Vietnam hub slammed for failing to protect tourists

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Occasional police crackdowns have no positive effects; muggings, scams continue

A street vendor offers a stamp album to a foreign tourist outside the Notre Dame Catheral in Ho Chi Minh City. City authorities have launched a crackdown on criminals targeting tourists in an action slammed by experts as failing to solve the problems thoroughly. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

Ann Mari Johns was careful to bring only her phone card and a hotel business card in her bag when she walked out of Ho Chi Minh City's Mövenpick Hotel on July 25.

Once the Australian tourist was a few blocks from the hotel, two men on a motorbike snatched her bag and sped away.

Luckily, traffic police officer Tu Quang Tan was on duty nearby, saw the incident, and gave chase.

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The robbers, Le Van Sang and Nguyen Lam Son, crashed into another motorbike and were arrested by Tan and local residents. The duo was then prosecuted on robbery charges.

But this is a rare case.

Elsewhere in HCMC, tourists are being robbed, ripped off by scams and being hassled by street vendors without any timely protection from local authorities.

Experts have criticized city authorities for failing to tackle the issue despite years of complaints. Occasional crackdowns have always been followed by a resurgence in tourist safety issues.

The HCMC People's Committee, the municipal administration, has recently ordered police to patrol major downtown streets to protect tourists and locals from street crime.

The city government has also given permission to police in District 1 to set up street cameras for surveillance.

The police have been asked to set up new temporary checkpoints in districts 1, 3, and 5 after a report from the city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism showed a lack of progress in curbing robberies, taxi scams and other cons targeting foreign visitors.

International visitors to the southern hub regularly make up half of the country's total tourist arrivals.

According to the tourism department, more than 2.1 million international visitors arrived in the city over the first seven months this year, during which period the city's tourism revenue was VND47 trillion.

Unsafe tourism environment

At a recent tourism conference, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, head of the State Steering Committee on Tourism, said there are many problems that have slowed Vietnam's tourism growth.

Among these are robberies and hassles from vendors, he said.

According to the HCMC tourism department, many foreign diplomatic missions have sent diplomatic notes regarding their citizens being victimized by robbery.

There were 108 such notes in the first half of this year, while last year's total number was only 59, it said.

The city police department recorded 63 cases of foreigners being robbed in the first half of this year, 14 cases more than that of last year.

Ten major hotels in the city have also reported that many of their guests have been robbed.

Besides robberies, extortionist cabbies driving fake taxis in HCMC have been a major issue for years.

In May, deputy PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered the Ministry of Public Security and HCMC authorities to investigate and severely punish those involved in the illegal protection of fake taxis in the city.

Ho Huy, chairman and CEO of Mai Linh Corp, one of the most popular taxi companies in Vietnam, said many fake taxis have hired criminal gangs to protect their operations in many places in HCMC including the area surrounding the iconic Ben Thanh Market.

He said drivers of major taxi firms have been threatened and assaulted by these gangs when they try to pick up passengers.

In one case in April, a cabbie in HCMC drove Nuraishah Hamza and her friend to a dark alley and locked them inside his car after they refused to pay him a fee 40 times higher than the normal charge.

The two Singaporean women caught the taxi in front of the Ben Thanh Market and took it to their hotel on Nguyen Hue Street in the city downtown, less than a kilometer away.

Finally, they gave him VND100,000 and US$2 and insisted that they would not pay more and the cabbie only let them out after locking them in the car for 20 minutes.

Around the city, tourists have been harassed by street vendors wherever there are no Volunteer Youths, a force assigned to patrol popular destinations and assist tourists.

Ineffective actions

Lincoln, an American expat who has been living in HCMC for more than 10 years, said a recent banner set up on the corner of Dong Khoi and Ly Tu Trong streets gives a hotline for a rapid reaction force tourism safety but the sign is not written in English and the people in charge cannot speak English.

"I did hear once there is a hotline for tourists but as far as I can tell, no one knows about it because it is not posted anywhere where tourists could see it if they needed help.

"As things stand now, what can a tourist do if he/she is robbed or hassled on Nguyen Hue Street, for instance? There are no cops walking the beat, there are no signs announcing hotlines and I would guess that most of the merchants are unaware of any hotline or would even want to get involved at all," he said.

He said HCMC needs a trained, motivated and highly visible street force, who can converse in English in order to deter crime and provide assistance when needed.

Vu The Binh, deputy chairman of Vietnam Tourism Association, said crimes targeting tourists have been happening for decades and that fighting crimes is not the job of tourism authorities.

"The question is whether the local authorities pay any interest in these crimes. If they are concerned, things would have been different," he said.

HCMC authorities launched a crackdown on street criminals between December 2012 and April 2013, when it saw a significant reduction in the number of crimes.

However, experts said the city should permanently intensify police activities rather than occasional crackdowns that fail to solve the problems long-term.

Nguyen Van My, chairman of the HCMC- based Lua Viet Tours, said he does not believe the next crackdown will be effective.

"The criminals will move to other places before resuming their activities in the downtown area after the campaign," he told Vietweek.

He asked why HCMC has been unable to maintaining tourism safety like Hoi An and Da Nang.

"Are the police determined to tackle crimes involving tourists? We have had many crackdowns but things resume as usual after that. The police should take permanent actions against crimes to protect the tourists.

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