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On Being Drugged, Scammed, and Losing Your Mind in Vietnam

Vietnam Travel Safety
by Bart Schaneman Dec 27, 2012
If you lose your mind in a Vietnamese jungle and no one was there to witness it, will people ever believe you?

I DON’T KNOW JORDAN WILSON1 in person. We’ve been friends in an online capacity for a while now, a year, maybe more. He’s Australian and a talented photographer. I know that. Not much else.

A few months ago he sent me a message on Tumblr telling me he was planning a trip to Southeast Asia and asked if I had any advice. I think he’d been following me online since before I took a six-week trip there in 2011. I briefly told him what I thought of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He said he had decided on Vietnam.

I remembered the Vietnamese as tough, as willing to overcharge you if you were ignorant, and as the least sycophantic people to travelers of Southeast Asia. I remember liking that part of the experience. I felt like they presented an honest version of themselves, not something the tourist board encouraged. A way of dealing with foreigners that showed confidence, if not character.

I have friends who had gotten into violent confrontations in places like Nha Trang after an opium deal went wrong, but that’s calling trouble on yourself. Engaging with drug dealers or prostitutes in foreign countries is an unnecessary risk, and if something goes wrong little sympathy is given, or deserved.

It’s a different thing if you don’t go looking for trouble and it finds you anyway.

A few days after Jordan’s trip, he sent me a message with the line: I WAS DRUGGED IN VIETNAM FOR 8 DAYS BY SCAMMERS AND LOST MY MIND AND $2000.

Jordan initially thought his seatmate on the flight from Australia to Malaysia spiked his drink with a South American drug called “Devil’s Breath,” clinical name scopolamine, which is known to put the drugged victim in the power of the person administering the drug. Legend has it Colombians have been using this drug to all manners of evil ends, most involving robbery — of money, of possessions, perhaps even a vital organ. Jordan thought the man next to him was working in tandem with a Vietnamese tour guide to drain his bank account and get him lost in the jungle.

Which was what happened, according to Jordan’s first version of the story. The initial story he told me in October involved a trip into the jungle on the back of a motorcycle with a man he’d just met and giving away his money to anyone who asked. After days of being lost in a fog, he somehow came to his senses and contacted authorities, who found him a hotel and then helped him get a plane back to Australia.

In the first email he wrote to me:

  • “Never travel alone.
  • Be suspicious of everyone who approaches you on the street.
  • Never leave your drink alone, and make sure you see it opened in front of you.
  • Never take cigarettes from strangers.
  • You can’t trust everyone as you normally do in Australia!”

I had never heard of this drug, and I’ve traveled on and off in Asia for the past six years. After I got the email I talked to friends who had traveled extensively, people who have lived over here for years, even decades. No one had heard of it, and these are the kinds of stories, legends, and rumors that travelers trade like currency.

I sent Jordan questions a few days later, and it took him a couple of weeks to respond. He said he was in counseling and that talking about the trip triggered bad memories. At the end of November he wrote me with the answers, and this is what he said:

Do you know more about what happened now than you did when you first wrote me about your trip?

The basic story is, on my first day of sightseeing in Saigon, Vietnam, I was approached by a “tour guide” on the street. He had a real tour-guide uniform on and an ID tag (they could have both been fake, I don’t know). He had a book full of references from other travelers. He asked where I was from, when I said “Australia,” he put on an Aussie accent and said, “G’day mate, no worries!” And asked if I needed to go anywhere. I was a little skeptical.

He took me around all day. That night I went out for a few beers, at a local cafe, one that had no tourists, and this woman approached me and started giving me heaps of advice. She eventually sat down. I went to the bathroom. When I came out my drink wasn’t exactly where I remembered, but I didn’t think anything of it. I kept drinking. Then she told me a story about needing money for her rent, and that she would pay me back. So I just took 200,000 VND ($10) out of my pocket, and handed it to her, which was my daily budget! As soon as I handed it to her, she got up and left and said her friend was down the road.

I then decided to leave. I had had four or five beers that night and I was wasted. I woke up the next day with one of the worst hangovers I have ever had. I remember thinking the beer must be strong here. I was so annoyed at myself for giving that woman money, and I couldn’t figure out why I did it.

Then my guide came up to me outside my hotel at 8am and took me all over town. The whole time I was with him he was trying to get me to smoke cigarettes. He slowly wore me down by saying things like “Only lady-boys don’t smoke. You’re on holiday, come on. Here here puff, you puff.” Eventually I gave in.

I remember that first cigarette tasting so good. Unbelievable the feeling I got from it. From then on it is a blur. No fear and doing whatever he suggested. I don’t know what the drug was for sure, but it was a mild hallucinogen. The next day I agreed — without a thought — to go to the Mekong Delta on the back of his bike. Off I went, no worries. I paid way too much for everything.

