A Cautionary Tale

I’ve written about motorbikes before. There are 6,000,000 of them in Saigon. They are everywhere – on the street, on the sidewalk, in the lobbies of buildings, and on the ground floor of most houses. Not just some motorbikes, millions of them. You are conscious, every minute, of their presence. Right now I’m in my apartment but the sound of motorbikes passing is in the room with me. They are noisy, quiet, dirty, clean, sleek, clunky, fast and slow. They are used for personal transport, pizza delivery, FedEx and DHL, taxi service, family transport (up to 5 on one bike), furniture delivery (I’ve seen 10 twin bed mattresses weaving down the street at 6am), livestock delivery (trussed inverted pigs or 30 dead chickens hanging by their scrawny necks), police patrols, mail, grocery, fast-food, flower, and window glass delivery. Almost any function is and can be performed by motorbike – including larceny and battery.

Traffic is chaotic. Bikes drive on both sides of the road and on the sidewalk wherever there is an opening. They swerve between cars and turn in front of them. I’ve seen them run red lights at full speed across blind corners early in the morning. There is some order to it, but it’s difficult to discern exactly how it works. Sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes there are tragic consequences. Last week a friend of a friend’s 6 year old daughter was killed in Hanoi when a taxi rear-ended the mother and two daughters on their way home from school. The mother may lose her foot. The taxi driver made a run for it but was stopped by a couple of other cars at the next traffic light. More often than not they get away and leave the motorbike driver lying in the street. It’s the law of the jungle.

The more common crime, on the increase in Saigon, is purse or computer snatching. It’s not new. When we moved here we were warned to be careful and always carry a purse or computer on the building side when walking or with the strap across your body on a motorbike. I don’t know if it is the global recession or something else but purse snatching is on the rise now and sometimes it too has awful consequences. It usually works this way: two men on a bike spot a woman walking or riding with a purse hanging from her shoulder. They will pass slowly to case the job and then do a U-turn and make their run. The second guy on the bike grabs the purse or in some cases cuts the strap and they’re off. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the consequences. The best outcome is a clean snatch and run. The worst is that the victim is pulled off the bike and dragged down the street.

Our friend, Kaci (many Vietnamese working with foreigners take Western names to make it easier for us to remember) had her purse snatched a couple of years ago. She was riding on the back of a xe-om, a motorbike taxi, when it happened. Her bag was strapped across her body and the thieves didn’t make a clean job of it. Kaci was thrown off the bike and dragged a ways until the thieves could free the bag. She was knocked unconscious and bleeding from a head injury. The xe-om driver stopped and went back to help. Eventually, he got her into a taxi, left his own bike and took her to the hospital – still unconscious. She had no ID because her purse was gone and no one knew who she was or who to call. She might have died because her brain was swelling, but doctors administered drugs immediately that kept the swelling down. The xe-om driver stayed with her until 8am the following morning when she recovered consciousness. By some miracle she was able to remember her mother’s phone number although most of her short term memory was gone. She doesn’t remember anything about the accident. She ended up with 8 stiches in her scalp and was kept in the hospital for a month until she recovered her memory. In the end she had to quit her job as a sales rep for Remy Martin because it was unsafe for her to drink alcohol (part of her job) following the accident. She’s fine now and has a new job, but it might have ended like the 6 year old girl in Hanoi.

We have another friend who was walking and whose handbag strap was cut. This time the thieves didn’t get it because she was holding on tight. A Vietnamese-American friend of mine lost his MacBook Pro the second day he was in town. Same modus – two guys on a bike, quick turnaround, snatch and run. My friend speaks fluent Vietnamese and went to the police station to file a report. He didn’t imagine that they would get the computer back for him but he needed the report for his insurance company. They asked him to fill out the report and come back the next day to pick up a copy. He did, but the next day they “couldn’t remember” him filling out the report. They asked him to fill out another one. In the end their message was “You’re a rich American. You deserved to lose it. You should have known better.” He never got the report he needed from them, but one of the guys in his office has a friend in the police department who happily provided one.

Holidays are the worst time for petty crime. At Tet, lunar new year, Vietnamese need to take a gifts to their families. If they don’t have the means they might just snatch a purse. Be cautious. Be aware. And, don’t expect the police to help. But for the right price you can get almost anything even help from the police…

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