About letting a city steer its own course

One of the nice things I love about Kuala Lumpur is the price. Not just that it’s low, but that it never changes. I haven’t been to KL in a little over two years, but a taxi from Sentral to Petaling street is still the same fixed price it was in 2012 – Ten ringgits, or just over $3. When I go into my favourite food court, not only have the menus not changed in two years, but the prices haven’t moved. I can still get the budget Chinese food and rice for 6 MYR or a special meal from one of the vendors inside for 7 MYR. It’s like the idea of inflation just doesn’t exist in Malaysia, which is a far cry from Vietnam where prices can jump 50% in a day sometimes.

Here, everything has a price, and everyone knows the price. While you can haggle and should, especially if you’re buying multiple items, the going rate is the going rate. There’s not this sense of “He might be stupid… let’s see how stupid he is” that goes on in Saigon. If you walk into Ben Thanh markets unsuspecting, you might pay up to five times what something is worth. A pair of jeans will start at a million, but if you know what they’re worth you will pay a mere 200,000 or even less if you’re Vietnamese. But in Chinatown in KL, there’s this unspoken rule that everyone has the same price for the same goods. If one guy sells DVDs for 8 MYR, then the next guy will sell them for the same. Of course they want to make a sale, so all you have to do to get a better price is ask the price and then say “No thanks” and start walking out and instantly they will drop 10-15% off the price. If you’re a good haggler you might get another 5% on top of that, but there’s none of this “Overcharge them by 500%” attitude.

Personally I don’t mind this practice that much. It’s just part of the game. When you live there and you don’t have time for it, sometimes it’s frustrating. But the trick in that situation is just to tell them in Vietnamese “I live here. No bullshit ok ?” and then they grin and say ok. But some people complain about the highway robbery prices at the markets in Vietnam. Hanoi is the worst. I remember meeting some woman on the street and telling her I’d lived in Vietnam for two years before asking to buy two shirts. She said “Ok, you live here. I give you good price. 950,000 dong for two”… That’s almost $25 each for a cheap shirt. I looked at her and said “I bought that same shirt in Vung Tau for 40,000 dong. Do you think I’m stupid ?” She first tried to insist that this one was better quality and the stitching was of a higher grade but I just gave her a look that said “That act isn’t going to work on me” and she dropped it all the way down to 150,000 for the two. But it just goes to show, even if you tell them you live there and you know what stuff is worth, they will still have a go to see how stupid you are. I guess it’s a game to them. They must get together at the end of the day and swap notes on how badly they ripped off a particular tourist, slapping their knees with laughter.

But TIV, as we say… This Is Vietnam.

For me today however, “This” is Malaysia and stuff is really cheap here. Not as cheap as in Vietnam when you know the price and can haggle like a Vietnamese, but Malaysia is a stunningly cheap country, especially for food. The food courts in Chinatown are just amazing. The array of food from all over Asia will take your breath away, and if you choose to brave the dark alleyways, you will literally be buying a fantastic meal of Thai, Malay or Indian food for $1 … or less. I recall clearly wandering into Little India in Penang a couple of years ago into a fascinating little restaurant with a menu so long it took up the whole wall, full of things I didn’t understand. I just said “Lamb curry, spicy” and the guy told me “3 ringgits, with rice”. Yeah… one dollar for an authentic Indian curry. If you like Asian food, especially the South East Asian and West Asian specialities, Malaysia is your culinary heaven in this part of the continent.

While Vietnam struggles with its image, trying desperately to dispel the myth that it’s a dirty, war ravaged country with heavy handed politics and convince everyone that it’s really a modern, classy tourist haven almost in Singapore’s class. Both images are wrong. But Vietnam exists somewhere in between, struggling and swaying constantly between what it is and what it wants to be.

Malaysia has no such problems. It has the glitz and glamour of high class shopping and the beauty of the Petronas Towers, but it also has Chinatown, Little India and other such areas which are bustling with pirate DVD vendors and knock-off goods and cheap food. The government seems to have no problem with its image and doesn’t strive to be something it isn’t. What it doesn’t have though is the cheap drinking. Being a Muslim nation, Malaysia taxes liquor ferociously, especially the sale of it in bars and restaurants. A Tiger beer may cost you $1 in Saigon, but in KL, don’t be surprised to pay $9. This is not a country of cheap booze by any means.

But does that mean that Malaysia is bad because it is too expensive to party ? Or that Vietnam is bad because it is so cheap that many people go there just for that ? No. I have a philosophy that every country is what it is and it should embrace that. You can always strive for more, but not at the expense of what makes that country unique. If you’ve developed a society of cheap beer and street drinking, you can’t just wipe it out in a day. People’s livelihoods depend on it. Sometimes your entire tourism income relies on it. Take it away and your city suddenly loses its heritage. Something that used to be commonplace disappears. And people move on.

Vietnam could survive without the cheap beer just as Malaysia could survive without the cheap food, but at what cost ? Not just financially, but to the country’s image. The things that people tell everyone about when they go home. When I am in Malaysia and I want to make people jealous, I just tell them how cheap the food is. When I am in Vietnam and I want to make people jealous, I just tell them how cheap the beer is. Either way the response is the same; “Really ? That’s incredible ! I want to go right now !”

And sometimes they do. Tourism works by word of mouth, not by sales of Lonely Planet. If the tourists don’t have something to rave about when they get home, none of their friends will be interested in visiting.

Too much heavy handed moulding ends up with people criticising a city for being too artificial and sterile, just as people are starting to say about Khao San Road in Thailand. Let a city find its own path and develop its own culture. Don’t try and copy other cities.


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