Members of a neighborhood watch group in Ho Chi Minh City have been forcing local merchants to pay regular ‘coffee money’ bribes in exchange for being allowed to run their business.
Sellers at a makeshift market on Pham Dang Giang Street in Binh Hung Hoa Ward, Binh Tan District pay a daily fee to these ‘guards’, whose job, rather than extort merchants, is to maintain social order and keep local merchants from occupying sidewalks and roadways.
At around 7:00 am on July 11, a team of five uniformed men carrying batons was patrolling the market when they decided to stop for drinks at a nearby shop.
As the group headed toward the drink shop, a member of the guard team began stopping at each stall to collect VND5,000 (US$0.22). He failed to issue receipts.
As per protocol, any financial penalty must be accompanied by a receipt.
“What is this money for?” a shopkeeper asked, seemingly annoyed at the situation.
“This daily fee is considered as support for the neighborhood watch so that we can continue to keep order in the neighborhood,” the guard responded.
At a nearby fruit stall, another seller complained about the fee and asked what would happen if she refused to comply.
“It depends,” the man told to the merchant.
Luu collects money from a merchant at the makeshift market on July 11, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The next morning, the same guard continued his rounds, collecting payments from each stall.
A probe by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper revealed the man’s name as Luu.
According to local merchants, about 100 stalls have been established at the makeshift market, and each vendor is expected to pay VND5,000 in exchange for being allowed to operate.
One seller shared that a similar situation occurred in the past but authorities stepped in to prohibit the extortion.
Afterwards, the guards became extra strict while patrolling the sidewalks and roadways.
Several merchants only want stable operations at the market, thus were willing to pay the ‘fee’ when the guards started collecting again.
“We pay because we don’t want to be kicked out of the marketplace. We don’t know what the money is actually for,” a meat seller stated.
The Tuoi Tre probe showed that the group is led by Dang Viet Bac with a mission of supposedly ensuring traffic safety and social order at the market.
In October 2016, officers of the urban management unit under the People’s Committee in Binh Hung Hoa A Ward were caught collecting illegitimate fines from merchants at another makeshift market on Go Xoai Street.
Three members of the unit were suspended.