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Maid in Saigon


I was in Saigon working as an English teacher. The pay was good and the hours plentiful, consequently I was able to save a few dollars. Stowing this money downstairs at the desk with all that foot traffic left me uneasy and, because I was a long-term guest, I never thought in a million years anyone would steal from my room. This naiveté would prove expensive. Within my clothes in a bureau, I’d hidden an envelope containing 3,500,000 VietNamese dong, about $300 USD. Another half million of petty cash lay on top. One afternoon, I awoke from a nap to find a nasty windstorm had blown dust and dirt throughout my room. A double row of ventilation holes, each about the size of a brick, ran along the top of the wall. They obviously hadn’t been cleaned for years. On my way out to school, I inquired at the front desk whether someone could dust my room and arrange for these openings to be cleaned. The usual smiles and confirmations met my query. I returned about 9:45 p.m. to find the envelope missing and the loose notes left inexplicably behind. First and foremost, I stipulate that it was my own fault for not securing the money downstairs where, apparently, someone was supposed to be responsible for it. Within my room, it was open season. Spitting nails, I met Glenn, another Canadian who rented a room on the same floor, and infuriated him with my story. He’d already been ripped off three times and found it impossible for anyone to care. We spent the evening drinking beer, watching the faces of likely suspects, and scheming towards any plan to halt future infractions. The next day, I informed the management and demanded my money be returned forthwith or faster. Serious cranium clay concealment at a new Asian Summer Games record greeted these commands. The manager correctly referred back to the posted tobacco-stained hotel boilerplate on the plaster wall: “Not responsible for articles left in the room.” I was furious. The thief had to be a member of the hotel staff. Perhaps two rats working together, one as lookout, the other doing the dirty work. The likeliest candidate was the maid. Only she had liberty, and cause, to enter the rooms. My vent-cleaning request provided the perfect opening. The door remained open during her normal day-to-day cleaning, but she must have shut it to access the vents. Ergo her opportunity. Three hundred United States dollars: It was equal to six months salary, grinding it out washing and cleaning. I couldn’t deny my blunder. To collar the chronic culprit, it was up to me, Captain Canuck. I stopped ranting and devised a plan. I tore strips of newspaper the same width as VietNamese currency and filled an envelope identical to the missing one. From a bar I took a pool cue chalk, the blue kind that smudges and stains. Using some tweezers, I scraped and scraped until collecting a plentiful amount of fine powder. I then filled the envelope and put the trap in the same spot as the stolen one. Anxiously, I came home after class each night and checked the decoy. Sure enough, three weeks later, the villain had bitten. The envelope was gone but not much of the blue powder was immediately visible. Scratching my skull, I spotted a few traces and splotches but not the amount I had expected considering the amount of dye in the envelope. I had placed the lure on the third level of a four-level bureau. I turned over my black nylon day-bag lying on the floor directly below to find all the blue had spilled out, making a colourful mess. To my advantage, however, the culprit had turned the bag over and cleaned the immediate area. Who else had the means to clean up such a mess other than a cleaning lady with mops and rags? It implied panic. I speculated she was at home, exhilarated about such a big payday yet apprehensive about coming into work tomorrow. If I didn’t hit the roof and all stayed quiet on the Western front, she might think I didn’t notice. She would enter my room while I was at morning class, look for more blue, and clean the remaining not-immediately-noticeable splotches within the bureau. She would have no purpose to clean these seemingly insignificant blue spots unless they were significant to her. I took pictures to compare pre-morning against the (fingers crossed) post-morning crime scene and remained silent, stewing in my anger and plotting vengeance. On the way to school the next morning, I dropped the film at a 1-hour photo place and picked up the pictures after class. Straight-faced, I went upstairs, but she hadn’t cleaned the lingering evidence. Nevertheless, pow-wowing in my room with the day girl, manager, and cleaning lady, they looked at me as if I were daft while I recounted the whole process. The evidence was just shy of a smoking gun but even their weak denials revealed their belief it could only be the maid, who, incidentally, remained as cool as a Tiger beer. “You will agree it had to be someone from the staff, won’t you?” The manager nearly nodded when cross-examined under my seething duress. If I could at least wrangle a concession that a staff member was involved then I win some leverage towards the argument of restitution of the cash. With the manager’s endorsement, I went to the police. The drivers and vendors who hung about the neighbourhood skittered like chickens when I pulled up on the back of a police motorcycle. The lawman (snicker) came to the room and the day girl proudly walked him through the proceedings like she’d been part of the chase. Smiling, he looked at me as if I were daft, and returned to the precinct, leaving instructions for the maid to come down for questioning. Nothing happened. A few days later, with no news forthcoming, I went to the cop-shop and located the policeman. “Did you talk to the maid?” I asked. “Yes.” “What did she say?” “She say she no take you money.” “And…?” He walked away. I could imagine their conversation. “Did you take the money?” “No.” “OK, you can go.” What I hoped for, but never got the chance, was to cater to his guaranteed venality. I conspired to privately reward him 500,000 if he retrieved my 3,500,000 VND. Half a million dong is around a months salary for a member of Saigon’s finest. (A policeman’s official salary is +/- $40/month yet they drive expensive vehicles and live well. Connect the dots.) Assuming he retrieved the money, he probably would have denied all and kept it anyway. With a drooped lower lip, I shuffled home, aware of the hopeless cause I was flogging, but still felt a burning desire for some sort of justice. So, I rethought my course