Beware the supple fingers of Saigon

On a recent visit to Vietnam, Karl Vetas finds that street urchins are thriving as pickpockets in Saigon -- but the children are victims, too.

By Karl Vetas

Published March 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The gleaming towers along Le Loi and Nguyen Hue boulevards in downtown Ho Chi Minh Ville (still better known as Saigon) attest to Vietnam's growing prosperity as a potential Asian tiger. Much of the funding for the growth is reflected in the neon signs that glow atop the multistory glass complexes, foreign firms that have taken a stake in Vietnam's future through multimillion-dollar investments in industrial ventures. Amid the symbols of capitalistic expansion, another form of entrepreneurial drive is also thriving. This one too is funded by foreigners, but in a more direct and less voluntary way: Their assets are being unknowingly transferred from their pockets and purses to the supple fingers of local thieves.

The scope of the street theft problem was underscored at a recent United Nations-sponsored Mekong Tourism Forum Meeting held in Saigon and attended by representatives from private and public sector organizations from the six nations that border the Mekong River. Convened to discuss strategies for increasing tourism to Vietnam, the meeting's opening was delayed when the Myanmar delegation discovered their luggage had been ransacked somewhere between their aircraft's cargo hold and the baggage carousel.

They were among many who were loathe to disagree when the keynote speaker, William McGurn, senior editor of the prestigious Far Eastern Economic Review, stated that "personal safety" was a genuine concern among overseas tourists contemplating visits to Vietnam. He illustrated the point by noting that after the welcoming dinner at the Majestic Hotel the previous evening, he'd stepped onto the sidewalk -- and had his watch promptly stripped from his wrist.

Communism may have officially replaced capitalism, but the local entrepreneurial acumen that characterized Saigon during the Vietnam War is alive and well. Pickpockets and snatch thieves operate unmolested along downtown boulevards and woe betide the visitor who fails to keep one wary eye on his personal effects and the other on beggars and street urchins. Or who, in avoiding them, strays to the edge of the sidewalk and into the operating territory of thieves on motorcycles. Wall-eyed sightseeing is the order of the day.

The techniques practiced during the GI era of the 1960s seem to have been passed to a new generation without alteration or refinement. In those days, small smiling boys would dash up to a visitor as if about to sell him chewing gum. While the visitor fumbled for change, they would run a thin card up his shirtfront to snag the pens clipped to the pockets. The pilfered object would quickly disappear in a relay of hands before the stunned victim could recover his wits and give chase.

More threatening were the "cowboys," pairs of snatch thieves astride motorcycles. When the driver veered toward the tourist, his partner would grab whatever dangled from a shoulder strap -- purse, camera, valise -- and speed away. A delegate at the Mekong meeting discovered that times have changed little. Walking down the sidewalk, he wandered too close to the street and a passing motorcycle passenger grabbed the jacket he had slung over his shoulder. The victim maintained his grip and the jacket split, leaving him with a back panel and a pair of sleeves.

If anything, the thieves these days are bolder. Walking on main streets for an hour between conference sessions, my companion twice had to remove roving hands from her purse, within steps of the meeting hall door where a policeman was posted.

Calling for police seems as useless as it was during the war. The GI's called South Vietnamese police "The White Mice" for their pristine uniforms and total disinclination to uphold the law. They're still as ineffectual but are slightly more enterprising. Guidebooks warn visitors not to carry their passports when on the town for the evening. It is not unknown for a police patrol to stop them, demand identity papers and then offer to sell the passport back to them. Visitors are advised to leave their passports in hotel safes and to carry photocopies of the key pages. The need for constant vigilance mars an otherwise pleasant stroll down city streets, many of them lined with fragrant linden trees planted by French colonists, and all of them throbbing with vibrant life -- filled with street vendors, simple sidewalk cafes serving filter coffee and delicious baguettes, women gossiping on doorsills, men in pajamas lounging in lawn chairs watching children shouting and cavorting. Such a perambulation, however, requires keeping a wary eye cocked for miscreants.

