Oddball Conversations in Southeast Asia


I’m standing in line at a 7-11 in Bangkok to buy a bottle of cheap Thai rum. The aisles are tiny and packed full of people, as always, and I feel like a rhino in an elevator. My turn arrives and I ask for a bottle of Sang Som, but the young cashier just stares at me, confused.

“Sang Som,” I repeat, pointing at the row of cheap hootch on the shelf behind her. She turns and points at a bottle of Sangthip whiskey instead. I haven’t tried this yet and at $3 a bottle, I’m game for a little experimentation. Thinking this will speed up the process as well, I say “Sure, why not?”

“It’s pronounced Sangthip,” she says, drawing out the two syllables. “Sangthip.” She’s maybe 18 years old and her English is excellent. I’m tempted to explain that I really wanted the rum, but I know this will just confuse the situation further. Instead, I just hand her a bill.

“Really!” she exclaims. “You weren’t even close. Sanggggthiiip…” She shakes her head as if I’m the biggest rube to ever cross her path.

I bite my lip and take the bottle from the counter. Let it go, girlfriend…

“Hey, at least I tried,” I counter, weakly. She snorts in response. More head-shaking.

Holding my bill in her hand, she turns and starts talking to the other cashiers in Thai — they all look at me and laugh. What started as an attempt to be accommodating on my part has turned on me — now I’m the jerk.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt. “Can you say totalitarianism?”

“Toe tal.. toe… too… what?”

“Good. We’re even,” I snap back. “Now give me my change.”


I’ve just rolled into the Vietnamese town of Dalat, tired and hungry. I pull to the side of the road to consult the guidebook and find out where the cheap hotels are hidden. Within seconds, I’m approached by an Easy Rider guide, intent on selling me his services.

The Easy Riders are motorcycle tour guides and you see them all over the Central Highlands, ferrying tourists from town to town on the back of their bikes. They specialize in multi-day trips, visiting lesser-known towns and villages, as well as battle sites from the War.

Mr. Dinh is at least 60 years old, with dark leathery skin and faded hand-drawn tattoos. He’s dressed in an army jacket and camo pants, with a green floppy hat. The left half of his top teeth are missing, with the opposite half missing on the bottom. When he closes his jaw and grins, a full smile peeks out from his weathered lips.

He starts with the standard pitch you hear from all of the Easy Riders, promising to take me to unknown waterfalls and villages far off the tourist trail. I have no intent of hiring him and try to explain this, but he forges on anyway. He’s from “the War” and knows Vietnam like the back of his brown, tattooed hand.

He asks where I’m from and I say “America.”

“Ahhhhhh!” he exclaims. “Many Americans died at my hands,” he says, making a stabbing motion with an imaginary rifle and bayonet. “Many, many…”

“I take you on 7 day tour in the mountains. Very remote. Very, very remote.”

I’m unsure how to reply, at first, and it takes me a few seconds to recover.

“Wow, that’s quite the, ummm… sales pitch you have there, Mr. Dinh.”

“Thank you,” he answers. “Where’s your hotel?”

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Lily July 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Made me chuckle there.. Mr Dinh sounds like a brilliant tour guide! I remember that feeling, its like being a fish out of water and so .. liberating .. because you are not in your own country its somehow much easier to let go and just accept being the oddity and the butt of peoples amusement. I’m looking forward to hearing about Hanoi & Halong – long time must see for me!


Lily July 6, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Oh, I meant to ask for an update on the vaccinations – did you get everything done in BKK like you were planning and still eagerly waiting for the ‘how to wrestle a rabid bear’ story. I got bitten by a dog last time I was there (I made the mistake of looking at it wrong – doh!) so glad for my rabies shot!


ayngelina July 6, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I also found it really hard to pronounce words, I was sure I was getting them right but no one knew anything I was saying. Spanish is so much easier…
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Three places for gringo food in Leon- Nicaragua =-.


wes July 8, 2010 at 8:33 am

I’m with you — I can’t seem pronounce anything correctly, no matter how I try. The irony is that in this case, I *was* for once…


Andi July 7, 2010 at 2:55 am

Hahaha, I love these stories!!! I should start writing down funny conversations I have while traveling as well. :)
.-= Andi´s last blog ..India- Day 5 Part 6 =-.


