On the still-peacefully-idyllic-but-on-the-cusp-of-being-the-next-big-time-resort island of Phu Quoc in southern Vietnam, we rented a motorbike. Except in the capital town of Duong Dong, the island population is spread out enough that we felt comfortable negotiating the streets on motorbike, and even doing it Vietnamese style, which is to say: piling an entire family of four onto one motorbike, and then squeezing through tiny spaces between cars and other motorbikes (when needed), and when wanting to turn left, driving directly into the left lane against oncoming traffic for about 100 meters before we actually make that left turn.
I say “we” but I really mean my husband, Pierre, because he has the skills to drive a motorbike in Vietnam, as I clearly do not.
So imagine this: We have just motorbiked home from the gorgeous, tranquil white sand Star Beach (Bai Sao), about a half-hour drive away, when we decide to pull over at a restaurant/hostel on the side of the road. This is the place from which we rented the motorbike, and we want to extend the rental for a couple more days.
While Pierre pays the bill, four-year-old Lily and I play with their family’s one-year-old boy who is toddling around the open air restaurant. We coo and wave and say “chào” (hello). The young mom comes out to scoop him up and play with Lily.
After Pierre is done, without us realizing it, Lily runs up to the motorbike to claim her spot at the front. I get to the top of the small hill and see what she is about to do, but don’t have time to respond. The rest happens in slow motion. Lily reaches up to the motorcycle handles and begins to pull herself up. The motorbike begins to fall in her direction. In an instance, she realizes this and tries to get off the bike in time. At this point I am running toward her, shouting, but all still in slow motion. The bike falls, knocking Lily to the ground, but not landing on top of her. Phew!
Lily screams and cries, mostly, as we’ll learn, from a bruised ego. The only physical damage is a scraped knee. The young husband and wife come rushing with their baby to see if Lily is OK, looking very concerned. Once they’re assured that Lily is in fact fine, they return to their counter.
Not once did they look to see if their motorbike had been damaged.
That should have been a clue.
When we lifted the thing back up, I noticed that the fall had broken off the passenger foot pedal, which I found on the floor. At the moment, we were hungry and tired, so I pocketed the pedal and we drove home, with me holding my leg in the air.
When it came time to return the motorbike, we wrestled with what to do. When you rent a motorbike here, they keep your passport as deposit and you sign paperwork saying that you’re responsible for everything but the engine. We wondered: Should we try to get it fixed ourselves? Or just tell them and let them do it? Would they charge us some exorbitant fee? Have us buy them a new motorbike? Keep Pierre’s passport until the work was done? We weren’t sure.
Like most visitors to Vietnam, we have run into our share of petty scams. Mostly these are unscrupulous taxi drivers or street vendors or sometimes tour operators looking to make a little extra money off our ignorance of how things work or what the “real” prices are for things. With 22,500 dong to the 1 US dollar, they know we get confused over all those bills! Even after learning how things work and what the real prices are (and what all the bills look like), we were, at this relatively early point in our trip, still wary.
In the end we decided the right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to tell them what happened and face up to the consequences, and whatever they were, just roll with them. (Good travel advice, by the way: Just roll with it!)
So, when Pierre turned in the motorbike, he showed them the damage. He explained he had no idea where to take the motorbike to repair this kind of problem. They laughed with him about that, and told him they would take it to a shop themselves. Pierre was to return the next evening to find out the repair price, pay it, and subsequently get his passport back.
With great nervousness, we approached their counter the following evening. The guy wasn’t there, but his wife was. At first, she didn’t understand what we wanted. Then she caught on, and almost like an afterthought pulled out a piece of paper on which was written, basically, “Sorry I couldn’t be there tonight, my wife has the repair information.” Then she took out a blank piece of paper and wrote on it, “200,000.”
It would cost 200,000 dong for the repair, or $ US 9. I think our relief was audible. We gave her a 200,000 dong bill, and she gave Pierre back his passport. Then we played with her son for two minutes and said goodnight.
What we’ve come to learn after being in Vietnam for almost three months now, is that most Vietnamese are incredibly kind, generous, open, and friendly. We’ve experienced far more acts of kindness and generosity than petty scams, from the street vendor who insisted I take my 1,000 dong (4 cents) change, to the woman at the restaurant who gave our son a free hamburger because he was crying, to the guide who wanted to repay us for the taxi driver she hired who scammed us, and the many new friends we’ve made here, who have taken us out to lunch or dinner and shared with us their traditions and stories.
In the end, a broken motorbike is just a broken motorbike. No big deal.