Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mid-Autumn Heist!

It started as a simple idea: to check out the evening's festivities in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and learn something about the Mid-Autumn Festival. For weeks now, the festival had been building up, with red and gold boxes of "Moon Cakes" (Bánh Trung Thu), paper lanterns, ribbon stars, and other adornments springing up everywhere.

The Mid-Autumn Festival (Têt Trung Thu) is, along with Têt – the Vietnamese New Year – one of the major festivals on the lunar calendar. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month – the full moon nearest the autumn equinox. The festival is related to a number of agricultural festivals celebrated throughout the world, festivals that traditionally celebrate the harvest, along with the shortening of the days, and the lengthening of the nights.

Têt Trung Thu is a holiday ripe with myths and folktales, many of them honoring the moon. People tell stories about the moon princess (who was banished to the moon after urinating on the sacred banyan), children wear masks to scare off the demon who would eat the moon, and of course, everyone eats moon cakes. Additionally, there are lion dances, dragon dances, and a host of decorations that carry deep mythic significance. These are truly the vestiges of ancient rituals and tales that have survived into modern times.
Hàng Mã Street, one of the original 36 guild streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, serves as a center for the festivities; it is where people go to buy the lanterns, animal-shaped fruits, masks and toys needed to celebrate the festival in style. And so, when the day of the festival arrived, it seemed right to go to Hàng Mã and see what the fuss was all about.

Ironically, at least two people had warned me about the pickpockets that worked the crowd, and I, the native New Yorker, the experienced world traveler, the seasoned veteran of numerous shady deals, had made light of it. I even boasted with foolish bravado to one acquaintance, "I don't have to watch out for them, they have to watch out for me!" Smugly, I took the normal precaution of moving my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans, and headed to the fair.

In less than two minutes, my wallet was gone.

Here's how it happened: the crowd on Hàng Mã was, as expected, thicker than moose snot, with a tightly-pressed mass of people trying to move up and down the narrow street. I gave my pocket a last squeeze, moved to the edge of the swarm, and it sucked me in. Almost immediately I felt a sharp elbow press up against my side; a thin, middle-aged woman, it seemed, was trying to move past me. I rose my arm slightly to block her...and I believe that was it. Whether she or a companion did the lifting, I will never know.

It was clearly a professional job. Soon as I noticed my wallet was gone, a wave of heads started popping up from the crowd, each one complaining about a missing phone, wallet, or purse. My suspicion is that a team of pickpockets moved in, hit us, and moved out. Like bony-fingered wraiths, they floated through unnoticed, and we never even knew what hit us.

My first thought was revenge; I tried turning the tables. I picked up a piece of styrofoam I found on the ground, put it in my pocket, and tried to walk like a dumbshit tourist waiting to be robbed. I frankly intended to kick the ass out of anyone I caught trying to lift me. But of course, I fooled no one. Most probably, whoever had gotten me was long gone by the time I, and the others who got robbed, got wise to them.

Luckily, the loss was of little consequence: about US$12 in cash, and a VISA and bank card that were both immediately canceled. The wallet itself was worth about $3. Add the $6 it took to replace my bank card, and the whole experience cost me around $20 – a small price to pay for an interesting adventure (of course, adventure is what we call in retrospect that which is a pain in the ass when it occurs).

On the whole, Vietnam is not a dangerous country; by US standards it is quite safe. Violent crime is rare, and what crime there is tends to be by stealth. But if I took Hanoi's pickpockets lightly before, let me say they have earned my respect! Bravado aside, I am not an easy target. I have traveled the world with very few mishaps and I stand by the notion that New York provides good survival training. Additionally, it takes soft hands and steely nerves to be a pickpocket; it is, in its way, an art. So the person, or people, who got my wallet were total pros – artists, if you will – and for that I commend them. Congratufuckinglations.

Pictures from the festival:


  1. That sucks! Glad you didn't lose anything more.
    I love your picture of all the lanterns! Eat some dragon fruit for me, will you? My favorite fruit in the world and I hate having a craving for something I can't get here!

  2. Your pictures are great. What a beautiful people, huh?

    Sorry about the wallet. I will keep that in mind when I visit next year.

  3. Your post and the pictures brought back a lot of bittersweet memories of my youth in Saigon. Bitter, because my family was poor and couldn't afford the cakes and the fancy lanterns. Sweet because the spectacles were always a feast for the eye. Back then (early 70s) the lanterns were shaped like animals, planes, automobiles, butterflies, etc. They would have a small wire candle holder within them. Kids would stick a small lighted candle in the lanterns and parade single file through the streets and sing a traditional mid-autumn song: "Đêm Trung Thu em rước đèn đi chơi..." or "On the night of the mid-autumn festival, I am carrying my lantern through the streets..."

    Re petty crime: I am slightly surprised that pickpockets would be so brazen now. Usually they prefer to prey on the natives, because penalties for crime against tourists are more severe. For all their bone-headedness, the authorities know that tourists bring in much-needed foreign currency.

  4. Your response to the pickpocket reminds me of Gimme Some Wine, a Lambert, Hendricks and Ross song. The singer accepts being robbed--it's just the mugger's job--but goes ballistic when the assailant tries to take away his bottle. That's when he hits the throttle!