When you’re travelling solo especially in a foreign country, you’ll just really have to believe in angels.
When you’re researching on how to explore Saigon, you’ll encounter lots of stories about local vendors scamming tourists by overcharging them to as much as 4 times higher than the real price. And because I was hungry and I was craving for Bun Bo Hue, I took the risk of exploring the city solo at night.
As I explored the long stretch of Bui Vien street, I reached a place which I believe was the end of the road. I could either turn left or right and walk along the sides of a highway. There were very few people here and there were no establishments open unlike in Bui Vien. But I still continued to walk. There were some mini stores on the sides and some cars driving through the road. I just imagined it to be like my hometown’s downtown at almost midnight.
Then I reached another corner where there were stalls and people eating on low benches in front of a closed establishment. I saw a familiar word…
“Bun Bo Hue“
It was written in bold, big words in front of a stall. Below it, “Bun Gio Heo” was written in smaller font.
“25,000 VND” was written somewhere in the same stall. So in short, it was hard to tell if the price was for the Bun Bo Hue or for the Bun Gio Heo. But my hunch was for the Bun Gio Heo. Still, I took my chances. (I don’t even know what Bun Gio Heo is and it’s difference from Bun Bo Hue)
I approached the stall, but I don’t know what to say. The lady behind the stall ignored me, maybe she was stunned to see a foreigner (which is an awkward word for me to refer to myself as of this time). Maybe she didn’t want or was embarrassed to talk to me. I would do the same if I was in my hometown and a foreigner suddenly approaches me. I would initially be embarrassed and prepare for my ‘nose bleeding’ from trying to access the language intelligence part of my brain.
An older man who was sitting on one of the benches approached the stall. He then said something in Vietnamese which I assumed to be a question of what I want to order.
“Bun Bo Hue,” I answered with a doubtful tone. I’m not sure if I had replied correctly or had pronounced the name right.
“Bun Bo Hue,” he echoed. He then reached into the drawer of the stall while talking to the older lady. I believed they were husband and wife doing business.
“Bao nhieu tien?” I blurted out what I knew was the translation for “how much is it?”
“Bao nhieu tien…” the man repeated and nodded while still searching for something in the drawer. His reaction made me believed that I probably said the wrong words.
He then showed me some Vietnamese dongs and when I looked at it closely, I realised he showed me 120,000 VND (approximately 500 PHP). My eyes widened.
“One hundred twenty?! Bun Bo Hue?” I blurted out in surprise, not because I know the real price of such dish (for which I don’t) but because it was much more than the 25,000 VND written on the stall.
“Huh?” the old guy responded. I realised I was speaking in English. When I tried to recall the Vietnamese translations, I realised it would be no use. There would probably be a cultural gap. I brought with me the Filipino (or Cebuano?) habit of asking what has just been said. Something like what my father experienced with a fellow Cebuano:
Father: Miss, [I would like to order] French Fries. No salt.
Fastfood crew: No salt, sir?
Father: I just said ‘no salt’
That should really be one habit that I must quit especially in a place with different culture.
A little kid, who I believed to be the vendors’ son, suddenly grinned at me and laughed while he looked up to his father. I think I had just been mocked. But I just smiled. His laugh reminded me of my younger self laughing at a foreigner who was having a hard time learning my culture or dialect. I felt humbled. :-(
“This, twenty five”, I finally said while pointing at the sign in the hope that he’ll understand what I want — Bun bo hue for 25,000 VND. He dug into his drawer again and finally showed me 25,000 VND in bills. I nodded and smiled, and said “mot” which means “one”. My Vietnamese language skills totally suck. Big time!
The guy gestured to have me seated on one of the empty benches. There were other people eating who I believed to be Vietnamese who just came out from their work and have a meal before they go home. I wished someone would talk to me in English here, but from the looks of it, my wishes seem to be an impossible one at that moment. I must have ventured to one of the most “local-est” place in the city. Maybe just like Cebu City’s downtown at night.
The male vendor then gave me my bowl of noodles and a plate full of shredded leafy vegetables and some mongo sprouts. I actually don’t know how to use the vegetables right, and I was scared that the locals would see me doing the wrong things and would laugh at me. It took me a while before I decided to just mind my own business and stop being too conscious about what people might think.
