Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Surprising Confidence in Hanoi

I lost my wallet in a cab coming back to the hotel in Hanoi. I rarely ever carry my wallet when traveling, instead just carrying a few dollars and one credit card in a money clip. I left my money clip at home and was at a dinner with friends earlier, so I broke my rule and of course it's always that one time.

I was in the front seat of the taxi and when we went to pay the fare, I pulled out my wallet and didn't have any local currency, so I set the wallet in my lap while I turned around and collect money from the others in the back seat. I paid the driver then got out. As I walked up the driveway, I reached in my pocket and realized I had my phone, but no wallet. The taxi was gone.

As I called my wife to have her cancel my credit cards, a few others who were in the cab with me talked to the front desk clerk. Here's where we begin the story of the good will of the people of Hanoi. The desk clerk, Mr. Trang, asked what taxi company we used and none of us knew. So he pulled up the security video. By the time I had completed my call with my wife and one extra quick call to cancel another card, he had already spoken to the manager of the taxi company, determined which driver it was and the manager was following up with the driver. He told me to go to bed, get some rest and he would followup and have some more information in the morning. Takeaway: customer service and going the extra mile is not dead.

In the morning, I stopped by the front desk and asked if there was any news and they said they hadn't received any new information, but they would call the taxi company at 9am when they opened. I left for our planned meetings for the day and upon return in the evening, I asked at the front desk. Each time I approached the desk there was a different person working there. But as I started to say "I lost my wallet last night and the desk clerk last night..." the woman cut me off and and said "yes, yes, I have a note here."

Thao said, "The car detailing company for the taxi service called and said they found your wallet. They said it was a brown leather wallet with a Visa, American Express, driver's license, medical cards, a transit card, and twenty dollars US. The money will not likely be in the wallet when you get it back. You may also need to pay them to get it back." She said all of this matter-of-factly with a knowing smile. She was helping me to level set my expectations. Luckily I expected both of those things, but her honesty and desire to inform me was refreshing. She added "they found the room key in your wallet, called us and asked if there was anyone registered under your name." Takeaway: Seriously? These cleaning guys didn't need to do anything. They not only decided to try to return the wallet, but took the time to research how to get it back to me.

She pulled out a business card and wrote an address on it. "They said you can pick up the wallet at this address. They didn't leave a phone number or name, just the address." I asked Thao "is this safe... I mean the address and situation?" She said, "Oh yes, it's safe. My number is right here on this card, if you have any questions when you go there, just call this number." Takeaway: again, customer service is not dead.

I was still skeptical about taking a taxi to some random garage somewhere in a city I don't know after dark. I asked my friend Ivan to be my wingman. He can wait in the taxi to make sure the taxi doesn't ditch me and to help with speedy escape if things go south (i.e. my life is threatened). I ask the doorman to call a taxi and tell the driver where to go, that I want him to wait for me and bring me back. The driver does this and we arrive at the garage. I ask Ivan to wait in the car to make sure he doesn't go anywhere. The garage is a basic large wash bay on a back small street with a large metal grate closed and a small door opening. It's dark with only a small light on in the back behind a large truck parked in the middle. I cautiously walk in and yell "Hello?" As I walk around the truck I see three guys sitting in the back eating dinner. They have their rice cooker going and seem to be having a good time.

I approach them and say "You have my wallet?" while a make a hand gesture of opening a wallet or book. At this point I take a deeper observation of these men. Two of them probably 30 years old and another maybe 40. All of them are shirtless and shoeless, wearing only shorts. They are all very well built. So the situation is a bit dicey. They could easily overtake me and Ivan.

One of the men stands up and shakes his head to acknowledge he understands and says "Ok, please sit" and walks back toward the front of the garage and up the stairs. As I sit there, I am assessing my situation and realize I can get boxed in. The stairs he took are very close to my exit door and 30 feet away from where I was. One of the other guys says to me "you have a taxi?" and points to the street. I say "Yes, he's waiting for me". Continuing to be cautious, I want it to be clear that I hope to be in control. I look out and Ivan is pacing on the sidewalk, and the taxi is still there. I stand up and stroll back to the door and Ivan comes in to meet me.

The first man comes down the stairs and the other two join him to face me. He hands me my wallet and a stack of cards. He says "everything there?" I take it and flip through the cards, and yes, every single cards is there, but no money. I ask "was there no money? Twenty dollars?" He says no then holds out has hand in a somewhat flat fashion that could be interpreted as he's looking for a handout. I reach in my pocket and pull out 200,000 dong and go to hand it to him. He takes a step back, smiles and says "No, no, no, no...." I say "Thank you" and try to hand it to him again. Again, he and the other two repeatedly say no and put up their hands in a push-back gesture. I then notice a bench a few feet away and place the money on the bench. I then turn and walk out the door. As I get to the sidewalk, they are behind me and still saying "no, no". I turn back to the main guy, place my hand on his shoulder, look him in the eye and say "please... thank you" to which they then go quiet. I get in the taxi and the driver drops us back to the hotel.

Let's summarize. The night desk clerk went above and beyond to help, the daytime clerk was very helpful and offered to be on-call, and the guys who found the wallet, went out of their way to get my wallet back. Yet the overriding takeaway for me is that all my fears of threat to my personal safety were completely unfounded. As were my fears that given the chance people will do unscrupulous things. My guess is the owner of the place took the $20US and the guys I met truly didn't want any money for their trouble.

Thank you Hanoi for a great visit. A situation that should have resulted in me never seeing my wallet again ended much different.

Written by Dan Mattrazzo

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