Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Scariest Experience In Vietnam

After leaving the White Thai village we followed the dirt road along the river for another couple of hours. In the next large village there was a fork in the road. We were told to take the high road. While asking directions an elderly local woman jumped onto the back of Long's bike and asked for a ride to the next village. This was a mistake, Long's bike was the least powerful out of all of ours. After about a minute of struggling up the mountain the lady had to get off and walk the hill. No, that's not the scary part of the story.

We drove for about twenty minutes or so and came to another village. Again there was a fork in the road. We stopped to ask for directions and were told that one road led to "Moc Chau" and one led to "Son La." According to the person in Mai Chau who we had met the day before, it was impossible to get to either of those places on the route we were taking. However, the locals insisted it was true and we decided to take the road to Son La.

We crossed a stream and headed up the narrowest, rockiest, dirt trail I have ever been on with my motorbike. The trail cut right through the jungle and was treacherous to say the least. At one point, IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, was this sign:

I thought it was a really cool sign because:
a) It was again, IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.
b) Had no explanation whatsoever.

It was so cool I decided to take a picture with it:

We kept heading along the narrow dirt path and would only occasionally see sign of civilization -- a random biker driving by or a couple huts nestled between mountains.

After a while we came to a third fork in the road in another village. While trying to figure out where to go a motorbike pulled up next to us. On the bike were two 20-something year old guys. One of the guys was an English teacher...although he spoke about ten words of English. The teacher told us that we should turn right to quickly go to Moc Chau or we could go straight with him and "stay at my friend's village." It was starting to get dark so we decided to spend the night at his friend's village. Plus, how cool would it be to spend in the night in the middle of the jungle in a village in "Frontier Country."

Turns out it wasn't so cool.

When we got to the village I felt like an American G.I. marching into Paris after WWII. Everyone from the village came out and gathered around us, jostling for position to shake our hands. I'm 99% sure most of the people there had never seen a foreigner. The excitement of the moment was quickly interrupted when someone told Long that we needed to ask the head of the village for permission to stay there. We had been told to expect this and were suggested to bring some fruit to give to the head of the village. We brought a watermelon.

Dusk was starting to settle in when we got to the head of the village. We had been expecting to go to someone's hut but were actually taken to the local police office. And the head of the village wasn't a tribe elder, he was an army guy. And well, he didn't want a watermelon -- he wanted five hundred thousand dong. This is when it all started to get a little scary.

We were taken into the "police station", roughly a 6 foot by 10 foot hut, and told to sit down. The hut was nearly pitch black. We were told that the power wasn't working. The army guy started to ask Long questions and he did the best he could to answer. If you recall from the other day, Long can speak Vietnamese conversationaly but definitely not fluently. The army guy quickly took Long out of the hut and started to ask him questions one on one around the corner. After a couple minutes Long came back and told us the "fee" for staying in the village -- the five hundred thousand dong.

Before we could pay the fee things started to get a little more intense. The army guy took our passports and started to write down our information in the dark. Every couple of minutes he would stand up, walk to the back of the hut, and talk to a man who was laying in a bed which we couldn't see. The army guy would come back, ask Long a few more questions and then jot down more information.

As we sat in the dark things started to get more complicated. The army guy started to point a flashlight at us and ask the same questions over and over again. Of course Long was the only one who could answer. The conversation was basically this:
ARMY GUY: What are you doing here?
LONG: We were invited by someone on the road. (the guy who invited us disappeared because he wanted to go drink with his friends.)
ARMY GUY: Why are you here?
LONG: We were told by someone in Mai Chau to follow the river and we made some wrong turns.
ARMY GUY: You don't have permission to be here. You can't sleep here.
LONG: Okay, then can we go. It's getting darker and darker.
ARMY GUY: No, you must stay now.

While this conversation was going on -- for about the third time -- more army guys started to trickle in. By the end of the interrogation there were five or six army guys. Each army guy seemed to want to trump the power of the one before him and started to ask Long the same questions. Long, without a doubt, had the worst experience out of the three of us. A couple of times he was taken out of the hut and interrogated by himself in another hut with up to three army guys. From what we could gather we had driven into an area that we are not permitted to go to with our Vietnam visas. We were 17K from the Laos border and the area was off limits. We were told:
A) We didn't have permission to be there.
B) We didn't have permission to talk to anybody.
C) We didn't have permission to take any photos.