I didn’t even take any photos while dining in the open area because that would really scream ‘Tourist’ on my forehead. I didn’t risk taking out my phone in that place because a Vietnamese friend warned me that ‘snatchers’ abound in the city, although they only take iPhone units. My phone was a freaking Cherry Mobile, a local brand in my country. *sucks*
My First Vietnamese Dish
I finally got to taste one of Saigon’s best. I believe I was dining on Bun Bo Hue. But when you really assess my situation, it’s possible that I was given Bun Gio Heo. I can’t really tell the difference though. I just delighted on my first Vietnamese dish, my first meal on that day actually. And it was already 11pm.
I’m not sure if I really have Bun Bo Hue. I told myself that as long as it’s a noodle dish, with beef and very spicy, it would satisfy my craving. What I had was really heavenly, at least for me at that time.
It was so good to the point that I told myself, I would be willing to pay 120,000 VND for this actually.
Too bad I really didn’t have pictures of it because I was in a public area. I would probably experience my first violent scene of my international travel. Heaven forbid!
How Much Really? The Ultimate Truth
I finished my dish with sweats on my face because I added too much chilli sauce on my soup. My mind was racing questions on what to do next. How should I pay? What should I say? Will I confirm the price to be 25,000 VND again? I tried to search for the elder guy, but before my blurry eyesight could focus, he was already sitting in front of me.
I was prepared. I was prepared to be scammed and be charged with 120,000 VND. But I was willing to pay that price anyway for the satisfying dish I had. But only if that was the real price. But if it isn’t, how could I ask for explanation when it seems that the people in this part of the city don’t speak English at all. I don’t know what would happen next but I think I was prepared for surprises.
“Hi lam,” he said with a smile.
“Hi…” I responded, greatly confused. Why would he greet me now?
Good thing I quickly realised that he was telling me the price I need to pay. But I struggled to comprehend the words. I’ve been listening to translations of Vietnamese numbers and so the words he said were kind of familiar.
“Haaaiiiii…” I repeated while trying to recall what number it was. My fingers unconsciously or automatically showed me number two. It must have been the subliminal effect of listening to the language learning podcasts for a month or so.
“Laaaaam” I said longer than the first syllable because I had a hard time remembering. My right palm opened up, showing number five. Those gestures I do while constantly listening to podcast really works! Hahaha.
The boy, who was sitting beside his father this time, laughed at me again. I smiled at him because he reminded me again of what I [probably] did when I was with Koreans or Britons or Germans or Japanese who were having a hard time in my hometown. [I’m so sorry, y’all! Huhuhuhuu]
For some reason, I wasn’t mad at the boy. Maybe because I know I deserve that mocking laughter. Besides, he’s only a child. I just got amused that I am now the foreigner being the centre of a stupid situation. :-s
A Sigh of Relief
I was glad the guy charged me 25,000 VND for what I just had. Whether I had Bun Bo Hue or Bun Gio Heo, I couldn’t tell anymore and I couldn’t care. It was a satisfying dish for me. At least I wasn’t charged 120,000 VND.
“Cam on rat nhieu,” I said to the man. I don’t know why I was thanking him. Perhaps for the meal? Perhaps for the business transaction? Perhaps for not scamming me? He smiled and nodded. Then I left the place.
[Update] I later realise that Bun Bo Hue in posh restaurants only costs 50,000 VND. So 120,000 VND for the same dish sold on the street is insanely too expensive.
THANK YOU, Universe, for the experience.
Solo Travelling Lessons Learned
• When you’re alone in a foreign country with culture and language very much different that yours, it pays to learn some of their words and ways. The locals will be pleasantly surprised that a foreigner is trying to learn their language and culture. It’s definitely a big plus.
• When you’re in a place where people don’t speak your language, you may be forced to say the local words that you barely learned. The locals may laugh at you or your accent, but it’s okay. You just laugh at your own faults too. The important thing is to be able to communicate what you want. In the end, everything can be a great learning experience for you. And you can vow to be better.