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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.

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