Ho Chi Minh City Stories and Tips

A Passport Theft Odyssey

Communist Flag Photo, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

More than any other country in South East Asia, Vietnam keeps security threats for the traveler. Few visitors have neither witnessed violence directly nor know a victim of violence; being aware of the dangers can ensure a pleasant and safe visit.

The main, incessant, shock awaiting the traveler in Vietnam are the touts. They are much more violent than elsewhere in the region and they do not give up. Beyond legal commercial activities, many of them cater for the local crime scene and their approaching travelers may lead to an entrapment event. In Saigon, drugs loaded syringes are sold at the tourist concentrations; despite the fact that tourists are not approached the scene is dangerous. A traveler may fall prey to an extortion attempt where local policeman cooperate with the crook. The street crowds ease their work, and provide protection to the real danger: motorbike thieves.

I visited Vietnam for the first time with a Canadian companion. While walking Pham Ngu Lao Street – Saigon’s main travelers’ quarters - two men riding one of those ubiquitous motorbikes in Vietnam, approached her from behind and snatched her daypack. Chasing them was not possible.

Out of despair, she denounced the event at the nearest police station – not that she expected to see her things again, but because her passport was robbed. A long sheet of paper written entirely in unintelligible Vietnamese was issued, but not other warnings of the theft consequences were offered. Following that, a quick internet search showed that the nearest Canadian consulate was in Hanoi, all the way across this spaghetti shaped country.

The troubles began once out of Saigon. Simply, guesthouses and hotels did not allow her to check in without a passport. The same ritual was repeated everywhere: the police report of the theft would be shown to the receptionist; the last would call the local police station in order to get their approval. The local police station would call the issuing station in Saigon in an attempt to confirm the Vietnamese-illiterate tourist didn’t fake the official paper. Only after that she would be allowed to check in; sometimes the process took more than two hours.

Later, at the consulate, she was told another young woman was robbed the same week. She didn’t let go of her backpack and was dragged by the motorbike for half a block. Finally the thieves cut the straps and took the backpack, but her shoulder was already broken. Never fight thieves.

Violating Basic Freedoms and Legal Principles

Experiencing this odyssey, the ongoing rumor was confirmed. Vietnamese hotels and guesthouses keep the visitors passports for the first evening, so that the documents can be presented (and photocopied?) at the local police station. It must be emphasized this is not done for the travelers security, if it was so, providing non-intrusive, impersonal, peripheral security to the establishments would be enough. Moreover, this is a blunt violation to the privacy right ensured by article twelve of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Basically, it means that travelers are considered guilty (and thus the surveillance) and in need to prove their innocence in contradiction to all legal principles.

Sadly, most countries requesting identification while checking into such establishments behave in a similar way, even if usually in a more subtle way. Thailand authorities trust the receptionists list, and thus the privacy violation is easily circumvented there using simple methods. Laotian establishments are careless, but any registration problems would be investigated by the immigrations officers at the country exits, as I described in another article.

However, with no doubt, the prize in the category of institutional paranoia goes to Bolivia. In a hangover from their last military dictatorship, strict identity control on the people entering and leaving Bolivian cities is imposed by the police. A network of street-informants runs the local streets - I have Bolivian newspaper clippings confirming that. Ten-thousand policemen patrol a city of less than a million people and telephoto cameras located on the Andean High Plateau rim watch the city from high-above. And yet, they pick up travelers documents at the hotels reception desks; the fact that every year travelers disappear leaving no trace – though their bodies usually appear at some later stage – reinforces my point that this privacy violation has nothing to do with the travelers security. On the contrary, it facilitates the job of those attempting to classify easy and valuable crime targets.

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