Monday, December 15, 2008

Vietnamese Prison Narrowly Averted!

One day in Saigon we decided to tour the variety of historic religious buildings. Vietnam is largely Buddhist, with small populations of Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. There is one large Hindu temple, one major cathedral and one sizable mosque. Our first stop was the Mariamman Hindu Temple.

I've never been to a Hindu temple before and I know very little about the religion. I was very intent on being respectful and open when on their "sacred" ground. We approached the front and a lady and gentleman very assertively pushed into our hands some incense, candles, a small lei, some fruit and a few other small items. The mob that gathered up behind them made it a little difficult to do anything other than walk forward into the temple. The man instantly took all the incense and lit it, and took all the offerings and put them in front of one of the statues. A few moments later a lady came up and said "two hundred" (the Vietnamese currency is the dong...17,000 dong to a dollar). Ron said, "fine" and she said, "no, two hundred thousand." Ron said "no way!" What happened between here and our exit was for me a blur of loud stressful prison visions. Ron was not going to give in and this lady was not going to back down. I wanted to know where the Vietnamese mafia was and how long it would take them to execute us. In retrospect I'll say that Ron was very clever...he did this whole charade of "I have no more than this!" then snuck around the corner to count his remaining 8000 dong so when they said "I know you have more" he pretended to be all bugged about giving up his 8000 when he had 500,000 in his other pocket. By the way, by the time we were leaving, the price had risen to 400,000.

Ok, so now we're running away and I'm sure we are being tailed by someone on a motorbike. I convince Ron to go straight to the US embassy just in case we committed a crime by accepting this Hindu offering and underpaying the highest quoted price by 200,000 dong. Have you ever had to seriously consider Vietnamese prison?! This isn't Slovakia where the EU can force them to not cane you.

We arrived at the embassy and a very smiley guard helped us in broken English. We told him our story and eventually asked him, "So, are we bad, or are they bad?" He looks straight in my eye and says "You are bad." I am now expending serious effort not to wet myself. I am headed for the flogging chamber. I can taste the poisonous blowfish they will serve me in my cell already. He continues, "You should never have paid them any money!" What?!? Is he serious? He explained that we were definitely scammed and should report it to the local police.

It took me the rest of the day and night to calm my nerves. Every little bug made me jump, certain that someone's older cousin was coming for us.

As it turned out, no one did catch up with us. I was genuinely surprised. I hate it when you can break rules that you don't know about and have to fear prison. I narrowly avoided insulting Turkishness in Turkey and I will try hard not to insult the monarchy in Thailand. For now, we made it...but just barely =).

No comments: