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Friday, January 11, 2013

My Life in Vietnam, Part 10: Get Out Now

I am going to skip ahead again by a day. There are events that happened at Hotel 68 that I am not quite ready to write about. But you should know that it is possible to hack into the in room surveillance system with a RF remote control, computer, and tv.  In fact, some entrepreneurial expats have found a way to do so. It is the greatest of breaches of privacy that I can imagine and my soul cannot easily rehash the events I am referring to. I accessed this system and having this knowledge made me uneasy. Afraid for my life.

“I have to get out of Vietnam!” This was my sole focus at this point. Leave. Every bone in my body, every muscle attached to those bones, every thought, every instinct yelled “get out now!” 
Bag packed, I checked out of the hotel and went across the street to change my USD for Vietnamese currency. There were strange marking on my bills and having only been in Asia for the last 3.5 years, I had lost the ability to tell the difference between real and fake US currency. I should mention that people in Vietnam often make fake currency to burn as a ritual sacrifice to the good health of their respective businesses. It is not uncommon to see half burned $100 bills littering the space between the sidewalk and road.  Burned money in the gutter.

New currency in my pocket, I walked up to Pham Ngu Lao street in the tourist district of Sai Gon and went to the first open travel shop I saw. I booked the first bus ticket to Cambodia. The woman at the counter told me that it would be about an hour wait and that I should be back in 45 minutes for a pick up. Given my state of mind at the time, I parked myself on a chair outside the entrance to the business and smoked a cigarette. I noticed a rather unfriendly man walk into the shop and start talking to the staff in what seemed like a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese. I am not fluent in Vietnamese, but I know enough to get the general tone of a conversation.

The man handed the woman something wrapped in paper and gave her a firm look. She looked nervous and shaken. That worried me. He walked outside and got on his motorbike. He drove a few meters away and stopped and pulled out his phone and began a conversation that I could not overhear.

Like most buildings in District 1, the travel agency’s front was garage style. The entire front rolls up to expose the business to pedestrian tourists. I was sitting on a stool in the front left, just outside the building. This gave me a complete view of the interior as well as a view of the street, sidewalk, and park across the street. The woman left the counter on the right side and moved behind the counter next to me on the left side. She unwrapped the paper under the counter and pulled out a red and white syringe.

Even in my heightened state of paranoia, I realized that not everything was about me. I mentally ran through the list of possibilities.
·               She had diabetes
·               She has a heroin problem
·               She has some other medical issue but the man did not look “professional” in any way
·               This was for me. (again, I was so freaked out at this point)

My fear was increased because she had moved to the counter next to me and we could have made physical contact without any effort. I got up and moved my chair a bit away from the building and put my back to a sign so that I was only accessible from the front. Feeling nervous, I asked for my money back and planned to go to another agency. She declined to give me my money so I grabbed my back and walked across the street to the park.

On the other side of the park I planned to grab a taxi and head to the airport. I saw the man from before on his motorbike and decided that maybe I should walk for a while and grab a random taxi. He followed, slowly.  I ended up walking about 1 km to the more expensive area near Ben Thanh market.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My Life in Vietnam part 9: Peak of Paranoia 2

My thought in taking a taxi was that no one could force me into an accident. I only had 2 concerns at this point: personal safety and finishing my last class. Part of insuring my safety was taking the out of place objects with me in my backpack to class. This was a strange class.

Instead of having a normal class with my student Thao, I talked to her for 3 hours about all the things that were going on in my life. I showed her the extra phone charger, sim cards, uv light, tags that only showed up under uv light, etc.  For the most part she was understanding and helped me stay calm. About 2 hours into the class, her phone rang and she stepped out to take the call.

When she came back, she said "there are things I want to tell you and I wish I could help you, but my English is not good enough.  Do you need money? Can I give you money?"  There was something in the tone of her voice that made me nervous. Really fucking nervous. I declined her offer of money because I felt like why would I take money from her that I did not earn.

Eventually we said our goodbyes and I got in a taxi. The taxi with the driver I mentioned in my last note. I was used to driving my motorbike and being very aware of my surroundings at this point. From the back seat of a taxi, I was even more aware. I had time time look at everything. There were two guys on a motorbike next to the taxi and they were carrying long metal pipes. Probably for construction of some sort, but also the right length to grab and beat the shit out of someone with. In front of them was a man, his wife, and a small child on another motorbike.  Behind the taxi were tons of other motorbikes, but a few were driven by people that I recognized from other staged almost incidents. Each bike was carrying "tools or supplies" of some sort that would be quite useful in a riot. . .

