been the first ring of alarm but I disregarded it. He laid out a pamphlet with different tour options. I was enticed by his offer of a tour to three places for just 15 hundred Dong. I was wearing my flip flops and my feet usually ache when I’m not wearing the right footwear during a long walk. So why not grab the offer? The amount was considerably cheap but I thought maybe that’s because the mode of transportation was a motorbike. And besides, he has a notebook of testimonials from other tourists who availed of his services. Someone even wrote in my local language. And I made sure both of us were pristine clear that I was only going to pay him 15 hundred Dong.

He opened his motorbike seat revealing a storage space where he said I could keep my things. I told him I’d just hold on to my bag. He put the helmet on me and I took my spot and placed my hands on his shoulders. He got my hand off and instructed me to hold the back part of the seat to maintain my balance. Until now, it was the most valuable learning I had when riding a motorbike. I didn’t know that specific part is used as a grab handle.  The last time I was a passenger in a motorbike was five years ago. I told him not to ride too fast because I was afraid.

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After having gone to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Central Post Office, and Notre Dame Cathedral, we drove to a small park which offers a view of the river as well as the bridge. There were a few families with children playing in the playground. They were mostly locals. The area was supposed to be a point of interest but I hardly saw any tourists. And it made me wonder why the man did not drop me off in the playground area considering it’s the nearest. Instead, he drove to the farthest side of the park away from the people.  I took pictures and I pretended the view was worth something. There was nothing special about the bridge. The water in the river was brown and muddy. The buildings in the background weren’t even tall. I was disappointed but still wanted to look polite.

“Come here”, he motioned with his hand. He was standing under the shade of a tree near his parked motorbike. I had walked several steps away to take pictures. It hadn’t been more than 5 minutes when he called me to come to him. “In Ben Thanh, there are many mafias. It’s dangerous there. Don’t show your wallet when you are there.” I thought it was thoughtful of him. “Just pay me now. It’s not safe there.” That was when all the bells in my head rang. I tried my best to insist that I’ll just pay in Ben Thanh, but eventually, I gave in. “Don’t let this be a scam. Don’t let this be a scam.” I kept telling myself as I got the 1500 Dong from my wallet. When he rejected it, I knew I was in a bad situation.

I came to Vietnam as a solo female traveler. And there I was away from the busy crowd of Ho Chi Minh City. I was afraid of what he was going to do to me if I didn’t give him what he wanted.  He insisted on 1,500,000 Dong. I kept telling him we agreed on 1500 dong and what he was asking me was so expensive. He was shouting at me and I kept telling him to back off and not come any closer to me. I got my cellphone and did a quick search on how much a tour would usually cost. I stood my ground on not giving him more than a million. He eventually lowered the amount to 500,000 Dong, but I was still hesitant. He wouldn’t accept 100,000 or 300,000 Dong from me. As we kept arguing, several things kept running on my mind. Maybe I could hail a taxi and just run away. Or go to the playground area and let the people know what he was doing to me. But I was thinking I might endanger the children there since I didn’t have any idea what he would do.

I handed the 500,000 Dong and we walked away in opposite directions. Just after I had taken a few steps, he called me and showed a 200,000 Dong saying I gave the wrong amount. “No, I gave you 500,000 Dong!,” I shouted and surprisingly he walked away quickly. I kept walking until I reached the farthest side of the playground where there were benches. I decided to sit for awhile to calm myself. My hands were still shaking from the whole incident. I stayed for 30 minutes and then I crossed the street and got myself out of there.

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spring rolls with peanut sauce in Bến Thành Market

Many travelers often say to meet with locals and engage with them so you can have a rich cultural experience. It was unfortunate that in one instance when I chatted with a local, I was scammed. People go on a trip for various reasons and I realized I don’t have to force myself out of my comfort zone just because of other’s view on what a real meaningful journey is. I am a very introverted traveler and a cautious one. Never was it a hindrance in my enjoyment abroad. I have to say that in my future travels, I would definitely stick to my own rules. I thought I’ve read enough and prepared myself for any travel scams I might encounter, but I still made a mistake.

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inside Hồ Chí Minh City Museum

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Ho Chi Minh City Hall

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Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

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my first taste of Phở at Tan Son Nhat International Airport

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