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The Vietnamese Mafia

Sundown just below Sapa
Sundown just below Sapa

The mafia is everywhere in Vietnam and the further north I moved the more I became aware of it. I was in a coffee shop in Hanoi when the mafia came in to "give a stern talking to" to the woman who owned the place because she was three days behind on the daily interest she was supposed to pay them. Shortly after arriving at the hotel I'm currently in the owner began complaining about the mafia and how much interest he has to pay for the loan they gave him. You'd think after my run-in with the porter mafia I would have left the city of Sapa immediately—and part of me wanted to—but I didn't.

I finally got my visa to China but it wasn't the 1 year multiple entry visa I applied for. It was only a 30 day single entry visa. I don't have to enter China until April 11th so I'm planning to stay in Sapa for a while and do research for my trip to China, try to relax and also work on a project with my brother in the US. The project I'm working on is very large and complex and involves my writing a very large website so I've done my best to sequester myself to my hotel room and work non-stop since I've been here.

I usually have to leave my room at least once a day if for no other reason than to get food. I've been subsisting primarily on the free breakfast at the hotel and on the fruit I can buy for local prices because I made deal with a vendor who will keep selling to me at low prices to ensure my business in the future. I get 1kg of apples for 75 cents, a whole peeled pineapple for 50 cents and papaya and banana for some really low price per kilo. I only go out for meals about once every two days, mostly to vary my diet.

Less than $2 US worth of fruit
Less than $2 US worth of fruit

One night I went to the market for dinner because that's the only place in the tourist district of Sapa that you can get authentic Vietnamese food. While I was waiting for my food to arrive a group of four young guys came and sat at a table next to me. The leader of the group had on a nice leather coat and a fedora and he was holding a stack of bills in his hand. To his left was a large man who I internally nicknamed "Lurch" on account of his general presence and demeanor. To the head guy's right was a fashionably dressed man and a guy on his cell phone with dark circles under his eyes. No sooner had I gotten done convincing myself that these guys were definitely in the mafia than they invited me to come sit with them. Refusing an invitation in Vietnamese culture is very insulting and if these guys were part of the mafia I definitely didn't want to piss them off.

I went over and joined the men at their table and shortly afterward my plate of green vegetables arrived. The men ordered some food and while waiting for it they ordered a bottle of local rice wine. They told me they had already had a couple bottles and their rowdy behavior corroborated the allegation. The two guys in the center of the group spoke English well. The main guy had a strong tick when a spoke which caused his head to move in the shape of an upside down question mark punctuating each sentence. After our second bottle of rice wine their food arrived.

The view out of my new hotel window on a clear day
The view out of my new hotel window on a clear day

One of the men asked me where I was staying and I told him the name of the hotel. They all quickly had a laugh and then he explained to me that he's a tour guide and that he works for the hotel I'm staying at. In fact, they were all tour guides and that's why apart from Lurch they spoke such good English. They were out having a good time because the head guy was getting married in a few months and he's leaving to go back to his home town.

It wasn't until we were done with the third bottle of the vile drink that we had rice with our food. They explained that in north Vietnam you don't eat rice while drinking and when you do eat rice it's a sign you're done drinking for the night. I'll have to have a Vietnamese style drinking party when I get back. In such a party you wouldn't be allowed to fill your own glass or drink alone and while toasting you'd either touch your glass higher or lower than the other person's based on your relative status. When the evening is over there would be rice for all.

The view out of my new hotel window on a cloudy day
The view out of my new hotel window on a cloudy day

I've been offered a lot of drinks during my time in Sapa. On one occasion I was tossing a disc with a bunch of locals in the middle of the central market and one of them motioned to ask if he could keep the disc. I motioned that he could and immediately his friend ran over with a 5 gallon gas tank half full of moonshine to offer me. I politely declined. A couple days later I was in the lobby of my hotel when a man walked downstairs that I had met at a new years eve party in Cambodia 3 months ago. He's also a web developer so of course we hit it off initially. He was on his way out of town but he treated me to a beer before he left. While seeing him was certainly unexpected, that sort of thing happens enough that it didn't seem unusual.

Things have gotten better since I first arrived in Sapa and the town is growing on me as I find the good local places (and start getting the good local prices). The days when cool fresh air comes down from the nearby mountain peaks seem to eclipse the days when the smell of putrid raw sewage rises up from the valley below. I've been so busy working on this project that I haven't done any of the numerous day hikes around Sapa and I've fallen behind on a lot of things like making posts on my blog. Until mid-to-early April you can expect about the same. That said, since I'm in one place with a fairly good and stable Internet connection if you're interested in chatting some time, let me know what time works for you and I can almost certainly be free.

Soundtrack: Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta (Geto Boys)


March 29th, 2013 at 8:36 AM

Beau, you are just the type of person that draws people to you. I think that's why your travels go so well. Take care and how about a multi-vitamin each day along with that fruit?

Safe travels

March 29th, 2013 at 8:40 AM

Thanks Larry. Toward the beginning of my trip I wasn't feeling the best and a good friend recommended that I take a multivitamin. When I met a friend from the US in Cambodia for the new years he asked if I wanted anything from back home and a good multivitamin was high on my list. Thanks to my father I take one every day now! I hope your travels are going well.

September 23rd, 2013 at 4:17 PM

I stumbled on this post today and after reading several of your other posts, I feel homesick! My father is from Rach Gia and I am born and raised in the U.S. but I call Rach Gia my home. Thank you for sharing your adventures as I hope to be able to do the same one day.

All the Best,

January 9th, 2017 at 7:08 PM

What the hell do they think they are? Can't beileve that even we live in 21st century under the light of socialism and communism but these cold-blood shark still exists! Things that can only happens in facism and capitalism countries like Italy and American, etc. Anyway , maybe it is because the blood, the schizophrenia blood !

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com