The motorbike with the family pulled in front of the taxi and was almost hit. I lost shit and yelled for the driver to stop. No accident. This was when I forced him to change directions and get on the highway.

Skip ahead to the map incident. . . The second time that I lost my temper in Vietnam - I am yelling "turn the fuck around. look at the road. what are you doing? stop the  car. stop the car! stop the fucking car!"

I looked at the meter and paid the fair and got out of the taxi with my bag, evidence, and started walking. We were still on the highway, but there was an intersection close by and I felt safer on foot.  After making it to the intersection I walked under the bridge and onto a side road that lead to Trung Hung Dao street. The people on the motorbikes slowly drove by me and made extended eye contact.  All I could do was sit down on the stoop of a building and light a cig and wonder what was happening to me.

Eventually I took the "evidence" out of my bag, made eye contact with one of the drivers and then I obviously placed everything on top of an electrical transformer on the side of the road. I started walking. He turned around, went back to the transformer and collected everything. I was only 2 km from my hotel, so I started the walk home.

My Life in Vietnam part 9: Peak of Paranoia

Some parts of this story are out of order and I am intentionally skipping some parts because I don't want to think about them or don't want it on facebook.  That being said, let me reorder.

I packed my bags at the hotel and also packed "evidence." 

During the mad dash around my hotel room I found a few things that I thought were important proof. 
  1. My phone came with 2 phone chargers. One was a usb that connected to my laptop and the other to a power outlet. I found a third charger. (my speculation at the time was that this charger was another way of accessing data on my phone/pc. It was the type of charger that connects to the power outlet and also to the computer. The USB wire could be removed from the base.
  2. USB speakers. The seal around the woofer of the usb speakers had been broken and crudely resealed with glue. I started to take it apart and look inside but as you can imagine, my mind was racing at this point. I took a picture with my phone and put the speakers in a bag of things I planned to leave at the hotel.
  3. Old hard drive. I wrote down the serial number, took a photo, and also put it in the "leave behind" bag. (again, I had already tossed this harddrive once before after being told by the computer repair store that my music and photos from the last 3 years were damaged and not capable of being restored.)
  4. The uv pen light - took it with me
  5. scan bar code from fake laptop battery - took with me
  6. toiletries - left behind. (anything that could be opened and closed I left behind partly because I was not quite sure what the angle was. Am I smuggling data, drugs, being poisoned, going to be killed in my sleep and made to look like a drug overdose, etc)
  7. my clothes - took with me but went through pockets, seams, etc. Found 3 sim cards from my travels but the phone numbers on the sim cards did not match the phone numbers that were assigned to the phone when I inserted the cards (are this spoofed, hacked, etc) I did try to access the data on them but they were encrypted. took the sim cards with me.
I went downstairs, gave them the key to my room, got on my motorbike and left. I ended up getting a room at Hotel 68 on the corner of Bui Vien and the ally that runs paralled to De Tham.  This was morning.  I had one more class left to teach and then it was time to go. As you can imagine, I was extremely paranoid at this point. I did not feel safe driving or even being in Saigon. But I had a class to teach and had to deal with that committment. I sold my motorbike and decided I would take a taxi to my last class.

In a previous post I wrote about the taxi driver who turned back to me while holding a map and asking were I wanted to go. This was on the highway home from this last class. And, he did not not bother to stop the taxi.  We were in motion but both of his hands were on the map. I was sitting in the back seat and he was looking back at me.  What I did not write about before is what I noticed going on around me in the taxi-

My Life in Vietnam part 8: The Part You Have Been Waiting For

Ly left a UV pen light in my hotel room one night. Before she left, I had been cleaning and trying to lighten up my load for the trip home. I threw several things away including the old harddrive from the Samsung Laptop I came to Vietnam with, a deactivated credit card which I had cut into little pieces, receipts, cds, virus infected usb flash drive, and various other things. 

While cleaning, I opened the drawer to the wardrobe and found something strange. There was a grey man's long sleeve shirt, a plastic wrapper for some sort of electronic equipment, and wait for it --- a cardboard box that contained the battery for my IBM Thinkpad sl400 laptop. Except, there was a battery in my laptop.

