Another Thursday and it all started with a bad haircut. I arrived in Saigon the day before, and was completely delighted to be back in this mad, chaotic, simply electrically alive human press of more than 12 million people.
Two years since my last visit, and strangely the traffic seems far less insane, almost calm. Maybe it’s just that I know now what to expect in the taxi ride from the airport to plunge headlong into life in Saigon. Much to my astonishment we even stop at a few red lights, as do the thousands and thousands of other vehicles. More cars, less scooters, it seems. And my goodness, it’s true, everyone but everyone on a scooter is wearing a helmet! On my last visit there were overwhelmingly more bare, unprotected heads than I cared to think about.
I have decided to stay in an area a few blocks from the main backpacker/tourist district, as I just can’t face the utter chaos of that part of town. Let alone trying to find a guesthouse that isn’t housed next to a late night disco that doesn’t reveal itself until well after midnight and then plays loud, thumping music until 5am.
I find decent digs, cheap, clean and secure, even with a verandah and a nice-ish view over the city. Along with, of course, the obligatory construction site right next door. The development boom and rush to build build build in Saigon, it appears, hasn’t abated at all; there are cranes in all directions.
Anyway, I’m here momentarily, as a last pit-stop really in South East Asia before heading off to find a cooler clime for the summer months. I can’t face too many more weeks of relentless October build up weather.
So, Thursday. I get up and spend more than an hour fussing about with my hair. It’s nearly eight weeks since my last haircut, and it’s the longest it’s been for more years than I can remember. I am driving myself crazy, the gallons of gel are just not going to keep it spikey anymore, especially in what feels like 99% humidity. And, although those nearest and dearest won’t believe it, I haven’t seen a hairdryer in all the time I’ve been away, AND I’VE ACTUALLY SURVIVED! Enough, I finally decide, the risk of a bad haircut is more appealing than the continuous fussing. I mean really, how bad could it actually be? My hair is short, after all…
Well, let me tell you, it can be very, very bad indeed! I found a hair salon close to my guesthouse, and it is patently obvious that no foreigner has ever crossed the threshold before. I am dragged out to a back room and subjected to the most vigorous hair washing and scalp massaging possible. Then I am pushed back through to the main salon and man-handled into a chair. A cape is whisked over me. Before I have time to catch my breath, a man is wildly wielding scissors, snip snip snip. And suddenly, there I am, looking like a survivor of a concentration camp. I laugh hysterically at the image in the mirror, the hairdresser enquiring politely “too short for you?” I just shake my head and indicate that I want to pay. It’s only hair, I rationalise, and it’ll grow back quickly enough.
Later, I am walking over to backpacker world, the main tourist district, it’s late afternoon and there has been a massive storm earlier in the day. I am in search of food, and wanting to people watch, one of the most profoundly interesting things that can be done in Saigon. I have just crossed a beautiful park between the area I am staying in and the tourist district, at the quiet end of the main drag. I am relaxed, and complacent. Too relaxed and too complacent. Suddenly, a scooter is riding up the footpath directly at me [I know this trick, and it registers somewhere in the back of my mind], but too late, I don’t jump back in time. The pillion snatches at the small bag that I have across my body, and they take off like lightning. The strap for a second doesn’t yield or break, and it feels like my head is being yanked off. Suddenly, thankfully, the strap breaks. Goodbye passport, phone, credit card, room key and business card, and a lot of cash. Hello big red welt on my neck and hello shock. I run into the closest shop, shouting robber robber help me please.
Hein, a young male tour guide rushes out of the shop, but of course it’s too late. The bag snatchers have well and truly disappeared into the seething rush of afternoon traffic. His colleague, a woman, strokes my arm and says repeatedly it’s ok it’s ok, we will help you. Between them, they decide Hein should take me to the police station… so we jump onto his scooter and roar off.
The police station experience was something akin to being in a Monty Python skit and an interview with the bad cops from Midnight Express. There was not a single redeeming or helpful aspect to it. Poor Hein, rather than me, copped the majority of terseness, cursing and rudeness. It was close to dinnertime, and there were at least four police officers slurping soup in front of a huge blaring television. Written on the whiteboard were the times for various TV shows. The officer who was “assisting” us made plain that we were interrupting both his dinner and his favourite TV show, and yelled, screeched and barked at Hein. Hein explained that I needed to write down what had happened, and then he would translate it into Vietnamese. After which the cop indicated he “needed to ask me some questions”. Which were:
“Did this really happen to you?”
“Were you really robbed?”
“Are you lying?”
My experience, however, was nothing in comparison to another woman who was at the police station at the same time, having had the same bag snatching experience as me. She had no Hein to help her, and the police were treating her as if she was nothing more than a piece of something stinking on the bottom of a boot. And just as Hein and I were leaving to collect a photocopy of my passport for the report, in trooped another woman with just the same story. A very active hour indeed for the bag snatchers, and all within an area of a few hundred metres.
