Katie and I decided to take a day trip from Can Tho, Vietnam to a small town, about two hours away. At the bus station we found a chaotic jumble of attendants and salesmen running around, trying to drag potential customers into their buses. We went to one company's official ticket window, but none of their buses were going where we wanted. Instead, we walked to the parking lot, where several buses were waiting, and asked the salesmen for guidance.
A skinny guy led us across the lot, never bothering to remove the cigarette that was dangling from his mouth as he talked. Several men yanked us in all directions, pleading with us to go with them. We ignored them and ended up in a half-sized bus, sitting on a bench seat behind the driver. We breathed a sigh of relief – not only were we no longer getting hounded outside, but we also had plenty of legroom.
When we sat down, Katie reached for her phone. It wasn't in her pocket. She searched her bag, then confirmed: the phone had been stolen. Somebody must have swiped it when we were forcing our way through the large crowd. She hated that phone so it wasn't a huge loss, but still, it's always a terrible experience when something gets stolen. But there wasn't much we could do about it now.
The bus attendant was an overweight woman wearing a bucket hat with a yellow flower embroidered on the front. She sat next to the sliding door, facing us, and held up two 200,000 dong notes, indicating the price. My mind was still racing, thinking about Katie's phone, and I couldn't remember what the price was supposed to be. I had been to a few countries where one dollar was worth more than one thousand of the local currency, but Vietnam had the most extreme exchange rate I had ever encountered – 22,000:1. Needless to say, all of those zero's were confusing. I gave her one 200,000 note, thinking that should be plenty. She laughed and said, in broken English, “No, two hundred each.” It seemed like a lot of money, but then I remembered that we had just paid 320,000 for our tickets to Saigon, so it wasn't that expensive. We gave her 200,000 more and waited.
Fifteen minutes went by and we were still sitting at the bus station. The attendant spent most of her time staring at her fancy iPhone 6, and the rest of her time yelling at everyone who crossed her path. A handful of locals were sitting at the back of the bus, and there were still several empty seats. It was now clear that we wouldn't leave until the bus was full.
While listening to the attendant berate a potential new customer for not wanting to ride with us, something clicked in my mind. We had paid 320,000 total (160,000 each) for our Saigon tickets. Today we paid 200,000 each to go half the distance. On top of that, the attendant hadn't even given us tickets. Most of our money was going directly into her pocket. (I later confirmed that we were supposed to pay 40,000 each for this trip.) Now I was seething with anger.
Another foreigner came aboard and the attendant wanted 250,000 dong to go to Saigon. She refused to pay that much, so the attendant kicked her off. She was becoming more belligerent and abusive by the minute.
I mentioned to Katie that we could always walk away. We were already flustered from her stolen phone and paying five times the going rate for our bus tickets, and we hadn't even left the parking lot. We still would have to buy a ticket back to Can Tho at the end of the day, and probably get ripped off once again.
The same foreign woman came back and paid a cool quarter-million, stating that none of the other buses were going to Saigon. The attendant lambasted her yet again as she took her seat. At that point, Katie agreed that we should walk away. On top of ripping us off, this detestable woman was stressing us out, and we didn't want to put up with her any more.
Katie told the attendant that we were leaving and asked for our money back. Of course, she refused. Katie held out her hand and said, “Mo-ney! Give us our money!” The vile woman screamed at her.
I stood and said, “Give us our money. Now!” I knew she wouldn't budge, but I figured it was worth a shot.
A horrified expression came across her face when I stood. She almost fell backward and scurried over the divider, into the front passenger seat. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a knife! She opened it and the three-inch blade clicked into place. She snarled and her eyes grew wide. She pointed the blade at me, then made a throat-cutting motion, accompanied by a “hocking” sound-effect.
“Ooh, I'm so afraid of you,” I said sarcastically. “Come on, lady. Try it.” Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I wasn't afraid of this pathetic woman. Somehow, I didn't think she had it in her to attack me. I never took my eyes off of her.
As quickly as she had brandished the knife, she closed it and put it back into her purse. Then she stepped outside. She seemed calmer now. Maybe she had gotten rid of her aggression by threatening to kill me. She even went back to playing on her phone. Then she stepped inside the bus, phone in hand.
“She's taking our picture,” Katie said.
I looked at her and realized it was true – the phone's camera was pointed directly at us. Katie put her hand in front of the lens, and we left the bus.
Two can play at this game, I thought, and took out my phone. I tried to take a picture of her, but she slammed the door in my face. I walked around the bus and photographed the front and the license plate. The driver covered his face, but that was fine. He was just an innocent bystander. Or was he? Neither he, nor anyone else, said a thing when this despicable woman threatened to kill me and yelled at everyone. Why the silent treatment?
I went up to the closed door and laughed maniacally. The attendant was one of the most horrible human beings I had ever encountered. She was a cancer to society, spreading her misery to everyone she encountered. We had felt extremely welcomed in Vietnam until that point, and I didn't want to let her ruin our entire trip. Unfortunately, the other foreigner was stuck with her for the next several hours.
When I finished my crazed laughter, Katie said, “Freedom is having the time and money to walk away.” And that's exactly what we did. We were free.
* Side note: While this was happening, the rest of our group from Beijing was heading north through Vietnam on a bus. The driver only allowed five minutes for a bathroom break, and the line for the women's room was long. Haisam pleaded with the driver to wait a few more minutes so his wife could use the toilet. The driver grew belligerent and pulled out a machete. To defend himself, Haisam turned around and uprooted a small tree. Luckily Haisam's standoff ended as quickly as mine had, but that group still had to put up with this guy for the rest of the day. After hearing about this, I wondered: Are all bus employees in Vietnam crazy?