Just a Stranger's Car

They had seen my money belt, so I had to treat it as lost and with it my bank card and a fistful of Vietnamese Dong. SLR camera, notebook computer, iPhone, Kindle, sunglasses…but it was pointless to make an inventory. They would surely take everything and sort through it later.

I had taken overnight trains through the rest of the country, but it was a thirteen hour journey from Hue to Hanoi, so I paid a bit more and flew. I was in the habit by then of finding hotels on arrival and had given no thought to how I would do that when I landed after midnight and everything at the airport was closing or already closed.

The second time I walked round the terminal, I spotted a man in a booking kiosk whom I was sure had not been there before. I had heard all about accommodation scams and it occurred to me that any old crook could walk behind an empty counter and take money from naïve travellers. But he named a hotel which was in my guidebook and quoted a price which was about what it should be, and I didn’t in truth have any other ideas about finding somewhere to stay.

There was a smug, tough-looking guy in a leather jacket and his middle-twenties leaning against the kiosk and I took him to be connected with the agent, and I agreed when he offered me a taxi to the hotel. It was a mistake, and a stupid one, but my thinking then was that he was more likely to take me to the right hotel than the drivers on the rank, who – so the stories went – were in on the scams in which decent hotels are cloned.

I followed the guy outside and then found out that he wasn’t the driver. “My car coming in a minute,” he said after he had made a call. I didn’t like this much and should have walked away then, but the taxi drew up before I made a decision. Something about it looked wrong, even if it did have a taxi light clipped to the roof and magnetic signs on the doors. But I wondered if I was just being paranoid.
Then the boss, as I’ll call him, slung my bag in the boot and got into the passenger seat and I could think of no honest reason for that. If your minicab’s not booked,” I remembered from the advert in the Tube back home, “it’s just a stranger’s car”.

We barrelled along the dual carriageway and I wondered when they would drop the pretence and whip out a knife or a gun. I slipped the credit card out of my bag and stuffed it down the back of my trousers; and if they found it there, then robbery wasn’t really my problem. I remembered Marsellus in Pulp Fiction, as well.

I hoped that they wouldn’t take my passport, and I hoped they would leave me in town where I could find an ATM and a hotel; but I thought it more likely it would be a quiet country road or an empty industrial estate, and I wondered how on earth I would get to the city from there without money when I knew barely a word of the language. And all this assumed they would leave me alive, a witness who could describe them and their car.

“Gimme money,” said the boss, twisting to face me, and I handed him a 500,000 Dong note (that’s £14 or so). He had quoted 300,000 but I wasn’t now expecting any change. There was no weapon, as yet, but his synthetic charm had gone. “I see more dong,” he said and snatched another 500,000; then “I want dollar, gimme dollar”.

“I haven’t got any dollars,” I said; “this is all the cash I’ve got”. But I guessed they would find my emergency money later on. We drove in silence again.

I was too scared to be frightened and looked out of the window at the houses we passed and the dozens of scooters taking flowers to Hanoi for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. I even smiled at a girl on a scooter who pulled up alongside at lights.

We drove into town and down a dim street, where we stopped. The boss wordlessly got out of the passenger seat, popped the boot and opened my door.

He handed me my bag with a smirk. They had everything they wanted already

R Senior

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