Nick Laborde July 7, 2010 at 6:26 am

Love the sales pitch…“Many Americans died at my hands,” and “Very remote. Very, very remote.” …wow, that sounds like 7 days you wouldn’t forget.

Yeah, I think I would pass on one that too…
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..The Introvert Challenge =-.


wes July 8, 2010 at 8:34 am

Weirdest sales pitch ever…


Bill Gillespie July 7, 2010 at 7:36 am

Wow, I like your retort on the first one. The second guy, he sounds as in tune with reality as DeNiro in Taxi Driver.


Gi July 7, 2010 at 8:31 am

The dreaded quick verbal cacophony, followed by the point and laugh at the foreign person. Very nice retort though. I’m assuming the “oh no you didn’t” glare by the cashier followed.
I love the fact that the easy rider man followed the killing of several Americans comment with a pitch of taking you to a very remote mountain. With a pitch that bad it must be good.


wes July 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm

yeah, she wasn’t very friendly to me after that :/


pirate63 July 7, 2010 at 4:09 pm

thats funny that easyrider guy,we saw them in dalat and hoi an,there sales pitch was ,lets say very unique!
keep safe enjoying your blog


David @ Malaysia Asia July 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

lol, Mr.Dinh must have some serious ethical communication skills. You’re American and he tells you how many Americans died at his hands, then asking to take you for a 7 day remote trip? Classic.
.-= David @ Malaysia Asia´s last blog ..Ko Lipe Beach Sun and Rain – Travel picture of the week =-.


Gray July 9, 2010 at 12:19 am

OMG, this is hilarious! What a sales pitch indeed.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Counter Dining in Style at Disney =-.


Eli July 10, 2010 at 8:49 am

It sounds like it was about to turn Deer Hunter over there for you. ONE SHOT!


Aurora July 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm

This was funny! Amazing the kind of people you meet and the odd conversations you can have when you travel the world! :)


wes July 11, 2010 at 5:45 am

I agree. The sights and scenery are amazing, but it’s the people you interact with that really make your day.


Nancy September 2, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Love this post, particularly “stabbing motion.”

The conversations I have with people are always the best part of my trips. I’ve known a few over-sensitive folk (who only trot out their PC-ness when it suits them) who think I’m making fun of people when I’m telling my stories, but I don’t see how viewing a situation humorously equates with mocking. Especially when I often really liked the people, I’m just a cynical jerk who laughs at a lot of silly things.


fred parle September 6, 2010 at 10:17 pm

yes i remember it too well running av gas by t2 tankers up the mekong to saigon during the war,being mortared, machinegunned, spending curfews in us army hoochgows with long john and playboys . Im wondering at seventy years of age, did it all happen the way I remember it or am I starting to tell little Porkies to gain your attention ? 47 days held by Somalis millions of $100 freshly minted Obama paper paid over and shared and then ” Home James and dont spare the (horse)powers.


Brad March 19, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I would be tempted to go with Mr. Dinh, but then you would have to hear his war stories for 7 days. First, I would question him: “What unit were you with?”, “Were you VC or NVA?” “What years did you serve?” If he was telling the truth, it would be interesting to hear stories from “the other side.” But he was probably FOS anyway. He was probably a Supply Clerk in the Mekong Delta.


Hayley November 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Hi Wes
My husband and I are going to Vietnam for a honeymoon. We plan to be there for a month – I read thru some of your blogs but couldn’t find an itinerary of your trip. Where do you suggest to start and which direction to travel? We will be there in Jan/feb and don’t plan on booking any accommodation prior to arriving in the country. Thanks. Hayley


wes November 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I started in Saigon and went north via Mui Ne, Dalat, Kon Tum, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi and Sapa. I was on a motorbike so I probably wandered more than most. Either direction should be fun. I’d definitely book an open jaw ticket — fly into Saigon and out from Hanoi, for example. It’s a long, lean country and you don’t want to have to make a loop. Have fun!