£33! Shout it out! The total budget available to sustain Wee Mo and I each day for six months in Asia. £33 for food, drink, accommodation, transport, shits, giggles and tat. It's not much, but it's enough. Yet, we're aware that there are those who would seek to steal our fortune and always – always – their minds are working towards our undoing. These untidy fellows come at us with smiles and they always come when we seem to need them most.
Having heard various complaints from a rainbow of nationals, we expected things to be pretty bad in Vietnam and, sure enough, we cross the border to find blood in the streets.
Some people really go in for the whole bargaining thing. The rat-a-tat-tat of bartering in the street with strangers gives them a thrill; buying something for 40p when it should be 50p becomes an anecdote to take home; the theatre of haggling lets them unleash their inner Thespian and they often believe they have struck upon some kind of wonderful camaraderie with their fellow man.
I'm not one of those people.
For me, the whole thing is a infuriating nonsense. Where some purposely seek out marketplaces, I crave barcodes; where others revel in hard-bargaining with an impoverished local, I think: “You white c***. You've not got much son-shine, but you've got a fuck-sight more than this toothless crone, now pony-up and stop being such a merciless bastard”; if a shop owner offers me an embarrassingly high price for something, I walk away not as a tactic, but because I couldn't give a subatomic fuck about rolling around in the dirt to reduce the price by pennies.
Unfortunately in Vietnam the battle comes to me, and getting off the bus in the staggeringly pretty town of Sapa, we are immediately surrounded by groups of diminutive girls in minority dress.
Their tactics range from mindlessly yelping “You buy from me?” to the infinitely more-disarming nicey-nice approach. Having worn you down with questions about age, nationality and marital status (honestly, it's like sitting a Standard Grade language exam) the girls then gently – ever so softly – suggest that once we've showered and checked in, we might have a look at what they've got to sell. Of course the responses we give don't actually matter.
“What your name?”
“Yeah, I was mercilessly bullied at school.”
“...You buy from me?”
They even brand Wee Mo with a bracelet – this, I think, is so she can be easily identified as a mark in the crowd later. Honestly, English gangsters know nothing about the hard-sell.
Now, when someone comes at you smiling and greeting you a cheerful “hello”, it's hard to ignore them. And yet, having watched Chinese tourists in action last month – and hoards of Russians in Dubai over a two year period – ignoring touts seems by far the best tactic to use. Britishness gets you absolutely nowhere. Saying: “Oh no thank you” translates roughly as “Oh go on, you cheeky little scamp – twist my arm, I love it. Love it! Oh you naughty, mischievous wee darling, here, please have everything I own.”
There's no room for any mistranslation if you don't say anything at all, and that's the Commy Way: not to let the existence of Bobby Sellstuff into your realm of being. Even if they're right in front of you, prostrate with an Aladdin's cave of shit to buy, you stomp right over the top of them. Eyes ahead, no excuses, no refusals, nothing.
And you know the worst of it? It works. Raising the bastard stakes passed manners and into the lofty realm of ignorance is about the only way to get peace when walking around on the streets of Vietnam. Well that, or just buggering off into the country, which we do too.
On our second day we spend over seven hours stumbling around the countryside and scarcely see another soul the whole time. We nearly get stuck out in the dark – and almost kill each other a couple of times thanks to some highly questionable map-reading on my part – but it's comfortably one of the best afternoons of our trip.
The only people we do meet out here are country folk, farmers harvesting hilariously large crops of dope and the ubiquitous cute kids, of course. None of them try to sell us a thing.
Tired and reeking, we wearily trudge back up to the hill just before sunset and bump into kettle of hawkers. We sigh, but they've have a hard day too and just fancy an Actual Chat. Almost accidentally, they've let their humanity slip through and we just about fashion a real coversation with them. But then a youngster, unable to decipher the English cracks and it's back to urban warfare; the hint of a connection we thought we'd made carried away on a chorus of you-buy-from-mes.