When the bus driver jabbers that he will have to stop at the Police Control, I immediately smell trouble. No stops have been planned and he should know that we have all the necessary authorizations. What is worse, I do not remember noticing any kind of control booth on our way to town.
He pulls over in a dark empty street, far away from the Saigon airport and even further still from the harbor, and I no longer have to smell it: trouble is here. The French passengers I am escorting, still a little shocked by the harassment at Customs, do not really know any better and are looking around with worried faces, probably wondering if the all-inclusive package to Guadeloupe would not have been a safer bet.
I put on my most reassuring smile and explain that there must be a misunderstanding which I will sort out at the “Control” with our driver, who has already jumped off the bus and is waving for me to follow him. I fall in with his stride, mentally noting that the houses lining the sinister street do not look at all like official buildings and worriedly looking around for a reassuring sign in the short-lived headlight halo of the rare cars driving by.
The man turns purposefully into an alley, walks across a porch and into a small inner courtyard. Still not a single light in sight. The Vietnamese must keep enforcing a good old curfew to save electricity.
We pass through a metal gate, climb a few steps and just as I am getting ready to turn around and bravely run back to the bus, the driver opens a last door and walks in. Heart beating fast, I follow him. My relief in finding relative lighting inside is soon hampered by the austere look of the room we are in. Between four walls, a desk, a chair, a lamp. The walls are dirty and naked, the metal desk is barren and the chair occupied by a meager, stern looking woman wearing a military uniform. And as for the lamp, its articulated head is pointed straight at me.
There is no time to lose. I tap into my classical repertoire and manage to label the place under the “Communist interrogation chamber” category with a daring cross-reference to James Bond and Midnight Express.
My driver whispers a few words in Vietnamese to the uniform and then retreats to the back of the room, away from the light and out of view. I am still unsure whether they are trying to scam me or if this is really a misunderstanding but my blood runs a little colder.
The uniform then addresses me in her language. I do not catch a single word of her sentence and have to reply with a gesture of ignorance. She repeats her statement, punctuates it with a new comment and shows no sign of speaking anything else than her mystifying dialect. I nervously attempt communication in English, then in French, without any luck.
Tension is building in an almost tangible way.
She obviously wants something and her patience is failing. I ask the driver behind me to explain our situation but his English is so primitive that he doesn’t seem to get it, unless he is simply refusing to help. I suspect that money would probably solve our issue but I do not have a single dollar, franc or even dong on me. My concerned thoughts turn towards the passengers waiting outside in the dark bus.
Suddenly, a door I had not noticed opens on my left. A man in civilian clothes and wearing thin glasses, short and hunched forward, walks in and speaks to the uniform as if continuing a conversation started in my absence. I must be nervous. Crazy options are already going through my head, from a visit to the local jail to the wild escape through the streets of Saigon.
The newcomer, seeming to rank higher on the scene, addresses me first in Vietnamese and next in a hesitant and almost incoherent English. The driver immediately starts answering in Vietnamese, in an affirmative manner that makes me fear he is confirming against my will that we are here for a control; so I interrupt him, hoping for it to be a display of authority but not arrogance.
Using a telegraphic-style English without pronouns or conjugation, I attempt to claim our rights and explain that we have been doing the shuttle between the airport and the harbor with a clearance issued by the proper authorities. I am aware that said authorities must have granted such clearance after the shuffling of some money from a hand to an opposite pocket, but I at least have my official crew landing pass and show it to them. They do not seem to like that, as if they had just lost an ace in their hand.
I must have been in here for ten minutes now. The two Party officials are arguing with each other and don’t seem to agree on the procedure to follow. My driver is getting agitated behind me. It suddenly dawns on me that he might well be in on this, hoping for his share of the prize. I know only too well how everything is negotiated under the rising smell of money in the new Vietnam, and I still remember how our landing fees keep rising for no reason from one trip to the next.
On the other hand, there is a possibility that the incredibly sluggish communist bureaucracy alone might be responsible for this mess. There does not seem to be, in their narrow minds and in the related rules, a clause applying to the present situation, and obviously lacking either initiative or freedom or both, they just do not know what to do.
Then, abruptly, the opposition gives in. The man leaves the room and the woman waves me to the door with a snort and marked disdain.
I lower myself into thanks, open the door, think of slamming it behind me, but decide not to after reconsidering the local jail option.
Outside in the street, the bus is still there, which almost surprises me. My passengers are quiet and tired. I would like to comment on the incident but since that would only stain the image of the perfectly oiled machine that was supposed to welcome them to Asia, I simply announce that everything is finally in order, apologize for the delay, and we get on our way.
The driver has not said a word since we walked out; I don’t break the silence, annoyed at him and rather suspicious. Once we reach the ship, I unload my travelers under the impatient watch of the bridge – it is late and they were waiting for us to sail. More Party officials are present, gauging the boarding group, probably wondering how high to inflate the landing tax on our next layover.
I definitely do not like the remains of the communist regime.
I translated and adapted Interrogation from my book Les aventures d’un GO désorganisé, available in French on Amazon. It is part of an overall translation project aiming at releasing the book in English as well.