I was finding this much harder than it probably should be. Actually, I was struggling immensely and the only possible reason was that I had passed up that glass of cobra elixir.
We were in a rowboat, returning down the īPerfume Riverī from a visit to the fabled Perfume Pagoda. The tiny boat girl had given up her oars and had encouraged me and the Aussie male on board with us to give the rowing a try. It was my turn now and I wasnīt accomplishing more than putting our boat into a wild spin. Even when I could get the boat going somewhat straight, it was an almost stationary forward movement. Old ladies and other petite, young girls rowing threesomes of tourists passed us on both sides. Why had I turned down the cobra elixir?
Every country has their īpowerī food and, usually, this power food is intended for males only and made the receiver stronger and more potent in every way. In the States itīs Red Bull. In Japan itīs those little power drinks in amber bottles with red and yellow labels. In Korea itīs dog meat. Consequently, limp veggies, my Korean boss had once told me, have the opposite effect.
Vietnamīs male potency elixir is fermented snake and lizard. We learned this on the rivershore as we waited for our rowboat to be arranged and inspected several large glass jars filled with murky liquid and floating reptiles on a restaurant counter. Most had several lizards and snakes inside but one contained a large cobra, floating with its head raised as if in state of perpetual charm.
The restaurant guy, amused by our keen interest, offered me a glass. Men only, he said, giving Ashe a shrug.
I turned it down, but noticed no lack of energy while we did the one hour hike up into the beautifully forested, karst peaks amongst which Vietnamīs most famous Buddhist temple, the Perfume Pagoda, is hidden. The main temple and itīs cave counterpart were both wonderful and we enjoyed seeing Vietnamese Buddhism, with itīs very Chinese style, at its best.
Heading back down the calm river, with more green, karst pinnacles on either side, I had accepted the oars from our laughing boat girl and knew that my inhibition had caught up with me.
Wish I had had that elixir, I muttered as another boatful of tourists rowed by a very aged lady passed us quickly on the right. All the passengers snapped photos of my awful performance at the oars. After me, the Aussie had faired no better. He had passed on the cobra elixir too. Ashe, having not even been offered the power drink, didnīt even bother trying.
This was our third day in a row on the water, a calm change from the streets of Hanoi. The two previous days we had spent on amazing Halong Bay, the jewel of northern Vietnam. Legend says that a dragon once spewed fire as he flew towards the sea leaving behind holes in the earth which later filled with water. His creation was Halong Bay, an incredible body of water with more than 3,000 karst pinnacles, rising right out of itīs turquoise waters.
Following a caravan of twenty or so houseboats, we headed out into the Bay with fourteen other tourists. We were happy to see that we had not only boarded the boat with two Winnipeggers but two San Franciscans as well!
That night, we slept on the boat and we, having paid the least for this Halong Bay tour, were offered the worst of all rooms onboard. Our cabin sat right over the generator housing. All night long the generator wailed and shook and our bed with it. Good earplugs managed to change the sound from a roar to a growl but we slept well nevertheless.
We visited caves, dived off the roof of the houseboat into clear waters, and enjoyed amazing scenery and great conversation along the way. Halong City approached on the horizon quicker than we would have liked it to.
Now, we were on the Perfume River and the boat girl had reclaimed the oars following our rowing failure. With ease and grace she got us going again.
Difficult, isnīt it? said the guide on the boat.
Soon, we were back at the docks. As we stepped off, the guide whispered to us. Maybe you should tip her. She works very hard for you and itīs difficult, no?
We reluctantly pulled out our wallets. We had no small change so we told the Aussie that we would get him back. He reaced in and brought out some bills, digging around and finally offering the girl a 20,000 Dong note, a 100% tip.
Thatīll be fine, we told him and told him that we would give him 15,000 once we could get change. Apparently it wasnīt fine.
No! the girl screamed. She grabbed at the wad of bills in his hand and grabbed a 50,000 Dong bill. She had upped the stakes, basically demanding a 250% tip. Outrageous!
The Aussie was just one week into his travels and hadnīt been hardened yet. He gave up the 50,000 note without a fight, inadvertantly upping our share to 35,000 dong. We turned to walk away.
No! she screamed again. Fifty thousand from everyone!
Was this girl for real? We could not believe our ears! Not only had she demanded a tip, then refused a generous tip and helped herself to more, now she had the audacity to demand a 750% tip from her passengers. Imagine a waiter did this back home. Your dinner bill is $46 and with a tip of $345 that comes to...
Forget it! We left, angered. The Aussie, we had found out, had already paid $21 for this day tour to the Perfume Pagoda. We had paid $12. He had already been ripped off royally by some agency or hotel in Hanoi. The girl had earned only $1.50 for rowing us and had been paid this by our tour guide. Meanwhile, the tour guide, or tour agency had earned lots of money for sitting around making phone calls. The whole system was unjust.
I stopped our guide. Listen, your tour company walks away with big, big money everytime you book these tours and they essentially do nothing. We can see what the costs are here and we know that youīve made a lot of money off of our $12. How can you now ask us to tip the girl? With all the money youīre collecting thatīs your job, buddy! You should be tipping her, ensuring that she earns a fair wage for her real work, not us!
We had finally voiced a grievance weīve had for a long, long time. How many tourist agencies around the world make huge profits while the people on the front lines see so little of it. This is especially true of agencies arranging trips and tours from western nations to developing nations. The disproportionate distribution of money earned is preposterous.
As always, we observed, learned, and made some mental notes without letting the entire episode leave and subjective imprint. In the end, we had enjoyed a beautiful day out on the water, visited a marvelous Buddhist temple, and given a slight injustice a small voice. Just another day on the road.