Thursday, April 16, 2009

Driving Down the Thin Blue Line

For the last three years I’ve been cruising the streets of Saigon on my Honda Future. This is actually my third one. What can I say? I’m brand loyal. Actually, the first one got stolen just before Tet holiday in 2007, the second one was this puke-green colour so I swopped it for a twin of my first one from Mr Hung, the bike dealer/jack of all trades who I rent from.

However, recently the five-oh have been making it harder and harder for me to express my right to drive around licenseless, as rightly they should, as not every Tung, Chim or Hoang can be trusted with a motor humming between their legs. As an article in the Thanh Nien reads, “HCMC police will not tolerate resistance from foreigner drivers found flouting traffic rules without a driver’s license”.

So let me translate that for you: “The HCM fuzz won’t take no more mouth from foreign devils flipping the bird at the (non-existent) laws without at least a 500 thousand Uncle note to oil The Man’s machine. If you do have a license, just nod, smile and continue flouting an’ spouting all you like.” This sucks because in the past I would just get stopped, (usually by mistake as the Whoop Whoop don’t generally speak English so don’t like stopping foreigners) pay a fine or feign total ignorance and go on my merry way. There was no talk of paperwork, documentation, or some such.

Ready to roll with the braai on the back

I’ve been stopped at least three times now. The first time back in 2006, when I jumped a red light, as you do here, I freaked out a bit because Old Bill was all official looking in his beige uniform, aviators, baton in hand and gave me a salute and asked to see my license. I broke out in a bedazzling, machine-gun spray of rapid Afrikaans, something like: “Jisoomekskakjammeroomekkitniebedoelomoordierooiligterynie”, which knocked him over and sweeped his hair back for months to come. Lost in translation, which there was none of, he let me off with only a warning.

The second time the Heat stopped me, I was driving in the car lane, perhaps a tad too fast for a Sunday afternoon down Le Duan Street. They caught me off guard, because I was short on cash for their children’s college funds. They usually want between 100 and 200 thousand Uncles from the Tay Bao Lo (which refers to Western backpackers but used derogatorily for any foreigner, cause we’re all tourists aren’t we?). I only had about 70 thousand, showed him my empty wallet, which The Man’s crony wasn’t very happy about, but he took it any way, gave me a tap with his baton and sent me on my way.

The last time was a two weeks ago on my way home from work and that just set me back 100 thousand. It was weird bargaining with The Law as he’d sneakily written down 200 000 VND on the back of a notepad. I shook my head and gave him 100 thousand, which he quickly palmed.

Now the heavies are getting hardcore. I got an anonymous SMS the other night: “Dear Friend! I want to notice to you about the policy of traffic cop in VN nowadays is very difficult. In this week, 2 motobike of mine had been caught by the traffic cop and they keep those for one month and punished 1.8 million VND, so I send you this message to remind you to take care when you driving because you don’t have VN driver license so you shouldn’t run fast, shouldn’t pass the red light, thank you.” Now, despite the bad grammar and the weird warning that I shouldn’t run too fast, the message is pretty clear:

The boys in blue, or in this country they tend to don beige or fatigue green uniforms, are turning up the heat.

My friends in green, sometimes in beige

They wouldn’t accept my mate Joe’s proffered 200 thousand VND, but wanted 500 large ones instead! How rude! The impounding of bikes sucks. They fine you $100, stick your bike on the back of a truck, and keep it for a month. When you get it back, the exterior looks the same but you can be pretty sure the quality Japanese parts inside have been changed for cheap Chinese ones which will cost another $100 to replace again.

The blue meanies are everywhere. I see them around every corner. Yesterday, they pulled some dudes right out of traffic, not having committed any offence, and pretty violently too. I saw them ripping a woman off her bike in peak hour traffic for no apparent reason. So any of you out there cruising around illegally, “Watch yourself, cause Babylon’s out to getcha!”

Disclaimer: Of course I would never write an article of this magnitude against authority of any kind, so this was obviously a guest opinion post written by my friend Kabbalas*, who lives in District 14 and wishes to remain anonymous, in fear of being deported back to Tajikistan.

*Possibly his real name


Anonymous said...

Hey, Interesting story! I was in vietnam two years ago, and my Taxi driver got pulled over because his car was "dirty"...anyways, I'll be in Vietnam this summer, since you mentioned about your bike being stolen, what are the chances of my Iphone being snag out of my hand if I do decide to bring it?
Thanks, looking forward to next entry.

henno said...

Hi there,

Your iPhone should be safe, as long as you don't advertise it by hanging it around your neck or something! Saigon is a pretty safe city, safer than most other cities this size so don't worry, just keep your wits about you as you would anywhere else. Enjoy the trip!

Jon Hoff said...

Lucky I passed my UK drivers test now so I can get a Vietnamese license when I get back. What a good little boy! I really hope things don't change too much out there in the wild west. A word of warning Henno, you might find adopting to police state Australia a little galling!

henno said...

I'm down with sticking it to The Man, just a pity my bribes will be no good in Oz, I might have to resort to less underhanded tactics. Looking forward to your return!

SaigonNezumi (Kevin) said...

I read about this in the paper. Yet I have gone by the police many times and they did not stop me.

Here is a hint, do not wear shorts, Hawaiian shirts, or otherwise look like a tourist on the motorbike. They are stopping those since they know they can make $100 automatically each time. The motorbike shops will pay the fine.

Others, hard to tell. I have a northern number which helps alot. Then again, I do not know what the "camera" gets.

Best bet, get a license though it is not easy as Thanh Nien News says.

henno said...

Yeah, its not that easy at all.
Also, I spoke to my bike shop guy and he said he wouldn't pay the fine so I better not try any more wheelies on the sidewalk or attempt the 6-people lift home!