Theft, robbery, scams; three intense weeks in Vietnam (Hanoi to Saigon overland)

People often ask each other about which countries were their favourites to travel to. It’s a hard question to answer, and not a question which I can answer with one single country; I’ll usually answer with a shortlist! However, sometimes the opposite question is asked – “which country was your worst?” – and that question I can sadly answer without a moment’s hesitation…

Hanoi

Welcome to Hanoi… we’ll be keeping your passports…

The first day I was in Vietnam, we got ripped off and almost ended up in a fight as soon as we crossed the border (though to be fair the aggro was made worse by a random Dutch guy off the bus who we didn’t actually know), witnessed an accident involving a scooter and a bus, and my friends’ passports got stolen overnight from the hotel. What a way to start things off! And while it didn’t keep coming quite so thick and fast, there was plenty more to come. Picking up from where that crazy day ended, I woke up in my hotel room in Hanoi having had a solid sleep but still feeling the effects of the previous two days’ epic journey from Phonsavan, Laos, to Vietnam’s capital, involving a couple of landslides, enchanting views of fireflies over the rice paddies, the angry scenes at the border, and the scooter accident. But it felt good to have made it, and I was looking forward to checking out the bustling, chaotic, vibrant city I could hear honking and hustling about its day outside. Dragging myself out of bed with thoughts only of first sourcing some coffee, I noticed a piece of paper had been pushed under the door… a note from Mike:

“Si mate, you’re never gonna believe this. The bastards have lost our fucking passports! Yours is okay, but mine & Dave’s are gone. We’re off to the police station, see you this evening – Mike”

Unbelievable… I hastened downstairs to confirm that they did indeed still have my passport, and then went off to sort my caffeine fix. (Now, while I had a pretty constant string of annoyances and problems, and found myself in a couple of outright dangerous situations in Vietnam, it wasn’t all bad – the food was excellent (bowls of excellent pho noodles from street stands for dinner, and fantastic French baguettes with fillings like lemongrass and chillies for breakfast), and so was the coffee. You get a little glass with an individual filter shaped to fit over the top, stuffed with ground beans and with the hot water poured in just before it’s served. You sit and wait for the coffee to drip through, while the old chaps sit around playing xiangqi and putting the world to rights and the heaving life of the city pours past just outside the door, and then a few minutes later (if you’ve remembered to ask for it without milk – they use condensed milk which I find far too sweet) you have a deliciously bitter glass of coffee in front of you. Without much to do until the lads got back from the police staton and the embassy, I whiled away an afternoon of people watching, snacking, and way too much coffee.

A cafe in Vietnam

Hanging out in cafes – overdosing on delicious coffee and watching (but not partaking in) the madness outside – was pretty much my favourite thing to do in Vietnam

We never really knew who’d taken the two passports, but the fact that they’d failed to take mine – presumably because it was in the passport holder I’d bought in Mongolia a few months previously – did suggest the hotel’s claim it was someone from outside was true. If it had been their own staff, all three would likely have been taken, so it did lend credence to the idea that it was an opportunistic theft. Of course, that still didn’t exonerate the hotel from their failure to keep the passports safe from would-be opportunistic thieves in the first place (Vietnamese law requires you to leave your passport with reception at every place you stay, so you just have to trust them to keep it safe).

Mike & Dave were advised by the embassy to stay at that same hotel until the whole thing was sorted and they had their new passports and their insurance reports, but I had no intention of continuing to give my business to them – especially as they were being so unhelpful and unapologetic. They seemed to be more concerned with dodging the blame than they did with either apologising or trying to make up for it in any way. But with the next day being Sunday and with the embassy closed until Monday, there wasn’t much to do except go out for a good-old fashioned bender and relieve some of the tension! And boy, was it a bender… we drank all night, all over Hanoi, including at one point a night club on a boat moored up on the banks of the river, and eventually found ourselves joining the crowd of elderly folk doing tai chi in the park at dawn. I can honestly say that we weren’t taking the Mickey and made a genuine attempt to follow the moves; but we were rather drunk at this point, so our attempts were frankly pathetic.

