After fleeing Vietnam in 2014, Vũ Hoàng Oanh recruited dozens of criminals to help traffic huge quantities of drugs back across the border from Cambodia. Photo: Hai Phong City People’s Committee
At 65, she was one of Vietnam’s most elusive crime bosses, evading capture in a series of busts that yielded drugs worth millions of dollars. Despite Interpol issuing a warrant for her arrest, the fugitive managed to recruit a fresh network of young criminals to keep her transnational smuggling ring alive, hiding drugs inside car engines and sending them to the country’s busiest cities.
But Vũ Hoàng Oanh’s run as Vietnam’s most prominent drug queen has finally come to an end, with authorities announcing this week that they’ve finally arrested the criminal matriarch, along with dozens of her underlings.
Otherwise known as Oanh Hà, she is the mastermind behind an illegal drug operation that trafficked hundreds of kilograms of heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy from the Golden Triangle—where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet—into Vietnam. Perhaps more notable to some, though, are her family ties: She is the sister of Dung Hà, a notorious female mafia boss who was assassinated by one of the country’s most high profile criminals, Năm Cam—the so-called “Godfather of Saigon.”
Police initially busted Oanh’s drug ring in May 2018, arresting seven people and seizing 39 packs of heroin, 30 kilograms of methamphetamine and 100,000 ecstasy pills. By that time, however, Oanh had already fled the country, and was believed to be hiding out in Cambodia.
She continued to evade authorities for another four years, while setting up a transnational trafficking chain that smuggled drugs back across the Cambodian border into Vietnam. According to a report published in the Vietnamese ministry of public security’s official newspaper this week, the traffickers hid drug packages inside used car engine blocks before transferring them to warehouses in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hai Phong.
Earlier this year, acting on intel gained through reconnaissance, crime investigators of the ministry of public security swooped once more. Over the course of more than five weeks between September and October, and with the cooperation of more than 100 police officers and soldiers, authorities again dismantled Oanh’s drug ring, arresting 29 people and seizing 131 kilograms of drugs. Among those arrests, authorities revealed on Tuesday, was the 65-year-old crime boss, who police picked up on Sept. 23.
Despite heading a syndicate that is thought to have traded and consumed more than 1.6 tons of drugs, however, Oanh isn’t the most prominent crime boss in her family. Her younger sister, Dung Hà—or Vũ Thị Hoàng Dung by birth—was considered one of the two great mafia figureheads of the Vietnamese underworld during her peak in the 1990s. The other was Năm Cam, who ultimately ordered her murder.
Dung cut an improbable figure in Vietnam’s criminal underworld—not only for the fact that this high-ranking crime boss was a woman, but also that she was gay. In the heavily patriarchal climate of Vietnamese society at large, and the criminal subculture especially, this marked her as a breaker of taboos—a distinction that, towards the end of her life, would earn her the moniker “Dung the Lesbian.”
Dung and Cam each presided over notorious organised gambling operations in Vietnam’s north and south, respectively, until in 2000 Dung decided to expand her presence from Hai Phong to Ho Chi Minh City. The two crime bosses initially worked together, in the hope that Dung would succeed Cam and run his underground gambling dens, the BBC reported at the time. But things soured. In September of that year, following a string of standoffs and confrontations, the rivalry escalated when, according to TIME Magazine, Dung sent Cam a “present” of live rats smeared with faeces to one of his parties. Humiliated, Cam ordered a hit on the crime queen of the north.
Just after midnight on Oct. 2, one of Cam’s henchmen approached Dung at an outdoor beer stall in Hai Phong and shot her in the head. The brazen killing ultimately led to Cam’s downfall and became a pivotal moment in Vietnam’s criminal history, as the “Godfather” was later arrested and convicted for ordering her assassination—among other things—and sentenced to death. He was executed on June 3, 2004, following one of the largest and most high-profile criminal trials Vietnam had ever seen.
Dung’s funeral was a similarly momentous affair, with throngs of people flocking to the event in Hai Phong in order to pay their respects to the murdered crime matriarch. In 2014, the manager of the gravesite told Vietnamese government newspaper Dan Tri that many people still regularly visited Dung’s grave—including old friends, disciples and, most notably, her older sister Oanh.
Oanh was the primary caretaker of the gravesite, and spent large sums of money to maintain it in keeping with Dung’s wishes, according to Dan Tri. When Oanh was arrested for illegal gambling in July 2014, police found on her person her sister’s old ID card—one she carried with her at all times after Dung’s death.
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