Taken for a Ride
As the car door slammed, and I settled into the back seat, all hell broke loose. Two guys climbed in through the front door, waving their fists in my face as they clamored over the front seat, screaming at me. The door to my left opened suddenly, and somebody jumped in, shutting it behind him; he turned towards me menacingly. Two more jammed their heads through the window to my right, and starting clawing at my backpack. “This is it,” I thought, dejectedly. “I really did it this time.”
I was somewhere on the darkened back streets of Saigon … I had no idea where. I was alone, and I was being attacked. I was screwed.
My fight or flight instinct kicked in, and handed me an answer I certainly didn’t expect, given my New York upbringing. The next thing I knew, I was punching one of them square in the face.
My mind was spinning, unable to make sense of how I had gotten here. I had made all the right decisions … and yet when things had started to obviously spiral out of control, I found myself unwillingly strapped in for the ride.
* * *
I had arrived in Saigon early that morning, on the overnight train from Hoi An. I was traveling this leg of my trip with an Irishman I had met in Laos, and reconnected with in the middle of Vietnam. Tom was a gentle and soft-spoken guy who swam in the shallow end of the talkative pool, by Irish standards. After a day’s running around Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of town together, we had left our modest guesthouse seeking out dinner.
As we walked up a side alley downtown, a motorbike pulled up alongside us. “Hello friends! What you need?” We graciously deferred, but he kept on: “You like boom boom?” gesturing lewdly, “You like ladyboy? You want? I get for you. You see.” No no no thank you … we’re just looking for a restaurant, we replied dismissively. “Ah … restaurant … no problem … I know best … what you want?” Not unusually, he was tenacious.
The next thing we knew, Tom and I found ourselves (yes, both of us) riding on the back of this guy’s motorbike, weaving through a manic hive of bikes, screaming around Saigon’s chaotic traffic circles. I managed to hold on solely by virtue of my strong survival instinct. He brought us to Cholon, the Chinese district, and pulled to a jarring halt in front of an open-air restaurant whose kitchen was set up entirely on the sidewalk.
Our driver gestured to the owner, who came over to us as we carefully detached ourselves from the bike. “These guys my friends. You take care of them,” he commanded. With a wink and a nod, the owner fed us like kings. As we stuffed ourselves, we discussed our next move, and I succumbed to Tom’s wishes to go to O’Brien’s Bar (there’s an Irish bar in every city on the planet, by the way). Tom’s Irish … what can I say?
* * *
Just as we finished our meal, our motorbike driver pulled up to the curb, this time with another guy on his own bike to better accommodate us both. “Where you guys want to go now?” Now, this was service, I thought. “You guys want boom boom? Dancing? We know great place.” No thanks, but we’d like to go to O’Brien’s. Do you know where it is? “Oh yes no problem. We go.”
This being Southeast Asia, of course, we weren’t taken to O’Brien’s at all, but rather to the “boom boom” establishment they had intended to take us to all along. “Come on … you like!” Having been through similar scams before in numerous cities, I refused to move from the bike seat. “No deal guys … take us to O’Brien’s, please. Now.” Back on the bikes, and riding deeper into Saigon’s back streets, we were abruptly informed: “O’Brien’s no open. It burn down.” Uh huh. Right. “Sorry guys, no dice … take us to O’Brien’s now, or take us back to our guesthouse.” They even had the clever idea to show us a completely different bar that happened to be closed down, claiming it to be O’Brien’s.
We sighed, and agreeing that we just weren’t going to get anywhere with these guys, asked to be taken home. They agreed, and after a couple more rotaries, we suddenly stopped on the side of the road. “I no take you more. You go with him,” he gestured at a seemingly random guy parked on the side of the road, resting on his motorbike. Whatever, man … I’m outta here. Frustrated, I paid him some money for the “service” and flashed my new driver the card that showed my guesthouse’s location. He nodded, and we took off.
* * *
Several rotaries later, I was thoroughly disoriented, and hopelessly lost; I exchanged nervous glances with Tom as my driver chatted on his cell phone. In the middle of one of the rotaries, he suddenly stopped, and spoke to a guy parked on the side of the road. Then he turned halfway round to me: “I must go see my wife. He take you now.” My frustration started to pique as I got on the new bike and shoved my guesthouse map in my new driver’s face. As we continued around the rotary, I turned around to see my last driver throw a U-turn and follow us at a distance. “Shit,” I thought.
