A cryptic warning from the US consulate has left foreigners wondering how bad crime really is in Ho Chi Minh City
Foreign tourists in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Police in HCMC's District 1 reported seeing an increase in camera, computer and bag snatching in tourist hotspots around town, particularly in the early evening, when the streets are still crowded.
On March 30, the US Consulate General's office issued a cryptic warning to US citizens living in Ho Chi Minh City.
"During the last seven months, the Mission has received reports and verified numerous instances of pick-pocketing, bag snatches, and residential break-ins targeting the expatriate community," the statement, titled "Warden Message," read. "Additionally, two residential guards of an expat compound were found murdered while on duty."
The message also stated that "there have been acts of extreme violence in local nightspots frequented by expats, including District 1." No details were provided, but Americans were advised to use "the buddy system" in the city.
Since then Thanh Nien Weekly has tried to verify the crimes, without success.
But the reports appear to have alarmed and confused the city's community of foreigners.
Representatives from the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam broached the subject during a meeting with the People's Committee on Wednesday, according to a few individuals in attendance.
The Vice Chairman of HCMC People's Committee said they would look into the matter.
Several other members of consular staff, around the city, expressed incredulity and even doubt that an uptick in crime against expatriates is underway.
Officials at both the British and the Canadian Consulate-Generals denied having noted a significant increase in crime against citizens living in HCMC.
The US Consulate General declined to elaborate on its March 30 statement. Instead, it directed the paper's attention to the An Phu Neighbor's list serve an e-mail group, mostly utilized by expatriates selling furniture and motorbikes.
Lately, some of the list serve users have been chattering about organizing some sort of expatriate neighborhood patrol or a campaign to raise awareness about the problem.
Others seem eager to set up citizen stings or some other brand of vigilante justice.
A Canadian property developer, who insisted on anonymity, shared an unofficial crime database he'd helped compile. He had been robbed, at home and on the street, on three occasions, during his four years in Vietnam.
The file chronicles 66 cases of alleged crimes, many unreported to local police, that range from unsuccessful phone and bag snatchings to a single home invasion robbery that involved a knife, hand ties and an hour-long standoff with the police that ended in arrest.
He advised that the reports had been registered, in English and French, over the list serve. All names and other identifying materials had been blocked. No one was willing to share details of their story.
The earliest recorded case occurred in February 2010 (an iPhone theft at a compound in Thao Dien) and concluded with a purse snatching, this month, in the same, well-heeled District 2 neighborhood.
A number of long-time expats seemed resigned to the phenomenon of brazen, two-man, motorbike purse snatch-and-grab teams and fantastically nimble cat burglars as a natural part of the urban landscape. Indeed, "motorbike cowboys" have been written about as a "hazard and annoyance" of living in the city by travel guides and foreigners since the mid-nineties.
Police, around town, provided vague and inconsistent reports on the subject.
Nguyen Thanh Tam, the Police Chief in District 2's An Phu Ward said he was only aware of a single case of crime against expatriates a Frenchman who'd had a motorbike stolen out of his front yard.
"I think there are many such cases in nearby Thao Dien Ward, where more foreigners live," he said.
During a recent visit, no official brass were on hand to answer questions, but a uniformed officer on duty acknowledged that criminals in the area were focusing on foreigners, who are perceived as being wealthy.
And they are.
Many of the foreign-occupied homes and villas in District 2 are surrounded by prison-sized walls lined with spikes and razor wire.
In the grittier environs of District 1's backpacker area, known as Pham Ngu Lao, Ward Police Chief Nguyen Huu Tai said they've seen an uptick in crime (all camera, wallet and phone snatchings), since the end of the Lunar New Year, in February.
He noted three cases in which concerned citizens, police and members of the youth brigade had subdued the thieves and returned lost property to tourists, on the spot.
Tai said he and his men have been coordinating with the local People's Committee to distribute leaflets about how to protect one's valuables to restaurants, hotels and rental homes throughout the area.
Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Nhat Thanh, chief of the District 1 crime branch said they've mounted mobile patrols to crack down on out-of-towners preying on hapless foreign tourists and have stepped up patrols during the early evening hours, when the streets are still crowded.
He said there have been 19 reported cases of theft against foreigners, so far this year. Twenty one suspects have been arrested.
"The situation has become complicated due to an emergence of "˜amateur' robbers," Thanh said. "Honestly, we could manage the "˜professional' robbers well and busted all of them. Most of them had been arrested, jailed or forced to rehab centers. The "˜amateur' include drug users and some youngsters who just want to mess around. Some have other work, mostly as day laborers and just go around trying to snatch bags during their free time."
One long-time English expat who has lived in HCMC for ten years scratched his head at it all.
None of the crimes seemed particularly new to him. Nor did they seem to be particularly remarkable.
He no longer wears a watch because his last one had been stolen after his noodles had been spiked. He no longer wears a chain around his neck because his last one had been stolen by a male prostitute after his motorcycle broke down one night, on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.
When he talks on the phone, he takes cover next to a heavy object, to prevent anyone from snatching it off his ear.
In the end, though, he feels safe in Saigon.
"You're talking about a city of eight to ten million people," he said.