I totally got cheated today at the spa, and I still feel bad for the person who lied to me.
My sister and I went to get 60 minute massages at a mediocre spot for 320,000 VND each (1 USD = 20,000 VND). The massage was horrible. My masseuse was sitting on my butt cheeks half the time, talking to other co-workers, and she did that stupid finger-clapping technique (with two palms together) which I absolutely HATE. I couldn’t wait for the dreadful experience to be over. When I was putting my clothes back on, she asked for tip, and I said, of course! I gave her 20,000 VND, which is a generous amount in Vietnam considering that tipping is not popular like in the U.S.. Plus, the massage was absolutely awful. Immediately she said, Oh, this is very little. Can you tip 100,000 VND?
I was shocked. NOBODY tips 100,000 VND, it’s unheard of. Plus it’s about one-third of what I already paid. My cousins work all night and morning selling food at a breakfast stand and their total earnings are only 70,000 VND.
The masseuse said she doesn’t get paid a single dollar in base salary, and that they live off of tips. I thought, that’s not my fault you work for a shitty company. I was confused, flustered, slightly enraged at the feeling of being tricked while simultaneously trying to check my first world privilege. I had a feeling she was lying, but didn’t want to argue with someone essentially begging me for money. I couldn’t ask the receptionist if this was true for fear of getting her in trouble. Even if I could prove her wrong, was it worth it? It was a difference of $1 or $5 USD.
I ended up giving her 50,000 VND. When I got home, I told my cousin who works at a resort spa what happened. He told me she was definitely lying. He made a very good point—that no one, not even in Vietnam, would put on a uniform and go to work for 8 hours if they were not getting paid a single dollar. I felt upset—for being trapped in a shitty massage and then being tricked. She could’ve asked for more tip, she got some nerve asking for 100,000 VND straight up. But then again, could you blame her? She knows it’s only $5 USD to my American ass.
People in Nha Trang are so poor, it’s very different from Hanoi. In Hanoi, they will insult you and kick you out if you haggle too hard. In Nha Trang, people are constantly harassing you and begging you to buy something from them. It’s easy to haggle here because they will settle in order to make a sale. When haggling, it’s usually a difference of 20,000-40,000 VND—$1 or $2 USD. But why do we haggle? Is it for fun? For the experience? I’ve heard people say it’s for the principle—because people always jack up the prices at least 200%. Even so, the quick buck we save means so much more for their standard of living than it does to us. I’ve also heard people say, But if you pay full price, then all the prices will slowly go up. I strongly disagree with this idea—don’t poor people deserve a higher standard of living?
I’ve haggled almost every purchase here, and I hate it. I feel slightly worse about myself each time. I don’t want my haggling to be a reflection of how I value the lives of Vietnamese people. Yes, I understand context. I understand relevance. “Everyone haggles in Asia. You never pay full price in Asia.” I’ve caught myself look at a dress in the market and think, “200,000 VND?! Forget about it. ($10 USD)” But then get carried away buying the same cheap shit for $15 and up at Forever 21. Don’t they all come from the same, exploitative factories anyways?
Perhaps I should be asking myself, Do you like what you see and how much would you pay for it—period. Value is often dictated by its environment. If I saw the same tea pot in a Crate & Barrel, would I be more open to buying it at the same price or higher?
At the end of the day—pride and ego aside—I am extremely privileged to have the luxury of vacationing in a country like Vietnam. I need to remind myself of how grateful I am for a life that is easier than everyone trying to hustle me. Besides, what’s the harm in getting hustled? A few US dollars? After it’s all over, I get to return back to my comfortable NYC apartment doing the things I love. If I’m going to be enjoying all the rich resources of Vietnam, the least I can do is contribute to the local economy.