Another cultural experience we had on that long and messy walk home as we wandered in circles (we couldn’t find the hotel) was crossing the street Vietnamese-style. This involves picking your spot, choosing your line, setting a steady pace along that line, and then sticking to it until you reach the other side. Sounds easy, but when there’s a constant stream of scooters, swarms of scooters, buzzing past you front and back, it’s a real test of nerve – but if you start trying to read where the bikes are going and changing your line, you’re gonna get hit. So you just have to keep your eyes forwards and walk straight and steady. Now, the locals have this down – they’ve been doing it all their lives – but it takes some getting used to at first… especially when you’ve just witnessed a scooter accident a couple of days before. And I didn’t really get the hang of it until we started doing it drunk – and then it was kind of fun!

Saigon

Crossing the road; hectic

Anyway, with the need for alcohol-derived stress-relief having been dealt with, and another day having been spent sleeping it off, on the Monday I checked out of the hotel to head to Halong Bay while the lads were back at the embassy once again. They were looking at a week or so stuck in Hanoi but I was aiming to be in Bangkok to meet someone a few weeks later, so we’d agreed to try and meet up again somewhere further down the Vietnamese coast. So, having been there for 3 nights in the end, and having been told it was 10 dollars a night at check-in, I had my 30 dollars ready and went to drop my keys off at the front desk – where I was told that I owed them 45 dollars at 15 a night. This obviously didn’t go down very well, especially as they’d lost my friends’ passports; I insisted that I’d been told 10 dollars a night, and they insisted that the staff member who’d told me that had made a mistake. I insisted that that wasn’t my problem, and given that they’d failed to keep the passports safe I didn’t really think they were in a position to demand more money from me. And so I placed my 30 dollars on the counter, bade them good day, and walked out of the door… I’d made it about half way to the taxi rank when I felt the first slap on the back of my head, and before I’d even turned to defend myself I had two cleaning-ladies dragging and pulling at my backpack, the straps caught on my elbows and pulling my arms down, while the old chap who was always sitting in reception slapped me round the head and pushed me in the chest, with my arms pinned to my sides, quickly reinforced by the manageress – whose pregnancy didn’t prevent her from getting stuck in! – who contributed the most stinging slaps of all. The four of them pushed and pulled me back into the hotel lobby, slammed the door shut and locked it. I was being held hostage!

There ensued a furious argument between myself and the manageress – “you, big fat liar!” she kept shouting at me, again and again, refusing to accept that I’d checked in on the understanding that the room was 10 bucks a night. I tried again to leave, but it was clear that this would lead to violence – there were by now half a dozen hotel staff surrounding me. So I told them I wanted to use the phone to call the British embassy. “Okay”, she said, “you can use it. Phone charge is 15 dollars!”. Haha… I remember admiring that even at the time. So then I said I wanted to call the police. “It’s okay”, she said; “we already call them. They come now, arrest you!”

And that’s exactly what happened. They took my passport, we all walked to the station, a cop holding each of my arms (thankfully the station happened to be just around the corner), and the English-speaking policeman in the group asked if I wanted my passport back. I said that of course I did, to which he replied that once I paid the hotel the 15 dollars, he’d return my passport. I still wasn’t having it, and asked to call my embassy, which the police allowed me to do from their phone.

Imagine my two friends, sat in the British embassy applying for new passports to replace their stolen ones, when the official dealing with them breaks off to take a phone call – and tells them it’s from their friend who’s in the police station! They told me they couldn’t believe their ears… “What now?”… The embassy official explained that if I really didn’t want to pay the 15 dollars, it would go to court and I may very well win… but also that it would take months and I wouldn’t be able to leave Hanoi during that time. So, of course, in the end I just had to suck it up and pay the extra. What did I learn from this? Mostly that, as a tourist, you aren’t always welcome; that to many people you’re just business; and that when you’re in another country you really don’t have a leg to stand on when dealing with the police, however much you feel you’re being wronged. They say you have to keep your cool in situations like that, and it helps to take a deep breath and calm down. I kept my cool reasonably well, I think, other than the shouting in the hotel lobby after they’d got me back in there. But it’s hard to keep your cool when the people you’re dealing with are not even remotely keeping theirs, and have been hostile and aggressive from the word go. I still have a scar on my right arm from where my bag strap cut into my skin as they were forcing me back into the hotel; they lost my friends’ passports, they overcharged me 50%, and I don’t think they had the slightest guilt about it or any consequences to deal with. In those days we couldn’t even write them a scathing review on Hostelworld and the like.