I was only aware of how defensive I had become when, days later, back in my own hometown, I found myself scrutinizing each passerby and child and tensing whenever I heard a motorcycle. My sense of my own vulnerability was a constant annoyance in Saigon, but that annoyance was tempered by guilt coupled with new knowledge about the city's street children.

My deeper knowledge of the lives of these children came from a little-known document called "Street Children in Ho Chi Minh City," published by an organization called Terre des hommes. In conjunction with the Vietnamese government -- which is aware of the problem and seeks to remedy it humanely -- this organization spent six months interviewing street children, mimeographing the results in a fascinating report that gives new perspective on their plight.

Street children are not solely a Vietnamese phenomenon, of course. In truth, they are far better tolerated by the authorities than in Brazil, for example, where self-appointed police vigilantes have murdered tens of thousands of them (as documented in the chilling book "Brazil: War on Children").

The Vietnam War broke up families and denied them fathers; street children are the result. In particular, Saigon's street children are the flotsam of development, drawn by the magnet of the city, whose bright lights promise better money than they can earn in the countryside. Most of them work to support their parents (usually a single mother) and siblings who sleep on the sidewalks or in packing crates or under bridges. Others sleep at home but, finding the family or school situation intolerable, slip out to join friends in foraging for money or having fun. Some are teenage boys who do not know their names or origins and have been on the streets since they were toddlers. Others have found themselves at odds with structured society and prefer the streets to the confinement of home and the strictures of school. These last are the true street urchins and the ones most likely to get into trouble.

The city districts shape the ways they earn their livings. I saw them at the Ben Thanh Market, scavenging among the discarded vegetables and fruits, picking up anything edible or salable. At the Western Bus Station, many have steady jobs cleaning buses, earning a pittance but being allowed to sleep on them as guards. At the Railway Station, they wait by the tracks and jump on incoming trains, scurrying through them to find whatever lost items or discards they can before the train reaches the platform. Among them are some who cannot resist the urge to create "lost" items; I saw one boy who seemed to specialize in stealing the rubber sandals most newly arrived Vietnamese wear.

Those in other districts tend to stray ever further over the line and risk arrest. At the Ben Thanh Market, gangs of young pickpockets and shoplifters cruise through the crowds, lifting whatever they fancy. They give them to a Fagin who fences them and provides protection from the authorities.

Across the five-street intersection from the market operates a gang of young motorcycle accessories thieves. Leave a motorcycle untended for a moment and they will strip it of its mirrors, battery covers, lights. They are aided by a gray market of dealers who pay for their booty. Those at the port pilfer from cargoes or cooperate with organized criminals engaged in smuggling goods.

It is those in District 1, the downtown tourist area, that the visitor is most likely to meet. They sell gum and cigarettes, they beg and they are cute and innocuous. They are the façade behind which the pickpockets and the snatch thieves operate. For the visitor, it is impossible visually to separate the good ones from the bad. Are the children hanging around the foreigners drinking at tables outside the Q Bar just curious, or are they waiting until a tipsy traveler tries to wend his way homeward before removing the contents from his pockets?

The even darker side to this are those children some foreigners coerce into sex. Few boys or girls actively pursue the foreigner because it is still a new game. Even after being introduced to the practice, they are more likely to wait to be approached rather than make the overtures themselves. Fortunately, AIDS has yet to make a major impact in Vietnam -- but such practices pave the way for a potential epidemic.

Through the Terre des hommes study, the amorphous mass of children became individuals, not anonymous petty thieves. It would be facetious to suggest that my involuntary contributions to their upkeep became more bearable, but I became aware that they were struggling to survive and I just happened to be the means to their making it for another day.

On my last afternoon, as I emerged from a bookstore on Ho Huan Nghiep Street (near the renamed infamous Tu Do Street of whores), a young man backed into me. He was wearing a denim baseball cap that he seemed to be putting on with an elaborate movement, sweeping it up his back to reach his head. In the process, he nearly clipped my nose. I was startled, but as the sidewalk was crowded, paid no attention to it. A few moments later, I reached into my shirt pocket for my pen and came up empty. New generations, old skills: Vietnam is living by its wits -- and the visitor's momentary lack of vigilance.

Karl Vetas

Karl Vetas writes about Asia for a variety of publications.

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