Stickman Readers' Submissions January 27th, 2009

Getting Fleeced – Exposing the Underside of Hanoi

Some warnings on behalf of those who decide to visit Hanoi…Saigon too…and perform business in Vietnam.

I took a just-arrived visitor from Darwin, Australia out to see Hanoi last night (as I write this). He was married to a Thai, also had a three-year-old son (as do I), I think he feels like I do about mine – it’s the best thing
in his life, and he and his wife had decided to do separate things last night.

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He’d read an article I’d written, “Thailand v Vietnam and the Search Beyond for that Expat Heaven in Asia” and had to meet me.

After my showing him the common-class, all Vietnamese “cafe” (quite a euphemism; the Vietnamese are good at them) scene, being a normal person I take him to an expat bar with a sleazy reputation – the Relax Bar, a dark little bar on Ly Thuong Kiet Street downtown in a quiet area.

Then, along with a big, quiet, British fellow we met there, we decided to try out the Polite Pub not that far away that was in an area more vibrant, just inside Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

We step outside the Relax Bar, are soon surrounded by three Vietnamese motorbike girls who pulled up, stopped, and wanted to entertain us. They were good and it looked like the other two were going to opt for the “date” route.

Hanoi at night: Dirty street

Hanoi at night: Electrician’s nightmare Hanoi at night: Fruit vendors

The one coming on to me had all the sex appeal of a wet mop, to me anyway – I have been here in Hanoi for almost ages. Hence, I used my “getting rid of” technique of saying I was married, got sex the normal way, would only want something special from her not forthcoming from my wife, and would she take it up the rear. However, that didn’t work; she agreed – immediately! I relate that to the Australian and British man, and we have a chuckle.

My Australian and the big, quiet British fellow decided to decline on the women, we arrive in front of the Polite Pub, but the big UK fellow is upset about something. One of the girls (the short, paunchy, ugly one), the one who had been trying to come on to me and then had moved over to him, had picked his coat pocket (Hanoi can be nippy in the winter) of about 1,000,000 dong ($57.47) he had loosely in his pocket. That was it for his night, although we said we’d pay for the beer in the Polite Pub.

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I had advised him (i) the Vietnamese feared their police, would never report anything, and they felt the police, “the hungry dogs,” wouldn’t do anything anyway; (ii) those gals for sure wouldn’t be sticking around the scene we’d just left; and (iii) what he could do was…nothing.

I believe where she might have gotten him, and she tried it on me, was when she had him remove his helmet under the pretext of wanting to see what he looked like. That would take away his vision and distract him long enough. He had been in Hanoi five or six months, and that was his first time at the Relax Bar.

In the venerable Polite Pub, mixed Vietnamese and foreigners, the Australian and I were having a chuckle, though, over one aspect of the sad situation, with his noting, “And here she (the burglar) was the one who I’d tipped 50,000 dong.” We had taken a lot of their time, they were not getting anything out of it, and I like being fair to the girls.

A visitor to Hanoi, after leaving, reported that visitors should watch out for the New Century Disco. The Vietnamese drugged and robbed him there. And then it hits me – that was probably where my wife’s purse was stolen out of her Honda Spacy scooter a few years back; she had it locked in that compartment under the seat. We didn’t know where to complain, for our party subsequently went to the Apocalypse Now disco. Now it’s looking like it was New Century that preyed on their customers.

New Century disco owner was known for coming up here from Saigon and having superb Party connections. His New Century could, unlike his competitors, get away with (i) unlimited and late noise (deafening loud, but the Vietnamese, in all their world-class ignorance, would respond, “What’s the problem?”); and (ii) using Vietnam’s national library across the street for his parking.

You will have no more trouble at New Century, for the police shut it down about two years ago. Too much drugs and prostitution. Even the connections weren’t saving it. Apocalypse Now disco has also long been out of business.

Then I remember an acquaintance, a Romanian-American from San Jose, California, relating to me similar (as happened to the British fellow) happening to him inside the (French) Big C Store (something like a Wal-Mart) on the Hoa Lac – Lang Road on the far west edge of Hanoi. A bunch of Vietnamese women surrounded him, under the pretext of being interested in what he was purchasing, and then he finds that they had slashed his cargo-like pants’ big pockets, and taken his wallet and camera. The store found his wallet, missing his money.

The next week when he was there, he heard a Russian couple at the customer service desk complaining of like happening to them. Having three or more pickpockets involved in like the case of the British fellow and at Big C, I reflect, is smart, for if they were caught by the mark, they would have safety in numbers and give off big noise in a trip of feinted indignation.

The Australian, and you would think he would know better, being a number of times’ visitor to Thailand over several years and even married to a Thai, related to me similar of what had happened to my previous visitor in Hanoi who’d first been down Saigon way. In Saigon, the agreed fare was something like 50,000 dong ($3) for a motorbike taxi, but then the Vietnamese driver is saying 500,000 dong. The Australian feels he has no choice but to pay. Later he decided he had been had.

