Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The price of neighbourhood contentment? 20,000 dong.

This week I have become the epicenter of a tragic little feud at the end of my street. I started a new job which is all the way over in District 5 by the canal, and any Saigon-dweller would understand that this means a decent trudge of a commute from my perch at the top end of District 1.

The xe om drivers at the bottom of my street have become my neighbours and companions over the last few months, and there are two in particular that are favourites. They share responsibility for me and Mr Martin when we want to go out, with the other guys only offering us rides when neither of those two are there.  There is an understanding amongst them all that Mr Martin and I belong to Mr Talky and Mr Moley.

I know the names are ungracious. Mr Talky is exactly as described. He yaps away all through the journey, and regularly inspects my shopping and tells me off if I use a taxi. When I come back from my frequent trips to the market he likes to ask me how much I paid for whatever it is I've bought.  He's like my personal appraiser.

Mr Moley is more of a silent type. He offers no conversation - only shy, kind smiles at pick up and drop off.  Mr Moley has a magnificent hairy brown mole near the corner of his mouth. Like all grotesqueries, at first it was alarming, and now I almost never notice it.  The collars of Mr Moley's shirts are worn to rags, but they are always clean and pressed.

A couple of times, Mr Talky in his exuberance has taken me far off course from my intended destination. Each time, it has been because he has mis-heard me, or perhaps just mis-understood the Vietnamese words after they have been been mashed up in my mouth. One time, instead of the Big C on Hoang Van Thu, we went to Le Van Sy in Binh Dinh. Another time we ended up going to Benh Thanh Market instead of Vo Van Tan.  In any case, Mr Talky is usually off on some other business - he runs errands for one of the big houses across the road and I think because he is so outgoing he gets a little more customers than the other guys.

So on most days it has been Mr Moley who has taken me to do my shopping, or dropped me off outside a cafe somewhere. He takes Mr Martin to work a lot, too. He's really been my most regular guy.  For that reason, on my first day of work after being dropped off Mr Martin used some flamboyant sign language to explain to Mr Moley that his wife was going on a big trip today and so he should go and be ready for her. And so he was. And that is how on the first day Mr Moley made a whopping 100,000 dong for taking me one way. The taxi on the way home cost me 110,000 dong.

The next morning, feeling better prepared, I went to explain to the drivers.  This was the deal I was offering: 100,000 dong each day, or 50,000 each way, to take me to work and pick me up again when I finished.  Mr Moley took the job that morning, much to the indignation of Mr Talky who flounced off in a huff and hasn't spoken to me since. Very naively, I thought that the two of them would share the work between them. But instead, I had employed Mr Moley on a retainer and somewhat damaged my relationship with Mr Talky in the process.

For the first few days, Mr Talky glowered at me as Mr Moley and I drove past.  And then, Mr Moley started talking suddenly, and I came to understand that he wanted an extra 20,000 dong per day.  But somehow, the next day, Mr Talky waved at me again. And I think perhaps magically things have been resolved between us all. 

I am not sure if I am a loser in this scenario or not. My colleague who lives in district 2 - which for those of you not from round these parts is a considerably longer distance from work than where live - tell me that she pays her motorbike man 60,000 dong per trip - 120,000 per day. But I am conflict averse, and my husband's shirts are not frayed at the collars, and I don't really miss the bit of extra money.  So tell me, Internet - am I being had for a complete fool - or is this simply part of the complex way we must go about our lives as hopeless dependent expats. Because the reality is that on those terrible two days I really missed the extra security (perhaps imagined!) that I feel when the drivers smile at me on the street.


  1. As I am also somewhat conflict averse I would probably pay the extra and keep smiling. As you pointed out Mr Martin doesn't have frayed collars!

  2. I'm with you - realtionships with the people in the community you live in are more important than money!

    What's your new job?

  3. You're still only paying half the cost of the taxi ride so it's not too much of a rip off given your special satus as a foreigner. I'm with you on the cash for smiles transaction. Here in Mumbai it's all autorickshaws with dodgy meters and I'm happy to live within walking distance of my job to stop having to walk the eggshells of negotiating the difference between a fair price and a stand up row.nnI miss my Xe Oms though.

  4. You have done the right thing, support the community and they will look after you even if you are paying a premium ...... The Bag Lady

  5. I don't think you're being ripped off as the prices of everything in Saigon is steadily rising (food). If you don't want your driver(s) to keep asking for a raise then you need to tell them up front how long you think the rate should last (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, etc.)

  6. I'm all for getting ripped off if it causes me less angst in the end, so you're doing the right thing.

    I have a similar conundrum in Hanoi, where market ladies try to poach me from my regular lady when she's having her afternoon sleep. I get so torn up about it that I usually just flee empty-handed.

  7. Your doing the right thing, good aquantiances and security can never have a $$ value......TC

  8. It's a tough thing to decipher, but after I've been to a shop/seller/cafe/market/xe om, etc. after a set number of times, I just trust them. I genuinely don't think they rip off their regular customers (maybe only in the beginning?) Either way, it's waaaay better to have smiles than 20,000 VND.

  9. I'm the same way when it comes to avoiding conflict, so I rarely confront someone, even when I know I'm being ripped off. I guess in this case it sounds better to just bite the bullet and pay a few more dong, although I can't relate to xe om-related issues, since I drive my own bike and only use them sparingly.