Why I Won't Miss Saigon

We had been in Saigon approximately two hours.

120 minutes, from plane to dusty pavement. That’s how long it took for me to get mugged.

It was over in seconds.

One minute we were walking hand in hand, past rainbow coloured plastic stools, weary street sellers and slightly dodgy looking alleyways. The next minute I was left facing the opposite direction, slightly bruised, very bewildered and bagless.

If we hadn’t been travelling for just over 24 hours, I may have reacted differently. Screamed a little more. Even attempted to run after them. As it was I just stood there, mouth open, watching my bag disappear into a swarm of scooters, and with it our passports, phone, bank cards and pretty much the rest of our holiday.

It had all started so well. We had been picked up without delay from the busy airport, escorted to an air conditioned sedan, with much needed cold bottles of water, and our driver had been kind enough to point out the various sites along the way.

The low-rise white brick building to our right, that’s the Reunification palace. That scaffold-clad spire to our left, Notre Dame Cathedral.

Meanwhile, I just couldn’t stop staring at the scooters, the sheer volume was overwhelming. They zipped alongside  us, constantly cutting in front of one another. There were babes in arms, sometimes dogs, sometimes two people to a bike, often three or four.  They were piled high with crates of beer, bags of laundry, plants, even trees – how they didn’t topple over was just incredible.

‘So many bikes’ I exclaimed to our driver.

‘Yes, be careful of phone. They drive past and just…’ his final word was replaced with an

ominous snatching gesture.

I nodded in his mirror, remembering the warnings I had read about these ‘cowboy scooter thieves’ before we came away.  Never take your phone out in public, especially not anywhere near the roadside. Always wear a crossbody bag close to your chest. Keep your expensive camera concealed, or better still, leave it at home. We had just returned from Naples in Italy, where scooter theft is also common, so I felt well prepared.

What I wasn’t prepared for, was to find our room not ready. Okay we were a little early, but by this point, we were both desperate for a shower, and a snooze. Or at the very least a coffee. After being greeted with a smile, and an iced tea at our boutique family run hotel, in a more ‘authentic’ part of the city then the usual sterile hotel strip, we were presented with a city map, and very kindly shown a number of coffee shops within a five minute walk of the hotel.

‘You go get coffee, and your room should be ready in one hour…’ said the smiling young receptionist, handing back our passports which she had moments earlier taken copies of.

‘And our bags…?’

‘Yes, you leave here. When your room ready, we take in for you.’

Now while I was happy to leave my clothes, shoes, toiletries and a few paperbacks in the middle of what was essentially a front room, I was certainly not leaving our valuables, all of which were in my cross body handbag. A small black, zipped designer version, that was my ‘go-to’ plane bag, big enough to fit passports, phone and purse, but small enough to stay attached to my body at all times. The plan was to leave this bag in the room safe, using a less conspicuous, beaten up brown one to carry any money we would need each day.

Except at this moment, we had no room.

No safe.

And there was no security on the doors of the hotel, and the only staff member we had seen was the receptionist, who had already left us several times, to attend to matters out the back. Surely the safer option was to take the bag with me.

Looking back now I wonder why we didn’t ask to stay at the hotel until our room was ready. But that just felt rude, demanding, all the things that we hated of other travellers. Or maybe we should have switched bags over there and then, placed everything of value into a small backpack, or my older, worn bag. But the coffee shop was only five minutes away. And my bag would stay firmly held against by chest. As it had done on many travels before. And there was coffee to be had. Much needed jet-lag clearing coffee.

So off we went into the dusty, humid Saigon streets.

Inquisitive eyes stared at us from doorways as we weaved from cracked pavement to road and back again, our path constantly blocked by parked scooters or baskets of vibrant green vegetables or tables of greasy car parts. Finally we reached the coffee shop, and took a stool in the window to watch the melee of scooters below, gulping down our coffee, and making plans for our evening, after an hour or two of sleep.

