The ventilation fans roared as I tried to calculate how far inside the mountain I was. “What if they caught Saeid?,” I worried. But anxiety was pointless–I had to focus on squeezing my motorbike between the one lane of trucks and the wall.
There I was, the target of a high-speed chase, somewhere deep within Southeast Asia’s longest tunnel, revving a $275 fast-falling-apart motor scooter to its limits. In that moment, instinct overcame any shred of reason left me. After that and only now can I now empathize with the “bad guys” in Cops, whose televised attempts to flee always seemed so futile.
To get to that point took merely the three preceding minutes, but the lead-up to motorbiking the length of Vietnam with my friend Saeid set the stage. Throughout our trip preparation, we heard tales of corrupt authorities extracting bribes from defenseless foreigners. Having lived in neighboring Laos for over a year, Saeid had more experience with such nuisances, but even I surprisingly faced some greedy officers in more-developed Thailand a couple weeks prior.
Still, the most colorful stories came from the hyperbolic Iranian bike shop owner in Hanoi who sold us our motorbikes. He claimed he’d always take a hard-line stance when dealing with shakedowns. In particular, I’ll forever be able to mentally replay the dialogue he recalled to us from one of those run-ins, including the gem: “You touch my bike, I break your face!”
However, his recommendations of specific tactics to ensure the best outcome for ourselves didn’t instill confidence in me. Removing and hiding the keys to our bikes seemed risky, and the idea of speaking gibberish to both the officers and each other was absurd. Nonetheless, the overall message was clear–don’t take the authorities’ opportunistic behavior seriously, and if forced to pay a bribe, remember the amount is negotiable, just like seemingly everything else in the country.
As we drove south from Hanoi over the week, my pulse spiked every time we passed a toll or anywhere authorities could be present. Nearing Vietnam’s middle point of Da Nang, I was surprised that we’d driven nearly 1,000 km without even a close call, but that would all change near the outer limits of the city.
During what would total eight hours of arduous motorcycle riding to our destination, we reached the Hải Vân Tunnel, the longest in Southeast Asia. Diligently following our Google Maps directions, we began climbing the ramp to enter the four-mile tunnel.
Just as the ramp sloped upward, a transit officer appeared from the roadside frantically waving a traffic wand. Though I figured his signaling was directed at me, it would’ve been dangerous to stop on the narrow, fast-moving road. More importantly, I didn’t see anything wrong as we were keeping up with the speed of traffic and had our helmets on. My instant judgement was that the officer had nefarious intentions, so I pressed forward.
Halfway up the ramp Saeid reached my speed alongside me, and I yelled over the engine noise that it seemed the officer wanted us to stop. Saeid laughed at how blatantly we cruised past the officer, and I drove ahead of Saeid to the tunnel entrance.
Then, about 200 feet before me was another officer also waving us down, making me even more anxious about what I feared was organized extortion. With a jolt to the amygdala, my flight instinct kicked in, and I “floored” the gas on my ailing Suzuki Sapphire into the eerie mountain tunnel.
Once I started to control myself, I was determined to outmaneuver detection and reach freedom on the other end, unaware of how far away it was. Consequently, my strategy was riding along the five-foot shoulder gap between the large trucks and tunnel wall. If necessary, I could closely trail big trucks to hide myself. Following this plan, two miles deep into the mountain without any signs of pursuers, I became more confident I’d exit without issues.
Abruptly, flashing lights and shouting from ahead startled me as the truck in front of me in our lane came to a halt. A large van coming from the opposite direction screeched to a horizontal stop, blocking both directions of the tunnel. Neon reflective men descended from the vehicle waving their arms and blowing whistles, forcefully gesturing at me to move my bike against the wall while they efficiently redirected traffic around me.
I was in big trouble. Then, a few seconds later Saeid cautiously pulled up behind me along with more officers. Actually, we were in big trouble.
I reflexively removed the key from the ignition and pocketed it, shaking from my imagination of what would happen next. Would they take our bikes away, shove us in the van, and lock us in some decrepit holding cell? In the process would they take our money and beat us until we let them extract everything from our bank accounts at an ATM?
As furious as these officers were, I couldn’t help but get the feeling this was the most excitement they’d had in a long time. From the fervor of their gesticulation and flawless rerouting of vehicles, it seemed they were finally enacting the emergency tunnel shutdown plan that they’d drilled countless times before.
One of the men strutted up to us and irately lectured us in Vietnamese. I stole a glance over my shoulder at Saeid, and it was abundantly clear from the man’s repetition of “No moto! No moto!” what we’d done wrong. A double-decker Chinese tour bus slowly rolled past in the oncoming lane as passengers got out of their seats to gawk at the captured fugitives.
Following ten minutes of seated observation of the officers diligently restoring traffic flow, they motioned for us to start our bikes so they could escort us back to the side from which we entered. I was surprised we weren’t yet detained, but their request was reasonable since they otherwise couldn’t have removed our bikes from the road. Ultimately, our strange death march motorcade ended on a tarmac just outside of the tunnel entrance where we got off our bikes while surrounded by four officers.
After more incomprehensible berating by an officer pointing to the small sign at the entrance depicting a crossed-out motorcycle, Saeid and I independently acted in unison on past advice to communicate neither in English nor Vietnamese. Saeid was defending himself in Farsi while I did my best to mimic him while pointing and shrugging at the Google Maps directions on my phone.
As we weren’t reaching a resolution by playing dumb to the officer’s insistence on the visibility of the road sign, another officer impatiently cut to the chase: “Mo-ney,” he said with his hand out. In hindsight, it’s shocking we didn’t hear that word, perhaps the only English word known by half the world, earlier in the interaction.
In a split second, the officers’ impressive coordination that we’d witnessed previously seemingly disintegrated. Just before the irate officer could process what his colleague had just uttered, he would go on to waste a big payday for himself and the others.
Now, a disclaimer: I should warn that the rest of this account is so comically absurd that it’s unbelievable, and Saeid and I still haven’t deciphered what happened or why it happened.
At that instant, the particularly animated officer began making obscene sexual gestures with his hands, which were soon followed by the other officers who together kept exclaiming, “Vietnam! Vietnam!” Patently confused by this least expected change of the officers’ behavior, Saeid and I burst out in laughter.
The initiating officer’s lewdness escalated to motioning at Saeid’s crotch and then lifting one of his own legs under the knee while hopping on the other leg as he thrust his arm beneath his knee. I’d witnessed many such depraved gestures in my lifetime, but this one was superior in its creativity and lewdness.
The officer then stopped his twisted game of one-legged hopscotch and actually lunged for and grabbed Saeid’s groin. Saeid flinched to cover himself, and the officer quickly let go. There was nothing else we could do besdes nervously join the officers’ chorus of cackles.
Suddenly and bewilderingly, the circumstances had changed, and I was certain nothing bad could happen, even if the preceding moments made it seem we would’ve at least had to pay bribes.
Maybe pushing our luck, in true tourist fashion Saeid then took out his phone to snap a group selfie photo, but all of the officers smartly declined except this one (whose face I’ve removed for his job security):
Finally, the officers relented, waving us off to drive in the dark over the mountain pass route above the tunnel that we were always meant to take.
And that, my friends, is the legend of how I closed the longest tunnel in SE Asia and my friend’s tight shorts saved my life, or at least my wallet. If there’s some wisdom to be learned from this saga, I haven’t found it. Instead, sometimes there are experiences that won’t produce “6 Things I Learned from” articles. This was certainly one of those times, and I hope to have many more.