Soc Trang

15 January 2002

An edifying, thought-provoking day, although not for the reasons you might expect.

I went “off tour” again, this time to the town of Soc Trang, famous for its “clay pagoda” and “bat pagoda”. The “clay pagoda” is rather like any other pagoda, only the contents are made almost entirely from clay, and by just one monk (is there any wacky thing monks round here can’t or won’t do?). The “bat pagoda” is (ta-da!) a sanctuary for fruit bats. It was actually pretty cool – the bats are pretty big – they have a wingspan of one-and-a-half feet (around half a metre) – and they do look rather spooky dangling from the trees around the pagoda.

I went on the local bus (60km and an hour-an-a-half and 8,000 dong each way). It was an absolute scream (literally!) until… well, more of that in a bit.

The bus was the same for the outward and return journeys (I can’t find out whether there’s only one bus a day or it just happened that way). It was only on the return journey that I noticed the shrine at the front, near the driver. It was really pretty, decorated with fresh flowers (chrysanthemums perhaps?) and incense sticks – thankfully just two of them, given that odd numbers are only burned for dead people, which was a sobering thought for anyone who could see the state of the bus and/or the way it was driven. (I’ll know I’ve assimilated into Vietnam when I accept that the correct procedure for overtaking is to zoom up behind another vehicle and honk the horn really loudly as you pull out to overtake.)

Behind the shrine was a picture – I think of some Christian figure, although it was hard to tell, as I was dazzled by the flashing red, amber and green lights that outlined certain parts.

The bus didn’t have windows, just metal shutters with slats in them, although they were (not surprising, given the heat) kept open for the whole journey. Ironically, given what happened on the return journey, I spent both trips with an eagle eye on my bag in case someone tried to snatch it through the open window.

Just like the trains, the buses are visited by vendors who wander up and down the aisle selling all manner of snacks from bread to peanuts. And as for the staffing, well, there was the driver (of course), a woman who didn’t appear to be in uniform but went around the bus accepting payment and issuing tickets, and also a man whose job seemed to be to act as a human bell, to hang out of the bus and yelp like a wounded dog when we approached a stop.

That was the fun stuff. The less fun stuff was that two women tried to rob me. The experiences should be a salutary lesson for anyone, anywhere in the world, who assumes their stuff is safe because it’s in a money belt UNDER their clothes.

One side of the bus had three-people seats and the other had ones for two people. I sat by the window on a three-person seat. I didn’t think it was that strange when two women sat next to me, even though there were lots of completely empty seats. Maybe they knew it was going to get full or something? Maybe they wanted easy access to the aisle, without having to push past another passenger? Not having much experience of travelling on Vietnamese public buses I just thought that was what passengers did.

Anyway, as the journey progressed, the woman next to me seemed to edge closer to me, pretty much wedging me against the window, so the huge bag and conical hat she’d had resting on her lap was as good as spilling onto mine. Only one of her hands was visible and her friend kept trying to speak to me in her “a little” English. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable, that something was amiss, but as I was wearing a very long t-shirt I didn’t worry about my money belt (which I had stupidly exposed when I bought an ice-cream through the window when we were in Soc Trang bus station). I did, though, keep watching my backpack and peggy purse, which were on my lap (or rather what bit of lap not covered by the woman’s bag and hat). I kept thinking I could feel something around my waist, but every time I (subtly) checked my belt, everything seemed to be all right.

As we approached Can Tho the woman gestured that she would like me to try to get the window open more than it was, and her friend seemed to become even more frantic in her efforts to speak to me, yet everything still seemed to be OK. However, as we pulled into Can Tho bus station, I realised the woman next to me had managed to ease up my t-shirt and unzip my money belt, but she hadn’t been able to get my wallet out because it was wedged in so tight. I was so angry, but, not knowing Vietnamese, all I could do was glare at them to show that I knew what they’d been up to and felt nothing but contempt for them.

What annoyed me most, though, was that as I walked back to the hotel, this little boy started walking and talking with me.  We established he was 12 and on his way home from school, and that I was 36 and a tourist. He was absolutely adorable, cute, polite, well-mannered. But, because of what had just happened, I couldn’t stop myself thinking: “Is he going to try to rob me?”. Then he turned into the building he said was his home – the “Homeless Children’s Club”. He wasn’t a thief at all, just a homeless little boy looking for some love and attention. And I hadn’t felt able to trust him or be as kind to him as I should have been.

Before I get too angry, I should remind myself that the woman who nearly had her chain snatched last night was local, not a tourist, so skanksters consider anyone fair game, not just tourists. I also resolved not to keep my wallet in my money-belt again. (Ironically, the belt contained only money I thought I would need for the day – the rest was safely at the hotel – and I’d only put my purse in my belt rather than in my peggy purse because I’d thought it would be safer there! However, there is a double irony there: if I had had just plain, simple, folding cash in my money belt rather than my bulky purse, the woman would probably have got it out really easily.)

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