A haven for crime against tourists

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Lame police response to increasing incidents of violent robbery against tourists in Nha Trang threatens travel industry


  Dutch tourist Ruben Engelhardt, 22, in a hospital in Nha Trang after he sustained serious injuries when chasing two robbers who snatched the bag of his friend Colin Charlotte as she was walking on Tran Phu Street in Nha Trang Town on October 16. Tourism firms and residents have criticized local police for being inactive in fighting increasing crimes against tourists.

Nha Trang police have rejected reports that a Dutch tourist was brutally beaten by a group of men when he tried to stop them from robbing a foreign woman on October 17, saying instead that the tourist had sustained the injuries when he fell while chasing the criminals.

According to the town's police division, the incident happened at around 3 a.m. when Ruben Engelhardt, 22, and his French friend Colin Charlotte, 23, were walking on Tran Phu Street in Loc Tho Ward.

After one of the two thieves snatched Charlotte's bag and ran away, Engelhardt pursued them. The thief threw the bag on the sidewalk and escaped with Charlotte's cell phone, camera and VND2 million (US$98). She found Engelhardt lying on the street with facial injuries and took him to the hospital, the police said.

Charlotte reported that Engelhardt had fallen and injured himself, and the Dutchman said he was too drunk to remember whether he was beaten or just fell, according to the police, who also said the tourist had two broken teeth and forehead injuries.

Local newspapers had earlier reported that there were five robbers who relieved Charlotte of her possessions. When Engelhardt chased them and seized the camera back, the robbers had brutally assaulted him until he passed out, the reports said, which added that Charlotte was forced to give them all the money she had and the camera. The robbers also took Engelhardt's money and personal papers before leaving, the reports said.

The newspapers had also reported that the Dutch tourist had lost five teeth and suffered a broken lower jaw besides numerous bruises.

While it is not clear why the earlier version of the story gained widespread currency, many residents, expatriates and locals, are saying that whether Engelhardt was beaten by the robbers or not, the robbery highlights a persisting security problem for tourists in Nha Trang a famous beach town in central Vietnam's Khanh Hoa Province, and that the problem is worsened by lax surveillance by a frightened police force.

An expatriate Nha Trang resident who did not want to be named told Vietweek that he had talked with Engelhardt and Charlotte the day after the incident.

They told him that while they were sitting on the beach with Charlotte's bag just behind them, she saw someone taking something from her bag and run away. Engelhardt gave chase while she was looking to see what was missing in her bag, and when she got to him, he was already lying on the ground. Charlotte did not see what had happened, the source said. Engelhardt said he could not remember exactly what happened, but remembered at least two people were there, according to the source.

A couple of days later, three motorbike taxi drivers and another expatriate told the Vietweek source that they saw people attacking Engelhardt and that they'd even called the police from the hotel at which the expatriate was staying.

The police prefer to say that Engelhardt fell because "it is much easier for them to say that a drunk guy fell over than he was attacked, because it would mean they were sleeping when they should have been working," the source said.

BREAKING NEWS

Nguyen Van Ngan, Nha Trang police chief, told the media on Wednesday that two men suspected of having robbed Colin Charlotte have been arrested.

Le Xuan Vu, 21, and Cao The Thanh, 32, were arrested on October 21.

Ngan also said preliminary investigations show Ruben Engelhardt was injured because he fell when struggling with the thieves to get back Charlotte's bag.

He confirmed that while Charlotte had lost her camera and money, Engelhardt had lost two teeth and broken another 5, the source said.

"Right now everyone is trying to focus on whether it was a fall or not. For me that's not so important. The most important point is that 15 people got robbed in less than one week from just one place, and this is not counting how many Russian tourists get robbed day after day."

Engelhardt returned to his hostel to recuperate because "the hospitals in Nha Trang are dirty and people were smoking in the rooms," the source said.

According to the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Khanh Hoa attracted 1.12 million tourists in the first half of this year, including 266,000 international tourists.

