Best of Southeast Asian Hustles
One of our favorite books on the road has been Robert Cialdini’s “The Psychology of Persuasion.” Cialdini breaks down how and why people fall for six fundamental sales tactics that manipulate people’s social intelligence and experience. It’s an essential read before hitting the streets of Southeast Asia. Here’s a list of our favorite hustles and their psychological tactics.
Within the Angkor temples, young children offer small flowers as a natural ring or bracelet. The children insist that the flowers were ‘free’ and ‘from the Bhudda’, and carefully and tenderly tied it around our fingers before we entered the temple. As we left the temple, we heard the consquential requests for ‘one dollar, dollar.’ Reciprocity – People feel indebted to those who do something for them or give them a gift.
Everyone wants to enjoy the slamming street food in Asia. Locals are continuously feasting on all kinds of mysterious, awesome streetside delicasies. But ill timed bravado can have serious consequences. Travelers religiously follow recommendations from western guidebooks or simply follow the farang. Hustlers name their stalls with the area’s latest pick on Travelfish or Lonely Planet. Travelers don’t really know which stall is the original ‘Sam Lo Kitchen,’ they’re all just following each other’s lead. Social Proof – Uncertain people look to those around them to guide their decisions and actions.
Upon arriving in Ho Chih Minh City, our hotel failed to send us the taxi that we had requested. We quickly read our guide’s tips for negotiating a fare. We followed all of the rules, took our official receipt for exiting the airport from the taxi desk, and agreed to a price up front with the driver. As we reached the exit gate, the driver asked “Do you have the pink slip of paper for the exit?” We had a yellow slip, which wasn’t the right one. After some more discussion with the guard, our driver ‘negotiated’ a price for our exit ($15), half what the guard wanted to charge. When we arrived at our hotel, we asked our driver to wait for us to ask the hotel’s concierge to resolve the issue of our fare doubling. Surprise, the driver pulled a fast one and sped off. Commitment – People do not like to change their plans, or back out of deals, even if the deal changes unfairly after initial negotiation.
There are over 30 outdoor food stalls along the Mekong in Vientiane, all with virtually the same menu and prices. I first checked them out by myself, taking a close look at each stall, and making my choice based on cleanliness, quality of food on display, customer activity, and atmosphere. Fortunately, I had a remarkable meal, one of my best in Asia. As my fiancé and I strolled the riverbank a few nights later, the waiters recognized me and asked me ‘if I had had a better meal in Vientiane?’ It was up to me to show my fiancé the wisdom of my choice. Consistency – People like praise for their past decisions, as those decisions have led them to where they are today.
The most successful sellers at Angkor speak flawlessly polite English, Japanese, Chinese, or French to their customers. They flatter customers with formality — ‘Excuse me sir, would you like a scarf for your wife?’ We observed an especially successful young lady communicate in 5 different languages over the course of 30 minutes, and make quite a few sells. Liking – People favor people who are physically attractive, similar to themselves, or who give them compliments.
In Phnom Penh, we went to the Vietnamese embassy to apply for a 30 day visa. The guard outside of the embassy informed us that it was a holiday and the embassy was closed, even though we saw people coming and going from the building. He spoke with a higher ranking guard, and then informed us that they could drop off our passports inside the embassy at the visa desk, and have them express processed for an additional $10 USD cash each. He handed me a piece of notebook paper with some handwritten information on it as a receipt, and then asked for the cash. Had the receipt been a bit more official, we may have fallen for it. Authority – People respect titles, uniforms, and local knowledge. Language is a barrier that hustlers exploit to their advantage.
On a bus ride to Pakse in southern Laos, we stopped outside of the city at a crossroads and were told that we had to take a Jumbo Tuk Tuk into town, which was consistent with what our guide’s description of the transfer. There was only one Jumbo driver waiting there, with an already -packed vehicle. We rebuffed the offer and waited for another driver. He picked us up for half the price. About 5 minutes down the road we passed the actual bus station, which was packed with tuk tuk drivers. Hmmm … a smart little side hustle between the bus driver and his partner. Scarcity – The more scarce a product, the more people want it.
The best hustles are always combinations of these tactics. Our favorite by far occurred on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake outside Angkor. We saw a young boy about 30 feet from us on the banks of the river taking pictures. I happily smiled and waved for him as a fellow photographer. A few hours later we returned to the dock from our tour, the young boy walked up to Bridget and proudly handed her a picture of me perfectly glued and mounted onto a wooden frame of clichéd images of Angkor. Reciprocity, Liking, Scarcity = 100% Kitsch. 100% Hustled. 100% Unforgettable. Four bucks well spent.