Drugged & Kidnapped & (almost) Sold into Slavery: Vietnam on a Dime

1991, Saigon: Part 1 of a 3 part series

It was my 24th birthday and I waited all during dinner for some birthday wishes, maybe a bit of cake. About 10:00 pm I figured out my boyfriend wasn’t waiting to surprise me — he had forgotten. So amidst some tears I told him it was my birthday. To his credit, he was aghast at his forgetfulness and promised to send me on a trip. He’d send me to Vietnam!

Now at the time I was getting my Masters of Philosophy degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My thesis was on the Indochinese political power struggles during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. (I know – quite the heady topic! I read the thesis today and sincerely wonder who wrote it.) So a trip to Vietnam to do some independent research was a great gift!

Chinese University of Hong Kong degree. If only I could read it…

I naturally assumed my boyfriend would be going with me on the trip. But he said, no, that he was busy and he would buy me a ticket and get me a hotel reservation, I was to handle the rest. Note: this is the same guy who I left lying in the dirt to climb Mount Kinabalu. Like I said, he was a great source of empowerment, however misguided.

So I wrote to my parents to tell them of impending trip. My mom’s manicurist, who was Vietnamese, insisted on giving me several letters of introduction to her family and her former school teacher. Perfect – now I had local connections to look up when I got there.

So off I went on my 10-day trip. This was in 1991 before the U.S. had normalized relations with Vietnam, so I flew in through Bangkok on an old Soviet 15-seater aircraft. Frankly, I’m surprised that we made it in that tin can. I was greeted at the airport with a downed Vietnam War-era U.S. helicopter left rotting just off the runway. A clear reminder of who lost the war. Strangely, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the Vietnamese may not be friendly toward an American. (So typical—sometimes I exasperate myself!)

Welcome to Vietnam, Downed US Army Helicopter

It was the first time I truly traveled alone and I’ll admit that I broke down crying when I arrived at the airport with all the touts surrounding me yelling for me to get in their cylcos, but I got my shit together pretty quickly and landed at the hotel. Once there, I went to a café across the street to get a latte and map out an itinerary. One of the best parts of Vietnam is the leftover French influences that are so charming, especially juxtaposed with the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Arrival & Alienation

Arriving at a foreign airport is still the most disorienting time of any trip. You’re usually tired from traveling, unfamiliar with the language and money, and aren’t sure where to go. Whenever possible, I try to arrange transport from the airport to the hotel ahead of time (even paying a premium) so I can bypass this little bit of drama.

I’m sitting in this café wondering what on earth I’m supposed to do, when a guy walks up to me and asks if my name is Erin and if I teach aerobics at a health club in Hong Kong. Uh, yeah. Apparently he used to take my class and he relocated from Hong Kong like a month ago. He would show me around – perfect! (How weird, right? Actually, not really. I had been living in Asia for several years now and the expat community is really small. Stuff like this happens all the time.)

So I had an instant friend and tagged along with him to business dinners (first time I had eaten boar), to local museums, sidewalk shopping. Once we were walking along the Saigon river, (I remember vividly because a dead, bloated dog floated right by us) deep in conversation. He was telling me how Vietnamese women don’t smoke, except for ladies of the night. It was considered extremely uncouth by local standards.

After a few days of hanging out, my aerobic buddy had to go back to work so I went off on my own. In fact, I was so confident in myself I decided to leave the “luxury” hotel my boyfriend had put me up in, take the extra money and move to  much more economical lodging. Perhaps not one of my better decisions.

I relocated to a place where they put me on the second floor with huge floor-to-ceiling French door walls that opened onto a balcony. Admittedly at one time the hotel would’ve been beautiful…like in the 1950’s when the French were there. 40 years later, the place was more than a little worn. I never really slept for the reminder of the trip since I lived in fear that someone would come at night and get me through the ragged balcony. I’d seen movies. I know how it happens.

This is the end of Part 1 of a 3-part series.

Part 2 of Drugged & Kidnapped & (almost) Sold into Slavery: Vietnam on a Dime

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This entry was posted on Sunday, May 24th, 2009 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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