“Don’t walk home alone after midnight.”
That was the advice I got about Nha Trang from my new British friend.
One of the real changes to my personality during my travels has been the growing ability to have random conversations with people along the way. Shyness and introversion have given way to an increasing openness to interact with complete strangers.
It’s been a nice shift, not only because I’m becoming more adept at meeting people, but I’ve also based a lot of my travel destinations on advice and recommendations from chats I’ve had in trains, buses, hotels and restaurants.
While in Hoi An, I played pool with a couple of guys who had just come from Nha Trang, which was my next destination. In between my fruitless efforts to bank striped balls into leather lined holes, they gave me the ins and outs of what to do there. They also warned me about the motorbike gangs.
Southeast Asia is not a place with much violent crime. Generally, the less desirable element of the population will just do their best to scam you out of a few extra dollars or quietly take money from your bag when you’re not around (which happened to several people on a boat trip through Halong Bay).
Nha Trang is a pretty nice place, less so if you’re not a scuba diver. Beaches, great restaurants, waterfalls and Monkey Island. And tons of tourists. Which is why it’s also home to more blatant tourist crime than you’ll find in the rest of Vietnam.
My British advisor told me about his experience getting surrounded by a handful of people on motorbikes on a quiet street in Nha Trang. They tried to grab his money, but after he got a few good hits in, they decided he wasn’t worth the trouble and raced away.
His experience was one I found repeated by others when I did a quick search, courtesy of the Google Crime Blotter. Groups of muggers on motorbike come out at night and seek out opportunities for a quick grab ‘n go. Groups of women try the same, with their own feminist twist.
Like Cinderella or a Mogwai’s dinner time, I ignored the warning about midnight and started a trek back to my room at about 1 in the morning. I had spent the evening at The Sailing Club, a beautiful beachfront restaurant and dance club which spills out onto the sand with seating, a second bar and a small bonfire.
About a block through the 4 block walk, I saw them from a distance. Tiny engines revved. Like a scene from a post-apocalyptic epic performed in miniature, the motorbikes serpentined down the street. The area I was passing through was dark, so I hugged the wall in an effort to stay invisible to the pint-sized Hell’s Angels.
From behind me, though, a lone motorbike headed my way. As it neared to within 15 feet, the driver parked it and aimed her feet my way.
Through the darkness, the woman’s voice said “you want me suck you?”
The offer wasn’t appealing in the first place, but since hearing the tale in Hoi An, I had done enough research to know that one of the typical games is to get close enough to play “grope the tourist” and use the distraction to lift his wallet, then race away on the motorbike.
I was a bit nervous at this point – not because of the woman heading toward me. Knowing what she was going to attempt to do, I knew I could protect the few dollars I had on me. I was more concerned about attracting the attention of the larger gang hovering nearby. While I found no reports online of any weapon use, I knew that roughing someone up a bit was not unheard of.
From what I could see, they had pulled off to get some food at a late night street vendor, about 2 blocks up.
Before the initiator of the disturbing invitation got within 10 feet of me, I yelled “Back off!” Loudly enough for her to get the message, but not with enough volume to catch the notice of the Wild Ones ahead.
I don’t think it frightened her, but she was savvy enough to know that my attitude was not one that was going to let her get close enough to snag my wallet, so she turned back to her bike as I quickly darted around the corner, not quite running but also not what you would consider walking. The new route was much better lit, more heavily trafficked by other tourists and only added a half block to my walk.
While the sound of motorbikes continued to echo around the nearby alleys, I got back to the hostel in less than 5 minutes, thanks to my accelerated pace.
It wasn’t really a scary situation, it was more annoying that this kind of crime is so commonplace in such a busy tourist town. Unlike Thailand, Vietnam doesn’t have “tourist police” so you’re pretty much on your own as a foreigner.