Thankfully, I had arranged bank accounts so that if one card was lost or stolen, I would have a spare, so I was not concerned about the card at all. I was mightily peeved, however, about the passport and the cash. Stupid stupid to have a lot of money on me and actually it was the first day in two months that I have all my cash on me at once… but that’s all a bit of complacency takes I guess.
Hein was truly an angel in disguise. Apart from taking me to the police station, he took me back to my guest house, waited around while I sorted out internet backing rubbish, then tidied up the photocopy of my passport that I had accidently hastily ripped in half, drove around for ages looking for an ATM that would accept my card, and finally took me back to the police station to drop off the photocopy of the passport. All the while apologising profusely for what had happened and for the appalling behaviour of the police. Unbelievable.
Back at the police station, the two other bag snatching victims were still there trying to sort out their reports. One of them was trying to explain that she needed a copy of the paperwork, but nobody has told her that she’ll need to come back tomorrow to collect it. Hein very kindly intercedes on her behalf, and explains to her that she’ll need to come back tomorrow.
We walk out at the same time; I hug Hein, insisting that I need to repay his kindness. He simply says no, it’s my duty as a Vietnamese man. Looking back into the police station, the irony doesn’t escape me. I suggest to the other victim, Catherine, that it might be time for beer and cigarettes. Of course she exclaims and I know that there is relief in both of our faces. Debriefing is exactly what both of us need to do… and eventually we agree to meet tomorrow before returning to the police station to collect the paperwork. We both feel that a united front might be more likely to get any level of interest or “service”.
I return to my guesthouse, and tell the owner I am feeling quite nervous as the thieves have a key to my room, and know where I am staying. He is wonderfully kind and reassuring, telling me repeatedly to “don’t worry, this is a quiet area, we know all the faces, we look after you, and we are guarding the door all night anyway”. I feel a little reassured, and try to get some rest. No phone means no reporting cards or passport, at least until the morning. I get very little sleep.
Finally, it’s daylight, and I sort out skpe credit to call the bank and the embassy. Card and bank account sorted, but embassy not open until 8.30am. I decide to go out for a coffee. At reception, one of the owners calls me into the backroom. Quietly, he tells me that he has some news, and that I have two options. “Somebody” called him this morning, and they have my passport. For a little money, I can get it back. But if we do it this way, he says, I cannot involve the police or the embassy. My head reels. I ask how much money. 500,000 dong. Less than $25. I realise just how young and completely naive the thieves must be. I ask the owner what he would do, and of course he says “I’d get my passport back, it’s just a little money compared to the embassy and Vietnamese immigration”. I tell him I need to think about it, feeling completely confused and more than a little vulnerable.
After coffee I return to my room, telling the owners that I need a bit more time to think. I call Martin, wanting to say aloud what has happened, and to hear a reassuring voice. He suggests that I need to involve the embassy, no matter what. Just hearing that confirms in my addled brain that I need to call them. My mind is working through the options of just getting the passport back [how will I explain to the police, do they report stolen passports to immigration, what if they insist I tell them how I got it back]; or refusing the offer and simply going through the motions with the embassy [but thief knows where I am and will have my passport, what are the implications in that?]
A young voice answers the embassy phone, and before I can even begin, she says first tell me your story, not your name. I explain what has happened. Without providing any specific advice, I get the loud and clear message that, given the token amount I am being bribed, I should get my passport back any way I can and as soon as I can. She informs me that obtaining a new exit visa may take several weeks, and of course that would only be after I have obtained my new passport, which by the way will cost several hundred dollars and take around 10 days. And, she goes on, don’t worry about the police, they just file their report in a drawer somewhere and don’t inform immigration, just don’t tell them you’ve got your passport back. Ok, so the decision is made.
I seek out the guesthouse owner and hand over a bundle of notes. He roars off on his scooter, and within 10 minutes has returned with my passport, a little soggy and worse for wear, but basically intact. However, I am now really nervous about being where I am. I decide to immediately check out of the guesthouse, and head over to backpacker world. I feel like there will be a measure of safety in numbers. I secure a decent room and begin to feel a little more relaxed, knowing that I am again anonymous amongst the throngs of other foreign tourists.
Later, I meet Catherine, and we brace ourselves for the return visit to the police station. I am incredibly nervous as I now have my passport secured in my new money belt. I seriously consider not even going back to collect the report, but Catherine convinces me that it’ll be fine. We arrive, and in spite of a dozen or more police officers milling about, we are ignored for eternity. Finally, somebody indicates we need to go out to a back room. As we enter, a young police officer is exiting, waving about an MK47 assault rifle. Fantastic, I think to myself, now we’re going to be shot for being robbed. In fact, a fat ugly toad like man barks “what you want”. We explain we want copies of the reports, and he drags out a big folder, shuffles through, and throws the bits of paper over his desk. He barely even glances in our direction. We grab the paperwork and head out the door as quickly as we can. We look at each other, and it’s clear. What this requires is something a little stronger than beer… our relief that the ordeal is over is palpable.