Halong Bay beach

The beach in Halong

Ah well. In any case, I did eventually make my way to Halong Bay that evening. The bus conductor ripped me off for a few dollars (dropping me off at some intersection and slamming the door and driving off as soon as I’d got my bag out of the luggage compartment, without giving me my change), adding to the simmering rage I was already feeling, but whatever, I got to Halong.

Halong Bay

And it really is a beautiful place – that’s the photo you always see of Vietnam with the limestone karsts towering up out of the sea, traditional junks sailing between them; a breathtaking view and well worthy of its World Heritage status.

Boat trip in Halong Bay

My boat-mates in Halong. They were the first people I managed to have a nice conversation with in Vietnam (after 5 days in the country), which was refreshing

However much hassle I had in Vietnam, it doesn’t take away the fact that it’s a gorgeous-looking country with amazing food. And on the boat cruise I did around Halong Bay, I finally got to interact with some locals without it feeling like a cutthroat transaction, and they were of course absolutely lovely.

The old fortress in Hue

Hue’s old citadel

Continuing on southwards, I visited the ancient fortress city of Hue on the way to the charming old town of Hoi An. This pretty little town really was by far my favourite place in Vietnam, and unwinding there for a few days I started to feel the hassles of Hanoi and Halong had just been a string of bad luck; I was perhaps even starting to quite like Vietnam. Hoi An is a World Heritage listed town, a living collection of traditional Vietnamese architecture including a fantastic roofed wooden bridge; and nearby are the ancient Hindu ruins of My Son, well worth a day-trip – not quite as spectacular as Angkor Wat or Borobudur, but definitely a place which appeals to the Indy Jones in you. I emailed Mike to see how he and Dave were getting on in Hanoi, telling them that Hoi An was great and that I’d be making my way to Ho Chi Minh City and stopping there for a while, so hopefully they’d catch me there.

The My Son ancient ruins, near Hoi An

The My Son ruins

The next port of call was Nha Trang. And this was where I realised that the hassles back in Hanoi hadn’t just been bad luck; that there really were a lot of people in the tourist areas of Vietnam who just wanted my money, were willing to straight-up take it from me, were likely to resort to violence to do so, and who absolutely didn’t give a fuck if I liked their country or not… and indeed, I suppose, on that last point why should they?

The beach in Nha Trang

Nha Trang… not as nice as it looks

Nha Trang is a famous beach town, and the beach itself is nice enough (though not nearly as nice as the one at Mu Ne, further south); but it’s also a notorious spot for sex-tourists – including, apparently, for some with very disturbing tendencies. Elderly white men in speedos sunbathe alone on that beach, a beach where kids are wandering up and down selling postcards and chewing gum and other bullshit to tourists. It’s disgusting and heartbreaking to think of the opportunities for predators; there’s a restaurant in town called Lanterns which works with local orphanages, and to anyone stopping in Nha Trang I’d highly recommend a visit to learn about the great work they do and support them with your business.

So, this coastal beach resort town has a very unpleasant side to it, and it’s barely even hidden – as you walk along the road, motorbikes slow down alongside you…

“Hey, you want taxi?”
“No thanks, I’m okay”
“Okay… you want marijuana?” (said with a little ‘spliff-smoking’ action)
“No thanks”
“How about boom boom? You want boom boom?” (said with a pelvic thrust action)
“No. Go away”

…was more or less how the conversation went each time. Two of the other guys on the boat tour I did said that on one occasion the day before, the standard exchange had been followed with one additional (hushed) question:

“You want little boy?”
“…what. the. fuck?!”

