Tet anomaly should not become a habit

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Vietnamese are often seen as a very tolerant people, which is good, but we do need to pay more attention to what we tolerate.

Since last week, Vietnamese netizens and local media alike have been stirred by a travel article on the US news website Huffington Post, called "Why I'll never return to Vietnam."

The author, Matthew Kepnes, a famous blogger, wrote: "When I was in Vietnam, I was constantly hassled, overcharged, ripped off and mistreated."

In response to his comments and bad experiences in the article, many responses have criticized him for being too harsh about a developing country or exaggerating what he had experienced. Some simply felt embarrassed.

But before we are looking to the merits and demerits of comments by a foreigner who visited this country for just three weeks, we should reflect on things that we see ourselves, year after year.

Let us look at making trips within the country during Tet.

It is a fact in Vietnam that before and during the Lunar New Year Holiday, people who provide transportation and hospitality services always overcharge their customers.

During Tet, a simple hotel room costs VND2 million (US$95.69), almost 10 times the usual. A bowl of pho costs double. Parking fees can soar up to VND20,000 and VND50,000 ($2.39) from VND2,000 ($0.095). Taxi drivers would also ask for some extra money over the meter charge, and if customers do not pay, they will face some rudeness.

The practice of overcharging during Tet is also adopted by well-known companies.

For instance, the Thanh Buoi Company, which provides transportation services in central and southern Vietnam, this Tet increased ticket prices for routes to the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat by more than 50 percent from VND180,000 ($8.61).

It was announced that the prices would return back to normal on the fourth day of the first lunar month (January 26). But, in fact, tickets were sold at Tet prices that day. Worse still, when outraged passengers protested, they refused to budge and charge the normal price, leading to a chaotic situation at a corner of the Le Hong Phong Street in Ho Chi Minh City that same day.

But the instance of passengers expressing outrage is one of the rare cases where customers react to service providers who charge them an arm and a leg for average, or sometimes poor, service. For many years now, Vietnamese customers have never objected or complained about being overcharged.

"It's Tet, anyway," is the common comment that both sellers and customers use when charging and paying unreasonable prices.

This feeble excuse seems so convincing that the practice of overcharging or charging ridiculous amounts has become completely normal. What is normal about charging ordinary people more during the most important festival of the year when they are struggling to get home or return to work?

My friend, a Japanese sociologist who has lived in Vietnam for many years, once said it is unbelievable but true story in Vietnam that people treat each other with kindness for 355 days, but live in an "abnormal state" during the 10 days of Tet. (He avoided saying without kindness).

Everyone knows the practice is strange, but no one seems to bother about it.

However, if officials do not act and do something about it, it will probably become a national "tradition." And this tradition will drive away foreign tourists who we are trying to attract to the country during Tet to enjoy Vietnamese New Year customs and our hospitality.

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