C**ts, Cops & Commuters in Saigon

C**ts, Cops & Commuters in Saigon

My first bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City was supposed to leave at 2pm in the afternoon, but in the true spirit of the region, was cancelled with no explanation what so ever. The next one didn’t leave until 00:30, so I grudgingly bought a ticket and loitered around for that one instead. On the plus side, I’d bought some Valium over the counter in Siam Reap and now was as good as ever to try it out. The sleeper bus wasn’t particularly comfortable, so I dropped back 20mg and spent most of the trip completely out of it. Vindicating my decision to drug myself was the fact that the scheduled time of six hours, was in reality, twelve. The only thing I really remember was the border crossing – which meant we were all bundled out to have our Visa’s checked – though I was barely cognitive of this at the time.

At some point I remember hazily waking up as everyone was getting off the bus at our final destination in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. I gathered my things and staggered off the bus, finding myself greeted by a bunch of hawking taxi drivers. I was barely awake, had no idea where in the city I was, or was my hostel, so I accepted the first offer that came my way for a ride. I showed him the address on my iPhone and tried to negotiate a fare up front – but he insisted we go off the meter. The meter, not surprisingly, was crooked and within 5 minutes, it was reading 500,000 Dong (about $US30). I wasn’t putting up with this shit and told him to pull over so I could get out, telling him I’d pay half of that – and that would be it. I pulled my luggage out of the taxi and he sped off in a huff the second I gave him the cash – giving me no chance to grab my last item off the seat – my iPhone. It took me a second to realise what was going on and by the time I did, the license plate was obscured and I had nothing to go off.

I’ve never been so shamelessly furious in public – sober or drunk. I was standing on the side of the road cursing and gesticulating hatred like a maniac. That Phone 4S had been a visual and video catalogue of my craziest adventures and best moments over the last 2 years, and I hadn’t backed it up since, unbelievably, I’d never taken the time to understand or use the iCloud functionality.

Somehow, I found an honest motorbike taxi named Chao, who then took me to my hostel (Vietnam Inn Saigon), offering to tour me round in the afternoon. But first of all I needed one of the local staff from the Hostel to take me to the police station so I could get a report for insurance purposes. They were helpful enough and I was escorted there.

I quickly found out that Vietnamese police are well and truly removed from the concept of ‘too protect and serve’. Walking into the first station with my nervous hostel assistant, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d entered the underground headquarters of a paramilitary unit. The ‘cops’ were hanging around like a gangster passé and stared at us menacingly, obviously irked by the prospect that they may have to do something. My guy tentatively tried talking to what I assumed was the head honcho, only for him to aggressively scream some Vietnamese babble back at him. We walked back outside and let me know what they said.

Place your phone was taken is not his area, he sort of say us to fuck off to other station… Hopefully they write a report.

Just 5 minutes away, station number two wasn’t a great deal more encouraging. The cops there didn’t even notice us walk in, they were too busy watching some local soap opera on the TV with great intrigue. Instead we walked right into the captain’s office. This pudgy motherfucker could not have looked more disinterested if he’d tried, but did cut a fairly amusing image. As well as rocking a pair of aviators and a scratchy attempt at a handlebar moustache, he had so many badges hanging off his shirt that there was barely any space left. On top of that he was coolly puffing on a chunky cigar directly underneath the no smoking sign above his desk. My helper actually managed to have what seemed like a civilised conversation with him for a few minutes, but then he again motioned me to walk outside.

So…. What happened this time?

Well, he don’t really believe this happen – so he no write report. Sorry there’s not more we can do…

More tired and exasperated than before, I wasn’t thinking straight enough at the time for it to occur to me that I should have just bribed the fat shit. But at the time I was at my wits end and just gave up.

Not helping to improve my demeanour was the fact that I hadn’t eaten since last night and it was now 2pm. At least I could address that. Getting back to the hostel, my motor-taxi guy was there waiting and was quick to recommend and drop me off somewhere. He didn’t steer me wrong – my first shot at Vietnamese food was a great success. Pho, a sort of noodle soup, is amazing, and available pretty much everywhere at consistently good quality. But the first one I ordered at Five Oysters in Saigon’s District#1 still stands out in my mind – probably because I was both starving and desperately searching for something positive in light of the mornings ordeal. Afterwards, Chao the moto-taxi guy took me round to see the Saigon War Museum, and a few other key sites in the city. I was scared shitless by his driving, as well as everyone else’s. Southern Italy, Kiev and Phnom Penh could not possibly have prepared me for the suicidal lunacy that is Vietnamese traffic. Furthermore, you’d be drawing a pretty long bow to call Saigon ‘scenic’. He didn’t rip me off though. Nice guy.

While shifty hustlers, corrupt cops and insane commuters are pretty much a given in Vietnam, so is seems with certainty that good food is everywhere. That night, the Le Lei park next to the hostel transformed into a giant local food fair. Me and a few others had a blast here. There were countless stands and a smorgasbord of options – most of it looking amazing – and at a pittance of a cost.

I gorged myself across the whole place: a skewer of this and that here, a mug of sugarcane juice there, designer versions of pho, and a heap of other awesomeness to go down with it. I’d definitely struck on the cities most redeeming feature, if not the whole countries. At least I’d salvaged something.

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