Today was the big day–we were finally going to reach Saigon! It was only 95km away, so we took our time having a breakfast of pho and seeing the giant Jesus statue at the top of a hill overlooking the beach. People from Vung Tau claim it’s bigger than the one in Rio de Janeiro, but I beg to differ. We also made some minor fixes to the bikes, like my horn, which was absolutely crucial for surviving the hectic traffic we would be in later that day.
It didn’t take long for us to get wedged into the congested streets leading to the city, but we felt more confident after driving for a few weeks. We weaved in and out, past monstrous tractor trailers, unwieldy livestock trucks, and erratic buses.
We pushed through the madness on the road and could feel the momentum building with each kilometer closer to our destination–we were almost there!! Then, 15km away from the city, a traffic cop extended his baton and insisted we pull over for a traffic stop. He asked us to show him our licenses and registration cards, which we proudly presented to him, because we actually had all the proper documentation (unlike most backpackers). Our confidence was soon shattered when he started making up outrageous reasons why we were not driving legally. He insisted the name on the registration was wrong and that one of our license plates was a fake, butnnone of this was true. We argued firmly against him but he said he would have to impound both of our bikes unless we gave him $150. We had been warned about crooked cops, but had been advised to simply give them $10 and they would let you on your way. This was no normal cop and his corruption ran much deeper. He refused to give back our licenses and registration, which prevented us from just driving away. We didn’t have enough cash on us, so the cop said something into his radio and immediately a civilian (the cop’s henchman) showed up to take Byron to the ATM to take out the bribe money. I stayed with the bikes on the side of the highway with the cop, who’s name badge was pinned on backwards, concealing his identity. My palms started sweating and my heart was pounding furiously. This series of events were disturbing and tested both of us.
Cop: Is he your husband? (Gesturing to where Byron had been standing)
Me: No, boyfriend.
Cop: Do you like Vietnamese boys?
Me: Everyone from Vietnam has been very nice.
Cop: You are very beautiful.
Me: No, I am unhappy that you are making us pay all of this money.
Cop: You want to make love to me?
Me (not wanting to escalate the situation but utterly and thoroughly disgusted): No, I have a boyfriend, I can’t do that.
Cop: What is your phone number? How about I call you later when you’re in Saigon and we meet up alone.
Me: I don’t know what my number is.
Cop: Write down my number and call me and we’ll meet up later. I’ll pay you $50.
By this point I had turned on my iPhone camera and was recording everything he was saying on video in case there was a chance we could get some justice. He continued on:
Cop: Blow me.
Me (not entirely sure what I just heard): What, follow you? I don’t understand.
Cop: No, blow me.
He doodled on his clipboard a picture of two stick figures, one with its head in the others lap. He points to his crotch.
Me (shocked and repulsed but still trying to keep the situation calm): No, no, no, I can’t do that.
Thankfully Byron came back a few minutes later with the henchman and I told him how truly crooked this cop was and we made some split second decisions to act boldly and take back our registration and license from him. We told him he was breaking the law and we refused to pay him. The cop lunged for my motorcycle key and snatched it. Byron beat him to his bike and clutched his key. He started yelling at us and into his radio for backup.
Cop: You pay me the money or you don’t get the key.
The situation was escalating quickly, but we pleaded with him to give back my key. Being nice didn’t get us anywhere, so I told him that I got everything he was saying to me on video and he was going to get in a lot of trouble. If he gave me the key, I said we wouldn’t report him.
This changed his mind a bit, as well as enrage him, so he desperately demanded only $50 as bribe money. He started yelling more aggressively that he would call backup and take us and our bike away. Byron and I looked at each other and agreed $50 was worth it just to get away from the situation. However, the cop must have changed his mind because when we tried to give him the money, he flipped out again and demanded more. Byron started waving and yelling for help at the passing traffic, hoping to flag someone down. No one stopped, even as the henchman picked up a large brick and came after Byron. He raised his arm and was ready to throw it as Byron was trying to negotiate and give him the money. The cop signaled to the henchman to stop, and he finally accepted the $50 in exchange for my key. We sped off so quickly, with shaky hands and heads full of rage, horror, and relief to be away. I weaved in and out of traffic as fast as I could and looked behind me out of fear he was following us. As soon as we could, I insisted we pull off the main highway and get to our hostel safely by the back roads before we tried to report the incident and get some justice.
We pulled into the city and there were no cheers, high fives, or celebrations of our arrival. We were both livid about what happened and asked our hotel receptionist if this was common and what we could do. She was shocked at our story and said this never happens, especially to tourists. We called the USA Consulate in Vietnam to report the event, and they promised to review the case and decide what action would be most appropriate.
After the hellish morning, I decided I deserved the largest frappuccino the Starbucks down the street could offer. With a cold beverage and my anger lessened, I realized how much worse the situation could have been. It was terrifying, but in the end we were only out $50 and were unharmed. I was determined to see some sort of justice, but I was proud of us for acting calmly and making it through using some fast thinking.
Determined not to let the morning ruin the rest of our day, we touched up the paint on our motorcycles and made signs and advertisements to sell them. We didn’t have the energy to go out and experience the Saigon nightlife, so instead we had the most delicious Mexican dinner. I had enjoyed the Vietnamese food along the journey, but I was more than ready to indulge in Western tastes.