Motorbikes, Massages and Corruption

“I’m not missing our lotus leaf massage, grab the crowbar,” said Damo.

After arriving in Nha Trang on a night train from Da Nang, we lurked outside the station entrance in anticipation of receiving our motorbikes. It had taken us considerably longer than expected to traverse the Hai Van Pass, regularly voted as one of the world’s best roads.

Hai-van-pass

We were now racing against the clock and took the overnight train to ensure we made our 3pm appointment to review the spa at the five star Fusion Maia hotel. In Vietnam, they transport bikes on trains by constructing a makeshift wooden palate around the bike. It looks like half a fence has been inexactly nailed onto either side, joined by a few rogue hunks of wood on the top and bottom. As the bikes were unloaded off the train, we spotted ours in the first batch. We pointed this out to the man in charge, a diminutive Vietnamese man with a cheap cigarette poking out of his mouth and a crowbar in his right hand.

“No! Three o clock,” he shouted as we moved towards our bikes. It was now 1 o’ clock and we were still over a hundred kilometres from the hotel.

“Nah, don’t worry, we’ll just get them now.” We approached the crates encasing our bikes and tentatively felt how sturdy the structures were.

“No! Two o clock,” he shouted again and brandished the crowbar above his head, striding towards us purposefully. So the waiting time seemed to have decreased by an hour in less than a minute.

“No, we need them now,” we told him, sensing this was extremely unofficial. He paused to think.

Bikes 2

“Okay, 80 thousand dong.” If Vietnam was an airline it would be Ryan Air; it begins cheaply but the price doubles after taxes and unspecified fees. He pointed at both of us to signify it was eighty thousand each, and not a combined price. This is roughly three pounds, but that’s not the point. The point is we had already paid to transport the bikes and this thinly veiled bribe was just going to fund his next ten packs of cheap cigarettes.

‘Fuck off, mate,’ I thought. “No,” is what I actually said. He put his crowbar down and walked over to his desk to grab a pen and paper and begin the bargaining process. Whilst his back was turned, Damo grabbed the crowbar, I selected a short, blunt stick of wood and we began gently dismantling the wooden casing around our bikes. By smashing each piece of wood into smithereens and kicking away the debris.

Bikes

“No!” He shouted again and ran over to us looking both dismayed as he realised he would have to buy his own cigarettes and annoyed his power had been undermined.

“No! Eighty thousand.” If Vietnam was a game it would be Candy Crush; free to play at first but you’re forced to purchase before advancing, and it quickly degenerates into a saga. Fortunately, the spraying shards of wood were prohibiting him from coming any closer and we carried on smashing up the fencing as he waved his arms around in despair. He was the unwilling conductor of a destructive orchestra.

“No! Stop.”

BOOM. SMASH.

“No! Eighty thousand.”

CRACK. Shrapnel is flying around the station forecourt. A dystopian call and answer between the corrupt conductor and the disobedient musicians. This continued for five minutes; we slowly freed our bikes from the mesh of timber as beads of sweat fell from our foreheads to the floor. It transpired that eighty thousand would have been a fair price for this hard labour, but that’s not the point.

“Seventy thousand?” he shouted with less certainty than earlier. Now, this was not a fair price as we’d already completed the lions share of the work. We banished the final panel from being and the two sides fell to the floor with the grace of a fat man dropping a tuba. However, this left our bikes standing there, triumphantly unshackled. We dragged them out of the wreckage and the bike man, sensing defeat, helped us haul them from the carnage. We mounted our bikes, turned them on and rolled towards the exit.

“Ten thousand?” shouted the bike man. Roughly thirty pence was now his new price.

“Fuck off, mate.” I said as we zoomed out onto the main road in pursuit of our lotus leaf massage.

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