Police examine the site where two Saigon street knights were fatally stabbed when trying to stop a group of motorbike robbers on the night of May 13, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Son Hoa
“I could just lie there and close my eyes,” Nguyen Tang Tien said about the time he had a near death experience.
The bakery owner was lying in his own blood, surrounded by darkness as dawn was yet to break. He was delivering bread when four people on motorbikes approached him and slashed him relentlessly. Tien could only cover his head in defense.
He was saved when a passerby found him and took him to hospital.
Tien is a baker. But he is no ordinary baker. He is also a “street knight,” a citizen-turned-vigilante who roams the streets in search of criminals to apprehend them. The machete attack was just one of those stories about the criminals coming back to take revenge on him.
Packing his bags and leaving behind his hometown in Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam, Tien traveled more than 700 kilometers (450 miles) to the south and opened a bakery in Di An, Binh Duong Province, which neighbors Saigon.
We had a long talk about how he became a knight, shuffling between delivering breads and catching criminals in town. He keeps a long fighting record with numerous scars stringing across his arms and thighs, which he earned from criminals’ revenge attempts.
But he said he is just a member of a street knight force.
The path to street knighthood has been embraced in Saigon for the last few decades. The title was given to many motorbike taxis or anyone who stood up against criminals and decided to take up the task as their daily job. Their names traveled far and wide. But not all of them possess enough skill or experience to dodge the wicked blades of criminals. Many had their lives turned upside-down for heroic acts.
The safety of Vietnamese street knights has become a hot debate after a group of motorbike robbers made national headlines this week for stabbing two knights to death. It was a hefty sacrifice and a great tragedy, for all of us with valiant hearts.
Many Saigonese were, unwittingly, encouraged into adopting a dangerous activity: catching criminals. With only good intentions in their hearts, these knight-citizens have formed teams to pursue criminals, without any legal framework to back them up. Saigon people think of them as a fearless and unruly army who upholds justice and protects the people. But ironically, this army is unarmed; they aren’t allowed weapons, unlike the police. These knights are neither protected by law nor paid for what they do. Their chivalrous will is instead their guns and swords in the battle against the fouled and corrupted.
Would their presence reduce the city’s crime rate? No one knows for sure. But the tragedies that befell upon these people and their families are already happening. Behind all those praises and applauses and standing ovations, what is left for these knights? Widows. Orphans. Parents who lost their children. And these knights and their families would always have to live in fear of the criminals’ revenge enacted upon them.
The average citizen may willingly sacrifice their personal rights, and in some cases, their own lives for the greater good. But that doesn’t mean they are a replacement for what the government should do: protecting its people. Vietnamese authorities have long touted the message of “everyone against the criminals,” meaning each citizen should join the government's mission in fighting crimes. The same goes for the fight against corruption. The notion that an average citizen could stand up against society’s injustice has been encouraged by the same authorities who were supposed to do their job. The authorities think something like that is only natural.
In some ways, part of the government’s responsibility to preserve order and justice has been shifted over to the people. It's time we took a close, hard look at this trend, to decide for ourselves whether the average citizen should merely take precautions to prevent crimes from happening in the first place, or should they put their lives on the line to fight against criminals.
Social management is a fundamental aspect of any government. They do so through the deployment of police forces. In Vietnam, police are paid using the citizens’ tax money; they are properly trained and equipped with weapons and vehicles. What we should do is not applaud the presence of street knights, but question the absence of the official forces when evils roam the streets.
Enlisting the average citizen into building and protecting social order, when done correctly, is something necessary and effective. What is happening right now in Saigon is not how things should have been done. Under no circumstances should authorities continue to encourage people to plunge themselves into danger, to take the short end of the stick in place of authorized entities who were responsible for protecting our citizens. We can think of these nameless “knights” as people willing to contribute a part into preserving society’s order and to respond during emergency situations. But they are far from a daily occurrence, and they should neither be something that we take for granted nor something that is always available at our beck and call.
Saigon’s “knights” should not be the cascadeurs for a force who is supposed to do their job.