I’m lucky in that I’ve only ever been arrested twice. During some recent work with (ex)-offenders, I was quite surprised to find young men in their early twenties calmly ask me if they could use the phone to call their Mum, as they were probably going to be banged up for six months the next day. They were unphased and a life in and out of prison is their reality. They are institutionalised and often the routine of prison is preferable to the chaotic life of a hostel. For me, it would be the end of my world.
When I first arrived in Vietnam, after a short spell in Hanoi, I moved to Tam Diep, a village sprawled along highway one, south of Ninh Binh. The farm where I was to work for the next two years was twelve miles from the village. For the first three months I lived in a government office building, which was a rotting hunk of communist architecture with a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh over the entrance. My first meal in the village was a feast fit for the starving, with goat fat, sparrows and beef heart – all local delicacies. I lost weight over the next few months.
I was keen to get out and explore the village, make friends and become part of the community. On the first night, I felt like the Pied Piper. I got a sense of how it might be to be famous.
There were various officials in the village who needed to feel a part of the process. The way they felt most able to contribute was to accept money from us. That way, everything went smoothly and we received the correct “chops” (stamp) on the correct pieces of paper. So often, I’d be seen going to the People’s Committee, the Communist Party, The head of the Dong Giao Agricultural Company, the police chief, the bank manager and so on, for endless cups of tea, the occasional bottle of Johnny Walker and to hand out the occasional envelope. We’re talking about fairly small amounts to smooth the process here. Nobody was building moats.
I missed one out; the deputy police chief. Bad move. When the Chief went away on business he was left in charge and wanted to show the village who was boss. I was out strolling, probably between bia hoi’s, when a motorcycle and sidecar with a cop stopped. He barked angrily at me, ordering me into the sidecar. Okay, never been in one of those…could be fun. My Vietnamese was still basic – I was still in the lon confusion phase, so as usual, I had little sense of what was happening. I was taken to a fairly grim jail and locked in a cell with a couple of drunks and an angry looking youth. In UK I’d imagine the cell would be deemed too small for one. There were bamboo mats on the floor, crawling with insects, for sleeping, and a dirty, overflowing evil smelling hole in the corner for other things.
Later on, Mr Cuong, my security guard, came to visit, bringing a bag of fruit that he fed me between the bars. I shared this with my cell mates, hoping to keep them sweet. I don’t remember sleeping that night due to itching caused by the insects and mosquitos.
In the morning, I was quietly released before the Chief returned. I was told that from then on, I was to stay in my living quarters or on the farm. I ignored this, plied them with the occasional bottle of JW and never had another problem.