Paying the ‘white tax’. Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Of course the last day of our epic journey was anything but smooth riding. Until around 4pm it looked like it was going to be smooth – just a long, uneventful drive in repetitive surroundings – but we always knew that it couldn’t end like that. Vietnam would never let us go without one final send-off. Still, expectant as we were, it was still teeth-clenchingly frustrating when we were pulled in by a policeman only 30km away from HCMC. In the last week we had seen only three policemen on the road yet we get stopped only an hour away from our final destination? Typical.
With no valid licenses and no rear-view mirrors, and more to the point with such luminescent white skin and shiny blonde coats, it was never going to be an easy encounter. Ever the beacon of calm, I started to hyperventilate instantly when the aviator sunglass-wearing cop grabbed my handlebar and pulled me off the roundabout. With his stoney gaze he looked like a menacing Vietnamese Clint Eastwood – should I swoon or quiver? I wondered as I handed over my registration and pretended to search urgently for my license.
Thankfully my biker friends weren’t as inexperienced in such matters as I was and Joe stepped up to the plate. Having bribed his way out of Nepalese prison twice, Joe was just the person to negotiate our release. Armed with 200,000 dong ($10 US) he squared up against the police officer, offering him the old money-in-the-palm-of-a-handshake move along with an equally steely look. Unfortunately for us the Clint Eastwood, as he shall henceforth be known, had even more experience in extracurricular policework than Joe did so instead of taking the money he sneered and lead us to a nearby carpark where he handed his latest booty over to his even dodgier civilian friend who would deal with us from here on – no police corruption here. No sir-ee.
Their opening bid was wildly hopeful – if we paid $500 dollars a head (around 4 months wages for the average Vietnamese person) they would give us back our bike registration cards and our freedom. No freaking way, responded Joe full of righteous indignation. Keep them, keep the bikes, take us to prison and lock us up! There is no way we could afford that. All we have on us is $20 he insisted, shoving proffered fifties back into our pockets. Messenger Boy was starting to look angry now so Joe stepped his game up. I work for the Australian government in Ho Chi Minh, he said slyly whipping out his phone, so I should call and let them know I’ll be late for my meeting. Instantly the price dropped to $500 for everyone. Pay it Joe – let’s just pay it, get out of here and push the bikes into the Mekong we all screamed. But Joe was solid in his tight fisted negotiation. Maybe we could stretch to $10 each if we rooted around in our bags a bit.
For the next hour the negotiations waged on – Joe standing his ground, looking as menacing as he could in his aviators and singlet (aka wife-beater) with motorbike oil and carbon emissions smeared across his snarling face and us loittering on the sideline, looking as non-plussed as possible listening to ipods, fake texting friends and throwing the occasional yawn in for good measure. Worried? Us? Never. We could totally take Vietnamese prison with all of its violent crimes, man-sized rats and racial injustice….
For an hour we stood just like that – pillars of experience and western disinterest – as Messenger Boy zipped back to Clint with every offer. He was becoming more desperate and vicious with every run, leaving us to stew for 20 minutes at a time as the sun set and our chances of negotiating HCMC traffic in the daylight became slimmer and slimmer. Eventually we landed on a compromise, we would pay $15 a head and Simon and Joe, who were looking beefier and beefier by the minute, would leave Messenger Boy with his nether regions intact.
Relieved but slightly apprehensive that the evening might contain another half dozen such dealings as we got closer to HCMC, we braced ourselves for the city’s rush hour traffic. It was monumental traffic – traffic like I hadnever imagined before. Starting around 25km outside of HCMC, cars, vans and trucks were parked at bottle-necks slamming feverishly on their horns as motorbikes weaved between vehicles. Not to be overtaken by mere 2-wheeled transportation, the jeeps and minibuses lunged forward, closing up 3ft spaces between bumpers and trapping unwitting bikers in tight embraces. To counter, the bikes veered onto sand banks where they sank up to their exhausts and eventually, filed en masse onto the grassy verge between highway lanes. As we got closer it got even more hectic with free-for-all roundabouts and futile traffic lights. Packed as tight as sardines in a can we surged forward inch by inch trusting that, while one motorcyclist is no loss to Vietnam, the mass killing of 5 westerners might be an issue.
After such a collosal journey, HCMC was always going to be a let down. For the most part we drank, slept in, ate excessive amounts of food and did everything we had been unable to do on the road. Happily our paths crossed with our old friends Dan and Ash again so together with them Dave and Rich, we ventured out to see the famed Cu Chi Tunnels which were, to be frank, wildly uninteresting. Our main objection was the 8am start followed by a 2 and a half hour bus journey. After a very late night and far too little sleep, finding ourselves severely hungover in the Handicapped Handicrafts Centre being emotionally blackmailed into buying lacquerwork was light years away from what we had in mind. The day went swiftly downhill from there with an introduction video that said the Americans shot at women and children like a bunch of crazy devils, a collection of manequins in various hammocks and work stations and finally, a tiny dark furnace of a mud tunnel through which fruit bats soared freely, diving into the faces of western tourists.
We also gave the War Museum a lash and it was incredibly satisfying with its photojournalism exhibitions, agent orange affected foetuses, prison cell replicas and real-life tank and plane displays. A definate must for any visitor to HCMC.
Oh, and we sold the bikes for 50% of what we bought them for, thereby making a loss of somewhere in the region of $80 a pop – not half bad for a journey that covered 1600km and cost us 1 clutch, 11 oil changes, three tyres, half an engine, three exhausts, half a dozen blown seals, 5 first degree sunburns and half a face.
But oh, what a journey it was. With my face fully healed and Gary’s nerves returned to their fully upright position, we agreed that we wouldn’t trade it for the world and that, strangely enough, we were going to miss the Aussies something shocking – no matter how promiscuous, cranky and full of shit they could be.