The thief was heavy-set and wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. He approached me from behind when I was crossing Le Loi Boulevard in the heart of Saigon, stopping for one second to avoid a foreign motorbike driver.
It was like my head had short circuited just a few meters from the most luxurious shopping mall in Saigon, Takashimaya. Across the street, people were still speaking and laughing in front of Saigon Square, but I could only see the man heading straight towards Ben Thanh Market, blending in during rush hour. Some people even moved out of the way to allow him through.
I walked back to my office and borrowed a phone from a colleague to lock my bank account and SIM card. The next day I had to go to the police and report the case. There was no chance of getting my belongings back, but I had to report the case so that I could register my ID papers that were lost in the robbery.
Glancing up at me from his phone after I told him the story, a young officer asked aimlessly: “5 p.m.? I wonder why he wasn’t scared.”
As he ate his lunch, another officer informed me: “More than half of robbery victims are women or foreigners.”
“Women are not careful,” he concluded, waving his spoon.
I asked him where most thefts take place, and he said: “In front of hotels, parks, crossroads and the Notre Dame Cathedral.”
“Bag snatching is nothing. Some people lost the whole set of camera and tripod while taking photos in front of the cathedral,” he said.
“So how many times do you retrieve ID papers back for the victims?” I questioned.
“We can’t answer that,” the two of them replied.
Then I had to finish my report because a worker from a nearby construction site was waiting in line.
He sat there with a motorbike key in his hand. A thief had taken his bike.
Outside at the door, a woman was also waiting.
It felt like the three of us bonded as a team. We are a problem that needed to be dealt with, in the officers’ eyes.
While waiting for my report to be processed, I overheard the conversations between the officers and the other victims, and they once again passed the buck.
But those officers unintentionally revealed to me some important information: Every day, there are hundreds of robberies on the streets of Saigon that go unreported. Is this because robbery has become so common that victims do not feel the need to report them?
In the media, we only see cases that are filmed by locals and go viral on social media. And when I did a little research, I found no police’s figures regarding robberies in the city.
The two officers I met that day told me that: “People think they are lucky enough not to be hurt, so they don’t bother to report the crime.”
There is a fake sense of peace in the city I live in. Now I carry a cheap bag and only keep small change and a few unimportant bits and pieces in it. I also bought a cheap phone. I am always worried. I don’t even dare to wear nice clothes. The officer had told me: “Even the police lose their wallets and phones when they’re not in uniform, so why should women wear expensive clothes and accessories?” In this city, dressing up is a mistake.
When I first moved to District 4, a notorious home to criminal gangs, a market vendor told me: “Gangs in District 4 only operate in Districts 1 and 3. They divide up the areas.” But thieves are not that regulated: They jump into weddings and steal jewelry, snatch people’s wallets, steal diners’ bags from restaurants, and run away with pets.
Saigon has movies about gangs. Saigon has vigilantes and some had even traded their lives for justice. Why has robbery become such a “specialty” in Saigon? Since when has the involvement of the police stopped at several pointless comments?
Every citizen should be prepared to be robbed. In several places in Italy, I saw warning signs. Thanks to one of those signs at the foot of a pedestrian bridge, my friend successfully avoided becoming a victim on her first day in Italy. She held onto her bag as tightly as she could and screamed so loudly that the thief, who was a woman, had to give up and run away.
Why does Saigon not have these warnings?
The city wants to become a smart one, but there is no way the adjective “smart” runs alongside the extreme caution its citizens have to take.
The city will only be really “smart” when police officers can track down thieves by reviewing CCTV footage from thousands of cameras established along all of the city’s streets. Being smart does not come from an impressive declaration. Sometimes, it just comes from a normal act of caring.
*Hong Phuc is a journalist based in Saigon.
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