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Dec 5, 2015

Undercover cops; Ali Baba photographers; and why I "fired" the Dalat Red Cross

In the post two prior to this one, I wrote about how I foiled two female Ali Babas' attempts to appropriate four of our children's Protec motorbike helmets at the first school's helmet donation event. Even though we (with the help of the Red Cross) had all the proper government paperwork filed with the proper authorities, we suspected someone might try to extort a few helmets or a financial "donation" at the last minute. Such things are all-but standard procedure in Việt Nam, and occasionally make things a little more interesting. My tactics that evening were pretty much seat-of-the-pants, though the basic skills were honed over years of teaching sales and negotiation as well as 60 years as a smart-ass.

As a result of that attempt, we had undercover police at our second event. I didn't even know they were there until a week or so later when I was reviewing the photos with one of our volunteers. She is an almost 30-year resident of Dalat and knows many of the local cops, so when she pointed to one of the men I pegged as a parent and said, "He is police" I believed her. I asked why he was there and she said that after the self-proclaimed "government official" tried to steal helmets at the first school, they were assigned to be at the second school in case something similar happened.

Nothing like that did happen and, honestly, I was a bit disappointed. I enjoyed the first encounter and hoped they'd try again so I could have a little more fun. As you can see from the photos like this, one of my favorites,

I had plenty of fun anyway.

The volunteer also told me that the traffic police were there (in plainclothes, probably both to keep a low profile and possibly so that the people didn't freak out) because they are thrilled that I am giving helmets to children and wanted to see it first hand. Will that help me the next time I get stopped for speeding? Doubtful, though who knows?

All-in-all, the second school's event was a huge success.

A few days after the event we met with the husband/wife videographer/photographer team that the Red Cross arranged to video and photograph both events. When the husband called to arrange a meeting for payment and delivery, he told Vy that the price was 5 million for the video and 1.5 million for the photos. She called me to ask if that was okay, and, since almost everything here is open to negotiation, I told her to get them to 4 million and 1 million, which she did. That was 5 million VND (~US$225) for their time at both events and all of the video and photos taken. Or so I thought.

The wife arrived at the coffee shop with only the video DVD. She explained that her husband was still working on the photo DVD and that we would get them the next day. I popped the DVD into my laptop and was very impressed with the quality of the video presentation, though at times the audio would have benefited from a directly connected microphone. I was so impressed, that in addition to the negotiated 4 million, I gave her a 500,000 bonus.

Their primary business is weddings, so the video compilation

he created and she delivered opens with a nice introduction to Dalat before giving a comprehensive record of helmet donations at each of the two schools.

Right after she promised that we would have all of the photos the next day, her husband arrived with the disk. We chatted for a few minutes, I paid the 1 million for the photo disk as we said our goodbyes—without looking at the photos. I forgot for a minute that I am in Vietnam. For my forgetting we paid a great cost.

When I got home, I put the disk in my laptop and opened the photos. There were many good ones; a few were posted in previous entries here. Unfortunately, a LOT of photos were missing. I know this because there were some I specifically requested and remember being taken... and especially because the photos are numbered and there were gaps in the numbering of 12, 17, 41, 59, 62, 73, and 91 photos. I understand that there will be a few soft-focus or bad shots missing, but NOT between 17 and 91 consecutive bad shots! WTF???

I immediately emailed Vy, told her of the missing photos—we had only 129 out of approximately 579 photos—about one in four (exactly 22%) of the photos taken. I asked her to immediately contact the photographer and request the missing ~450 photos. There is no voicemail here, so it took a couple days for her to connect with the photographer on the phone. The photographer told her that they would burn a CD the next day and call her when it was ready.

Wanna buy a bridge in Brooklyn?

When Tuyết and the Red Cross got involved in Helmets for Children, they volunteered to assume two responsibilities:
1) Take care of any and all government required paperwork
2) Arrange for the photographer and videographer.
     a) Though I never heard a price, I thought that it was determined up-front.
     b) Silly me.

As we realized that we had a potential disaster in the making, I had My, our volunteer who has a long-term relationship with Tuyết, contact her and fill her in on what was going on. Tuyết said that she would contact the photographer and straighten out any misunderstanding... and, as I found out later, she didn't do a damn thing!

