Wednesday, April 17, 2013

That time I got mugged, and other stories from Vietnam

When you're crying in a foreign police station at 5am to an audience of jaded officers and awkward strangers, it's hard not to review your life choices. How did I let this happen? How could I have been so stupid? How am I going to get home? How much do I hate this city? How many people are going to have a smug "I told you so" ready and waiting the next time I see them? There aren't really any answers to these kinds of questions. There are answers to the questions other people are asking you, though. Where did it happen? What did you lose? How much did it cost? Are you in pain? Do you have insurance? I answered them as best I could, while fighting down hysteria and fear and trying to process the fact that I had lost everything. My computer, my phone, my camera, my money, my passport. Oh god my passport. I oscillated silently between terror, self-pity and anger for hours, while the uncaring and generally inept police department of Ho Chi Minh City processed my report, until I finally latched onto one thought: There is absolutely nothing I can control about this situation except for the way I react to it.

My bus got into HCMC at 4:30 in the morning. I was tired, not having slept much on the trip, and confused. I wasn't supposed to arrive until 6, by which time the sun would be rising and the streets would be populated. Still there wasn't much I could do aside from get off, get my things and find a moto-taxi to take me to my hostel.

Later, when I got back to Australia people would ask me why I had gotten on a motor bike with a stranger. To people who haven't been to Asia it sounds like asking for trouble. But it's what you do. The streets are narrow and winding, and a car can't take you where you need to go. And I am careful. I travel alone a lot, and rape and murder aren't exactly atop my list of things to experience. I might be flippant about safety when people express concern, but I'm not flippant in reality. All of which is to say that I didn't feel unsafe until it was too late. I was completely fine until the moment I wasn't. Maybe I had let my guard down a bit, because up until then I had never felt unsafe in Vietnam. But I didn't do anything out of the norm. It was just bad luck.

My driver took us the long way round. We wove through tiny streets until I completely lost my bearings, but I figured it was just so he could overcharge me when we stopped. Then suddenly we were in a dead-end alley, and he was turning the engine off and backing up towards the mouth of the street. I held my handbag tighter to my chest and tried to get off, but the motion of the bike and the closeness of the walls made it impossible until we were at the start of the alley again. I jumped off and turned around just in time to see a second man blocking my way before he grabbed me, threw me to the ground and yanked my bag towards him.

It's nice to know from first hand experience that when in a tight situation I'm more inclined towards fight than flight. The straps of my bag were still around my arm. I grabbed at them and pulled, kicking and screaming and fighting desperately to both get to my feet and save my belongings. There were people all around us, but none of them moved. I learned later at the embassy that it was probably because muggers are almost always armed, and wouldn't think twice before slicing someone who got in their way. After what was about 30 seconds of fighting the straps snapped, and the man bolted. I jumped up and - in a completely illogical moment - screamed after him "My passport!". As if he might take the time to rifle through and return it to me before making his getaway. When that didn't happen I realised I had about 2 seconds to make a decision - follow the mugger, in the dark and through a warren of streets that he definitely knew better than I did, or stay and try to get my backpack full of clothes back from the moto driver, who was still on his bike and trapped behind me in the alley. I was shaking and trying not to cry, and probably couldn't have run if I tried, so I stayed. Thankfully I was still full of adrenaline and to angry to be afraid yet. I faced the driver and said something along the lines of "I have nothing else. Give me back my fucking backpack." He threw it at me and I found my way back to the nearest main road, where I ran into a western man and Vietnamese woman, who were kind enough to become my interpreters for the morning.

Which is how I ended up sitting, bruised and dirty and dispossessed in a Saigon police station, nursing an iced coffee and telling myself that I wouldn't let this one thing ruin my trip. Because until then, I had loved Vietnam.

I'd wanted to visit Vietnam since I was 17. When people asked me why I was spending an entire month there I would tell them that everyone I knew who had been before me came back raving about the country. The people are lovely, I'd heard. The countryside is beautiful, the history is rich, and there's something about Vietnam that grabs you and just wont let go. But when I arrived I realised I didn't really know anything tangible about the country, didn't really know what to expect. 'It's amazing' is a great endorsement, but it doesn't lend itself to practicality.


Not that it mattered. For all that it ended up making me an easy target, I still think travelling alone was the best decision I made. From the start I met people who had already seen a lot of Vietnam, and I took their advice and ran with it.


I started in Hanoi and Halong Bay, before making my way to Hoi An via Hue, with it'a ancient citadel and beautiful perfume river. An American couple I met up north had told me amazing things about Hoi An, and after I arrived I completely lost track of time. Between the beach and the city, the cooking classes and the Why Not bar's policy of 'buy one drink, get vodka and redbull free for the rest of the night', I began to feel like I could stay forever. And although I unwittingly overstayed my booking the hostel staff let it slide without a word, so that when I went to check out I was shocked to find I'd been there for over a week.

I moved on to Nha Trang, where I met an Australian girl and a group of from Hawaii, and completely gave up on the vague timetable I'd built for myself. I spent my days inexpertly riding a hired motorbike through the breathtaking countryside (to the wide-eyed concern of the hostel receptionists, who reacted to my casual enquiry of "so, how exactly do I make it go? And stop? Oh It'll be fine" with an understandable level of alarm) and swimming in pristine waterfalls, and my nights combating the ever-increasing heat with the plethora of free drinks at my disposal. Then, with a week to go and after a day-long detour through Dalat, I finally made my way to Ho Chi Minh City.


Amazingly, after I got over the initial shock (which, admittedly, took most of the day) I really did feel like I would be fine. When I finally made it back to my hostel I was invited to have dinner with a bunch of other travellers, and despite wanting to crawl into bed and feel sorry for myself, I went. And I had fun. And the next day I spent my time with two American's who told me they were amazed by how well I was handling my situation and then bought me lunch. And dinner. And drinks. And I realised the more I pushed myself to actually go out and do the things I wanted to, the better I felt. It wasn't the same - I was frightened by things that before I could just brush off, like the aggressive offers of moto drivers or the leering of local men. But I was ok. I channelled my anger and nervous energy into things like crawling through ex-Viet Cong tunnels and shooting assault rifles. Occasionally I would remember something else that had been in my bag, things with no resale value but which meant a lot to me, and I would wish the Australian embassy had just deported me like I'd originally (and tearfully) asked them to. But most of the time I felt like the things I lost were just things. Yeah, it sucked. But I've still been everywhere, even if I don't have the photos to prove it. Aside from an irrational fear of Asian men on low-powered motorbikes, I've come away pretty scot-free. It could have been much worse. And it's a hell of a story.