You get the picture… the motorbike taxis in Nha Trang are the local drug dealers and pimps. Not a nice bunch. We discussed this on the boat tour, but mostly we had fun and swam and drank and had a singalong with the boat’s resident band (i.e. the crew) who had a good stock of tunes – one classic tune for each of the nationalities on board, and members of said nationalities had to get up and sing. The song for the Brits on board was ‘Yellow Submarine’, to which I discovered I actually knew sod-all of the lyrics apart from the chorus (which we delivered con gusto).

I also got stung by a jellyfish that afternoon, and had a great big pink lightning bolt slashed across my torso for the rest of the day. It hurt a lot at first, but faded quickly – perhaps due to the excess of alcohol that the passengers on this cruise were encouraged to imbibe. Arriving back at shore, we all headed for showers & changes of clothes before meeting up for dinner, more drinks, and ultimately a club.

A temple in Nha Trang

This Nha Trang temple’s Buddha may look serene; my time in Nha Trang was anything but

It was when the last three of us remaining left that nightclub at 3am that things got sketchy. Names are long forgotten I’m afraid, but I was with a stocky New Yorker and a legless-drunk 18-year-old from Scotland; we left the bar, New Yorker and myself taking one arm each as we held Scotsman up between us, steering him out of the door. And then next thing I knew, I was pinned up against a wall – by five scantily-clad Vietnamese girls doing the full Full Metal Jacket routine, for real… “me love you long time”, “sucky fucky, let’s go, me love you”, while they giggled and tickled and distracted me as I protested and tried to politely brush them off, laughing “no thank you” while one of them crouched down and fondled my groin with one hand… and lifted my wallet from my pocket with the other.

I saw the wallet come out, and I must admit I completely lost my cool right then and there. I shoved all these girls off me and chased after the one with the wallet, catching her on the other side of the road and throwing her to the floor. I got my wallet back and stood over her, lecturing her – in fact, yelling at her – that it wasn’t okay to steal from me just because I’m a tourist, or words to that effect (though rather more colourful, I think…), before being turned about by a hand on my shoulder. One of the motorbike drivers – the pimp – was confronting me, but before he’d even told me to back off, I just facepalmed him and shoved him to the floor. It was a very stupid thing to do, but at that point I was well and truly seeing red – I’d say that’s probably the most out of control angry I’ve ever been. And I really do think that I could’ve been stabbed if a group of Irish and Australian guys hadn’t been passing at that exact time; my memories of how they got me out of there are pretty blurred, and in fact I was told many of the details by the Irish lads when I happened to see them again the next day – but I clearly remember one of these guys grabbing me by the shirt and looking me in the eye, and saying “Run!”

Which we did – our hotels were all in the same direction, and we ran from back street to back street before ducking into a street stall with tarps covering the sides. We ordered coffees and huddled in there, listening to the scooters driving up and down – some of them no doubt searching for us. Luckily – and it was very lucky indeed – they never did find us, and eventually we made it back to the street where our hotels were. Those lads really helped me out that night, at great risk to themselves, and if any of you boys happens to read this, thanks again!

As for the guys I’d left the bar with, I didn’t see what happened to them and I didn’t know which hotels they were staying in to go check on them; but by chance I bumped into the Scottish lad again in Saigon, who told me he’d woken up safe and sound in his hotel bed with nothing missing other than his memory of anything after midnight. Presumably New Yorker had managed to bundle him into a taxi and out of there while I was surrounded by hookers, and good thing too – Scotty would’ve been thoroughly done over with the state he was in!

View of the Nha Trang countryside

View from the temple in Nha Trang

Of course, following this narrow escape I sent warning emails to Mike and Dave, telling them to be very careful in Nha Trang, especially if they were to go out drinking, and then I continued on to the highland town of Dalat (nice enough place, but at the same time not so interesting) and the beach at Mu Ne (gorgeous beach, without any of the nonsense of Nha Trang!) before finally reaching Ho Chi Minh. And it was there in Ho Chi Minh City that I got a message from Mike – he and Dave had been attacked and robbed in Nha Trang, having come out of the exact same nightclub, by a gang of prostitutes and their bike-riding pimps. They had been similarly surrounded but had escaped, only to be chased and cornered in an ally, and threatened with knives (and were even threatened with being clubbed with motorbike helmets). They emptied their pockets out – they’d made sure they weren’t carrying much after what they’d heard from myself and others about Nha Trang – and handed the contents over, and thankfully walked away.