I had heard warnings about the backpack snatching epidemic pervading Saigon, and here I was with my daypack exposed on the back of the bike. Doggedly, but probably stupidly, I clipped its straps around my waist and chest. If they want it, they’re taking me with it, I thought defiantly.
My head was on a swivel, anticipating the assault. My driver chatted on the phone, riding slowly. It was obvious we were nowhere near my guesthouse, and we were clearly not headed there. I realized right about then that Tom was gone. I hadn’t seen him since the last rotary. I was alone. The streets started to get less and less lit, and less populated. “Where are we going? You’re taking me to my hotel right? Take me there now, or I’m outta here. NOW!” I was reassured with a “Sure, sure no problem,” and a dismissive wave of the hand.
He was driving way too slowly … I grabbed the straps of my daypack with one hand, and the bike with the other. As the streets got even more deserted, and dark, I started to panic. I saw a sidewalk caf⁄ crammed with locals and saw my chance. “Pull over now. Stop. NOW.” He protested, and I screamed in his ear, “STOP! NOW!” He did.
I dismounted and strode towards the caf⁄’s cluster of white plastic chairs, and their occupants came to meet me half way. A blonde-haired white guy walking up to their caf⁄ in the middle of the night was not exactly a common occurrence, and deserved immediate and thorough investigation … I was banking on it. As expected, I was quickly surrounded by curious locals. I made eye contact with a young man who looked earnest and said, “Do you have a motorbike?” Yes. “Do you know where this is?” showing him my card. He studied it for a moment. Yes. “You take me there, I’ll pay you … ok? I’ll pay you well.” As he was about to assent, my driver caught his eye, and spoke a few kindly sounding words to him.
Looking back to me, he said, “I no can go … must stay with family.” I stared at him in disbelief. “Listen,” I said carefully, “I don’t trust this guy,” jogging my head towards my driver, “I need you to take me.” He looked at my driver, and then at me. “No, he OK, he take you there … it OK.” My heart sank. I searched his eyes for a long moment, looking for even the remotest warning, but he was perfectly inscrutable. I realized then just how screwed I was. These people – all of them – were more afraid of my driver than they were willing to take my money … and in Saigon, that’s saying a lot. I had no idea where I was, or how to get back to my guesthouse. My heart was racing, and I had to brace myself to keep from shaking.
* * *
“Listen, here’s the deal,” I said to my driver, as we walked back to his bike. “You’re going to take me to my guesthouse NOW. If we drive slowly, I get off. If you don’t take me right there NOW, I get off. If we go anywhere else, I get off. Got it?” Sure, sure no problem.
We rode for a few blocks to the same tune. “Fuck this,” I said. “Stop now. I’m done.” He shrugged and stopped, and I got off, not having any idea where I was going. I turned and started walking back where we had come from … at least it was away from him. Another bike came along, and the driver said, “Where you want to go?” Exasperated, I impatiently showed him my card. “Do you know where this is? Yes? Good. Let’s go.” I hopped on.
We had driven about four blocks when I realized he was doing the same thing as the other guys: riding slowly, continuing in the obviously wrong direction. I completely snapped, panic welling up and filling my cranium, making rational thought difficult. We passed a taxi stopped by the side of the road, I spat directly into his ear, “Stop … the fucking … bike … now. NOW!!!”
Somebody was getting out of the cab as I approached, and he kindly held the back door open for me, rolling down its window as I got in. Not trusting anybody at this point, I backed into the cab, lest he snatch the pack off my back. He shut the door, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I handed my card over the seat, and the driver nodded to me. “Take me there, now. Let’s go.”
Before he could hit the gas, a hand shoved through the open window. It was my most recent driver, asking for money for the ride. Just wanting to get out of there, I reached in my pocket, pulled out a small handful of Vietnamese Dong, and handed it to him. Before I had released the money, and before I knew what was happening, there were two guys coming over the front seat at me, two coming through the right window, and one sitting next to me, shaking fists in my face, gesturing angrily, pawing at my pockets and daypack. I recognized three of them, including my very first driver of the night. I froze in shock, my money still held tightly in my fist, the guy in the window holding onto my fist.
I screamed at the taxi driver to “DRIIIIVE!!!” and he sat there impassively, sheepishly glancing at my terror-stricken face in the rear-view mirror.
Right then, it all came crashing home and sank in with a despondent surge: it was all a set-up from the very beginning, the entire thing – even the taxi driver. It was a highly elaborate, well coordinated, and perfectly timed scam, all of it. It was perversely beautiful in its own way, but somewhere in my head it registered that they weren’t going to put this much orchestration into a scam without getting their money’s worth. I was in deep trouble now.
I have no idea where this came from, but what went through my head at that moment still shocks me. “Fuck this. Fuck these guys,” I thought. I was absolutely livid, and I completely lost my shit. I went feral.
I did the quick math that I just needed to get the guy who was inside the car OUT, and if I got the driver to drive, the other guys would fall off the car when he took off. Focusing on the guy sitting next to me, I started throwing my elbow at his head, screaming at him to get out. I simultaneously screamed at the top of my lungs at the driver, “Fucking drive! Go! Go!! Fucking DRIIIIIVE!”
I suddenly remembered I was still holding a couple bucks worth of Dong in my fist, and I let it go, thinking it might placate them just enough to give me a window of opportunity. It worked. He pulled back through the window to count it. When he realized it was mere pocket change, and came back at me, I punched him as hard as I could in the face.
This shocked him, and the entire melee of the car suddenly paused for a second to process what I had just done. As the guys in front started to pull back, the guy inside the car leaned across me to see the money I had handed over. Seeing my opportunity, I grabbed his belt and shoved him viciously out through the open window into the arms of his dumbfounded friends.
I quickly reached up and grabbed the driver by the back of the neck, kicking the back of his seat for emphasis. “DRIVE!! NOW!! YOU STUPID MOTHER FUCKER DRIVE OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!! NOWWW!!” He looked around scared as hell, and not seeing my assailants, he hit the gas. I pounded on his seatback. “FASTER!!! GO GO GO!!”
* * *
My heart was pounding into my cranium to the point I couldn’t hear myself. I couldn’t think straight. I continued screaming at the driver, who understood not a single word of what I was saying, but certainly got the idea. I threatened him, everything he owned, his family, his friends, his pets, if he didn’t take me where I wanted to go right that … fucking … MINUTE! I punched his seatback a few more times to drive the point home.
I kept swinging around to see if we were being followed as we headed back towards the brighter lights of downtown Saigon. I began to breathe almost normally again as I recognized landmarks I had passed earlier in the day.
I had him drop me several blocks from my guesthouse, so he wouldn’t know where I was staying, and threw some money at the back of his head. I honestly don’t know why I paid him, but I did.
* * *
As I got out and started walking, two small street children approached and eyed my pockets hungrily. I turned on my heel and sneered in a low, vicious tone, “If you so much as THINK of touching me, so help me God, I will fucking KILL you right here and now. Have you got that?” As they scurried off in terror, tears welled up in my eyes. These were children, for God’s sake; had I really been reduced to this?
I tried to get a grip on myself … to get a grip on what had happened. It was then I realized that I didn’t know where Tom was … they had split us up. He could be dead, for all I knew. And then, unbelievably, there he was walking down the street towards me. “What happened to you?” Got mugged. “Me too.” Tom hadn’t been as lucky: they had attacked him outside of the taxi, and got all the money he had been carrying.
Walking slowly back to the guesthouse, we passed a police station. We decided to report the muggings. The policemen half-listened to our story, looking bored and uninterested, smoking languidly astride their motorbikes. Two chuckled mockingly to each other as we talked; one got up and just walked off. Either they didn’t care, or they were on the take too. I put a hand on Tom’s arm, stopping him in mid-sentence. “Screw these guys, Tom,” I said, shooting them a look. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Will,” Tom said, as we closed the guesthouse door behind us, “what would ya say ta gettin’ a boat to Cambodia tomorrow?”
“You know, Tom … I’d say that’s the best decision we’ve made all day.”