Soon it was time to head back, and although we were tired, even with the supercharged double espressos we had just had, we were happy.

It all felt so different and exciting. So very Vietnam. Women walked past us in bright floral trouser suits and conical hats, while hundreds of  electrical wires hung just out of reach overhead. There was heat, and dust, and noise, and scooters and then the western couple standing on the roadside, both hunched over an iPhone. And I remember thinking, that’s silly, someone could come along and snatch that.

 

And then I saw a bike heading along the pavement towards us, just as we stepped briefly into the road again to get around a stool with a big umbrella. And as we did the bike came closer and I thought, they’re going to run over my foot if they’re not careful, and as I moved closer to Alex, the bike bumped me, and I thought they were just trying to get around the umbrella, but then there was a tug, and I was spinning around, being dragged towards this bike that wasn’t stopping.

 

Then a crack, a loud snap and finally my empty hands in the air as my bag was ripped

away from me.

 

It was that quick that Alex didn’t even realise what had happened, and I didn’t scream. Just pointed after the two masked thieves as they zoomed away into the distance, my broken bag strap trailing behind them.

 

I looked for help but all I saw were dark eyes staring at me, not with kindness or concern, just watching to see what I was going to do next. And suddenly I felt very afraid, and very far from home.

 

‘Are you okay?’ The western couple. American. Holding out their phone.

 

‘Do you want to call someone?’

 

Yes. No. Who?

 

‘It’s okay, our hotel’s just over there.’

 

Alex takes the lead, his arm around me, guiding me along the street to our hotel. And I notice I’m holding my breath and breathing really fast at the same time. And my hands, and arms are shaking. Then we are at our hotel and Alex is talking to the receptionist, and asking her to call the police, and I’m thinking we need to phone the bank, and the phone company, and our insurance. What about the passports? Where’s the embassy? But it’s Sunday, and they will be closed, and what else was in the bag?

 

Passport covers we had made, some jewellery, my Grandads St Christopher I have had since I went travelling at 21. The tears are starting now, and I can hear the receptionist saying we have to go to the police station, we can’t just call them. Wait until her shift is over and she will come.

 

So it takes another hour before we finally go. Venturing out into the streets once more, I am no longer excited. I press myself up against Alex, clinging to his arm, trusting no-one. We weave in and out of traffic and under a dirty underpass with shopping trolleys fall of headless decaying chickens and the floor wet with something dark and sticky.

 

When we turn up at the police station, we are stared at by several uniformed men sitting outside, their shirts unbuttoned, smoking rolled up cigarettes. Our receptionist walks up to the desk to translate what has happened, while I try not to look at the woman wailing from the single cell at the back of the room. The officer behind the desk suddenly stands and heads for a scooter outside, gesturing for me to sit on the back.

 

‘You need to go with him to show him where it happened’

 

‘No, I can’t’ I say, gripping Alex’s hand.

 

‘You must go, it’s the only way.’

 

The guard hits the back of the bike for me to sit, frowning and shouting at me in Vietnamese, and I back further away, shaking my head.

 

Alex offers to go in my place, but the officer refuses. Then he asks about the dusty police car parked on the pavement, but apparently this ran out of petrol a long time ago. I’m crying again now, because without a police report, we can’t go the embassy and I think we may be stuck here forever, in this hell hole, with people that watch as you get mugged, stare as you cry, and police that don’t even have a working police car.

 

Eventually, we agree to take a taxi back to the scene of the crime, where our police officer walks around, speaks to a few of the locals and then two minutes later gets back in the car. Then we spend a few more hours in the police station. First waiting on a hard wooden bench until they are ready, then writing out what happened, then having this translated and then being told we have to return at 8am to pick the report up. The only two questions I am asked directly are:

 

‘Why you not like scooter?’

 

Because I’ve just been mugged by two guys on one, the only time I rode one I fell off, and quite frankly I don’t trust you.

 

‘Because I’m afraid,’ was all I said.

