Reports of sexual violence shake expat community in Hanoi
Elizabeth Lockard spent five peaceful years in China as a language consultant, before moving to Hanoi.
Two years ago, she took a job at an international school in Hanoi and settled in West Lake District, an ideal area for expats. “I felt safe for a while; didn’t think anyone would dare to touch me," she said. "Back in China, I always walked alone at night and people only stopped to offer help.”
Everything changed in April when two men chased Lockard in broad daylight. Her pursuers pulled up in traffic and groped Lockhard, causing her to lose control of her bike and tumble into the road. Scratched and bruised, she drove to her boyfriend's house in tears.
Lockard's story is one of 18 accounts of sexual assault or harassment posted on Hanoi Massive -- an online expat forum -- in the last two months. In subsequent interviews, two of the posters told VnExpress International they had been groped by taxi and xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers; seven others recalled being chased and violently grabbed by men on motorbikes.
Vietnam recognized sexual harassment as a violation of public order in 2007 when a government decree announced that "gestures, rude words, provocative, teasing and insulting the honor and dignity of others" carried a maximum fine of about $15.
According to the police, harassment cases can now carry a fine of up to $75, while sexual assaults get prosecuted when they result in injuries to 11 percent of the victim's body -- or more. Such determinations are made by medical professionals.
Attention generated by the reported assaults on foreign women has inspired officials at the district level to step up patrols.
A local police official in Yen Phu Ward, Tay Ho District told VnExpress that his team has received only one sexual harassment complaint from three foreign victims and investigation is ongoing.
Lockard neither went to the police in April nor called them on October 10 when a middle-aged man grabbed her wrist and yanked her onto the back of his motorbike and demanded sex. Despite two years of kickboxing lessons, Lockard found it impossible to wrest herself out of his grip.
A good Samaritan walking down Tu Hoa Street saw her struggling and helped her escape.
In another case, in the early hours of October 1, a French woman who asked to be identified only as Aurelie drove to the Bird Cage bar on Au Co street, accompanied by two female friends on another motorbike.
When they entered alley 264, a lone man with burn scars on half of his face pulled up on a motorbike and began grabbing at their skirts and tops.
They honked and swung their heels at him, but the man was not deterred. At one point, he blocked off the alley and rushed the women at full speed. “I even thought for a second that he was trying to kill us,” Aurelie’s friend told VnExpress International.
The women rushed up the alley with their assailant in pursuit. Terrified by the incident, the three insisted on remaining anonymous.
Ten days later, they took the matter to the district police.
“Considering the lack of [laws] concerning sexual harassment here and without enough complaints the police can't really do anything about it,” one of the victims said.
So the trio decided to petition the French Embassy, which declined to comment. However, 39 days after the assault, the three women received an urgent invitation from officers in West Lake’s Yen Phu Ward to fill out an official incident report.
The recent spate of online complaints begs context that's hard to provide.
A dozen foreign embassies failed to respond to a query about the number of recent sexual harassment and assault reports filed by citizens in Hanoi.
Officials at the Canadian and Russian embassies said they hadn’t handled such cases, but an Australian Embassy spokesperson said they've dealt with five sexual assaults in the past three years.
The U.K. Embassy's security warning for travelers to Hanoi describes sexual assault as “rare”.
But Gemma Gale, a 28-year old British expat, disagreed.
“At this point, I just consider it normal,” she said. “I have been propositioned for sex in exchange for payment by three taxi drivers. I get verbal harassment on a daily basis, such as men sitting down with me at restaurants and not leaving, or asking for kisses [...] I can't report them all.”
In 2014, Action Aid released a survey that found that out of 2046 respondents, 87 percent in Vietnam's two biggest cities had suffered or witnessed sexual harassment and assault.
The survey also found that almost no one expects the authority to respond.
“Only 1.9 percent of female respondents said they would go to the police for help, while the rest said it was not worth reporting incidents of harassment to the police,” Action Aid said. “A mere 0.8 percent of men and bystanders reported calling government hotlines.”
The report listed Au Co, Lac Long Quan and Nghi Tam streets in the West Lake area as “unsafe”.
“The current Penal Code does not recognize serious sexual harassment as a crime,” Dr. Thu Dao from the Hanoi Law University told Dan Tri newspaper on the sidelines of a conference on gender bias last year.
Sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls is widely condemned in Vietnam, but generally this is often treated as a moral issue rather than a legal one, failing to give victims of abuse the support they need.
Only 'serious crimes'
In summer last year, Vietnamese women circulated reports on social media accounts of a chilling mass assault at the Tay Ho (West Lake) water park.
The park's owner denied it ever happened, despite video evidence to the contrary. When presented with images of young women skulking away from crowds of young boys, clutching torn bikini tops, she blamed the problem on cheap swimwear.
Local newspapers culled alleged victim accounts from Facebook that described groups of 20 or more young men groping, digitally penetrating and half-drowning terrified young women.
The stories inspired an online petition that called on the government to make a statement about the incident and mete out harsh punishments to the men involved. The petition fell just short of 7,500 signatures out of a targeted 8,000 and, apparently, never accomplished either goal.
Shortly after the assaults, Dan Tri newspaper quoted an expert from the Department of Criminal Justice as saying “each year there are about 400 rapes and 900 cases of child sexual abuse, but the agency almost always only prosecutes serious crimes like rape.”
A call to action
By the end of the month, Action Aid will release a follow-up survey as part of an international campaign entitled Safe Cities for Women and Girls.
Researchers from the group noted that officials in Ho Chi Minh City had responded to their initial findings by equipping a number of buses with cameras.
Ever since her second assault, Elizabeth Lockard has asked her boyfriend to accompany her after dark. During several extended interviews, she spoke hopefully about a brash group of feminists who began confronting catcalls and casual harassment in Mexico City with blasts of confetti and impromptu punk rock sessions.
Ngoc Ha, a 29-year old freelancer who grew up in Hanoi has a more practical approach. A native of the capital, Ha claims four different men tried to sexually harass her during her teens.
“At 15 I was groped on my bike by a man driving in the opposite direction,” Ha said. She decided not to tell anyone back then, but took a karate class and earned herself a green belt.
“After the class, I was able to punch a guy who tried to corner me in a swimming pool. Then two different guys tried to show me their assets right in my own neighborhood. I was instantly on my guard, but fierce words were enough to drive them away.”
When Ha began reading the recent accounts of harassment and assault posted by foreign women in the capital, she organized a special workshop on Krav Maga -- a martial art developed by the Israeli Defense Force that makes casual use of eye-gouging and hair-pulling. She spent weeks negotiating a reasonable fee at a gym that sits directly on the edge of West Lake.
While the workshop drew lots of positive responses on social media, no one showed up to take it last Saturday.
Ha shook her head, puzzled. “We need to act for our own safety. I don’t think online complaints will solve anything."
“For now, studying self-defense is the least a woman can do to protect herself,” she added.