The next day Vy called the photographer and was told, "We are very busy; it will be a few more days." This happened again and on the fourth call, Vy talked to the husband/videographer. He said that it would cost 10,000 VND EACH to burn the missing photos to a DVD. That multiplies out to over four million VND additional—FOUR TIMES times what they originally agreed on to give us ALL of the 500+ photos! Vy called me to relay the information and it's lucky for the fcuking Ali Baba videographer (and probably me) that I don't speak Vietnamese, 'cause I would've immediately ridden over there and it would have gotten very ugly.

When Vy and I talked with Tuyết (Red Cross) and the photographer, we told them that we wanted all of the photos taken at both schools. Nothing was ever said about us getting only 129 photos. That is why I was so surprised when I got the disk home and found only 129 photos and so many missing in-between the first and the last at each school.

The agreement we had was for ALL of the photos, not 22% of them. I understand that there may be some blank or out-of-focus images, but there is no way that 213 of 274 photos at the first school and 217 out of 305 photos at the second school were no good!

What the hell is it with people who won't keep their word or honor a verbal contract? After almost a year here, am I that clueless about the culture? Or is it because I refuse to become cynical and continue to trust people until they show they cannot be trusted?

I asked Vy to call Tuyết and tell her that the photographer was trying to rob us of an additional four million and to ask her, since she brought the photographer into the fold, to please intercede and get him to release ALL photos per the original agreement. Tuyết later told me (through her friend and our volunteer My, because Tuyết speaks even less English than My) that when she called the photographer, he claimed he never asked for more money and that Vy was trying to get me to give up the 4,000,000 VND which she (Vy) would then pocket.

BULLSHIT! Vy is one of the most honest people I know, and I trust her more than I trust anyone else in Vietnam.

Technically, his phrasing may be accurate. While he told Vy that it will cost 10,000 VND per photo to burn another disk, he did not ask for more money. He just told her that if we want the 400+ photos he was still withholding, we would have to pay over 4,000,000 VND to get them... even though we had already paid the asking price AND a 500,000 VND bonus!

In the three weeks that followed, Vy and I did everything we could to try to kick the photos loose. I even offered to pay the extra ~US$200 he demanded.

Then, suddenly, we were told that the photos had been deleted and were no longer available. We were also told to stop calling them because they would no longer talk to us.

WTF???

I am very sad and disappointed that such a simple thing could go so wrong. We had a verbal contract and the malicious bastards both broke it AND destroyed the photos!

My mistake was in paying for the photos before verifying that I had all of them. While I will never make that mistake again, it is a lesson that was very painful to learn.

All we ever wanted is what we originally asked and paid for—all of the photographs taken at both schools.

98% of the people who read this will never come to Dalat and maybe 1% of the 2% who do come here will ever need the services of a professional photographer or videographer. If you are one of them, I recommend you stay clear of Pham Phuoc!


As for Tuyết of the Red Cross, I was already unhappy with her because at both helmet presentation events, she got up in front of the students, staff, and parents and took full credit for my work. The gist of what she said was that the Red Cross had conceived of this project and then brought me in. In truth, I invited her and the Red Cross into my project. Her contributions were doing the government paperwork, recommending one of the two schools, and bringing in the Ali Baba photographers. Her role was that of advisor/assistant.

I have zero problems sharing credit where credit is due, BUT when someone publicly presents as if what I spent a year creating was his/her idea, integrity is out the window. She was told, after the first presentation, of my discomfort with her remarks, yet she repeated them at the second presentation—the school chosen prior to her involvement.

She also did everything she could to get me to replace my trusted right-hand Vy with a translator of her choosing, including lying about the quality of Vy's translations (this from someone without a word of English beyond "Hello"), the attack on Vy's integrity mentioned earlier, and her refusal to do anything to help us get the 400+ withheld photos. Any one of these is enough for me to keep Tuyết out of any and all future endeavors. The three together garnered her my contempt.

I know that this post might cause concern to those who have donated toward helmets and those who are considering donating. Please know that I am now even more cautious with who is brought into the program and that ALL donated funds are used to purchase helmets. EVERY single non-helmet expenditure comes out of my personal funds.

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1 comment:

  1. Since I have known John, he has always had a cause. Trying to rescue less fortunate. Confronting the wrong doers. Attempting to change policy. This undertaking to provide helmets is huge. Very huge and successful. Spending lots of time to learn how to fill the need. To me, it is an overwhelming task. The John I know, decides to do it and makes it happen. Impressive. Yes, I believe John is brilliant while being naïve, gentle, and kind. Heartbreaking and inspiring. My humble observation of a generous man.

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