iPad robbery from Spanish tourists receives attention from high levels of Vietnamese government

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David and Marta and their children on holiday in Vietnam

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One thing that constantly fascinates me about Vietnam, but one which also makes me facepalm and shake my head is local people’s shortsighted and insular view of how the rest of the world perceives their country and the issues within it. I constantly hear people saying things about how terrible the violence and crime is and I think “How can you not realise that crime in Vietnam is actually very mild compared to most countries which are facing daily murders, violent rapes, kidnappings and gang crime ? Vietnam is like a friendly kindergarten compared to the violent crime-ridden streets of most countries but the citizens here simply don’t realise it”.

But with this naivety comes a great deal of idealism that even low level robbery is unacceptable and that if exposed, “Something Will Be Done!” which frankly just makes me shake my head more and think “Oh Vietnam you are just like a silly child”. But sometimes they’re right. Sometimes it’s exactly this sort of blind optimism that does get things done. And sometimes when that happens I’m the one blinking my eyes in surprise and thinking “Did that really just happen ? Did you just change the world a tiny little bit by not accepting that something is normal ?”

You see, we all know that opportunistic crime is a huge problem in Vietnam. Bag snatching and iPhone theft are a daily occurrence. But whenever my girlfriend talks about it like it’s a big problem I just look at her with a bemused smile and say “You should be grateful that you don’t live in a country where people will stick a knife in your guts or a gun in your face to take your wallet, because that’s how it works in most western countries”.

This week, a story surfaced on Facebook about a Spanish couple, Marta Vizcaino and David Alvares who were robbed on a Nam Phuong Travel bus from Nha Trang to Saigon. While they were sleeping, someone carefully reached across their sleeping children to steal their iPad and iPhone out of David’s hands. Upon waking up and realising, the couple insisted that the bus driver search the bus, which he did, but found nothing. But later after leaving, they used the “Find my Phone” feature to track the phone, and found that it was still on the bus. They rushed to reach the bus, on which the only person was the driver, but as soon as they got there, the devices were turned off and disappeared from the tracker.

David and Marta approached the travel company, but they did nothing about it and refused to show a concern over any negative comments that might be left on their Facebook page. Like most foreigners, David and Marta might have had a lot of trouble getting the police’s attention on this matter if it was not for a Vietnamese passenger, Tran Thi Ly Na who went to extraordinary lengths to assist them in reporting it to police.

David and Marta and their children on holiday in Vietnam
David and Marta and their children on holiday in Vietnam

I spoke to Marta and Ly Na to offer my assistance as a journalist in covering the issue, but Ly Na had already been very busy contacting journalists and spreading the story over Facebook so I was a bit late to get involved. When I realised that the story had already been covered by Tuoi Tre I said that this was likely as far as it would go but that I could write an English article for my publication. Ly Na expressed concern about it appearing in English newspapers because it would “destroy the country’s image”. I must admit that I found this idea more than a little naive considering the attention around the world that Cecil the lion was getting while other issues of murder and kidnapping were barely rating a mention in local newspapers. I sighed and thought that it was another case of absurd Vietnamese blindness to the magnitude of the case and how much anyone was likely to care. It was just a couple of Apple devices. No one had died.

But the problem wasn’t just the theft. The problem was the company, Nam Phuong Travel displaying a flagrant disregard for the seriousness of what appeared to be a theft by the driver of one of their buses, and a willingness to brush it under the carpet to save face and hope that these pesky tourists would just go away, and the police displayed an appalling lack of interest in even giving the couple a police report, and indeed this would have never happened without the assistance of Ly Na.

But as the story began to break in all the newspapers around the country, and the National Traffic Safety Committee called for an investigation, and I saw the official letter from the government ordering police to re-open the investigation I realised that through this young girl’s determination and blind optimism in the face of an unconcerned company and police department, she had managed to get attention to this issue from the highest levels of government. The case was reopened. Nam Phuong Travel openly admitted that they had suspended the driver in question and that he would be fired if he was found guilty. An investigation is underway into two drivers and Nam Phuong Travel’s deputy chairman has been required to issue a public statement.

When I see the regular flow of expats complaining about thefts on Facebook groups and failing to follow the issue through to its conclusion when they are faced with a lack of interest by the police I always pressure them to take the matter to their embassy and also to contact the central police bureau who in my experience (and the advice of my embassy), are far more likely to take matters relating to foreigners with the gravity they deserve, and I can’t help but think that these foreigners are doing themselves and their fellow expats and tourists a disservice by not taking things seriously enough. They just give up at the first hurdle and say that it’s impossible to achieve anything here.

But it is. It’s very possible. You just need to be determined and not give up at the first obstacle. You need to be like Marta and Ly Na and keep pushing. I sometimes joke by likening the Vietnamese government to the sleeping dragon Smaug, who is difficult to awaken unless he smells gold. But the analogy is apt in other ways. Yes, this dragon can be very sleepy and hard to awaken. But he also breathes fire when he catches you trying to tamper with his scaly armour. And just like a dragon awoken from its slumber, the Vietnamese government cares about their image and they will breathe firey wrath down on those who seek to bring it into disrepute.

Sometimes all it takes is a determined foreigner and an even more determined local bank employee who clearly missed her calling as a lawyer.

Thanh Nien News’ coverage of the story is available here.

One of Nam Phuong Travel's busses.
One of Nam Phuong Travel’s busses.