I myself sometimes still have trouble believing this happened, but I assure you that it did. Ultimately it’s probably a wise lesson for would be travelers; and if nothing else, it’s one hell of a story. I do NOT want it to make it sound like Vietnam or southeast Asia in general is a scary place. And I most definitely do not want to scare anyone from travelling.. This is the story of Andy getting robbed, and what not to do when travelling.
The night started exactly how I expected my last night with my buddy Mike in Saigon to start, alcohol. By this point I had been drinking for pretty much a month straight because that’s what one does in Asia, but it would have been foolish not to send things off with a bang. Jameson, beers, tequila, and a bottle of Jaeger (it was at least shared with the many beautiful bar employees), go figure Mike and I were thoroughly plastered.
While you could argue that I was handling my liquor better than him, such details have little relevance now. Off to the shit hole known as Bui Vien street. Tourist and tourist thieving haven.My doom.
We get out of the cab and aimlessly walk to the first bar we see. I need money. ATM. This is where it starts to go downhill.
I leave Bui Vien looking for an ATM that will take my card, which seems to be a rarity in Vietnam. As I’m walking, minding my own business, a motorbike pulls up
alongside me. In a country where hearing a language you can understand comes
around almost never, this stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Hey you, you want to buy some pot?”
I should have turned around right then and there. Nothing good can come of this. If any story could scare someone away from buying drugs, from strangers no less, this is it.
“I got the good stuff man”
“No thanks, man”
“I’m telling you, way better than the shit you can buy down here.”
I bite, my first mistake.
“You come smoke a joint with me, we’ll talk prices”
Now if any of you at this point have stopped reading in disappointment that I’m
considering purchasing marijuana, then I have nothing for you. Now if you’re
saying “damn it Andy you idiot don’t go buy pot from a stranger”, then yes, you
are correct. I am an idiot. A particularly drunk very easily tricked idiot. I
get on the motorbike.
He drives me to a street food restaurant what I think was several kilometers away. Every voice in my head is screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?????” at the top of its lungs. We wait for a few minutes as he makes calls and small chat. I’m pretty much breaking every rule in the logical human survival book at this point by having gone with him, and staying seated. I blame the Jaeger for that. Eventually another guy comes on a motorbike and brings a bag.
The original motor bike driver, who will further be known as shithead #1, strips a
cigarette and replaces it with some pot, producing an impromptu joint. We smoke
it. It’s OK, not quite the good stuff he had boasted about. But really at this
point I just want to get the hell out of there. I say I’ll buy some just to
appease him. I notice that I am slowly getting out of the realm of negotiation
as multiple people emerge from dark corners and start to surround me.
The next words out of his mouth were the most pathetic excuse for a lie I’ve ever heard.
“I’m a cop”
I know damn well you’re not a cop, and all the fake badges and mace you’ve shown me isn’t going to convince me. Oh yeah, there’s a can of mace in my face at this point. The 3 guys standing around me undoubtedly carrying knives and the gun he keeps mentioning and reaching for in his pocket me is enough to make me compliant. And shithead #1 seems to get particularly testy when his authority is questioned after this point, so I play along for the sake of survival. Mind you I’m rather drunk and stoned by now, and in no state of mind to put together an escape. Yet.
“You’re going to give us $500 so we don’t take you to the station”
“No I will give you $200”
“Mother fucker I will shoot you”
“All I have left in my bank is $200”
“Ok you leave your wallet with me and we go to the ATM”
“No, I will leave you my phone. That’s it”
I have no idea where I got off negotiating with thieves but I’ll chalk it up to drunk
courage and/or stupidity. So at this point shithead #4, knowing I’ve given in,
has disappeared. Shithead #1 and #2 are on their own motorbike. I give my phone
to #1 and am told to get on shithead #3’s bike to go to the ATM. It was around
the time we arrived to the ATM and I got off that motorbike that I realized I
needed to do something.
Taking quick stock of the situation, I realize that #1 and #2 are nowhere to be seen. #3 is sitting there plum for the taking. Coming to the realization for the first
time that you are going to have to do something very bad to someone to save yourself
is a very sobering experience. I’m not sure the extent of what I was going to
do, but to be honest I wasn’t leaving out a lot of options at this point. #3 is
still alone. I beckon him to come over. This is it. Adrenaline boils over. Fist
Right as I’m about to make my move, #1 and #2 double back.
“I’ll fucking shoot you if you don’t go back to that ATM right now.”
Plan A fails. Back to the ATM. I get the money then come back to the bike. Two hundred dollars in Vietnamese money is a whopping 4 million Dong. I give it to #1.
“Ok can I at least have my phone back?”
“You get on the bike or I’ll fucking shoot you. We will give you your phone later”
I’m starting to realize that 1) I’m not getting my phone back, and 2) I’m pretty damn sure that gun in his pocket is either fake or not loaded, and #1 barks louder than he bites. He sure does bark though. Not a good time to find out. I get back on #3’s scooter and realize my move has to come real soon. They start to drive me all over random streets of Saigon, too fast for me to do anything or jump off. At one point we stop again on a highway onramp and #1 says he needs to see my wallet.
