Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Taxi Travails

A few months in so far and I yet to travel on a motobike. This is 'cause my attitude is 'if it's close enough to be moto-convenient, then I prefer to walk, if it is far enough to be moto-dangerous, then I take a cab.' With such a game plan, and living in the 'burbs of Hanoi, it has meant that I've been in my fair share of cabs here.

I can say, with an almost social science level of confidence, that taxis here are pretty fair and convenient. Of course that means that about 5% of the time, my frustration boils over. Like the other day.

I am in and around Embassy row in town, walking towards the office, avoiding xe om drivers' entreaties while looking for a cab. Finally found one on this sweltering day; it doesn't help matters that I'm encased in wool fibers. The ride is short in the little Matiz and the LED shines a bloody 17,200 VND.

I'm slightly bothered that the AC was not on, and more bothered that the cabbie stopped before, rather than after, the intersection that I wanted to be dropped off at - after all, the less human Frogger one has to partake in, the better. I asked how much it cost.

As I uttered these words (in Vietnamese, natch) he proceed to punch the buttons on the meter like an ATM.


"20,000?! I just saw the meter and it said 17,200. Why are you saying 20,000?"

He scowls a bit. I hand him a 20k bill and expect change back.

"I want my change back."
"I have no change."
"Give me back 10k, and I'll give you exact change."

He scowls some more, curses at me, shoves the 20k back to me and promises to drive me back to where he picked me up, all the while driving away.

I'm flabbergasted. Is this really happening? It's fucking hot, I got work to do, there is no way I'm going for this. If it was the States, I could call the cops, I could sue his ass and, more profitably, the taxi company, for false imprisonment or something. (for those who know the difference between a tort and a torte, ok, so it's likely outside the scope of the the driver's agency, but bad publicity would lead to a quick settlement by the company I would imagine).

But, TIV. I don't even know how to call for the cops here, besides the indirect method of dialing a-friend-of-a-friend-who's-Dad-is-a-cop.

Being Vietnam, however, means that he's sputtering off in a crank-bearing saleman's dream - lugging the engine, short shifting to the point of stalling, all accompanied by a mechanical chorus of protest. Save some gas to blow the mill. Nice.

Should I wait for the next red light, to jump ship? Can I take advantage of a slow departure to roll out the door? Would I get run over by motos if I do that? Fuck, I'm wearing my nice pants.

These are the thoughts that crosses one mind while involved in a slow speed kidnapping event.

With the each passing moment, my office grows more distant; I do not want to extend my walk back any further, so I discard the idea of waiting for a light. We are going down Ly Thai To, near the Metropole, and the traffic is light. Perhaps this is the right time to abandon ship - does one jump forward or backwards when leaving a moving vehicle? Dman, I need to review 48 Hours more closely. Dman, my nice pants. It's not like I can easily buy more pants.

Why am I making this guy's life so easy? Forget hurting myself, let's make his ass stop the car. I'm in the right rear passenger seat, so I open the left rear door. Now he's going down the street with a rear door open - he sees this, panics and slows down to button things up. I open the right rear door. Umm.. not slow enough. So I open the left rear door again. He slows down again to close it and then decides that I am reckless enough to get him into trouble, so he pulls over by the cyclo drivers at the Metropole.

He gets out in a huff and I do too. The cyclo cyclists have witnessed a bit of this and lightly inquire as to what the heck is going on. The taxi driver starts yelling and when I yell back about how he tried to overcharge and then whisk me away, he starts cursing. Not wanting to sound like my Dad, I curse back, but in English.

The cyclos intervene, in a parochial, 'ah, he's an American' kind of way and negotiate that I pay the original fare. Of course this is unfair as I'm not at my intended destination and I've been subjected to thinking like a stuntman. But the driver is a bit loco. Is this dude gonna throw a punch?

For those who think that Vietnam, and other East Asian countries, is all about face and indirect public confrontation and the like.. yeah, that's complete bullshit, tinged with Western crap. Have ya seen those late night video clip shows, with Taiwanese polticos throwing haymakers on the floor of their parliament?

He might really escalate his words into action. Why is it that when I get into it with someone anywhere in the world, they always seem to have less to lose than I? Or is it 'cause I think I have too "much?"

I hand over 20,000 and this time, magically, he has change. We disengage by sharing a bit of cross-cultural communication through cursing in different languages. I walk back to the office, checking more carefully than usual at intersections, weary of any lurking Matiz.

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