This Trip is a Fucking Disaster

After three nights in Nha Trang we set off to visit Tom’s family in Phan Thiet, a beach town known for its seafood and fish sauce. The nightmare began when we took a taxi to the bus station to catch an 11am bus. As our taxi pulled into the station, and before we even got out of the cab, a stocky middle-aged man and his skinny younger sidekick approached us to try to hustle us into riding in their shuttle van instead of the bus recommended by the hotel receptionist. They claimed that the bus wasn’t leaving until noon but they would be leaving promptly at 11. As it was 10:30 and I wasn’t fond of the idea of waiting in the hot sun for an hour and a half, we agreed to ride in their van so long as it had air conditioning and was going directly to Phan Thiet without too many stops. We weren’t willing to embark on a five hour drive without AC. They assured us that their van had AC and started loading our luggage before we had time to think. Tom was unhappy with the proceedings, which generally happens when he thinks he’s being tricked or pressured into doing something. I accused him of being overly paranoid. We eventually boarded, with the stocky middle-aged man as the driver and his skinny sidekick in the front passenger seat. I noticed all of the van’s windows were open but tried to remain optimistic. We started to wonder why it was taking so long for them to turn on the AC. When my mom finally asked, she got a bunch of muttered, inconsistent excuses: they were waiting to reach the freeway before turning on the AC, there weren’t enough passengers to justify turning on the AC, the cost for riding in an air conditioned vehicle was double what was quoted to us, etc. When Tom insisted that they turn on the AC because our kids were sweating, they admitted it was broken and by then it was too late. Our luggage was tucked behind boxes of other passengers and there was no way we could make an easy escape. We were doomed to ride with the windows open, exposing us to dust, wind, exhaust fumes and hot air for five hours. When it started to rain, I wondered why it was taking so long for them to turn on the windshield wipers, until I saw the driver roll up a wad of newspaper so the sidekick could wipe down the windshield at the next stop. The drivers also had the nerve to smoke, billowing cigarette ash and second hand smoke back toward us, even after we asked them to stop. Tom was furious. We could have sucked it up if it had been just us adults, but it was so unfair to the kids. In hindsight it seems so obvious that they were scam artists but at the time who would have guessed that they were lying to our faces knowing full well that their lies would soon become apparent. Who does that? Tom had a bad feeling about them and was sulking silently in his “I told you so” kind of way, but he has a bad feeling about anyone trying to get business from us and I don’t like the idea of going through life thinking everyone is a liar unless they prove otherwise. In this case though, these guys were definitely liars and swindlers. They patrolled the streets and stopped frequently to look for additional passengers. Their aggressive tactics were repugnant. At one point the skinny sidekick leapt out of the van at a bus stop to fight with another bus driver over two little white-haired ladies. They were literally shoving the poor old ladies back and forth until the skinny sidekick was able to force the old ladies onto our van. With each passing hour, our misery and discomfort increased, as did my searing hatred of our captors, especially the skinny sidekick. He wore a constant smirk that I wanted to slap off his face; he was such a punk. Needless to say, after what essentially felt like a bumpy five hour motorbike ride, we were relieved when our journey finally ended at the doorstep of Tom’s uncle’s home. Tom and I had been debating about whether to reduce the fare because we were so pissed off but decided to end the ordeal and pay them what they asked, which was a measly US$15. We clambered out of the van, and in his excitement to see his family, Tom forgot to grab the camera bag under his seat. It was over an hour before he realized that we had left it behind.

