As soon as I moved to Vietnam, I was warned to be careful of bag snatchers and robberies. Almost everyone I knew had a story about being robbed at some point during their stay in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). The stories ranged from random bag snatchings to break and enters to drive-by thieves snatching mobile phones out of the hands of people simply walking down the road.
One of my Vietnamese friends had her necklace ripped off her neck as she was waiting for a bus on the side of the road. Another expat I know was standing with a large group of friends outside a restaurant, when a man snuck up behind her, ripped her bag off her shoulder and ran off like a shot—all in front of 10-15 different people who could do nothing but stand there stunned and watched him run away.
Of course I took these stories seriously, and made efforts not to flaunt anything valuable or have bags hanging off me. I locked all my doors at night and whenever I left my apartment, and tried to carry as little as possible when I went out. But I guess you can never be truly prepared for when it happens to you.
Late one evening, my boyfriend D and I were driving our motorbike home from District 1 after an evening of drinks and dancing with friends. When we hit District 4 it started to rain, so we stopped the bike on the side of the road to put on a rain poncho. I was wearing a dress, so I got back on the bike sitting sideways and draped the rain poncho over my shoulder. My handbag was tucked under my arm, which also went under the rain poncho. A few minutes after we started driving again, I felt a tug on my bag and in seconds the bag was ripped off my shoulder and the thief was speeding away on his motorbike. I figure the guy had seen us stop and noted the fact that I had a bag under the poncho.
I could have watched the guy speed off and counted my blessings that he didn’t pull me off the bike too, but I couldn’t. My years living in Cambodia taught me to scream bloody murder if you catch a thief in the act, so that’s what I did. As soon as my boyfriend realized what happened, he sped up towards the thief. We eventually caught up with him, and D rammed our bike into the thief’s bike. As he did, I jumped off the bike and D and the thief crashed to the ground together. My bag flew out of the thief’s hand and I grabbed it just as D started hitting the guy in the face. Not a finer moment in his life, but hey—the adrenaline was at an all-time high. After a few good punches to the head, the thief got up, got on his bike and drove off, but not before D got in a few more shots to his back and shoulders.
The worst part of the whole thing was that as D was hitting the guy and I was screaming “THIEF” at the top of my lungs, a crowd of Vietnamese people gathered and just stood around and watched. Not a single person offered to help or made any motion to stop the thief. This completely boggled my mind. In Cambodia and Indonesia, a suspected thief will be chased down and beaten to within inches of his life. In Vietnam, it seemed like nobody cared. In fact, it was like it was nothing more than mere entertainment for them.
After the thief drove off, one woman came forward and asked us where we were going. When we told her District 7, she offered to drive with us because she said that she was going in that direction as well. I thought it was a really nice gesture. That is, until she started aggressively soliciting us to go look at an apartment she had for rent in the area. Nice.
When people ask me now “Is Ho Chi Minh City safe?”, I have to say yes and no. The reality is that Ho Chi Minh City is not necessarily a dangerous crime-ridden cesspool where you have to fear for your life. In fact, it can be a fantastically interesting, vibrant and dynamic city. However, robberies do happen and they happen quite frequently. As I mentioned before, almost every single person I knew or worked with had been robbed in the city at some point. Getting robbed in Saigon is almost an inevitable consequence of living there. And in my opinion, the indifference of the people around when it happens just adds insult to the injury. That being said, there are some ways you can protect yourself and your things.
Tips on Staying Safe and Avoiding Robbery in Ho Chi Minh City
• Don’t flaunt your valuables. This may be a given, but you’d be surprised by how many people flash their goods while out and about. Try not to whip out cameras, cellphones or wads of cash in crowded public places, don’t wear your expensive jewelry out on a shopping trip, and leave the Gucci bag at home (unless it’s a knock-off).
• Be aware of your surroundings. If you notice someone on a bike following you, take note and try to lose them. Watch your pockets and bags in crowded places and try to avoid packed nightclubs, markets or public areas. It also pays to be wary of people on the street who seem to be milling about without a clear purpose, as thieves have been known to case out their victims while pretending to be reading newspapers or eating food at food stalls.
• If you’re wearing a shoulder bag, cross it over your chest so it is difficult for someone to pull off. If driving on a motorbike, put the bag in your seat or in front of you where it is not so visible.
• Don’t ever, ever, ever leave a bag unattended, as you can guarantee it will be gone when you come back. Even while sitting at a restaurant or bar, be sure your bag is always in sight.
•Try to walk on the side of the footpath or sidewalk that is farthest from the road. Many thieves perform snatch and grabs on pedestrians from motorbikes, and they will be off with your necklace or bag before you even know what happened.
• Be wary of people who offer you drinks or food, and never leave a drink unattended at a bar. Food and drink lacing is not that common in Saigon, but it does happen occasionally.
On a final note, I do want to stress that you don’t have to be paranoid or fearful every time you step outside in Saigon. As long as you take some basic precautions and are aware of what’s going on around you, you will be much less likely to become a victim of robbery in Ho Chi Minh City.
Do you have a personal story about getting robbed in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)? If so, feel free to share in the comment box below.