• sample chapter: Trolling for Pickpockets
  • sample chapter: Trolling for Pickpockets

sample chapter: Trolling for Pickpockets

There is much sport to be had on the streets of Saigon

An excerpt

Saigon has always been a lady, and a beautiful one, but a lady with a touch of sin. There is a game you can play here, when you are tired of more mundane pastimes and hanker after a contest of wits and nerve. It is not inherently dangerous, but neither is it a game for the faint of heart. Much is at stake. For in this game the hunted becomes the hunter, and the predator turns prey. I should say that there is currently an Englishwoman residing at the 333 Hotel with her left leg in a cast for a torn ligament. But hers is the only injury I have ever heard of. And she played at three o’clock in the morning after an evening of drinking. And she played rough. Many beginners do. I did. pickpocket

So you must not play this game when you have been drinking, or ill, or in a bad mood. Your senses and your reflexes, and your powers of observation and decision must be in top form, because you, the visitor, the amateur, will be going up against the pros. But you can win at this game. If you follow my advice and learn from me you can win almost every time. In fact, I haven’t lost yet. Although in fairness I’d have to say that the outcome of my most recent encounter was very dodgy and too close for comfort. And I had put too much at stake. But I won. The game is called Trolling for Pickpockets.

Trolling for pickpockets, as a Saigonese contact sport, was invented during the Tet New Year celebrations of 1992 by Bruce and Paul Harmon and myself. We were wandering the Ben Thanh market one fine morning. The holiday crowd was dense and there was much rubbing of shoulders. Two unsavory looking guys walking side by side approached me head on. I knew I was their mark. Their appearance alone tipped me off. The best players look like the woodwork. Just before contact they parted like waters and went to both sides of me, bracketing me hard. I felt hands as they slid by.

I am very aware of hands in this country. In Vietnam it is impolite and unseemly to touch strangers. Most people don’t even observe the western custom shaking hands. Children will sometimes touch you as you walk by, out of childish curiosity at some one who looks nothing like them or theirs. Or they will run up from behind, touch you and flee. But they’re just playing a game of “counting coup.” They know it’s naughty, but the fascination of foreigners overcomes their good manners. Or they might be pickpockets in training. But certainly an adult who touches you on the street is at least being disrespectful, and could be trying to get your goods.

So that morning in the market when I felt hands, my own right hand went instinctively to the small bag I carry on my hip, slung to my belt like a holster. My hand brushed a strange hand that instantly snapped away. At the same time my left hand, almost of its own accord, shot through an undulating press of bodies and grabbed a fistful of shirt front. The guy on my right melted into the crowd. But on my left I gave a tug and jerked the wearer of the shirt to front and center. I relieved him of my sunglasses. Maintaining my grip on his shirt I told him in no uncertain looks and tone that I would eat him without salt if he should make me his mark again.

At this point Bruce and Paul, having seen what happened in the brief encounter, came rushing to my aid, ready to help me pound the culprit into the dirt like a railroad spike. But I let the lad go, sent him back to school to study his lessons a little harder. After all, he had nothing of mine. And I had one of his shirt buttons. To my amazement I wasn’t even angry with him. I felt no sense of outrage at the attempt on my person and property. I had no desire to haul the bad guy off the pokey and demand justice. I didn’t thirst for his blood. Rather, I was jazzed. Yessss! I was pumped. I was mighty. I had won.

“Richard,” Paul said. “That was beautiful. You caught that guy like a fly ball!”

And Bruce said, “Damn it! I want to catch one too!”

And so the sport of trolling for pickpockets came into being. We immediately set our hooks with bait: sunglasses, bank notes, pens, etc. hanging provocatively from our pockets. And then we went watchfully on patrol. 

This is an excerpt. Read the full account in the book Saigon, Saigon.