In Vietnam, some laws can be broken with impunity

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The rhino horns seized from a 31-year-old man at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City when he arrived from a European country May 20

After a year and a half, I could have done the route blindfolded on my trusty, hardy, beat-up bike, Brunhilda.

Ten minutes out of my Truc Bach apartment, the right blinker begins blinking and I take a turn on to the one-way Tran Phu Street for the final leg of my journey to the office in Hanoi.

On March 18, I forgot to switch on my right blinker. No big deal, since I was merging into a one-way street, but the young traffic cop who stopped me was having none of my protestations. It's the law in Vietnam, he told me sternly, and if you break it, there are consequences. Cannot argue with that, so I paid the fine.

However, the young officer could have mentioned a caveat I reflected as I proceeded on my way to the office.

"There are laws in Vietnam. But consequences for violations only happen when laws the government cares about are broken." In Vietnam, as well as in other Asian countries, this unequal enforcement of laws is especially prominent when it comes to environmental crime. 

For the past year and a half I have been working to help stop the illegal trade of rhino horn from Africa to, and within, Vietnam. The demand for this product is immense here.

People use it in the false belief that it can cure terminal diseases such as cancer. They also use it as a general health tonic, and as a sexual stimulant. As rhino horn is made from the same thing as human toe and finger nails, a substance called Keratin, I can assure you that it does not cure any disease or give you any extra boost in the bedroom.

If you want a legal, cheaper and easier method to use keratin to treat cancer, or for a little extra something in-between the sheets, I suggest eating your own toe nails. Or somebody else's, as it's basically the same thing as consuming rhino horn.

Last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa to meet the demand of consumers, primarily in Vietnam. South African authorities regularly arrest Vietnamese nationals at their international airports smuggling rhino horns, and in the past, even staff members of the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa have been found to be part of the trade.

Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to We reserve the right to edit your submissions for reasons of space and clarity.

This is a pervasive problem in both South Africa where criminal syndicates kill the rhinos and in Vietnam, where rhino horn traders sell it to the rich and politically well-connected. Yet, there is one stark difference between these two countries. Whereas South African authorities arrested 267 people last year in connection with the illegal rhino horn trade, Vietnam has rare prosecution regarding illegal import, selling, trading or using rhino horn. What gives?

The failure is certainly not because Vietnamese laws allow rhino horn to be traded and used in the country. It is completely illegal to trade or use rhino horn here. Nor is it because all rhino horn traders and users in Vietnam are especially secretive and cunning.

I have on several occasions guided well-meaning, though rather novice journalists reporting on the illegal wildlife trade to stores known to sell rhino horns. If these journalists who have never previously reported on this issue can record a Vietnamese person illegally selling a rhino horn, it is a safe bet to say that these are not the most hardened of criminals.

And the truth of the matter is they don't need to be. They can act with near impunity because they know the government will do nothing to stop them.

Even when a rhino horn user blatantly appears in international and national media with a photo of their illegally acquired horn, as Ms. Nguyen Huong Giang did in April 2012, nothing happens. Ms. Giang publicly claimed that her father purchased the horn for her and that she uses it to treat hangovers after a night of partying. Did even one single police officer show up at her or her father's door to charge them with breaking the law? Not from any report I have ever seen. 

The reason why nothing has happened to Ms. Giang or any other domestic trader or seller of rhino horn is that the government does not care about this issue, plain and simple. Sure, they have created laws which make this activity illegal, but have they backed this up with any action? Not even close.

If the government put even half as much effort into going after the illegal traders and users of rhino horn in Vietnam as they do to enforce minor traffic violations, than the slaughter of rhinos in South Africa would drop significantly.

Unless the government begins to enforce current laws and actively go after the people involved in this illicit trade, rhinos in Africa may soon disappear. If the government were to commit itself to penalizing rhino horn traders and sellers as, then there would be hope that rhinos stand a fighting chance to live into the next decades.

I implore the Vietnamese government to implement the law and go after the people trading and using rhino horn. Please take a firm stand on this issue and show that Vietnam will no longer tolerate this illegal activity.   

By Brett Tolman (The story can be found in the May 31st issue of our print edition Vietweek) 

* The writer is a communications officer for the environmental NGO TRAFFIC and has lived in Vietnam since 2011.

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