Lots of different uniforms, but Ho Chi Minh City remains unsafe

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Law enforcement comes in such a bewildering variety of colors that a robbed tourist does not know who to turn to


A group of tourists pass a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City with the help of a voluntary youth. With at least 10 difference law enforcement agencies operating in the city heart, both foreign tourists and locals are confused by the myriad of uniforms they see especially in the downtown area.

Nurhad Ghani could only return to her hotel and tell the receptionist that she and her three friends were ripped off by four cyclo drivers during their recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City.

"We were advised to report to the ward police," the Malaysian tourist said.

"But I don't think they could find those drivers."

Four of them were forced to pay VND500,000 each for a return trip from September 23rd Park in District 1 to An Dong Market in District 5, 10 times the agreed price, by the intimidating drivers.

"They dropped us near the park where there were very few passers-by and began to quarrel."

Sha, the sole man in the group, said he was too scared to resist four aggressive drivers because they were in another country.

"I wish there were some patrolling policemen who could catch them red-handed extorting foreign tourists."

But it is not as if there are no law enforcement agencies. The fact is that there are too many of them that even locals are confused by the myriad of uniforms they see, especially in the downtown area.

Ghani said she was not aware of this.

"A Vietnamese friend warned me against such scams and told us who we should contact. However, I just focused on enjoying the trip and forgot that."

Mike Cooper, a tourist from London, said he would report to the "green-shirted" personnel who often helped him and his wife cross the streets during their three-day visit to HCMC.

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"I think they are tourist police," he said.

But the people in the green are actually voluntary youth who are assigned to assist traffic police officers and foreign tourists.

A recent investigation by Vietweek found that there are at least 10 different "security" agencies operating in the downtown area.

Traffic police officers are in tan and often patrol on white motorbikes or direct traffic at signals. They are sometimes accompanied by mobile police officials in dark green.

Security police officers are also in dark green jerseys and are often accompanied by militiamen in light brown.

The military police also wear light-brown uniforms but often patrol in old jeeps.

In lighter brown are construction inspectors who are in charge of overseeing construction works and clearing sidewalks and streets of illegal occupants.

And, there are more.

But tourists continue to be fleeced or robbed on the streets.

Last month two thieves on a motorbike snatched a bag from Armenian tourist Donara Harutyunyan while she was walking on Nguyen Trai Street in District 1.

The 23-year-old had to ask for help from xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers nearby to see if the thieves had thrown her identity papers on the street.

Ho Linh Mai of the HCMC-based travel firm Carnival Company said many customers contact their guide when they are robbed instead of asking for help from the patrolling officers.

"Besides the language barrier, they say they do not know who to ask for help because there are too many different forces."

People also complain about the overlapping powers of these agencies.

Phuc, a driver in Binh Thanh District, said he was recently fined twice for a single offense by two different forces.

"I stopped my car on Le Duan Street where there is a parking ban and was immediately fined by traffic police. After paying the fine, I got back into the car. The construction inspectors arrived then and issued another fine for illegal parking."

Many others also complained about being fined twice like Phuc for breaching parking bans.

On January 1 the city people's committee, the municipal administration, said it has instructed relevant agencies to draft a plan to set up a tourism police force.

Pierre De Gonzaga, a French tourist, said taxi and xe om drivers often ripped off foreign tourists and quarreled if someone refused to pay.

"You should have this special [tourist police] taskforce just like many other countries in Southeast Asia," he said.

Le Hoai Trung, deputy director of the HCMC Interior Department, said there are a number of different officers on the streets because there are still many "unstable" areas like traffic, construction, environment, and security.

But he agreed there should be one single agency.

"There should be a thorough study by different agencies before creating such a agency for the city center," he said.

GREEN SHIRTS KEEP TOURISTS SAFE

Since 2006, the Ho Chi Minh City Voluntary Youth has assigned its members to patrol downtown areas to assist and protect tourists, making up for the absence of a tourist police force.

The Public Service Enterprise, an affiliate of the association, uses nearly 300 guards to ensure tourist safety in and around major tourism areas. They patrol in shifts that run from early in the morning until late at night.

Known for their trademark dark green uniforms, the guards' main tasks are to offer information to tourists and protect them from robbers and pickpockets as well as the harassment of beggars and hawkers.

The all-volunteer force also operates a hotline, (08) 3 925 0000, which people can call if they are in need of help.

The Green Shirts, as they're known, have busted many robberies in the area over the several years.

The company, however, says it still lacks manpower to carry out its task.

While the good thing is that thieves and other harassers were avoiding streets patrolled by the volunteer force these days, many of them have just shifted their activities to smaller streets in areas without the patrolmen, a company official said.

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