Well, C, started to make me nervous. In the first fifteen minutes of the whole experience I had recorded some video in the dark thinking it would make a good blog entry. Well, after they took our cameras from us I started to really panic that they would look at our pictures. I had no idea what footage I had gotten and assumed it was something at least recognizable. At one point the army guy put my camera back on the table and I picked it up. I then asked if I could go take a piss. They had one of the guys escort me to the woods where I took the memory chip out of my camera and stuffed it inside a hidden pocket in my jacket.

After going back to the hut the man who had been laying in the back of the hut got up and started to ask us the same questions all over again. They also wanted to know what our jobs were and whose bikes we had. Nicky and I were renting our bikes which threw them for a loop.

The guy who had been laying down then told us he needed to go through our bags. One at a time we then had to open our bags and take everything out and show it to them. Nicky read them a paragraph from a book he was carrying and I presented them my watermelon...which again, they didn't want.

Once they were satisfied that we didn't have anything illegal they wrote up a document and told us to sign it. I have NO IDEA what it said. The only word I recognized was "Cunt." That's what Nicky signed his name as. The army guy looked at the signature -- clearly didn't know what it meant -- and told Nicky to write the rest of his name. The army guys then took our passports and told us we could sleep in the stilt house of the town doctor.

We were told that we had to stay in the house unless we had to pee and that we could leave at 6AM once we got our passports back. When we left the police station it was nearly 8:30PM. We had been interrogated in the dark, with a flashlight, for THREE HOURS.

The three of us were slightly shaken up by what had happened and just wanted to go to sleep. The doctor's wife made us instant noodles and hard boiled eggs (which they charged us for!) and told us to "relax." As we were trying to relax all of the army guys strolled into the house and wanted to have a drink with us. They said that we should now be friends. We politely smiled and said we just wanted to sleep. What we wanted to say was, "F YOU! We were invited to this village and would have gladly left when we first came if you told us then we couldn't stay. You really want us to drink with you after you tried to scare the crap out of us, went through all of our stuff and were basically a-holes for the last three hours?"

I asked the doctor where I could brush my teeth. He led me to the back of his stilt house. In case you've never seen a stilt house, here's the picture from the other day again:

The doctor's stilt house wasn't as tall as this one but was much longer. To put the exclamation point on the day, as I walked to brush my teeth, I took a step AND FELL THROUGH THE FLOOR!

I was about waste deep, dangling from the floor when the doctor and another man ran over to help. Unfortunately I don't know how to say in Vietnamese, "Stop pulling me. My left ankle is caught in something." Finally I dislodged my ankle and with their help was lifted up.

I barely slept that night. Every time I nodded off I had a horrible nightmare. At 2:30AM I decided to put the chip into my camera and to look at the footage under the covers. Sadly, the footage sucks:

video
You can see how dark the room was though. That one light is an army guy holding the flashlight and writing down our passport information.

The next morning I woke up Long and Nicky at 5:45. Long and I went over to the police station to get our stuff. The police started to stall and told us we should have tea with them. We said that we wanted to go. Long had to go to the bathroom and left me alone with the army guys. The army guys opened the cabinet where they had locked our documents and took out our passports. They put them on the table and then started to talk to me. It was clear they wanted something. My guess is they wanted money, perhaps the original five hundred thousand. I just said to the, "I don't understand," reached across the table and took our stuff. I said "thanks" and left the room.

As we were leaving the town on our bikes, the police said something else to Long. He quickly said something back which he translated for us: "I said, 'see you next Tet.'"

Without a doubt this was my scariest experience in Vietnam. I just kept thinking, "Nobody knows where the hell we are. I don't know where the hell we are." That said, as soon as we got back on our bikes and took off from the town we all felt a hell of a lot better... We've been laughing about it ever since. You know that really nervous type of laughter...