Adventures in Vietnam & Cambodia – Mistaken for a Local

This is an extract of my adventures in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Dalat, Vietnam, as part of a school expedition, back in the summer of 2014.

It was the Day 27 of the expedition and we leave Phnom Penh and head to Siem Reap. I got up reasonably early at the Okay Guesthouse and being the one to get prepared first in my room group, I made my way down to meet the other group of boys for breakfast. I sat down, had a conversation and ordered our breakfast from a menu that consisted of both Western and Cambodian-style dishes. I ordered a Monte Cristo: a French ham and cheese toastie that’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

After taking my order to the Cambodian lady, we continued our conversation until I was politely interrupted by a German man that was also staying that the guesthouse. It was still early in the morning and most people in the seating area were still half-asleep. This is because as I was seated down with my group talking, the German man put his hand on my shoulder and asked: “Excuse me, can I order a cheeseburger?” in his strong German accent. Haven’t been able to interpret what he has said, I asked him to repeat the question and he did. On the other side of the table, the two guys in my group were laughing in the background, as I never figured out what the laughter was about only until I realised…

I was being mistaken for a Cambodian local, working at the guesthouse. 

This wasn’t the first time it has happened. If you don’t know, I was born in the Philippines so I have the average ‘Asian’ skin colour. Generally, most people’s skin colour from Southeast Asia will look alike, so it was no surprise to be confused with a local from Vietnam and Cambodia.

We started in Vietnam at the beginning of the expedition, and in most occurrences where as part of a group to interact with the locals to perform daily tasks such as booking transport, accommodation or restaurant reservations, the locals seem to approach me in their language when my teammates are struggling to communicate with them. In many instances, I had to inform them that I do not speak Cambodian or Vietnamese and that I only speak English and a little bit of their language. My teammates find it funny having me explain to them that I do not speak fluently in their local language, using basic English or attempting to explain myself in their language using a pocket phrasebook.

My teammates find it funny having me explain to them that I do not speak fluently in their local language, using basic English or attempting to explain myself in their language using a pocket phrasebook. This is because I am the only one in the group to experience this as I’m the only one that has an ‘Asian’ skin colour.

A lot of the locals that I encountered from these two countries were very intrigued by where I come from.  I could be from any country in Southeast area because of my skin colour so I understand why they would ask that. My answer was always:

“I live in England, but I was born in the Philippines”

and the conversation with the locals will break the ice from there. As I also brought a Scotland football shirt on the expedition, every time I wore it I would also have to explain that I am half-Scottish (yes, it’s true), furthering my explanation that “I was born in the Philippines and I live in England. My mum’s from the Philippines and my Dad’s from Scotland”. I wore this shirt quite often during the expedition so I did get a lot of questions and interesting conversations with the locals. I even met some Scottish backpackers passing by in a street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that sung Scotland’s national anthem when the saw my shirt.

Looking like a local does have its advantages also, such as that I received less hassle from touts and beggars compared to anyone else in my team.

There were lots of white-skinned females in my team that received lots of hassle in the streets and markets of Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh and they sometimes joked around that I’m their local guide as I helped deter any hassle from approaching touts and beggars. I sometimes do find relief that I do not stand out from the busy crowd as I get less chance of being hassled and targeted for any scams, cons and pickpocketing. One of the female members of the expedition was scammed by being given the wrong change for a T-Shirt, and another one was pickpocketed in a busy market. Although these things can happen to anyone, looking like a tourist in a foreign country that can’t find their way will only attract more attention.

I’m not sure if this is really another advantage as such, but I was able to haggle more effectively in Dalat, Vietnam, and in many other markets. For instance, it was Day 15 and I wanted to buy a Vietnamese dress that looked like a kimono which I think it could have been called an ‘Ao Dai’. Anyway, it was originally priced at 500,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND, $25 USD) and one of my teammates managed to get a bright green one for around 420,000 VND (>$20 USD) and explained that the shopkeeper wouldn’t go any lower. Knocking off a bit more than a 1/5 of the price was quite an accomplishment for the person after an intense haggling session with the shopkeeper. I was not with him at the time, but I asked him where the shop was in Dalat so I could get one as well as a souvenir for my Mum. I entered the shop and was greeted by the shopkeeper. When she asked where I was from, I explained that I was from the Philippines, and it was assumed we both spoke English as a language that we were both mutually acquainted with but I’m surprised my accent was not a huge giveaway. She knew I wasn’t from the area as it was obvious with my trekking attire on, but I never indicated that I was from England and I was associated with the other person in my team. We sparked conversation and asked her where I could find some Vietnamese dresses that looked like kimonos and she hands one over in bright red. The tag on it did say 500,000 VND, but considering Dalat was a tourist town, that is a tourist price. I had to go lower.

After carefully planning my next move, I offered 300,000 VND as I did not want to offend the shopkeeper by offering more than half of the original price and I’m sure the price means more to the shopkeeper than it was for me. I knew I did not want to be ripped off paying tourist prices. The shopkeeper smiled. She offered 400,000 VND and she pitched her product, explaining more about the quality of the material, etc, as we maintained the conversation. To my surprise, it was less than what my teammate agreed to, but I wanted to see how further I could go, so I took a stance by explaining that I could get it for cheaper when I arrive back at Ho Chi Minh city.

We settled at a price of 350,000 VND (<$15).

I reached into my wallet and I could only find three 100,000 VND notes in it. I didn’t know what to do as I searched everywhere for a 50,000 VND note to pay the settled amount. I even reached into my money belt along my waist to look for a note which I shouldn’t have been doing as I had emergency US dollars that should be kept hidden at all times. I never wanted to pay with US dollars anyway as shops are notorious for giving a terrible exchange rate, so I explained to the lady that I only had  300,000 VND and was missing an extra 50,000 VND note (which was true). I also had to explain that I had to head back to meet the group to be in time for dinner.

The shopkeeper shrugged it off and accepted the payment of 300,000 VND (>13$).

I was very surprised and thanked her for her generosity. When I arrived at the restaurant for dinner, I was a little late and explained my ‘intense haggling session’ to the guys, including the person that bought the same dress, and that I managed to get the dress for 300,000 VND. The person was surprised and my expedition leader was very impressed by my ‘haggling skills’. I did feel bad about not having an extra 50,000 VND note to pay her with and when I opened up my wallet during dinner, I forgot about the hidden zipped compartment in my wallet that had an extra 100,000 VND note in it. I felt extremely bad about this because although I didn’t know about it, I technically lied about not having enough VND in my wallet. Therefore after dinner, I went back to the shop and handed over the 100,000 VND note and she gave me the 50,000 VND change and thanked me for coming back.

It wasn’t all down to skin colour, but rather how to approach and build rapport with the shopkeeper as you begin to haggle for certain products. However, it still will remain true for the shopkeeper to maintain a high price if you do look like a tourist, but as long as you hold your ground and be reasonable, you should be fine. Otherwise, you should shop elsewhere. Well, that’s my travel tip of the day.

Back at the Okay Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, I realised I was being mistaken for a Cambodian breakfast waiter, so I said to the German man that I was from England with the rest of the other guys on my table and we both laughed. He then apologised and explained that he mistook me for a worker because I look like the locals and I replied by saying “yes, I get that a lot”. From that ice breaker, we continued to talk until the rest of my team came down just in time for breakfast, and the guys in my team began to tell them what just happened.

Thanks for reading my stories! I’ll hopefully post more on my adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia, however the order has been random as I’ve been picking out the highlights of my trip. If this gets lots of positive feedback, I may even consider writing out the entire series of my month away to these two magnificent countries.


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