Two for the price of one
Bribery and extortion on the streets of Saigon

from: Room 16 hotel name unknown, Ho Chi Minh city. Vietnam

Cruising contentedly down a broad boulevard in Saigon the words "I think you're going the wrong way down a one way street" were no sooner out of Julie's mouth and in my left ear than a shrill tin whistle went off in my right one. My error had not gone unnoticed by Ho Chi Minh city's vigilant boys in threadbare Khaki.

" You wrong way. You this one-way. " I looked at him blankly hoping a well feigned incomprehension might get me off the hook. If he can't convey the crime I don't pay the fine. To my horror he took me by the arm and led me into the middle of the street, pointing at a distant sign somewhere in the evening murk,
" one way! one way! " My resolve dissolved in the face of an oncoming phalanx of scooters and I quickly pulled him back to the curb, apologizing for my traffic blunder and duly handing over my passport when he said 'passport!'
He made a show of inspecting it and conferring with his partner, who'd just bagged a culprit of his own. He slipped my passport between a folded sheaf of papers he was holding and asked what I thought must be a trick question,
" Where you from? "
" Switzerland. Very small country. You know it?" I was trying to be friendly with this guy who must have thought the white cross on my red passport meant I was a doctor. About to mention that my country, like his, bordered a far larger historically expansionist one and we are like cousins and family should - he cut me off,
" Fine ticket three hundred thousand Dong "
The comrade-like smile dropped from my face. It seems he knew Switzerland well enough to know it is wealthy. Or perhaps he still thought I was a doctor. Either way he was under the impression that his ship had come in. Three hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong is the equivalent of twenty dollars, an amount far greater than I was expecting. It is difficult to convey just how much this is to anyone in the west where any traffic violation is met with fines far greater. Here twenty dollars will get us a night in a hotel room, a couple of meals, liters of beer and the bike on which we just committed the crime for 24 hours. It is also more than two weeks pay for an average Vietnamese. There was very little I could do. How does one go about haggling down the price of a ticket? Bursting into tears would do no good in this country where face had to be saved at all cost. I motioned to the papers he was holding and mimed writing something,
" Will you write me a receipt? "
There I had it, the one thing I could have said to help my situation. A ticket would have meant a paper trail or worse, taking me down to the station and giving up this lucrative spot where all the time more bikes were breaking the same rule I had. His partner quickly interjected with his own brand of English,
" 200 000 You pay now. "
I came back with the bills and held them out. In a parody of bribery he must have learned from silent movies the first policemen rolled his eyes, took the money and slid the money into the sheaf of papers where my ransomed passport lay. His hand reemerged with the document and he waved me off, disgusted by my lack of payoff finesse.

I later found out that the fine for a Vietnamese breaking the same rule is never more than 50 000 Dong. It seems that in Vietnam, crime often does pay.

~ Nigel 11.03.01



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