After more threats of shooting me, stabbing me, and all the other various methods that could be used to off me, we moved again. We drive some more and arrive on a small backstreet in God knows where. Somewhere in Saigons massive territory, no
doubt. We stop one last time and #1 say’s in a very different, altogether much
more menacing tone
“This is it, give us your wallet now.”
My stubbornness persists and I refuse to hand it over. He says something to #2 and #3 and then speeds off. I assume this is where I get taken to an alley and stabbed. We get to an intersection. OK. It’s time.
Plan B: grab #3’s shirt and use him to slow myself down, hit him very hard, run. I wait until #1 and #2 are about 100 feet ahead. I grab on to his shirt, jump off, and pull. To my absolute horror, the fucking shirt rips and he doesn’t move an inch, still firmly planted on his bike. I didn’t have a plan C. He starts to yell frantically for help to #1 and #2. I look forward to see them stop to turn around and double back to save support #3. The second part of plan B is still doable. I hit him with the mother of all drunk punches right in his teeth. And I run.
Now I am not a fast man. My sprinting technique is much like a barrel rolling over and over. But I’m fully convinced I could have bested Usain Bolt that night.
Go go go go go.
Who knows if they are still chasing me, who knows if that gun was real, but at this point I’m not going to try to find out. And no matter how well I can defend myself,
me vs 3 gangsters with knives and a lone can of mace doesn’t seem like a wise
decision (although #3 was very likely out of commission).
I find the first side street I see and go down it. Cut to the right down an alley. Dead end. Keep going down another alley. I make the turn and keep running, knocking
over an untold amount of pots and pans and other utensils along the way. I
hurdle over a partitioning wall between two homes and I trip.
I had landed in a fucking rooster pen. A fighting rooster, no less.
The rooster immediately started to attack me but I managed to fight it off with a few well placed kicks and swats. It dawned on me just how ridiculous all of this is at this point. What in the hell had I gotten myself into? I’m in a damn rooster pen. On top of that I’m still not sure I’m in the clear. And to make matters worse I’m at another gated dead end, complete with spikes and barbed wire. I get ready to hide with the pissed off rooster.
Out of nowhere I hear commotion on the other side of the wall. It must be them. Rather than die in a rooster pen, I decided I was going to fight to the death in an
alley in Saigon. Not really how I imagined going out, but at least I’d have a
good story to tell to my new friends whether I ended up going up or down. I
stand up, fists clenched, ready to battle. Turns out that it wasn’t the thieves
at all, but the family who’s stuff I’d just barreled through, wondering why
there’s a big sweaty white man in their alley. I unclench my fists and
desperately try to explain what has happened. Zero English.
I’m sweaty and cut and bleeding from multiple places, including a tooth sized gash on my knuckle. The man stares at me in a mixture of anger and bewilderment at the crazy looking westerner in his backyard. Then my savior comes. A teenage boy
emerges from the same house. He says he speaks a little English. I desperately
explain to him what has happened, begging for mercy. After moments of
deliberation, he invites me in.
There’s a family of 6-8 confused Vietnamese folks that I’ve woken up at 2 in the morning. I look for the boy to tell them that I am so sorry and that I will be forever
grateful, but he’s gone. The man who had originally barred my entrance gestures
me to sit in a small plastic stool by the backdoor. He brings me some rags to
clean myself up, some water, and a cigarette. I rarely get much joy out of a
cigarette. I enjoy them from time to time while drinking, but have never found
the deep cathartic comfort that smokers get as they take that initial drag.
This was the best damn cigarette of all time. And not only that, I was safe.
I sat there for several minutes taking deep drags of this relief stick and reflecting on what in the hell had just happened, inspecting my various wounds and clothing tears. That rooster had got me good, but I was alive. The man laughed at me as I kept trying to shut the back door. He still had no idea what the hell had happened.
The boy came back 15 minutes later with the police. The police chief, in top professional manner, was wearing flip flops. While I will forever be thankful for the gesture, any efforts to describe my robbers at a police station where essentially no one speaks English seemed more than I could handle after the night I had had. I tell the boy to tell them it’s OK and if they could get me a taxi that would be enough. I just want to go “home”, I just want to sleep.
Thus ended the most ridiculous,terrifying, and life changing night of my life. My confidence in humanity was not only shaken but also restored in the course of several hours. I had lost my phone and a decent amount of money, but I still had my wallet, and more importantly…my life. I found out later that #1 is actually a “famous” thief around Saigon, unleashing similar terror upon drunken tourists across the city.
So if you ever happen to travel to Saigon and someone asks you to buy pot off a
motorbike, chances are it’s the fake cop robber of the Pham Ngu Lao area. You’ll know its him because he looks just like the guy in that picture. Punch and run.
Read the follow up post here: Tiger