Vagaries of an American vagrant’s life in Vietnam

By Nguyen Quy, Hari ChathrattilNovember 9, 2018 | 03:22 am PT
Vagaries of an American vagrant’s life in Vietnam
Screenshots from a Facebook video show Chris Kucharski on a street in HCMC and his Vietnamese sign that says
He has studied in Vietnam, taught tennis and fathered a beautiful boy. Now, he’s a ‘professional beggar’ on Saigon’s streets.

Originally from Tampa, Florida, Chris Kucharski "studied numbers and stuff at the Duy Tan University."

He is the father of a beautiful little boy and a guy who enjoys life in the central city of Da Nang. He also likes customized motorbikes.

This apparently, was the status-quo until almost three years ago, going by Kucharski’s Facebook page. In a conversation with a friend, he also mentioned having a lot of stress and not knowing when he would return to Da Nang.

Today, Kucharski has no name, no passport, no money and begs on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Several of his acquaintances said he needs money for drug use.

A friend that VnExpress International spoke to was distressed that all the attention he was garnering was not going to help at a time that his families were trying to help him.

She said Kucharski is "super smart, very polite and an amazing tennis player. ... He has a son that will be old enough that he would understand if people saw the story and point his father to him. As a mother that is very upsetting to know."

Expat outrage

A VnExpress International article recently speculated that a white man found begging on the streets of Saigon was Tim Stile from New York.

But an alert reader wanting to remain anonymous informed us that the man in question was most likely Kucharski.

VnExpress International spoke to Kucharski at the intersection of Dien Bien Phu and Pasteur Street in District 3, HCMC.

He said he was from the U.S. but didn’t reveal his name at first. He repeated the story he’s been telling everyone, that he’s lost passport and wallet, and needed a little money to cover his daily expenses.

He stands at the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Pasteur Street in District 3 to beg for money. Photo by VnExpress/Quy Nguyen

He stands at the corner of Dien Bien Phu and Pasteur Street in District 3 to beg for money. Photo by VnExpress/Quy Nguyen

Later, he conceded his name was Chris and that he was from Florida, but did not want to answer further questions.

Kucharski has been in the country for nine years. Whatever his story is, he said he just wants to be left alone to do what many others do: beg for a living.

He could not understand why people like Tim Bennet, expatriates living in Saigon, were treating him harshly.

Tim Bennett, a retail store owner who has been living and working in Saigon for years, stopped his vehicle at a street corner recently, grabbed his T-shirt and destroyed the sign Kucharski was carrying.

"I told everyone that next time I saw this, I was going to pull over and stop it. Scumbag tourist begging for money in a poor country like Vietnam. Not gonna happen," Bennet fumed in his post on October 24.

He and his wife has seen the beggar wander around Saigon streets for a year now, Bennet said, adding that "reliable sources" have said that he is a thief and drug addict.

Bennet’s video has sparked arguments between people not wanting to be harsh on someone down on his luck and others angry about his actions spoiling the image of Westerners.

Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender and former drug user, an author and the founder of the charity User Voice, wrote in the Guardian: "It's OK by me if a homeless person spends my money on drink or drugs. When I was homeless I found it very hard to beg, but people who did give me money were preventing a crime, because the money meant I didn't have to steal in order to eat or to feed my addiction.

"And, frankly, it's none of your business where an addict is on his journey. If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that's nice but not your business either."

The plot thickens

Kucharski speaks and understands Vietnamese well, people around him say, and anyone is able to converse with him in the language.

When asked about the harsh criticism that he has attracted on social media of late, he kept silent and bowed his head.

Chris Kucharski sits on street corners with a piece of paper seeking help in English and Vietnamese. This picture was taken in downtown Saigon in August last year. Photo acquired by VnExpress

A Facebook photo shows Chris Kucharski sitting on a street corner with a piece of paper seeking help in English and Vietnamese. This picture was taken in downtown Saigon in August 2017.

A 57-year-old street vendor on Dien Bien Phu Street who asked to remain anonymous said that Kucharski has been standing there for nearly four months from 1 p.m. to around 10 p.m. every day.

"The foreign man, who looks clean and wears branded clothes, is a professional beggar. He has an ‘assistant’ who pretends to roam around the street to watch out police and camera. 

Sometimes, the accomplice walks up and gives the beggar some cigarettes. "I sit and sell things every day, there’s nothing I cannot see," the hawker said.

Several days ago, Tran Quang Hai, a guard working for a company on Dien Bien Phu Street, asked Kucharski to leave the place, irritated and angered by the foreigner "taking advantage of the kindness of Vietnamese people." A heated quarrel broke out and Hai threatened to call police to arrest him. After this, Kucharski did not show up for a few days, but returned later, locals said.

Hopeful note

An acquaintance who also wanted to remain unnamed said she’s heard he has at least another child.

She’d also understood that "the mothers are very good people."

One of his friends said "I don’t know how anyone can help unless Chris wants to get clean."

Another was a bit more hopeful. She said: "He’s quite intelligent. I am sure Chris will sort himself out."

Watch the video below to hear some foreign tourists' thoughts on street begging in Vietnam.

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