The bag contained our really nice camera, our digital video camera and our phones, including my new iPhone which I had gotten just a few months ago. As soon as we realized the camera bag was missing, Tom and his cousin jumped on a motorbike to try to track the drivers down at the bus station. It was a lost cause from the start. We didn’t have their names or numbers and didn’t even remember the signage on the van. What were the chances the scam artists could be found? Even if they were found, our only hope of recovering the camera bag would be if they didn’t find it before we did. If they discovered the contents, they were such shady characters that it was practically guaranteed that we would never be able to retrieve our stuff from them. Tom’s family put it this way: these guys, and there are plenty like them in VN, are the kind that would scam anyone and do almost anything for an extra buck. A Viet Kieu (Viet Kieu is the VN term for a person of VN descent who is American-born or so Americanized that they’re obviously a tourist; it can be used pejoratively or as a compliment) who is foolish or careless enough to leave behind valuables has virtually gifted them to the local who is lucky enough to find them. For the scam artists, finding our camera bag is like winning the lottery and there’s no way in hell they’d return it without a hefty ransom, if they were willing to return it at all. Tom’s family confirmed what I instinctively knew. When Tom returned empty-handed, my heart sank because I also knew we would never see our stuff again. The crazy part is, Tom and his cousin had managed to track down the scam artists! A maintenance man at the bus station informed them that independent drivers often didn’t come into the station and instead went straight to their homes. Then a taxi driver randomly started chatting with them and after Tom gave a wildly generic description (a stocky middle-aged man who wore sunglasses tight against his head and drove with a younger skinny sidekick), the taxi driver figured out their identities and led Tom to the stocky middle-aged driver’s home where he was eating dinner with his family. Shit like this can only happen in VN. When they were cornered both scam artists maintained that no bag had been left behind, which was a blatant lie. Tom and his cousin located the van as it was being cleaned and sure enough, the camera bag was nowhere to be seen. Tom tried to persuade and cajole and reason with the assholes, to no avail. He reminded them that they had lied about the van having AC, and we still paid them the full fare. He told them the phones were useless in VN and only contained pictures of our kids. All recordings of our travels were in that camera bag and we knew for certain that they had it because we were the last passengers to be dropped off and Tom never left his seat during the ride. The stocky middle-aged driver continued to deny that they had it but couldn’t bring himself to look Tom in the eye. The taxi driver told Tom to leave so he could negotiate with the scam artists on our behalf. Tom and his cousin were at a loss over what to do so they gave up and went home. Hearing Tom recount what happened was infuriating. It would have been better not to have found the scam artists at all than to find them and have them lie to us yet again. The gall of their assholery was beyond belief. I demanded to know why we weren’t calling the police. According to Tom’s cousin, it would be our word against theirs and by now the bag was probably so well hidden that a police search would be unlikely to uncover it. He was trying to figure out some angle or leverage we could use to force the scam artists to give it up, but we had none. We had no choice but to write off our losses.

I was majorly bummed out throughout dinner and could barely enjoy the delicious seafood hotpot and crispy chicken wings served by Tom’s family. My memories of Phan Thiet would be forever colored by our unfortunate dealings with the scam artists. Why did our paths have to cross and how could we be so stupid as to give them such an advantage over us? The dollar value of the bag’s contents were maybe $1500. I could have resigned myself to losing it under almost any other circumstances. It’s our own fault for leaving it behind and even though the pictures can’t be replaced, the merchandise can. What really bothers me is that these despicable guys are the ones who get to profit from our blunder. I’m mad at Tom for being so careless in his anxiousness to get out of the van, I’m mad at myself for always relying on Tom to take care of everything, I’m mad at Tom’s family for being so defeatist and throwing up their hands so easily in the face of fraud and deceit. Maybe this is just how things are in VN but why do you accept it so passively? Common decency dictates that you return shit that doesn’t belong to you. Maybe I shouldn’t expect common decency in a culture where it’s acceptable to litter in your own backyard. There is trash and grime and filth everywhere. People don’t respect where they live or each other. They squander and pollute natural resources. It’s always too hot. Last night was the second most uncomfortable night that we’ve ever spent in VN because we were sweating as we slept, unable to breath in the sweltering heat. The girl woke me up at 4 in the morning because she had to go potty and I couldn’t fall back asleep after I started thinking about what the scam artists were getting away with. It’s maddening. And I’m sick of these goddamned mosquitoes eating us alive ALL THE TIME. They’re almost as bad as the vultures who prey on people’s misfortunes. I FUCKING HATE VIETNAM AND VIETNAMESE PEOPLE!!! I am officially miserable.

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emphan

A former corporate attorney who is now happily retired and does whatever she wants.

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