I never bought a second battery. It turns out, the battery in the bottom of my wardrobe was the original one that came with my laptop. The one currently inserted in my laptop had come in that box and it had been modified to include a second mini harddrive, mini wifi card, and an IR receiver. (I opened it.)

By chance, I took the UV pen light that Ly left in my room and pointed it at the fake battery. WTF? I saw a scan code and serial number that I didn't notice at first. Long story short, I began looking at everything in my room: my clothes, electronics, papers, toiletries, etc. UV markings everywhere!

Then on top of the wardrobe I found drug paraphernalia. There was more under the mattress of the bed, behind the mini fridge, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the trash bag in the waste bin, (which is where I also found the cut up credit card that I had thrown out hours earlier.) This is by no means an exaustive list. Just know that I spent about 3 hours going through my things, throwing out anything that looked altered, and packing the rest away.

Once I packed my bag, I went right downstairs, checked out of the hotel, asked them to call the police and have them seach the room because I felt like something was wrong, and then got on my motorbike and found another hotel. 2 days before I fly. What have I gotten myself into?

Also, during this 3 hour clean up period, I found my old harddrive in the bottom of my bag. The harddrive that I had thrown out with the cut up credit card.

More to come. 

My Life in Vietnam part 7: Pre-Exodus, Arranged Chaos

Hanging out with my new friend, Ly, was fun. Actually, it was 2 parts Fear and Loathing in Saigon, One part Carnivale, one part Fast and Furious, and one part Angel Heart.  I suck at references.

There are a lot of sides to my personality. I say yes to almost anything, I like to help/fix things, I am irresponsible at times, I live for adventure and the unknown. Ly was all of these things. Saigon has no shortage of beautiful women. Ly was not exactly beautiful. She had charm, charisma and a winning smile, but I would not call her beautiful. Maybe pretty on a good day. More than anything, she was normal. I like normal.

Without going into much detail, I should have realized something wasn't right. She would always ask me about the time I was leaving for work, or when I planned to fly to the USA, or what district I was working in on a certain day. For the most part I just thought it was small talk to help her improve her English. Then I started "almost having accidents" on the way to and from work. People would suddenly stop infront of my motorbike. One morning after being out all night with Ly, someone stopped in front of my motorbike on Cong Quyen. I squeezed my brakes and slid to the ground without making contact with her, but barely. Even though it was sudden, I could see it happening. 

She pulled up on my right side on her motorbike. There was plenty of room behind me. Just as her rear tire was in line with my front tire, she looked back in her left rearview mirror, made eye contact with me for half a second, stuck out her left hand to signal a left turn, and came to a full stop right in front of me. I I squeezed my brakes and made a sharp turn to the place where she just was. No contact with her motorbike, but plenty of contact between me and the pavement.

She looked back as if expecting me to hit her. I looked up from the ground. She drove straight! I am thinking "why the fuck is she going straight after just stopping right in front of me?"  I got up and dusted off my pants. My motorbike was leaking a little gas and had some scratches along the left side. There was some other damage as well, but nothing to severe or costly. 

My Life in Vietnam part 6: Pre Exodus

I feel like I have given enough context to let you know my state of mind, but there is so much more to say before the actual events. I will skip ahead to the exodus now and then come back and fill in more context to the story.

My lease expired for my apartment in Vietnam in October. The owner of the building knew that I was planning to visit the USA in December and agreed to let me live month to month without a lease until December 11th. On November 9th, she said that she changed her mind and I had to move out by November 11th. As you can imagine, I was not happy about the situation but there was nothing I could do. I did not have a lease, she owns the building (as much as you can own a building in Vietnam), and I didn't really like her anyway. 

Note to self: the one time I showed actual anger was the night I moved out. I will come back to that.

Anyway, since I only had just over a month until my planned trip, I figured I could just live in hotels for that time period. The first few nights I went for luxuary; $20 usd a night. After that I moved to a dive of a place with a sign that read 24 open in neon green lights. This place was somewhere on the scale between a Love Motel and a by the hour F* pad. Yes -- classy. 

Around this time, I met a girl who works in a bar on Bui Vien. We immediately hit it off and ended up spending a lot of time together when she wasn't working. She told me about her daughter and how slow work was for her. I told her about my life and plans to go to the USA. We drank. We stayed up all night. We did a lot of things. (I am leaving specific details out of this part as this is facebook).

Then about 3 days before I was planning to leave, things got strange.