The art of haggling and a somber morning at the Mai Lai Massacre Museum

The reason I had wanted to come to Quang Ngai was because of the Mai Lai Massacre Museum located nearby in the village of Son My.  Ben and I differed on this point – he does not like museums and other sites that depict or inform sad stories or facts.  When we were back in Saigon he left the War Remnants museum within five minutes of entering.  With respect to the War Remnants Museum and Mai Lai Massacre Museum I don’t like the things I’m seeing either but I find them informative and they help give me a better understanding of Vietnam and what its people went through, even if I feel bad that my country played a role.

So while Ben slept in I woke up early and wandered out to the nearest corner from our hotel.  I spotted a crowd of moto drivers parked near each other and knew this would be a perfect place to haggle – when you have six people that can give you the same service the ball is in your court.  That said, many groups of moto drivers that sit together collude because they anticipate this tactic and will refuse to budge on a high price, then share the profit with each other.  But you can always walk away – it’s the best tactic I’ve learned over here.  Even if every one of them refused to give me a good price I always have the power to just walk one or two more blocks to find another group.

Haggling has become second nature to me over here.  I now look at my average day and realize I’m haggling at least 4-6 times a day – for a ride, for a meal, for accommodation – just about everything is negotiable and you are simply a sucker if you take the first price that is given.  With respect to haggling, information is power.  In this instance I had researched the night before to find out what a good rate from Quang Ngai to Son My and back would be, including the wait while I was at the museum.  I had found out that “hard bargaining” could get you a price of 70,000 Dong ($3.50) so I knew the price I could get before I even started the game. With that information I would have significant power in the upcoming negotiation.

From a negotiation standpoint you are generally in a better position when responding to solicitation than when initiating a request for service or goods so I always try to wait for the other guy to start the process.  I wandered up to the group of moto drivers without saying anything and it only took five seconds before one of them said “moto?”  I said “yes” and took out a piece of paper and wrote “Son My” on in.  I then indicated I would need to go there and back by writing “Quang Ngai” and drawing two arrows in between the two locations.  He smiled and readily said “ok ok!”  He was hungry for business.

I asked him “how much?” and he replied quite seriously “250,000”.  I chuckled (in a friendly way – one should always remain positive and playful while haggling, anger and shouting gets you nowhere) and just stood there for a moment, knowing that even before I would need to make a counter-offer he would negotiate against himself and come down on his first offer.  Sure enough, a few seconds passed and he said “200,000”, throwing a furtive glance at the others standing around us.  I chuckled again and firmly said “50,000.”

It was at this point that he laughed and looked around at the other moto drivers for support.  “No! No!  Much too cheap!  150,000 my friend.  Good price.  Good price.”  I stood firm, paying no heed to his other friendly moto drivers nodding in agreement that 150,000 would be a good price because obviously, I knew it wasn’t.  I kept right on smiling and said “150,000 is not a good price.  60,000.”  He got a little more serious and acted indignant at this point, offended even.  Unfortunately for him I’d seen this tactic countless times before – these guys know how to play the emotion card and try to make you feel bad for asking for a reasonable price.  I stood firm and simply repeated “60,000.”

Still acting upset, he responded “100,000.  Good price!!!”  I thought silently to myself, ‘kind sir, you just said 150,000 was a good price.  Now 100,000 is? hmmmmm’  I replied firmly but politely “No.  70,000. No more.”  At this point he was overtly showing his frustration – not just to me, but to the others around us (playing that emotion card again).  He said “No, no,” and brushed me away with his hands, indicating to me that the negotiation was over – he had rejected my offer.  Again unfortunately for this moto driver, I’ve seen this plenty of times and knew what I had to do to seal the deal.  Time to walk away.  I got about half a block away before he caught up to me, just as I knew he would, and said “ok, ok, 70,000.”  Boom, done.  By patiently haggling for about 3-4 minutes I got him down from 250,000 Dong ($12.50) to 70,000 Dong ($3.50), the price I knew was fair for both me and him – he was making money on the transaction and I was getting what I wanted.

I write this down in detail to illustrate just how haggle-oriented SE Asia is.  Ben does not like haggling and rolls his eyes at me sometimes when I haggle because many times its just over $1-2 difference in price.  He avoids haggling because he doesn’t like the stress of it – I felt more this way towards the beginning of the trip but my attitude has changed because when you are haggling 4-6 times a day for 75 days in SE Asia over a difference of $1-2 (and many times the differences are $5-10, such as the instance I just illustrated) the math adds up – by patiently playing the game with every small transaction I’ll be saving myself at least $600-700 over the long haul.  And that’s why its worth it to haggle.

Not only is it worth it economically but culturally it is simply the way things are done over here.  It is customary to bargain for just about every good or service you purchase so an unwillingness to do so just puts you at a great disadvantage in this economy.  I’ve actually grown quite fond of playing the haggling game and it pays off in big ways (I recently saved us about $200 in haggling with tour agencies in Hanoi for our Halong Bay trip, getting our trip price down to $110/person for a 3 day, 2 night – one on boat, one on private island bungalo- trip, all meals included) but I don’t think Ben will ever share my fondness.  He prefers the fixed price system of the U.S. which I agree does have its advantages, most notably the lack of stress that sometimes accompanies haggling.

