Everyday Adventures: Stopped By The Cops

Cool breeze in my hair, spectacular city lights on my right, hilarious dining companion on the back of my bike.

I’m yelling insanely funny comments over my shoulder as we zoom around my brother-in-law, who is driving too slow across the last part of the Thao Thiem bridge. Bi and I are ferrying home two Saigon Street Eats customers, who are also staying in our sumptuous spare suite. (It’s too big to be called a room.)

Spectacular views of Ho Chi Minh City from the Thu Thiem Bridge

Suddenly, there’s someone in front of me. A man steps out of the shadows and I have to brake and swerve to avoid him.

“What the fff….” I say. And as I’m saying it I’m wondering why he’s holding up a torch.

Then the beige uniform registers with me.

“Shit,” I say to myself as I release the brake slightly. “It’s the traffic police.”

The cop says something unintelligible as I continue on past him, with the brake handle still half-squeezed.

I am unsure what to do. A thousand choices run through my head. I choose the most obvious one: make a run for it.

I accelerate for all of one second before I realise I’m approaching a red light. The helpful red light counter tells me there’s 38 seconds left to go before the light turns green. Plenty of time for Mr Coppy to run after me and clobber me with his truncheon.

My brother-in-law pulls up beside me to wait for the light to change.

“WHAT DO I DO?” I shout at him.

“Oh, you went into the left lane too soon,” Bi says, mishearing what I’d screeched.

“NO, I SAID WHAT DO I DO?” I shout again.

“You should stay in the middle lane until just before the lights,” Bi says, mishearing (or misunderstanding) again.

“BI,” I bellow forcefully. “What DO I DO?? Is the policeman chasing me?”

“No,” Bi says blithely, as if I’m only yelling to be heard over the noise of the traffic. “He said to go.”

“Oh my gawwwwwd,” I mutter to myself and my motorbike passenger. “I thought we were goners.”

Goners because when the police pull you over in Vietnam, they will find something wrong. And then you are expected to give them some money so they don’t impound your bike and issue you with a fine that will take a day or two of your time to deal with. Being pulled over by the cops mean you are sucked into Vietnam’s vortex of corruption. And it’s not a place I wish to go. For ethical and financial reasons.

Beige uniforms = trouble

Before Tet, the traffic police are everywhere. As are the green uniforms of the security police. In Vietnam, any one in power can pull over a motorist. And once you’ve been pulled over, it’s going to cost you.

Ironically, in a country where foreigners pay more for just about everything, it pays to be non-Asian when dealing with the police. Foreigners are “difficult” and we generally don’t speak Vietnamese (and the cops didn’t get their jobs because of their English-speaking abilities), so it’s just too much trouble for the traffic police to try to deal with a non-Vietnamese person.

In my case, I would definitely argue and take names and photos and demand to speak to a superior. I know I wouldn’t be able to help it, even though I know that I could actually be causing trouble for my extended family of in-laws. Wrong is wrong in my book.

But, as Darling Man and his brother counsel me: stopping foreigners is too much hassle when there’s so much easy money to be made from the locals, who are just cash machines on bikes.

I read an interesting opinion piece a few weeks ago from a World Bank official, calling for this year, the year of the snake, to be the year Vietnam sheds its old corrupt skin. I am not sure that can happen in a year but I really hope that something happens soon to short-circuit the corruption cycle here in my adopted home.

7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. Malinda says:

    I don’t agree with the corruption and bribes either. How brave of you to just keep going, even if you did second guess it. Shame about the red light though. LOL

    • Barbara says:

      It all worked out well in the end, Malinda.

      Did you see the comment on my Facebook page from a Vietnamese t-shirt shop guy who said it’s better to pay a bribe to an underpaid policeman and share a joke than pay a fine to a (Western) government who could use the money to bail out the big banks? Interesting point, don’t you think?

  2. Carmel says:

    In our Western world, gunning it just wouldn’t be an option. I guess you’re really a local now, huh?
    Carmel recently posted..Easter Rising

    • Barbara says:

      Nope, not a local. As I was gunning it I was thinking “oh, he doesn’t really want to pull ME over, he didn’t see my face properly in the dark”. I knew I had a “get out of paying a bribe” card because I’m not local. I was a bit scared that I couldn’t actually get away though.

  3. budget jan says:

    You most definitely are local now. Handy that your outward appearance hasn’t changed though 🙂
    When we were in Hanoi our taxi driver was pulled over by the police. They confiscated his papers and after he dropped us off at the train station he had to go back and (he said) would have to pay money to get his papers back. I felt so sorry for him but he was pragmatic about it.
    budget jan recently posted..Find the Black Cockatoo

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