Unsafe town

Senior lieutenant colonel Nguyen Van Ngan, Nha Trang police chief, said that many robberies targeting foreign tourists, mainly Russians, have taken place in the town over the past two years.

The Russian consulate in Ho Chi Minh City recently sent a letter to the foreign affairs department of Khanh Hoa Province, requesting that concerned agencies take measures to suppress crime and guarantee security for Russian tourists in the town, he said.

According to Ngan, there have been 81 robberies and 318 thefts of tourists' property so far this year, including 14 cases involving foreign tourists.

The crime explosion prompted the Khanh Hoa Province People's Committee, the local government, to hold a meeting on October 10 to discuss ways to maintain safety for tourists.

Following the meeting, a plan to establish a special task force for protecting tourists from crime, mainly robberies, was announced, as was one to install cameras at public places.

In an incident on September 21, Russian tourist Nikitina Tatiana was walking on Le Thanh Ton Street when two robbers on a motorbike snatched her bag.

Tatiana tried to hold on to her bag and was dragged on the street. She sustained multiple injuries on her arms and shoulders.

Online website Dan Viet quoted the owner of a hotel on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in Nha Trang as saying that four tourists staying there had their cameras, bags and mobile phones robbed between October 16 and 17. The names of the hotel and its owner were not revealed.

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One of the tourists was beaten up, the owner said.

Many tourists have reported being robbed by bag snatchers on motorbikes while walking Nha Trang streets at night.

Police's role

In Engelhardt's case, Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Law) newspaper quoted a receptionist at his hotel as saying that when a hotel employee had called the police station in Loc Tho Ward to report the crime at around 11 a.m. on October 17, an officer hung up after saying the injured tourist had to come in person to complain.

An expat in Nha Trang wrote in to Vietweek: "It is well known that the Loc Tho police are 'afraid' of the gang of robbers operating on Tran Phu and Tran Quang Khai streets.

"I have been living in Nha Trang for six years and have never seen policeman after 11 p.m. on the street. Some of my customers at the"¦hotel have been robbed over the years and each time we have called the police, they never came.

"The robbers have no shame in stealing from inebriated tourists every night and everyday on the beach too," he said.

Nguyen Van My, director of the HCMC-based Lua Viet Tours Company, called Nha Trang a "hot spot for tourism social evils."

"Uncontrolled robbery is threatening Nha Trang as well as Vietnam's tourism industry," he told Vietweek.

He criticized local authorities for showing a lack of determination in solving the problems. "The police chief of the ward and the town should be punished if there is a robbery in their locality. It is very easy to bust these robbers," My said.

David Wood, an expat in Vietnam, said more police patrols are necessary.

"What you are reading is just the tip of the iceberg; people are being robbed, assaulted etc. every night here in Nha Trang. There is zero police presence on the streets late in the night and early morning.

"The actual solution is very simple, a police presence on the streets between midnight and 4 a.m.," he told Vietweek.

Wood said criminal gangs are free to prey on tourists due to little or no police surveillance.

"When you consider that higher authorities in Vietnam are wondering why the come-back rate for tourists is the lowest in Asia, to me it's very obvious, a high percentage of tourists visit Nha Trang, they can see what's happening and won't ever return," he said.

But in a response to Vietweek's report on Engelhardt's case, a person identified only as Sabacat said the same thing happens almost anywhere in the world.

"Wealthy drunks wandering the streets near the sailing club should have caught a cab home and avoided this altogether."

Police chief Ngan said whenever a foreign tourist is robbed the police launch an investigation immediately, but face many difficulties in carrying it through.

"Most tourists are drunk and could not remember what happened to report to the police. Moreover, the spoken English of police officers at the ward level is limited."

Then, perhaps unwittingly, he made case for more night patrols: "Many robberies take place at night and it is difficult to find any witnesses."

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By Khanh An, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 26th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

Hari Chathrattil contributed to the report.

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