Sunday, August 26, 2012

Escape From Hanoi, Part 3

Escape from Hanoi, Part 3

So, I had gotten out of the hospital, lucky to be alive from both the accident and the medical “care”, and had finally nailed down the job in France.  And better yet as I discovered, not just in France, but in the Cote d’Azur, on the French Riviera.  For those unfamiliar with French geography, this is the part of France right on the Mediterranean coast, right next to Monaco.  It’s one of the most desired places to live in Europe, second in French tourism only to Paris.  Year round warm weather, turquoise warm blue water perfect for diving, and delicious French cuisine.  It’s where the million/billionaires of Europe go to play.  And somehow, I had just landed a job there, that paid a good salary, with a generous relocation allowance, and teaching the subject I love (history) at what by all accounts is an outstanding, well managed, not-for-profit school.  About as different in every possible way that things can be different compared to my situation in Hanoi.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

Just a week previous, I was lying on the side of a Hanoian highway, semi-conscious, bleeding and broken in several places.  Then a stranger, an Englishman named Steve happened by and helped me out.  He happened to live right by the accident site, so he locked my motorbike up at his house, and brought me on the back of his motorbike to the hospital.  After getting out of the hospital, he got my bike repaired for me at a mechanic friend of his.  He brought the bike back to me, fully repaired.  The repairs only cost $300, and I thanked Steve profusely for getting that fixed, for picking me off the road, and for getting me to the hospital.  I asked if I could give him some money for his help, and he refused, saying he was just trying to do the right thing.  This guy seemed like my guardian angel, if such things existed.

Although, he said, that if I wouldn’t mind doing a small favor for him, he’d really appreciate it.  In Vietnam, their banking laws are labyrinthine to make it harder to launder money, he explained that the bank wouldn’t allow him to transfer his money back to England because he got paid under the table, so now he was stuck with a lot of cash and no safe place to put it.  He asked if, at the end of the month, I would do a bank transfer for him.  He’d give me the cash, and since I had a job that paid taxes, they’d allow me to transfer the money.  His job as an English teacher paid his salary in cash, as I already knew many English teachers are, in fact, paid in cash, under the table.   I said no problem, just let me know when he wanted me to do it.  I’m not a sucker, I would only do it if he gave me the cash first, so I figured there was no risk in that.

He showed me pictures of the bike before repairing it.  It was basically totaled.  The front wheel had been torn off the forks, and the frame had been broken in five  places.  Looking at the bike, I was again pretty happy to alive.  Still, I couldn’t really figure out how the accident had happened.

Now, I’ve been racing bicycles down hill for about 10 years every Sunday night in Portland (ZooBomb!), and I’ve seen and been in my fair share of pretty spectacular  wrecks.  After your first few wrecks at high speed, you learn how to crash.  Learning how to properly crash is one of the most valuable and painful lessons you can learn in life because the only way to learn the safest way to crash is pay for it with your blood and bones. However, if you know how to crash, your chances of being seriously hurt decrease enormously.  At this point, I am living proof of this. 

A quick and free lesson in crashing for the uninitiated:  When you crash on two wheels at speed, the first, best, and fastest thing to do is to tuck your chin.  Stand up now and try it.  Notice how, as soon as you tuck your chin, your shoulders hunch in protecting your ribcage and your abdominal organs.  Also, your shoulder muscles are bunched up around the neck area, further protecting your neck/spine, and reducing the impact area of your face/jaw.   If you were to land flat like that, your forehead would hit first, which is way better than having your nose/jaw hit first.  Your forehead is one of the densest bone masses in your body.  Further, when you really tuck your chin in, it pulls your arms to your sides, further protecting the sides of your ribs, and also preventing your arms from flailing around and getting snapped in half as you’re being tossed and spun along the pavement.  The simple movement of tucking your chin kicks in our body’s naturally most defensive posture, the fetal position. 

To this day, I cannot figure out how I receive my injuries as they were all over my face, left side and right, lower and upper.   All I know is that judging from the damage on my bike, and how little real serious injuries I had, I must have done something right in the crash, as all I had were three broken teeth, a concussion, a broken wrist, a crushed sinus passage, and a bunch of missing skin from scraping to a stop from 35-45 miles an hour (I can only presume I was going that fast as I was on the highway, and it appeared the bike had flipped several times while crashing).  I know those sound like serious injuries already, but I’ve seen people on ZooBomb get broken spines, crushed lungs and ribs, entire front rows of teeth knocked out, compound arm, shoulder, and collarbone breaks, torn ligaments, and broken skulls, all from crashing at my speed or often slower on a bicycle.  There but for the grace of god go I.

