23. Mugged

Getting mugged in any city is no laughing matter. It may only be about money, but after it happens, will you ever feel safe again?

These are valuables that no traveler ever wants to lose. (JGA photo)

No matter where in the world you might go, crime is real.

I’ve been fortunate. Except for bullying as a nerdish youth, a couple of minor cases of home burglary, and occasional petty theft like pickpocketing, I have never really been a victim.

Now I have been.

It only happened once, about six months ago. But it served as a reminder that — mentally strong though I believe myself to be — we all have a place of vulnerability, an Achilles heel. Mine, it can be reasonably argued, is the simple awareness of how easily my trust and innocence can be shattered.

Phan Van Han, a narrow market street, was the location of the crime. (JGA photo)

Broad daylight

I was mugged in broad daylight on a Friday afternoon, as I walked a kilometer home from the Naman import grocery store in Da Kao. With my day pack full of Australian beef and Swiss muesli, French cheese and Chilean wine, I navigated the construction sites along Nguyen Thi Minh Kai street and crossed the bridge over the Thi Nghé Channel. From here, I looked down at bamboo-roofed sampans floating past neglected double-deck tour boats, moored beside a riverside café as they have been since the COVID epidemic was spawned a year ago.

The footpath came to an end at a steep curb, where motorbikes merged perilously into bridge traffic. Here I turned sharply left onto Phan Van Han street. This narrow market lane is shared by motorcycles and a rare truck or automobile, is a single one of which is a severe impediment.

The “street” is lined with shops of all kinds. There are women’s boutiques, jewelers, children’s stores, toy shops, men’s tailors, barbers, salons, home appliance stores. There are butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, flower shops, coffee shops, a couple of mid-sized supermarkets and one popular báhn mì vendor. All this is in the span of one long block, barely 150 meters (about 500 feet) long.

At 3 in the afternoon on a sunny day, it is a thriving marketplace.

Phan Van Han on a typical afternoon. (JGA photo)

No warning

The attack came suddenly, without warning.

As I passed a private convenience store, my steps were interrupted by a motorbike that swerved toward the store and stopped directly in front of me. My first reaction was frustration with a driver who had ignored my presence. But the young man looked at me and told me sharply in English to “Stay there!”

My reaction was to keep moving. I walked around the bike and its female passenger and tried to continue. But not 15 seconds later, a second bike blocked my way.

It was a bigger bike. The driver was a bigger guy, older and tougher and angrier than the first. He leapt from his cycle and threatened me with a black police baton, waving it in my face as he demanded to see my cell phone.

“Open your phone!” he shouted.

Confused, I was a little slow to produce the mobile appliance. He jammed my left upper arm with the baton. It didn’t feel good.

“Your phone!” he screamed, in perfectly good English. “Show me your ‘Line’ app!”

Line is one of a half-dozen social media apps popular as chat sites in Vietnam. It’s not one that I often use. (I prefer Zalo or What’sApp.) But my assailant knew exactly what he was looking for, as he scrolled through my very limited inventory of Line phone contacts.

As he did so, the first guy — at least, I think it was the first guy — reached into the front pockets of my pants and pulled out anything else he could find. He didn’t want the keys to my house/apartment. He didn’t want the groceries on my back. My wallet, on the other hand, was of interest. He slid it into his own pocket and vanished.

A banh mi vendor on Phan Van Han caters to motorbike riders. (JGA photo)

A naked feeling

I stood naked in the street, fully clothed but utterly dumfounded and disoriented. I remember glancing at a merchant who looked as flustered as I felt. I wanted to ask, “What is happening here?” but no words were escaping my mouth.

Then my phone was being returned to me. The assailant thrust it into my hands. “Sorry,” was all he said, shaking his head. I could only think I was glad he didn’t find his wife’s or girlfriend’s name in the contacts. What else could he possibly have been searching for?

He disappeared.

There was still the matter of my stolen wallet. It not only contained money — about 1.7 million Viet Nam Dong, as I near as I could remember, or about US$80 — but also my Temporary Resident Card (TRC), certifying me to remain in this country. I could do without the cash, but to lose the TRC would be a major headache.

My bewilderment lasted another minute or two, until my pilfered billfold magically landed at my feet, as if dropped by a passing pigeon. Then I heard the vroom of a motorbike passing in the opposite direction and another shout: “Sorry!”

The money was gone, but the TRC was intact.

Phan Van Dan supermarket workers rarely worry about holdups. (JGA photo)

Still nervous

The entire episode was over and done with in no more than five minutes. But six months later, I am still nervous about walking down Pham Van Han.

In the big picture, this was not a major event. It was not a rape or a beating. Although violence was threatened, I suffered no physical injury, save a minor bruise.

Nevertheless, I felt fearful, violated, defiled. Post-traumatic stress, I suppose, on a very elemental level. I trembled for days after. Thankfully, it was only days. I can barely imagine how real victims must cope.

Ironically, my close friend Adam Angst, an Australian resident of Ho Chi Minh city, was mugged at almost the same time as I, on the same date, in another part of the city. And another friend and longtime resident, American David, had perceptively warned me never to carry a wallet in the city. “That would be stupid!” he exclaimed, which subsequently gave him the right to say: “I told you so!”

As in any big city in the world, there are horror stories, some of them undoubtedly urban legends, some perhaps not.

In reflection, I’m not sure I could have avoided this attack. I was walking mid-afternoon in an open, brightly lit area with a lot of people. I wasn’t openly flaunting my valuables. It seems I was the guiltless suspect in a jealous boyfriend’s rage.

But my Spidey-sense is now on the alert, lending me at least a hint of misgiving whenever I traipse through an unfamiliar corner of the city.

A fishmonger scales and cleans her merchandise on Phan Dan Han. (JGA photo)


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

2 thoughts on “23. Mugged

  1. Wow John, as traumatic as it was, it is far more civil than a typical mugging here in the states! Never heard of a mugger returning the wallet AND the phone!
    You were quite lucky, despite being traumatized. I’m glad it is leaving your system.
    Can you get pepper spray or mace or anything there??
    Find an internal place for that wallet my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

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