Our day of motorbiking around Mui Ne was going remarkably well. Dean had caught on quite quickly, and we were all enjoying the beautiful scenery as we headed back to our hotel from the white sand dunes.
It was probably my fault since I was the one who told Rob to take the shortcut. As soon as we made the right turn, we heard a whistle. I looked over, saw two semi-official looking policemen standing on the side of the road, and yelled at Rob and Dean to keep going. I thought for sure that we'd outrun them seeing as they weren’t even on their bike, but they were determined, hopping on the back of their (shared) motorbike to track us down.
Some other travelers had warned us that the cops in Mui Ne were known for pulling travelers over in order to secure a bribe and that the best thing to do was either keep saying no or just pay them. But we really didn’t want to pay them, especially because we knew we didn’t do anything wrong.
What ensued was this: We asked why we were pulled over. They tried to tell us we ran the red light; we said no. (We did not run the light. There were motorbikes following us that were not pulled over.) They showed us a Vietnamese license and asked us if we had one. We said no; we had an international license at the guesthouse and our U.S. one on us. They showed Dean pictures of dead foreigners next to overturned motorbikes; we shook our heads, not quite understanding what they were going for.
You have to understand a few things here: we were driving below the speed limit, we were wearing helmets, and we did not run the red light. There was no reason to pull us over.
We realized pretty quickly that, having no proof for the red light, they were trying to arrest us for driving without a license. We told them we could show them our license but they just kept shaking their heads and rubbing their thumb and forefinger together.
One thing was clear: they wanted to get paid.
Dean is ethnically Chinese, but during our time in Vietnam, all the locals thought he was Vietnamese. These cops were no exception, and they kept talking to Dean in Vietnamese, pointing at me and Rob, and rubbing their fingers together. We realized that they thought he was our guide instead of our friend. (Note that they didn’t ask Dean for money or a license. They just wanted money from the white people.)
Things got bad when one of them managed to swipe Rob's keys, essentially stopping us from driving away. As Dean argued with the other one, Rob and I yelled at the first cop. I even tried to get the keys out of his pocket, shocking him enough to jump back.
None of us wanted to bribe them, so we just kept saying no, which attracted quite a crowd of people, including someone who wanted to sell us mangoes right in the middle of the chaos. Eventually, we decided the best thing to do was to go back in town and let the woman who'd rented us the bikes handle getting the key back. I hopped on the back of Dean's motorbike and we took off. Neither cop tried to stop us, again probably because they still thought Dean was Vietnamese. Dean drove like a champ for having only learned a few hours ago (to be fair, he did not have an international license, not that it stopped the woman who owned the bikes from renting one to him), and we tried to joke about the situation even though both of us were pretty shaken up.
When we were about five minutes from town, Rob pulled up with a huge grin on his face. He'd gotten the key back from the cop by snatching it from his hand. All the cop had was the keychain, with the phone number for the rental place.
Fingers crossed that the cop wouldn't pursue it further, we ran to our hotel, washed the sand out of hair, and proceeded to get very very drunk. (We were stone cold sober all day, including during the altercation.)
UPDATE: We never saw the cops again. We truly hope the woman who rented us the bikes didn’t get into trouble. However, she knew what she was getting into, as we did not hide the fact that Dean was a new driver or that we didn’t have a local license.
UPDATE 2: When we shared this story with some motorbike shops in the north of Vietnam, they noted that the cops in Mui Ne were notorious for this behavior. Their words made us feel confident enough to rent a bike again and, in fact, all we got from cops in the north were waves and smiles.
Interested in reading more about backpacking Vietnam? Check out our budget travel tips for Vietnam.
What Do You Think?
Have you ever been pulled over in a foreign country? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments.