A traffic cop seen trying to hide his nametag from the broken mirror of A. Scott's motorbike, which Scott says the cop busted with his baton in an attempt to pull him over. Photo courtesy of A. Scott
Over the past few years, I have considered myself fortunate to have landed in such a vibrant and interesting country. Its distinct culture, which intrigues and puzzles foreigners such as myself at times, is part of its charm and allure.
So I want to say at the outset that this is not a typical "we foreigners know better than you locals" piece. I'm from England, where the police force is currently mired in controversy over the illegal spying on its own citizens, over attempts to discredit the family of a murdered black teenager (Stephen Lawrence) and yes, even accepting bribes from the media to provide inside information on criminal investigations.
But no matter where they happen, unfair and dangerous actions need to be reported and condemned.
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I have been stopped many times by the traffic police in Vietnam. I would estimate around 10 times over a 3.5 year period. On nine of these, I was breaking no law that I am aware of.
On one occasion, I'm still not sure! I moved into the left lane to pass a gaggle of bikes that had slowed and bunched due to the poorly positioned police check that was ahead. I was told that I was traveling in a lane reserved for 4 wheel vehicles turning right and despite the lanes not being separated by a solid line, I was told there is no lawful reason to move into it.
However, every time I have been stopped, the police have demanded an on-the-spot fine - anything from VND200,000 to 3,000,000. I have always refused to pay. Firstly is illegal to bribe a policeman and secondly, it is just morally wrong. Of all the times I have refused to pay, on only one occasion has a ticket been issued.
Typically, the police are quite direct and assertive when stopping me. I usually ask why they have stopped me because I have not broken any rule that I am aware of. They usually ignore this or just point to the second lane and say 'Not motorbike' or something similar. I will politely argue that they are mistaken, which provokes them to move on and ask for my license and registration, hoping to catch me out there. I have no problem with that as I am 100 percent legal.
Once these documents are produced though, it is not long before the police turn over their pad and write the amount that they want paid. I'm not easily intimidated and will just say 'no' but I know many people who will happily get their wallets out not to endure the procedure further.
Sometimes they threaten to take my bike. I just say that it is ok as I have a few more. This is all fairly low level posturing and mildly intimidating stuff, but a line was crossed the other day.
I was riding along a road in Binh Chanh District, in the correct lane, below the speed limit, when a traffic policeman ahead started walking into the road, raised his stick and pointed toward me. I hadn't done anything wrong and reasoned he was probably going to try and stop someone behind me.
When I got closer I could see that he had no blue badge on his uniform and I knew from reading the online press that it is illegal for any officer to try and stop you without one.
At that point I decided that a) He couldn't legally stop me because he didn't display his blue badge ID and b) I had done nothing wrong and had no need to subject myself to an illegal stop.
I didn't change course, I didn't speed up. But as I got close to the policeman and passed him he swung his stick toward me. The stick connected with my right side mirror and smashed the glass. Had it not hit the mirror, it would have hit my arm.
I was incredibly out-raged at such dangerous, reckless and I would guess, criminal behavior by the police officer concerned and stopped my bike quickly, turned around and rode the short distance back to them.
I got off my bike and I approached the policeman who had hit my bike. I must admit that I used some swear words in English asking him to explain his action, on the lines of "WTF do you think you are doing? WTF did you do that?"
One of the officers spoke to me in English to admonish me for my language and then refused to speak English anymore saying that I should speak Vietnamese because I live in Vietnam!
Now, I can speak a little Vietnamese but my level is so poor that I can't really understand when people talk to me in Vietnamese. I can say simple things and I am trying to learn more.
However, the policeman then turned to me and began speaking very fast in Vietnamese. I had no idea what he was saying. I had a feeling that things were not going well so I decided I might need to try and identify these policemen later somehow.
So, I took out my phone and took a photo of my mirror which was broken and a photo of the police bike from the rear so its license plate could be seen. I then walked back to the officer who was still talking with my passenger.
I turned my phone on to video and said to him that I wanted to video what he was saying so I could get it translated later. He continued talking in Vietnamese. I asked him in English what his name was and if could I see his blue badge. I tried to move his papers out the way which seemed to have been placed in his pocket with the sole purpose of hiding a blue ID badge but he told my passenger that if I did that again I would have big trouble.
I asked him in Vietnamese, "Anh ten la gi?" He replied "khong hieu". I repeated it again and he said to me in Vietnamese to speak Vietnamese! I was trying! He also said to my passenger that they did not hit my mirror, it must have been broken before. This was a complete lie.
After about 10 minutes, they let me go, but not before telling me that if I had talked to the police in any other country as I had done to them, I would have been shot!
I don't know if these police were fake police, or off-duty ones trying to make some quick money, but only one officer in the group of three displayed his blue badge. He was younger and did not get involved in trying to talk to me or my passenger.
Why haven't I complained about this to the police directly, you might ask. Quite simply, I have no faith that anything meaningful would result from it.
The sad thing is that the traffic police here have a really significant job to do and could save lives by doing their job professionally. The sheer amount of over-loaded trucks, dangerous motorbikes, unlicensed three wheel death traps with one operating brake, vehicles with no lights working, people texting and driving/riding, drink driving... the list could go on. That's before you even get started on people riding or driving the wrong way up a one way street!
Yet, the traffic police will spend hours pulling over young women riding at 30kph on brand new (safe) automatic scooters who have committed no visible offence. I have seen this so many times. Why do these brusque male officers choose young women to pull over?
I really hope one day that the people of Vietnam have a Traffic Police force that they can feel proud of, manned by honest and earnest officials.
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By A. Scott *
*The writer is an British expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.