My previous visitor had agreed to some smaller amount, also in Saigon, then his masseuse is saying 500,000 dong, and he feels like he has to pay. Then, he is also feeling he was had.

They were had. It may go beyond mere coincidence that 20,000 dong and 500,000 dong notes look the same, both the exact same shade of blue, and knowing the Vietnamese, they could show a 500,000 note and say that’s what they were owed. And the arithmetic to a newcomer is difficult when you’re talking one dollar is 17,400 dong.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, one of the moneychanger ladies on the street close to the international post office in Hanoi almost cheated me by taking advantage of notes having the same color but of big difference in value. I barely caught her before the transaction was completed. (It is best not to use those women changing money close to the international post office of Hanoi, but I see naïve tourists doing it all the time. I know many are cheated.)

I’m surprised no guidebook, no source, puts this out. The fare for motorbike taxis is so objective. Formerly it was 1,000 dong/kilometer, and with gas going up, then going up again, it’s now gone to 3,000 dong/kilometer. They can’t cheat you. Look at his odometer reading when you start, and at the end of the trip, you see you’ve gone 5 kilometers, then give him 15,000 dong. Guy tries arguing with me, I only have to say, “May cay so?” – How many kilometers? He knows I know. Attempted argument over.

If you are really cheating a Vietnamese, they will make an altercation (verbal) to high heaven, but when you aren’t, their resistance is perfunctory. And who says you have to argue? My technique is pay, and I’m gone. I’m surprised no one else does it that way. I’ll always see tourists pulled into a “pissing” contest with their cyclo driver or what have you. (No wonder Vietnam, unlike Thailand, receives no repeat visitors.)

You often read that Vietnam is not for the timid. It goes beyond that. The world’s most streetwise person is not equipped for Vietnam. If I bring my cousin Rick over here, he may end up in an inadequate Vietnamese provincial hospital maimed. Rick is the 380-pound (173 kilogram) former National Enforcer for Sons of Silence Motorcycle Club (the most lethal gang, a Fox TV documentary reported), who displayed in their clubhouse (with gun portals) the eyeball they had gouged out of an Outlaw Motorcycle Club member. Cousin’s now-wife kept the eyeball in her pocket until they could display it on their clubhouse mantle in a bottle of alcohol; her then boyfriend had just gouged it out. Ask my cousin about a certain rival gang, and he calmly dismisses them with, “They drive Hondas” (rather than Harleys).

(Sons of Silence Cousin and his wife, who I stayed with last time in my home country, described the mechanics of ripping an eye out (surprising to me, they are disengaged pretty easily), making me think, man, maybe there’s too much risk in street-fighting, and I had professional boxing training at a gym producing several world champions.)

We have fun telling our Minsk motorcycle stories at Anh (older brother) Cuong’s renowned Minsk shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, like how when our (1938-technology) Minsks (made of steel) make contact with a Honda Dream clone (lots of plastic), function of the driving of the documented worst drivers of the world, the Vietnamese. The plastic shrieks, goes flying, with some barely hanging on and flapping in the wind. The young Vietnamese kid who swerved out in front of you from a side street without looking is now trying to keep his Honda Dream clone going, for the Minsk has smashed up his foot-controlled linkage. As usual, not a micro-shred of damage to the Beast, the Minsk. Those Belarusian Soviets were geniuses!

But there is no fun with the Vietnamese Minsk shop folks telling this one: They are leading a tour for some foreign visitors, and are flabbergasted at the tourists flying down the highway at 90 kilometers an hour on Minsks. You can’t do that in Vietnam. They think they are amongst normal people. The tourist ends up in a hospital with his jaw broken in two places.

Vietnam (and the adventuresome tourists doing their thing on a beast (Minsk) never think of this) is about the last place you want to be in serious trouble health- or injury-wise, particularly out in the sticks. When we expats have something beyond perfunctorily wrong with us, they fly us out to Bangkok or Singapore. Even the rural Vietnamese prefer not to have to use their local hospitals; they’ll make their way into Hanoi, as if the Hanoi hospitals weren’t already overloaded.

I can just picture the tourist flying down the highway, with their assuming that Vietnamese at a side road up ahead is actually going to turn his head to first determine whether there is oncoming traffic. And that, my folks, is what could happen to my street-wise cousin who shares his house with a Sons of Silence ex-con, out on probation for murdering an Outlaw. (Cousin’s ex-con friend takes me out to look at Harleys, and I don’t know that when he stops in a strip club we’re on a hit. Cousin’s wife subsequently explains it would have been over crack, and “Teddy Bear” would have shot him with his pistol. The mark, usually there, was not in, surprising Teddy Bear.)

The Vietnamese, who cannot tolerate criticism, will advise you that yes there are lots of negative reports about the Hanoians, the Vietnamese, Vietnam, but give Hanoi a chance. (The commies they are under have programmed them to not criticize, saying you chose us, meaning you should not complain about us and that means you should forever not complain about us and you, then, with your having chosen us, will be under us forever.)