Anyway, a day later, I forced myself to go back to work, which I probably shouldn’t have.  In the course of the day, I got out my phone to take a photo of something, and I noticed I had a picture of a taxi on it.  I didn’t remember taking a picture of any taxi.  I checked the time stamp and geotag, it turned out the photo was taken at the time and location of my accident.  There were two photos, a perfect shot of the side of the taxi where I noticed tire skid marks, and another of the license plate.  I’ve been hit by a lot of cars in Portland, (never that seriously injured, at worst some scrapes) and my first reaction is to always take a picture of the license.  Had I been that bad-ass that even though I was half conscious, I was able to get up and take two perfect shots of the cab?  I guessed so.

Then I figured the next thing to do was call Steve, and ask him if he actually saw anything.  When I spoke to him, he said when he pulled up, I was sitting dazedly on the curb, and he noticed there were skid marks on the road.  I told him that I just discovered that I had apparently taken two clear shots of the taxi that hit me before they left.  Oddly enough, I hadn’t taken a shot of the taxi driver.

He said that was good news because his landlord’s son was a high-ranking police officer, and could represent me to the taxi company, essentially putting the squeeze on the company to pay for my injuries.  I said wonderful, thanks, and he told me he’d call me back shortly with more info.  About an hour later, he called and told me that today must be my lucky day, because since I had photo of the taxi, and Steve said he would be my witness, and because I was a foreigner, the police officer would be able to get me $20,000 from the company.  Wow, not bad!  He told me he would have more details soon, and he’d call me back.  Half an hour later, he called back, saying that the cop had confirmed it was guaranteed that I would get paid, there was only one small catch though, the cop was asking for $4,000 to do the work.  Now, I know you think that sounds crazy, but actually, bribery is how EVERYTHING gets done in Vietnam.  If you want a cop to do his job, you bribe him.  However, four grand was pretty steep.  The figure made me hesitate.  Steve said that if I didn’t have that much money, he could loan me half of it.  Earlier in one of our conversations, he explained how his parents were very wealthy and paid for everything, and he was only teaching English here in order to meet people.

I told him I needed to think about this before I could commit, as that was a lot of money.  He said I needed to give him an answer asap, as the longer we waited, the less of a case I would have.  I hung up and thought about it.  Something felt not right, I couldn’t put my finger on it.  So far, I had no reason not to trust Steve.  After all, the guy had practically saved my life, fixed my bike, and asked for nothing in return.  It had only been a week since my accident, I felt still out of it and confused, and this situation wasn’t helping.  Steve had assured me that this was a sure thing, as his friend had told him, and he’d known his landlord and her family for years.  Still something felt wrong.  Logically, it made sense, as this is how “justice” is done in Vietnam.  But I started to imagine how I could get screwed.  I saw the most likely route would be, I bribe the cop for four grand, then he brings me to police station to do the paperwork, and instead asks for more money, and if I refused to give him more money, than he would arrest me for attempting to bribe a cop.  These things can happen in Asia.  In an hour, Steve called me back, needing an answer.  This was all happening too fast.  I went with my gut feeling and told him thanks, but no thanks.  He said, no problem, he understood, and he looked forward to grabbing a beer with me when I felt better.

I still liked the idea of getting money from this accident though.  After all, the driver had almost killed me and then left me for dead, and I knew the taxi company would have deep pockets.  So I had another idea.  Maybe I could find someone to put the squeeze on the taxi company for free?  After all, most of my students come from very well connected families, typically high ranking government officials/Communist party members/mafia/businessmen.  In Vietnam, if you’re rich, you are some combination of all of those to varying degrees. There’s no such thing as social mobility there.  No matter how hard you work, if you’re poor, you’ll always be poor.  You’re born into your social class.  Much like America is becoming with it’s 1% super rich, and then the rest of us.

Anyway, I began asking my students if any of their parents would be interested in helping ol’ Mister International Man of History out.  The first kid that got back to me hooked me up with his brother.  I met with his brother, and he said sure, he’d help me, as he was connected with the police.  Teachers are well respected in Asia, and it’s not uncommon for student’s families to do nice things for their teachers.

I was feeling pretty tense, as I’m not used to mafia/Communist party officials doing favors for me.  The brother pulled up to the school in his chauffeured Land Rover with government plates, and I got in.  Off to the police station to talk with his cop friend and put the squeeze on the bastard who had almost killed me, then left me for dead….

To be continued…


  1. Corey,

    I'm too curious, that was way too early to stop your story!! what happened next?

    in any case, I think you truly deserve the French Riviera.