Getting back to the story, my moto driver drove me to Son My and I was able to check out the Mai Lai Massacre Museum.  A little historical background is in order here.  You can read more here but my brief summary is that during the Vietnam war a group of U.S. soldiers came into the peaceful farming hamlet of Mai Lai in Son My village thinking they would be clearing out some hiding Viet Cong.  There were no Viet Cong in Mai Lai.  Just farmers.  Many woman, children, and elderly folks.  Almost all of these 600 unarmed civilians were slaughtered (and some allegedly raped) by the troops.  Definition of a tragedy.

The first thing you see in the museum is a massive list of names and ages of the villagers that were killed in the massacre.

It was shocking to see how many were under the age of 15 and over the age of 60.

The interior of the museum also had several pieces of art to memorialize the incident, including this bronze plaque.

The museum did note that Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot for the U.S. army, worked to save some of the civilians while his fellow soldiers were doing the exact opposite.

There were many pictures of the incident because of Ronald Haeberle, a U.S. photographer accompanying the troops.

I’m not sure how Vietnam got ahold of Haeberle’s pictures but many of them prominently displayed disturbing images of what occurred in Mai Lai on March 16, 1968.  I didn’t take any pictures of the most disturbing ones but feel free to click through a few of Haeberle’s photos.

I was the only one in the museum while viewing these pictures and at one point the silent power of the ugliest images overcame me and I broke down a bit.  The moto driver’s early morning emotional plays hadn’t phased me in the slightest but this was a different situation.  At the end of the photo display the museum had an unsettling display.

I snapped a quick photo and moved on to the outside of the museum.  The museum itself is set on the site of the massacre and the exterior courtyard features a prominent statue to memorialize the tragedy and honor its victims.

While I was looking at the display I ran into a group of Vietnamese students that were there on an informational field trip.  Two of the younger male students that had split off from the group and came over to ask me where I was from.   I told them America and they responded “America – crazy!” while miming a machine gun action.  They were clearly referring to the incident and I simply had to nod my head in agreement.  We talked for a bit more before their teacher came towards us and they had to split off.

The museum is built right next to the Mai Lai hamlet that the U.S. ravaged.  A map depicts the layout of each hut’s foundation.

On entering the hamlet the first you thing you notice is a massive mural depicting the incident.

As you stroll through the hamlet you pass foundation after foundation of the huts that were burned down.  I tried to imagine what the peaceful hamlet would have looked like with erected huts and happy villagers strolling around. Click here for a view around what remains of the hamlet.

Next to each burnt foundation is a sign detailing which villagers were killed from that hut.  Sometimes some additional flare, such as these plastic dogs, would be added.

The paved walkway between the foundations is intentionally decorated with villagers footprints and what seems to be the boot prints of the U.S. G.I.s.

On the spots where the troops created mass graves are sets of memorial tombstones listing the names of the bodies that were piled together on that particular spot.

The agriculture of the hamlet is still ripe.  Even as I was wandering through the grounds of the hamlet a woman was peacefully working in the greens.

When I got back to Quang Ngai my moto driver tried to ask for more money.  This is yet another common tactic – after a price has been agreed on and the service rendered, ask for more!  Again the technique here is just walk away.

I wandered over to a random woman’s open front apartment and made the motion that I wanted to eat, hoping for the best.  She was happy to serve me and her kids thought it was a riot watching me eat.  These are my favorite types of places to eat – no menu, no English, all gamble (in terms of what they will bring you).  The one thing you can be certain of is that your money is going towards a truly local family (who is usually sitting there smiling at you while you eat) that needs it instead of the government or some touristy restaurant.

From the top going clockwise, dried strip of beef, boiled egg, fried pork, fried egg, squid, pork leg, spring roll, tofu, eggplant (I think). All on a bed of rice, lettuce, and cucumber.

She served me a spoke of enjoyable tastes and I ate it all with an appetite that made her very happy – she would periodically check on me to make everything was good.  I assured her that it was while her kids giggled at my use of chopsticks, though I have gotten much better with them since getting over here.  After lunch I strolled through the park next to the river passing through Quang Ngai.

When I returned to the hotel, because the hotel manager and employees spoke no English, I used a sheet of paper and some drawings to communicate and ask what our options were to get up to Hoi An.

After X-ing out taxi as an option she was able to communicate to me that taking a small private minibus would be the cheapest option.  Ben and I took a cab over to the minibus station and jumped in the nearest one, though we probably should have haggled a bit more.  The minibus ended up getting us to a small town about 4 km outside of Hoi An.

A bevy of motos was waiting to offer us rides.  They asked 100K per person to get us to Hoi An.  I responded that we would only pay 20K and when they said no, I told them that we would be happy to walk. It was a 4 km walk and I absolutely would not be happy to walk but I was positive walking away would cause them to chase us down.  Ben and I got a little worried because we had to walk for about seven minutes (about 700 meters) before our waiting game paid off – two motos that had originally been at the corner drove to catch up with us and gave us the price we wanted.  The power of walking.

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