Signs in English are everywhere in Vietnam, as if everything here were produced for us visitors. But from experience, I don’t think most of the merchants sitting under these neon banners even know enough English to read the letters of their own advertising. Of course, it’s on us to learn Vietnamese if we truly want to communicate respectfully, but it also seems that they’ve invested lots of time and effort in setting up an infrastructure that will draw in Western purchasing power. It can be confusing, thus, especially at restaurants when we foreigners are handed a menu that quotes higher prices for the same items listed at a discount on the “Vietnamese” menu. Then, the question becomes, to buy or not to buy:
Probably about 90% of everything I own at home, I got at a reduced price– the imperial discount. I’m buying things directly here in Vietnam that I would buy at home for more because of middlemen and corporate commission. Part of my conscience tells me that I probably should accept to pay higher prices (than locals) during international travel to make up for the water, electricity, wood, information, poetry, and fashion I co-opt or steal from them by participating complacently in the corporate American economy that we all know to be blatantly extractive and exploitative.
On the other hand, I didn’t personally screw them, and so I owe them nothing. But on the third hand, my country did screw them, and I am reaping the benefits and putting them toward travel within this country. We had a couple debates over this issue, Adam and I, with him annoyed that he can’t get anyone to quote him a fair price up front, and me delighted that my inner-Jewish-woman can finally tell people out loud what I think every item is really worth. But haggling, though it can be fun and useful at times, does get tiring and I start to wonder how one can determine the true price of anything with so much global and environmental history mixed in. And so I keep coming back to the question of what do I owe them, and what do they owe me… In the end, don’t do we really just owe each other basic respect and decency?