(Feb. 16, 2009) -- Earlier this month, I went to Vietnam to investigate alleged smuggling by Vietnam Airlines crews of goods stolen overseas by Vietnamese theft rings.

An Duong Market in the center of Ho Chi Minh City was crammed with small stores selling foodstuffs, clothing and sundry goods, and was thronged with locals and overseas tourists.

"All items are genuine [Japanese products] brought from Japan by Vietnam Airlines crews," one female clerk said.

When asked for cosmetic items made in Japan, the clerk produced an article still with its shoplifting prevention tag and price tag intact. The latter showed a price of 1,260 yen and the name of a Japanese drugstore.

When told the local price was 200,000 dong--the Vietnamese equivalent of 1,200 yen--my interpreter gave a wry grin, and said, "Local residents are offered cheaper prices."

In addition to cosmetics, many other Japanese items, including shampoos and perfumes, were on sale at almost all the 20 shops I visited in the city. U.S.- and French-made goods also could be found.

One sales clerk even admitted the dubious provenance of such goods, saying: "The goods were probably stolen from foreign countries. Otherwise they couldn't be purchased so cheaply."

When questioned, all the stores said the items were brought into the country by Vietnam Airlines crews.

One clerk said, "We bought the goods from a woman called Hien who arranges for crews to get the items."

The same woman's name was cited by by a joint investigation headquarters comprising 14 prefectural police forces. The woman is suspected of masterminding the crimes.

According to the National Police Agency, shoplifting by Vietnamese theft rings has increased sharply since the late 1990s. Since 2006, 85 people have been arrested and the amount of financial damage caused is estimated to be at least 140 million yen.

Recently, the investigation headquarters arrested several Vietnam Airlines crew members, including a 33-year-old copilot, Dang Xuan Hop, on suspicion of buying knowingly stolen items.

As to why Japanese items have been targeted, the Japan External Trade Organization said Japan-made goods are held in high regard in Vietnam, and "smuggling and imitation are rampant."

A 26-year-old woman in Ho Chi Minh City who has visited Japan as an intern said: "Vietnamese adore Japan as the country of the rising sun. Japanese products on sale at department stores are too expensive, so everyone buys the goods cheaply at markets."

Japanese-made cosmetics being sold at a hotel were in fact relatively expensive, ranging from 1 million to 4 million dong, or about 6,000 yen to 24,000 yen. Considering the starting monthly salary for a college graduate in Vietnam is about 30,000 yen, such items are luxuries.

The fact Vietnam Airlines crews use very large bags is well known among airport staff. But in order to verify a case of theft, police need to know where and by whom specific items were stolen.

By targeting the actual shoplifters, the police recently seized documents instructing thieves where to send stolen goods. The police also arrested a Vietnam Airlines copilot to quiz him over the flow of the goods.

"This is an extremely rare case," a senior investigative officer said.

The role of the woman suspected of masterminding the crimes has reportedly become clear and the police have issued a warrant for her arrest.

(Source: Hirofumi Morita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer, http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/20090216TDY03104.htm)