The night preceding this was a story in it’s own rite, but I’ll spare you those details. The punch line is though that I woke up on my own kitchen floor on New Year’s Day, with a terrible hangover. This was mostly thanks of the wildly unpredictable alcohol content of the home-made moonshine that is common here. There was a blanket over me when I woke up, which was nice of whoever put it there, but all things considered, 2015 was off to a rough start.
It was one of those hangovers that lasts all day. It’s definitely a contender for the worst hangover I’ve ever had. Luckily I had the day off so I invited one of my new French roommates to Pizza Hut with me. For purposes of this post, we will call him ‘Muhammad’ (which is an inside joke), just in case the wrong people copy and paste this story into Google Translate. Anyway, eating greasy, overpriced western food has been how I cope with stress since leaving the U.S. My roommate sportingly made conversation while I slumped against the wall of the restaurant spoon-feeding myself a pizza. I couldn’t finish my medium sized pizza though so we left.
Now, normally when you need to un-park your motorbike out of an awkward spot, you will do it by hand and then climb aboard. Our friend ‘Muhammad’ however did not share this view (he does now though). He preferred to sit on his bike straight away and awkwardly look over his shoulder to back out of whatever crevice his bike had been maneuvered into.
I was sitting on my bike ready to zip out onto the street when I heard a big noise. I looked over to see ‘Muhammad’ look up at me with wide eyes. He had just backed into a car that had parallel parked behind him.
This was the moment. We (he) should have burned some rubber speeding off down the nearest alley. But we (he) didn’t. We (he) stayed to take responsibility for our (his) actions.
A nicely dressed Vietnamese guy who looked to be in his mid 30s got out of the car angrily and walked around to the side walk to see the damage. There was a small dent in the side of the car and some of the black paint had been chipped.
There was a huge language barrier here and emotions were running high so watching them try to communicate got pretty painful after a few minutes. I hopped off my bike and dialed the number of a Vietnamese friend of ours who might be able to act as a translator. It took close to an hour of handing my phone back and forth for the following information to be procured.
- This car did not belong to him
- There was no insurance on this car
- This car was worth the equivalent of $468,500 (or roughly 10 billion VND)
Yeah, that's almost $500,000. It turned out that this was not just any car. It was an Audi Q7. 10 billion VND may have been an exaggeration, but probably not a significant one. It is an import, after all. Products like this are often taxed more than 100% by the Vietnamese government.
We were also becoming increasingly convinced that this man was a gangster or was at least affiliated with Vietnam’s organized crime. Vietnamese organized crime is nothing like the Triads or the Yakuza but it exists pretty openly. However, it is usually pretty harmless to the average pedestrian so long as they aren’t looking for trouble. In fact, I would venture so far as to say that Vietnamese organized crime makes my life better in more ways than they make it more dangerous. I think it's a safe estimate that they own or are involved with at least a fourth of the establishments that stay open all night. Staying open all night is a feat that, in Hanoi, is only accomplished through police bribes anyway.
Anyway, this was bad news for us (him). Initially they told us (and by 'us' I mean they told our friend, who then translated for us over the phone) that ‘Muhammad’ needed to pay them $300 in cash right away. This was not going to happen for 3 reasons:
- He was almost certainly trying hustle us with that aggressive cost estimate. Vietnamese people will often attempt to turn a profit off of their accidents. Especially if that accident is with a westerner.
- Even if that was an accurate estimate (which is probably wasn’t) that is just not how it works. You don’t pay in cash at the scene of an accident. No.
- To be honest, $300 was more than ‘Muhammad’ had in his bank account. And he was, at that point, unemployed.
I was merely a hung-over and increasingly impatient mediator in this conflict so after about an hour I got fed up. I stood up and took charge of the exchange in a loud voice. The man insisted that the accident be resolved right then. I told the man that if he needed an immediate solution, he had 2 options:
- Take all the money that ‘Muhammad’ had in his wallet at that moment (about $25)
- Call the police so that they could mediate the conflict and decide a fair price.
He said that option 1 was not acceptable so I made him agree to call the police. We knew that he was not going to be happy about calling the police (no insurance, possible mafia connection, etc). But he agreed so at that point I felt pretty good about leaving the two of them to it. The police would come and they would figure it all out. I needed to go back to bed. The lights. The noise. My head.
Abandoning My Friend
There was a problem with my thinking though. The police in Vietnam are corrupt and indifferent. What’s more is that in a country of almost 90 million people, there are something like 90,000 cars that are for personal use (not cabs) in total. If somebody is driving a car in Vietnam that means that they are very wealthy. It also means that they belong to a class of people that is (potentially) above the police in the societal hierarchy. In summary, the police wouldn’t have done a thing.
When I got home my phone rang. It was ‘Muhammad.’ The man did not call the police. Instead he had called some of his friends. (But how were we to know? It was all in Vietnamese.) ‘Muhammad’ was now surrounded by 3 men who were blocking him from driving away. They told him that they would ‘beat’ him if he did not give them the money right away. They were apparently very angry. I could hear them yelling on the other side of the phone. People were beginning to stop and watch. Did I mention this was at about 1pm?
I went to the room of two of my other housemates, one Vietnamese, one also French and we called the police for him. Except they didn’t answer the phone. We called 911 and they didn’t answer. LOL Hashtag Vietnam!
So we were on our own. What followed was a series of stressed phone calls on speakerphone. People were yelling English, French and Vietnamese back and forth through my phone. The men gave ‘Muhammad’ the options of either paying an outrageous sum of money (that continued to change every time it was cited) or simply surrendering his motorbike to them, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. He was renting the bike and there was a $600 penalty (more than twice the balance of his bank account) if he lost or totaled the bike. His alternative at this point was to fight them, 3 against 1.
‘Muhammad’ had been scared when he initially called me but now he was just angry. He told us that maybe he would prefer just to take his chances and fight them. Back at home the 3 of us looked at each other and shrugged. At this point it was anyone’s guess was the best course of action was. We gave him our blessing to fight, he hung up and we all went back to bed. I didn’t sleep though.
Now, pause for a moment – what would YOU do in that situation? Actually take a minute to think about that before you read on. And keep in mind that if you pay them the money, your remaining balance will be $0.00. You will be penniless, unemployed and alone in Vietnam.
The Exciting Conclusion
Well here’s what he did.
The phone had not rung again that evening so I texted him.
He didn’t just run away. Here’s what actually happened. There was a lull in the conflict. One man was on the phone, the second man was distracted with something for a moment and the third, original participant in this conflict, who had apparently grown tired and standing and yelling, was doing the Asian squat in front of the motorbike.
‘Muhammad’ saw his opportunity and he seized it. Still sitting on his bike, he ninja kicked the man squatting in front of him in the face and hit the gas as hard as he could. The men reacted quickly but not quick enough. They chased him on foot for a while but it wasn’t long before ‘Muhammad’ had disappeared into the crowded maze that is Hanoi.
And the crowd goes wild!
What is the moral of this story? Well kids, I’ll tell you.
Sometimes, violence is the answer. Always remember that.
I think the best part of this whole thing is that this all went down in front of Pizza Hut.