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Travel Insurance Claims - True Stories Just some of the weird and wonderful things that happen to World Nomads travellers while on the road

True Travel Tales - Abducted at Christmas in Saigon

VIETNAM | Sunday, 31 October 2010 | Views [2730]

Every journey has a story; every trip has its unexpected twists. Plan and prepare as you may, some things happen on the road that take you out of your element, push you to your limit, and even put you in danger. These are the tales of triumph over tragedy, when you were in a sticky situation that you had to find your way out of – in another country.

Martin Aldrich shares his story of how a friendly encounter in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam led to an empty bank account. Read his story and learn how to prepare yourself in the event of a similar situation. 

The Story


The day before Christmas Eve 2009, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. While out walking around, I was asked by a well-dressed man sitting with two friends where I had gotten my necklace. I told him Spain. He said ah! Tu hablas espanol? I said no, I am from Canada, that my mother had bought it for me in Spain.

They told me that their cousin was going to be studying journalism at the University of British Columbia in January. They invited me to sit and have a drink with them. We had a good conversation about their country, the Philippines, a place I would be traveling to a month later, and I told them of Vancouver and UBC. They were very well educated and well informed individuals.

After over an hour of talking, they asked me to meet their cousin to talk to her about what it is like to live in Vancouver. They invited me to have a traditional Filipino breakfast with them the following morning. I agreed.

The next morning I met them to have breakfast and this is where things changed dramatically. The three friends and another man I had not met, their ‘brother’ showed up and his tone was not the friendly, inviting way the others had had the night previous.
Abducted, kidnapped or whatever you want to call it, I was told by the ‘brother’ that they were the Vietnam Mafia and that they would kill me if I didn’t give them my money, follow their directions or if I tried to contact anyone.

Over a period of three days I was under 24-hour watch by a fifth, very large man. This man never talked to me and almost always had his hand in his puffy jacket pocket. And although I never actually saw a gun, I believed that he had one. The only things I was offered were white rice and cigarettes.

Over these three days, I was taken to more ATMs and banks then I care to count. Unfortunately, transaction receipts from Vietnamese ATMs show your account balance, so after the first withdrawal they knew how much  money I had in my accounts. I had  put limitations in place on my bank accounts, so I could only take out a small amount at one time (what I believed would be wise for security). However, with the knowledge of how much money I had, I was forced over three days to repeatedly withdraw and hand over almost all of my accessible money.

I consistently thought about trying to signal to someone to try and get the police involved. But with language barriers, corruption and constantly being reminded that they were the Vietnam mafia and if I tried anything that I would kill me, I did nothing. I complied with everything they asked of me.

On the fourth day, unable to access any more money, they escorted me to the airport, forced me to buy the next available flight and again threatened to kill me if I tried to contact the police. I was told the Vietnamese Mafia had many connections and not to try anything or I would never see my family again.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur with no money, shocked and scared.

The Outcome 

Things changed very fast for me on my trip. But in that same way, I came to accept what happened and still do. I spent a lot of time during the remainder of my trip thinking about what happened and trying to move on.

I hope that it is true that with my money they took all of my bad luck and karma.

However, I have realized that I also learned many valuable lessons.

Although, I got myself into the situation, I also got myself out unharmed.

I have learned that life has no quantifiable value in terms of money and that I may be able to make more money, but I can never get my time or my life back (if I was killed trying to resist)

I write this not just to tell a story, but to hopefully help anyone else who might be put in this kind of situation. I would like to think of myself as quite aware and not reckless. But perhaps too trusting.

My Advice

That said, don’t lose your trust in the good of the human race just because of this story.

Fortunately, this kind of thing does not happen very often. 

I would still advise people to have a close relative signed on to your bank account. This person (a mother, father, brother etc) can then transfer small amounts of money as needed. And can legally talk to your bank in case of emergency.

I realize now that things I believed to be small details about myself (length of trip, where I come from) can give malicious people valuable information about myself (i.e. how much money I had). 

Again, this happens, but infrequently. My advice is to keep yourself guarded and aware, but realize that most people you met are not out to get you!

Travel Safety advice from World Nomads:

Some good advice there Martin, you handled the situation well. Complying with the demands of your assailants rather than try to be a 'hero' is the best thing you can do.

Like you said, money can be re-earned but life or injury is forever.

There are many points to be made regarding kidnapping, and what to do if you are taken, but here are some of the key things to remember which will help prevent you being kidnapped, or if you are, what to do.

1. Be nondescript, and cautious

In developing countries, travellers who flaunt their relative wealth are prime targets. Flashy watches, necklaces, ear-rings and top-brand designer labels are all beacons to would-be kidnappers that you have a sizable stash of cash waiting to be extracted from an ATM. Keep your dress and your accessories relatively simple to minimize potential harm.

It's also important to maintain a healthy level of caution mixed with an openness to new situations. You don't want to be holed up in your hotel room, but then, you don't want to be taken for ransom either. It's literally a "feel with your gut but listen to your head" thing.

When you meet new people while travelling, be open and receptive, but always be cautious - try to avoid situations that require you to meet in areas that are secluded, and if your new 'friend' is overly insistent that you perform a particular activity, the alarm bells should be ringing. If they do, make up an excuse that you need to be somewhere else, and politely exit the situation.

2. Safety in numbers, watch your drinks, watch the roads

It's not always possible, but whenever you can, try to travel with at least one other person. Kidnappers have a greater challenge in terms of psychological and physical motivation to go after two people instead of one.

When at bars or clubs, it's vital to watch your drinks for spiking. It really is the simplest way a person can be kidnapped, as it requires very little coercion. While the temptation is great, politely decline a bought drink from a stranger.

Also, in developing countries especially, avoid travelling on the road at night - particularly on public transport like buses. When travelling in taxis, do your best to make sure they are legal. If you have your own car, make sure it is secure and well fuelled.

3. Be financially prepared

Everyone's financial setup is different, but it's a good idea to set up a bank account that has a small amount of money (say $500-1500 worth of your local currency...enough to satisfy a kidnap group), and a larger one that you can transfer money from by way of your family or friends back home, or on the internet.

Only keep the ATM card of the smaller account on you. It could be a bit of a pain in the backside, but it’s a safeguard that could save you thousands.

4. Don't panic, and stay human

If you find yourself in the horrible situation where you are kidnapped, remember that unless you are a person of nobility, in most cases, kidnapping is petty - usually the worst result is money gets emptied out of your bank account, and you are released unharmed or with minor injuries. It's best just to keep this in mind during the ordeal: "They just want your money".

Keep the communication channels open to the best of your ability - give your captors simple reminders that you are a person, for example, calmly tell them if you have any medical conditions that require attention. But don't be a blabber mouth. Just keep in mind your main priority should be to give them what they want.

And finally, a small but important point, remember to breathe slowly and deeply, this will help you calm down in a time of crisis.

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Tags: abducted, holidays, terrifying travel tales, travel-safety, vietnam

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