 

‘What you think of Vietnam?’

 

Well so far, in the whole four hours I’ve been here, I can categorically say, its hell.

 

‘I’ve only been here four hours and I’ve been mugged, so I don’t really know’

 

A nod and a smirk is all I get in reply.

 

Now that night we had a choice. Hide in our room, or try to make the most of the first night of our rather messed up holiday. Ever the optimists, we chose option two.

 

We visited a rooftop bar for cocktails and fresh shrimp spring rolls, walked down the illuminated and more importantly pedestrianised Nguyen Hue Boulevard and ate bowls of soupy noodles outside Ben Thanh Street Food Market. We even laughed I think. It had been a shock, but we were otherwise uninjured, and of course, it could have been worse. We were only on a nine day trip, and we were determined to make the most of the rest of our time.

 

Unfortunately Saigon had other ideas. On what should have been our day trip to the Mekong Delta, we spent the first hour at the police station, desperately trying to retrieve our stamped and signed police report, which we were told would not be ready until 5pm. When we refused to leave without it, we were ignored for another 30 minutes, before finally, like magic, the police officer we had seen yesterday and then finally the paperwork appeared.

 

Then we headed to the British Embassy, where we were told to phone for an appointment tomorrow. Eventually, after pleading on the telephone to the kind staff inside, we were allowed in. And hooray, they could process us today, and our Emergency Travel Documents would be ready by 4pm, but then we would need to visit the Vietnamese Embassy tomorrow, to get a replacement visa, which could take several days.

 

So, no, we would not be able to travel to Hoi An tomorrow, and we would probably not be going to Hue, and we may well be stuck in Saigon for the whole remaining seven days of our holiday.

 

So we went and found a bar. A rooftop bar. Up high and safe. We did walk past a few of the sights on our way. The old post office. Norte Dame. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos as I refused to take out our one remaining phone. I also spent a large portion of the day tutting at anyone that I saw holding their camera in the road to capture that iconic Vietnam scooter image, or walking along with slouchy handbags slung carelessly over their shoulder.

 

We went for dinner that night at a recommended Vietnamese restaurant, which unfortunately also happened to be around the corner from the infamous Bui Vein Street, a backpacker and red-light district, where apparently theft is common, and even bottle pelting by locals isn’t unheard of. Needless to stay we didn’t stay for dessert.

 

The following morning was spent in the heat and chaos of the Vietnamese embassy, first finding the right desk, then filling in the right paperwork, and finally paying the right fee. The only light at the end of our very dark tunnel was that our visas should be ready by tomorrow, which meant we could get the overnight train and get the hell out of Saigon.

 

 

 

 

But now we had an extra day in my least favourite place on earth, and we were feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted. Our hotel had been very kind, but walking past ‘the scene of the crime’ every day, wasn’t helping. So we decided to move. To a hotel with a pool. A rooftop one. Walking into the air conditioned reception was such a relief, as was an early check in, and finally an afternoon to relax and swim in the infinity pool overlooking the Saigon skyline, high above the madness below. It wasn’t what we had come to Vietnam for. To socialise with other Westerners inside a sterile Westernised hotel, but we has lost any sense of adventure we had come away with. We just wanted to relax and feel safe.

The following day we had to wait until 4pm to collect our passports, so we spent the day around the pool again, praying that they would be ready on time. When 3pm came around, we decided to go early, which as it turned out was a very wise move, as our passports had been stamped with the wrong date. Another hour of nail biting ensued, until finally we were in a taxi, on our way back to the hotel to collect our backpacks and then finally on the train, and safely ensconced in our little compartment for two, opting to pay the extra for a private carriage for our 31 hour journey to Hanoi.

And as we wheeled our way out of the suburbs of Saigon, clinking our warm cans of Saigon Special beer, taking photos on our phone, and of course checking for the tenth time our carriage door was locked, it felt like our Vietnamese holiday could finally begin.

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