(Ms Duong Thu Huong, a novelist we foreigners love and a rare dissident in Hanoi, formerly a very loyal Communist Party member who fought for them in the war, and who subsequently saw the communists for who they were, recently said, “The leadership has survived for thirty years ‘on corpses’", meaning they are surviving based on the war against the U.S.)

I know Hanoi well, and with the mindless development, it’s now a dustbowl of pollution, and your lungs and your children’s lungs will never be the same. At this moment, I feel it in my lungs, and have never smoked. Yes the economy is up 8.5%, but livability is down 100%.

Where are the expat heavens in Asia? “…The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd (PERC) said (regarding its evaluation of 12 Asian countries) the friendly Philippines edged efficient Singapore (for #1) in its latest annual survey of expat life, with 479 respondents polled across the region.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Thailand was only in the middle of the pack. Where does Vietnam rate? Next to the bottom, with only South Korea doing worse.

I agree with the survey – my Hanoian wife recently was a recipient of a boondoggle of a training class at the University of the Philippines, and what delightful, pleasant (as my wife described them) people the Filipinos were.

Yes, I’m apparently hard on the Vietnamese (actually it’s the facts that are hard on them – I merely set forth facts), but there is a difference between you and I. The Vietnamese have invited me to visit them in a tremendous number of the provinces in the North. This includes the ethnic minority Muong, Dao, Tay (related to the Thai), San Diu (our maid is an adorable San Diu teen), and Kinh (majority Vietnamese).

I need to figure out a polite way of declining their “ruou” (rice vodka), for with my keeping my weight down (I think that’s what it is), it’s been knocking me unconscious. It’s a difficult “issue,” for declining does flabbergast them and is un-neighborly in their eyes. I mull and mull this…and the solution I come up with is…there is no solution.

Regarding the bars discussed above, all this talk about the Vietnamese and their cheating or whatever you want to call it, makes me reflect on another aspect of it. Only now does it hit me. First, some background.

My wife worked for a consulting group here in Hanoi, owned by a little Canadian guy. He had a Saigonese wife, a young son, and girlfriend in Bangkok. His Vietnamese secretary was the (rich) daughter of the owners of (a popular bar in Hanoi). (I need to use some discreetness here.)

My wife (tall like a lot of Hanoian women) looked down (figuratively and literally) on the little Canadian, referring to him as “that dirty little dick.” For one thing, it earns the contempt of his Vietnamese employees when the Canadian is having financial trouble with the enterprise and has to have his Vietnamese secretary loan him money to even be able to pay their wages.

Trieu Thu Trang, a small town (Tuyen Quang) northern Vietnamese was leading 110 contestants in the internet popularity contest of the Miss International Tourism Queen Pageant with 2,100 votes. In 2nd and 3rd place were a Thai and Korean with 1,400 and 1,300 votes respectively. Ms Trang had only come in 2nd place in her hometown.

Canadian CEO did gain some superb consultancy contracts, like with the World Bank, but although there is a tremendous amount of work for consulting in Vietnam, it is competitive, and he would have periods of money coming in and periods the opposite, typical of how it is, consultants will tell you. Rather than being surprised at his situation (and read on), other consultants will tell you they understand – that’s the way it is in consulting in Vietnam.

He quickly flees the country, abandoning his Saigonese wife (unattractive my wife described her as) and young son. The Vietnamese cops were after him for non-payment of taxes, and he was permanently blacklisted from Vietnam.

The secretary, on her own, was taking over the consultancy and wanted my wife to be her partner. My wife declined, not wanting the hassle of administering employees. And I have mulled: well, with my wife not being interested in the partnership, why didn’t I join up with the secretary. But then I think how much I love the freedom of early retirement. I’m good at doing nothing, and thoroughly recommend it – my three-day weekend every three days.

Only now, after the rip-off event of last night, and after some years, does this hit me: Did the rich Vietnamese secretary orchestrate the Canadian’s downfall. I just asked my wife if that was possible, and she responds, “Yes.”

So what’s the point? Of course one should be careful also in getting involved with the Vietnamese in business dealings. What happened to the Canadian is not unusual. An example of Vietnamese “justice”: An expat has left Vietnam after losing $850,000. He’d had a dispute with his Vietnamese partner. The cops ruled that he (the foreigner) could afford the $850,000 loss, and ruled for the Vietnamese. This was down Nha Trang way.

And expats have been driven almost to suicide after having put their life’s savings into like a prime hotel and bar-restaurant, with it all being in their Vietnamese wives’ names, and the Vietnamese wives split, sell the property, and tries hard to have the expats run out of the country.

And finally, the consulting group, formerly of the little Canadian, “that dirty little dick,” is going well, under the ownership of his former Vietnamese secretary – who took it over at a cost of nothing.

Stickman's thoughts:

I hate to say it, but it is good to know that Thailand is not the only place in the region where this sort of nonsense takes place… You're doing a great job of keeping us informed of the dangers.

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