Saigon park returns to dark, drug den days for heroin users

By Tuyet Nguyen   September 15, 2017 | 04:00 am PT
Saigon park returns to dark, drug den days for heroin users
A man gives himself a shot of heroin inside the September 23rd Park in Saigon's District 1. Photo by VnExpress/Tuyet Nguyen
Dirty needles lay scattered across the park and pose a threat to the people who use it every day.

The park outside Ben Thanh Market in Saigon was pretty empty one afternoon in mid-September, but that was irrelevant for one skinny man.

“It’s time. I couldn't resist the craving,” he said, after shooting up heroin mixed with water.

“I work as a guard for a nearby company. I get paid VND6 million ($264) a month and this costs VND100,000 ($4.4) a day,” he said.

About half an hour later, another man squeezes himself into a corner, checking around before injecting into his leg.

He was infected with HIV more than 10 years ago and is in the final stages of AIDS, according to a trash collector in the park.

The worker and his colleagues are collecting more and more blood-stained needles these days that lay strewn across the park.

“We are scared but we have to deal with them because it’s our job,” he said.

At least five other people arrived in September 23rd Park that morning looking for a place to get a quiet fix, including a couple with a toddler.

The park in the heart of Saigon is considered a golden location.

At least it is by drug users.

After the park became overrun by addicts several years ago, authorities took action and claimed they had managed to reduce the number of users there by more than 90 percent.

Local people who live nearby said their reappearance in recent weeks is unusual.

“There are so many of them now, and some come to use drugs several times a day,” said a woman who goes to the park to exercise every morning.

She said many of them are properly dressed and trawl bus stations asking for money, telling people they have been robbed and need tickets to travel back to their hometowns.

The drug users run when they see the police or security guards, but they return in their droves.

Nguyen Van Phuoc, chief of police in Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1, said his unit has arrested 92 drug users in the park this year and is preparing to place them in compulsory rehabilitation centers.

Phuoc described the job as “very dangerous” as many of the users are infected with HIV and “they fight back fiercely.”

Figures from Vietnam’s social affairs ministry show that Saigon has nearly 22,000 registered addicts, the highest number in the country and nearly 10 percent of the country's total.

Vietnam developed its approach to drug addiction based on the presumption that it represents a “social evil” that can be cured with abstinence and re-education.

Following international criticism, the government established a timeframe in 2013 to gradually replace compulsory detention centers with community-based, voluntary treatment regimens.

The transition, however, has proven tricky given inconsistencies in the legal system, the widely-held belief that drug addiction stems from moral failure and the lack of competent doctors, therapists and equipment.

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