Then I came back to Saigon. I was starting to feel quite tired as I hadn’t slept much over the seven days. The next day I bought a motorbike that his mate was selling for $600 (so overpriced), then rode said motorbike through the streets of Saigon. I have never ridden a geared motorbike before. Not a fear in the world. He then demanded I pay him 25,000,000 VND. Luckily my bank wouldn’t let me draw that much out. He started to get quite angry. He took me to several ATMs. They all said the same thing. I still didn’t realise I was being scammed. I even said, “I’ll pay you the rest tomorrow. Don’t worry. You can trust me.” And I even offered him my passport as security. I put it in his hands and said take it, I trust you, don’t you trust me? He looked me in the eyes and said, “no I trust you.” He didn’t take the passport.

I went back to my hotel confused. That night, this American guy started talking to me. I told him how much I was going to pay this guy, and he flipped out and said that is so much here. He said that it is a year’s wage. I became even more confused. I then started to feel ill. I went back to my hotel and called my girlfriend. I was scared that Mr. Chao was waiting for me outside. I calmed down for a few hours. I called the Australian Government Emergency Hotline. The man told me to leave all my stuff there and get a taxi somewhere else. I ran downstairs and paid the bill. I got to the new hotel. I woke up the next day feeling clearheaded for the first time. I realized I had been drugged the whole eight days I was with Mr. Chao.

I then realized I was completely alone in this country. I was in a bad state. I didn’t trust anyone. I was suffering from severe paranoia. I managed to get to the New Zealand consulate and they heard my story. They took me to a new hotel in the rich part of town. They told me not to leave or talk to anyone.

That night I came down off all the drugs. It was one of the most terrible nights of my life. Every emotion: anger, hate, rage, sadness, sorrow. I had terrible bowel movements and sweats. I had more than five showers.

The next day the NZ government flew me home. I had a horrible 16-hour flight and was back in Brisbane after several stops. It has been a real struggle to get back to normal life since then. For the first week I couldn’t leave the house. Some days I couldn’t talk.

How is your memory of the time? Were you surprised by your pictures when you looked at them afterward?

My memory straight after the event was crystal clear. My memory is getting hazy now though. When I got home, I was suffering from pretty bad paranoia. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t leave the house, didn’t trust anyone. Didn’t even trust myself. I had some severe nightmares, woke up freaking out, thinking I was still in Saigon. The pictures I took were better than anything I have ever taken.

You changed your story about when and how you were drugged. What changed?

When I got home, I thought I was part of an international scam. I now know it’s crazy. But when I heard about scopolamine, and the effects, I thought this is what I was on. My brain still wasn’t working properly. I couldn’t even form sentences sometimes. I was suffering pretty severe trauma and the drug effect had taken its toll.

And then I remembered on the plane ride over, the guy next to me was from Colombia. He was an Aussie who had been living there for 15 years. I told him I was traveling alone, and I wanted to buy a motorbike and go north. Then I heard scopolamine was from Colombia and I thought, in a crazed state, “This guy was the mastermind.” I realized that was madness, because he got off in Malaysia, and they only got $2000 from me, so it would not be worth it. But I guess you can never really know.

What was it like to be on this drug? Can you describe what it felt like?

I was fearless. I would do anything. Everything was bright. Everything tasted amazing. I didn’t sleep. I saw monsters in lights at night. I could focus on small details and not get distracted. My motor skills were terrible. Mr. Chao would constantly say “you have everything, look look, you look you see you know.” My wallet would just be left on a table.

Are you going through some kind of treatment now? Did you see a psychologist/psychiatrist?

I am seeing a psychologist for the first time in my life. The first time I went I checked all areas and made sure no one was following me. I was still suffering from paranoia. After that first session he told me, “You are in Australia. You are safe here. You can be vigilant, but you don’t need to worry as much.”

I’ve seen him six times now, every week. He helps with the anxiety. He recommends getting back to my normal life. Working hard. Keeping busy. Looking at it from a global perspective.

What have you learned about Devil’s Breath?

I don’t know for sure it was Devil’s Breath. I can never know. But it could have been datura, which is the plant form of it. It grows in Australia and Asia. You can just eat the seeds and it will affect you. Aboriginals still take it a lot here in Australia. I’ve heard stories from friends who grew up in Kuranda in North Queensland, about people getting high on it so much, that all the trees ended up dying in the area, because they used it so much.

What it does, is it stops the flow of oxygen to your brain, and makes you kind of dizzy. So now some kids walk around with their hands around their throats, stopping the oxygen. Some have done it so much that it has ruined their vocal chords.

Had you heard about it before you went to Vietnam?


How has this affected your feelings toward traveling? Are you still going to do it?

When I first got home, I vowed to never travel alone again. I have changed my mind now. I will again. I actually want to go back to Vietnam. It’s like I have this connection to it now. As bad as the end of it was, I actually learned a lot from Mr. Chao, and watched how things worked and learned how the traffic works. So I am currently learning as much about the place as possible. Getting every documentary I can. I want to learn to speak the language before I go back, so I cannot be treated like I was ever again. I have been training, too. I want to be strong. So I never have to be afraid of being physically hurt again. 1 The subject’s name has been changed.

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