I didn't really know much about Vietnam before I came travelling, except that Niki has done some work here and really likes the place. More recently, every traveller I speak to in this area who had already been to Vietnam related horror stories of the place and its people. Basically, the problem seemed to be that, unless off the beaten track, you will be hassled and scammed the whole time. Laura told me how she had got into a physical fight with a waitress over the bill one night. Eero told me how his laundry at his guesthouse wasn't done properly so he told the owner that he would only be paying half of the cost (the laundry cost, not his whole bill). The owner quickly padlocked the door shut and pulled out an iron bar to coerce him into paying properly. He later saw this happen to someone else at another place so figured that it was standard practice. Other, less extreme, stories proliferate.
I didn't have to wait long for my first run-in. My bus from Laos was going well and I was busy congratulating myself for getting a good price to ride to the town of Kon Tum. I was the first passenger to get on board the privately-run Vietnamese bus. We had filled up by the time of the border, but people began getting out from there and I was alone again by the time we reached the first town, just twenty minutes further along. I was told that I needed to change buses to complete my journey, and was pointed to a bus parked by the roadside in front of us. I wasn't sure at the time if this was part of the plan in any way, but basically they didn't want to bother going all the way to Kon Tum, another 50km away, just for one passenger. One passenger who hadn't paid a lot for his ride anyway (they might also have thought). Which is good thinking.
As my new minibus pulled away, the 'conductor' came to ask for money. I explained by pointing and head shaking that I had already paid the other driver. I assumed that bus A had paid bus B to take me. Not at all, they had just kicked me out. The new bus quickly stopped and flagged down the first bus to sort it out. Although everything was unclear, I realised that I would have no bargaining position whatsoever if the first bus drove off and even less if I just stood on the roadside. So, before everyone stopped laughing at me as the odd foreigner doing odd things, I threw my bag back in the old bus and jumped back aboard.
They wanted to fill up with sacks and passengers and go back to Attapeu. I refused to get out until they had either taken me to my final destination (which I knew wouldn't happen) or at least given me a decent partial refund. A policeman noticed the disturbance and got in to watch it all, so I was careful to remain cheery and to exchange smiles with him. The stand-off took forty minutes, while they loaded up and make repeated efforts to get me off. One of the people running it was mostly relaxed, the other angry and agitated by my intransigence.
In the end, he waved down another bus and the two drivers spoke. I was told to get on this one and the new driver assured me that I wouldn't need to pay. I think I the first driver had paid him to get me off his hands. So, I swapped again and this time it all seemed to work out. In my head I marked this down as SCAMMERS: 0 - 1 :CHRIS. I wondered about keeping a score during my time in Vietnam, even though the home team would surely win comfortably in the end. But, I have to say, I am writing this ten days later and I have yet to find any reason to add to anyone's scores. Maybe I just don't notice when I am being scammed? It wasn't all perfect though. I don't know where this new bus was going to or from, but the first thing we did was drive two minutes down the road stop for everyone to get off for half an hours lunch break.
Getting to Kon Tum, I found a place to stay and headed out. There wasn't really much to see in town. I found a vegetarian restaurant, but it wasn't brilliant. One noticeable difference after Laos, was that Vietnam is very net enabled. Another is that it goes to bed even earlier. I sat in a bar until a little after eight and then went looking for food. I walked the streets being a bit choosey and only found a place that would put some vegetables in a bread roll for me. Stopping at my hotel to give them my passport, as arranged, so they could process it, I then went out in search again. Suddenly, everywhere was already shut for the night and I couldn't eat anything. By nearly nine I found myself back at the same place I got the bread roll from. Thankfully they were still open so I brought another, this time with an egg in it.
In the morning I took a bike to the bus station for a bus to Danang. I couldn't work out why my ticket price was so much higher than that on the wall. They told me I had to pay extra for my big bag. My scammer antennae went up straight away and I prevaricated for ages, which I think just annoyed everyone, until eventually deciding that this was probably correct and agreeing to pay the extra. There was a couple from Surrey on the bus. They had been travelling for a long time but seemed to be having one of those days when they had reached the emotional edge and were not happy about things they felt they were being ripped off about. They hadn't paid the baggage surcharge so, when they were asked for it after we got on the bus, they weren't happy at all. The fact that I had already paid it at the proper ticket booth at least calmed them down.
Also at the bus station, I met a German couple I had met in Attapeu. Back then,they had asked me if I knew how to get a bus across the border, which I was able to explain to them. When my own efforts to ride across two days later had been so troublesome, I had remembered them and had hoped they hadn't been cursing me when they found that my information was all wrong. They had had both a smoother ride and lower expectations though and were therefore quite happy with it all, which was a relief for me to discover.