Boat trip, the Mekong delta

The Mekong delta (day trip from Saigon)

I never did manage to meet up with them again in Vietnam, but I next saw Dave two years later in Vancouver, Canada. After that spell in Asia, I’d headed to Canada to work in the ski resorts, and Dave and his girlfriend had travelled all the way up from southern Argentina to Canada overland (a trip I hope to emulate some day!). And over a few beers by English Bay, he filled me in on the details of that night – and also told me about the bloke they’d met in Nha Trang who’d actually been stabbed, having likewise been surrounded and threatened but trying to fight their way out. To anyone reading this and heading to Vietnam, I say be very careful in Nha Trang at night, don’t carry too much money or valuables, and if you do get robbed just hand it all over and be able to walk away. Don’t do what I did and lash out; in fact, not getting drunk late at night in that town in the first place is probably the best advice.

(I should point out that despite all the crap that happened to Mike & Dave in Vietnam, Mike eventually went back to live there for a while and ended up loving it – he now says it’s his favourite country in Southeast Asia, and that it’s changed a lot in the years since. I certainly don’t mean for this post to be a damning indictment of all Vietnamese and their country; I’m just telling the story of my (ridiculous) experiences there as a backpacker, not wanting to put anyone off going and checking it out for themselves, but to hopefully give people a heads up to keep their wits about them when they do)

So anyway, there you go; in just three weeks in Vietnam I experienced more threats, rip-offs, aggression, danger, and hassle, than I probably have in all the other years of travelling I’ve done combined. Well… there’s been a lot of minor hassle in a lot of countries… but in terms of aggression and really being in physical danger from other people, Vietnam was definitely the worst by far (except perhaps the one nutcase hillbilly encounter on a mountain road in the Rockies). And all simply because there are people there who see (western) tourists as a source of cash, but unlike, say, India, where people will cheekily try it on to get a little extra out of you but then will also be cool about it and sometimes even laugh it off if you don’t let them get away with it, in Vietnam when you try to stop people ripping you off it seems only to lead to aggression and possibly violence, as though they feel they have a right to do so and you’re being deeply offensive for trying to prevent it – I say this all in my own experience, of course. I do know people who travelled there without any problems at all – all of my Japanese and Korean friends who’ve been there, for example, had no trouble; same for my sister and her boyfriend. I think the people who have the most trouble are young, single, western, males (whether travelling as groups or individuals), so if that’s you bring all the patience and streetsmarts you can muster.

So, would I go back? Well, I almost did go back – almost – when I was in Kunming last year and aiming for Bangkok; I was looking at the different routes I could take through Laos and Thailand, and as I’d been through Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai before, and I’d been through Luang Nam Tha & Luang Prabang etc before, I was looking for somewhere new to check out on the way (Myanmar was out, due to the MTT permit situation at the China / Myanmar border). It occurred to me that I could swing through northern Vietnam to check out Sapa for a few days and then cross to Laos from Dien Bien Phu; I very nearly did it, but you know what? I imagined crossing the border at Lao Cai and trying to get myself to the Sapa bus without getting fleeced, and all the angry glares and shouting and aggro it would probably involve, and I just could not be fucking arsed with it; so I took the bus from China directly to Laos, and I didn’t regret it at all. So would I go back? I’d never say never of course… so suffice it to say that if I ever do find myself back there, it will be to my great surprise.

But with that said, the food is great, the scenery spectacular, and the people (the ones who aren’t out to make an easy buck from you) friendly. So, do go to Vietnam and see for yourself what it’s like, but do be careful! (and one last thing to note again – the events I describe here happened in 2008, almost a decade ago, so hopefully you find a different (better) experience to mine)

Posted in Overland travel, Southeast Asia, Vietnam

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