of action. Stage one, no more rent. The first Thursday went by without a word. Then another, then another. I was three weeks behind before the day girl, Phuong (pronounced “Fung” with a rising intonation) braved anything. “Mr.Jim, could you please pay for your room?” she asked hesitantly. “I paid already,” I countered, sweeping by the desk and snagging the key. “Who you pay?” “The night guy, whatever his name is.” “Nooooooooooooo!” her protesting voice trailing off as I climbed the stairs. Later that night, the night guy, whatever his name was, took a crack at it himself. “You can’t have your key until you pay your rent,” he defiantly trumpeted. “I paid it already…to the day girl, whatever her name is.” “No you didn’t!” “Yes, I did!” “Then show me the receipt.” “It’s up in my room.” “Show it to me.” “I can’t get in unless you give me the key,” I said lunging for it. “No, you didn’t pay,” he answered, avoiding my play. “Give me the key or you’ll see more than the receipt.” I walked around the back of the desk and plucked the key from his gutless grip. “Next time you try that, my hand might slip and end up right here,” I warned, pointing to his chin. “OK fine, but you don’t pay, I keep your camera.” His face beamed. I never had the illusion of getting away with anything. There was a point to be made. That point still eludes me but I couldn’t stomach going quietly into the night. The next morning was Saturday. As I left, Phuong was livid. “You MUST pay your rent!” “I paid it already.” “NO YOU DIDN’T!” “Yes I did!” “Show me your receipt.” “It’s upstairs in my room.” “GO GET IT!” “Come with me.” I wanted her to witness me looking in the same place the money went missing from, then throw my hands in the air, shrug, and sigh, “It’s gone…someone must have stolen it.” She wouldn’t bite. “No, go now, I no come up with you!” I walked up halfway, paused a moment, then skipped back down. “I’m sorry,” I began, “but it seems my receipt is gone. I think someone STOLE it!” “No they didn’t, you MUST pay your rent or you cannot have your camera and passport back.” We had a meeting with the manager in the hotel office. “You MUST pay your rent.” “You think I have your money, don’t you?” “YES, you MUST pay your rent.” “And you want your money, right?” “YES, you MUST pay your rent!” Phuong was pounding the air now. The manager piped in, “If guest no pay, the desk people’s salary pay.” This was new, serendipitous data. It produced a shy, embarrassed smile from Phuong. “Well, now: How do you feel when you know someone has your money, you know it’s your money, and you can’t have it even though you know where it is and who has it?” Phuong looked at the manager, translated, and they both broke out laughing, nodding. “You must pay your rent.” “I will when I get my money back,” I balked. “We don’t know who have you money,” they returned. “Yes you do know who has it…” “The maid say she no take the money. Nothing we can do.” “OK, I want the maid fired,” smashing hard to the baseline. “We can’t do that,” they easily volleyed back. I knew this. Then the manager asked, “What do you want?” her body language suggesting, at last, yes, surrender. I began my demands. “I want my room cleaned everyday. Sometimes the maid doesn’t come in the whole day, sometimes she cleans the room a little or not at all. I want you to use bleach in my room and Mr. Glenn’s too, like you promised. I don’t want to buy it anymore. I want to come home at night and not have the ‘guard’ scream that I’m waking him up. People have phoned me and left messages that I’ve never received. Or, they are completely wrong, same with Mr.Glenn. The messages come from VietNamese who talk in VietNamese and the boys on the desk shrug and don’t care.” They became bored quickly, listening sardonically. Then I pulled out my trump card. “And I want my vents cleaned.” This sat them up. At once did they enter into council through a staccato of racket. They paused. “You mean, they no clean yet?” “No, and I’ve asked for it, probably four times.” This wasn’t a lie. With all the sound and fury of the original theft day, no one thought to inspect the vents. A couple days later, I had climbed onto the windowsill to find the maid had never touched them. “When this all gets done, then I will happily pay my rent.” VietNamese anger dissipates instantly. Like school children, we playfully shook hands with a newly found lightness and I left to see a private Japanese student. A sparkling room awaited my return, clean as a nun’s mind, with colourful posters, a new calendar, and boasts from Phuong detailing how she and the maid scrubbed the room from beam to tile. Satisfaction guaranteed. But when I inspected the vents, the limitations to their surrender were clear: they still hadn’t been touched. Phuong’s mouth hung open. I placed a chair for her to stand upon and she looked into the vents for the first time. “Oh, I see,” she sighed. “Was I wrong all this time?” “No, you weren’t wrong.” I sat on the bed watching a troika of cleaning staff arrive with tools and remove the mesh on the outer face of the vents. Pails, rags, soap, bleach, and the maid went up a bamboo ladder and her tiny, thieving arm scrubbed the little concrete tunnels. They finished the job without stealing or breaking anything, although they refused to reinstall the screen, and left footprints from spilled water out the door. I went downstairs and paid the bill. I was home again. But the return was short-lived. My room shared a bathroom with another that was rarely rented. Two weeks later, I came home to find the room occupied, their door into the bathroom open, and bath objects everywhere. I taped a note to the mirror warning of thefts. A few days later, a knock arrived at my door. A young British woman thanked me for the advice, which she had failed to heed. Japanese yen and Thai baht equivalent to $450, stuffed deep inside her backpack, were gone. I liked my room and being near Mr. Glenn as we complemented each other so well, but repetition is a fine teacher. I relocated. Thereafter, Mr. Glenn gave me a running account of the hotel staff’s reactions. First, my love for the front desk girl was too strong. A few days later, their logic deteriorated to I left because Glenn didn’t like the shorts I wore and I had even quit teaching at the school over it. Glenn had lived there six months and always had problems but he liked his room too much to leave. They asked Glenn repeatedly why I left. His answer was consistent: abysmal service and treatment. They never seemed to believe him.

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