Cabbie's death spotlights tourist-taxi tensions

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The problem of cheating taxi drivers and angry tourists took an extreme turn last week when an Australian tourist hit a driver so hard that the latter collapsed and died.

Police in Ho Chi Minh City said on April 29 they had detained 68-year-old Rolfe Darrell Alexander to investigate the death of the Vietnamese cabbie a day earlier.

Alexander had taken a Saigon Tourist cab driven by Le Van H., 41, to the Phuong Dong Hotel in Tan Binh District from the Tan Son Nhat International Airport, also located in the same district.

They'd struck a deal that Alexander would pay H. VND200,000 (US$10.54) for the trip, police said. Alexander should have been charged around VND40,000, some taxi drivers told Thanh Nien Weekly.

On the way, Alexander wanted to get out because the driver kept driving around, investigators cited Alexander as saying after interrogating him. The Australian had arrived in HCMC from the central highlands resort town of Da Lat, they said.

When H. stopped on Hoang Van Thu Street to ask local people for directions to the hotel, Alexander got off and agreed to pay him VND100,000. The taxi driver then ran after Alexander, and grabbed his luggage, police said.

Alexander then hit H. in the face, causing the driver to fall and lose consciousness. He died of brain injury before being hospitalized, according to the police. Further investigations are underway, they added.

"˜All terrible for Vietnam'

The problem of tourists being cheated by taxi-drivers, especially on rides from the airport has been widely reported in the media for some time now, but the response, including stricter and more frequent monitoring by inspectors, have not been very effective.

Four days after Alexander's arrest, another Australian couple reported a taxi rip-off.

The Australian couple had flown in from China to HCMC and took a taxi to the Majestic Hotel in District 1.

"They knew they paid too much but were not sure how much. $25 to Majestic Hotel [in District 1] from Tan Son Nhat [airport], plus another fee for the airport toll on top," said Peter Murray, general manager of the Novela Muine resort in the south-central province of Binh Thuan, where the couple stayed.

The actual fare should not have been higher than $7.

Murray said such rip-offs and the deadly incident involving the Australian man last week made him sad.

"All terrible for Vietnam. It happens probably every hour out of Tan Son Nhat," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

In fact, other tourists and foreign visitors have even worse stories to tell.

Tim Russell, owner of Come & Go Vietnam, a tour operator in HCMC, said he had personally witnessed physical intimidation of foreign visitors by taxi drivers, and that the problem of cheating was not confined to rides from the airport. He also said he himself had been threatened by a drunk driver with a wooden club, but had managed to snatch it away in time.

Amanda Perry, an Australian tour guide, said two of her female clients had been driven from the War Remnants Museum in District 1 to their hotel next to Ben Thanh Market in District 1 and the taxi driver asked for VND500,000.

"When they refused he grabbed one of the women to hold her back so they could not get out of the taxi and get help from the hotel. He then also tried to grab her bag and take everything," Perry said.

"Finally the hotel staff saw what was happening and rushed to help them and the ladies were able to get out - the driver however sped off as one of the women was still getting out of the taxi and she fell to the ground and was a little injured."

Thanh Nien Weekly found on May 6 that foreigners were more cautious in dealing with taxis at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

Several visitors insisted they would not catch a taxi designated to come to the international terminal to pick them up. Some even ran after a Mai Linh Taxi which had just dropped off customers.

"The only company I trust here is Mai Linh, and yet they are not allowed to pick me up," said an Australian who identified himself only as Darrell [no relation to the one mentioned earlier].

A Mai Linh taxi driver told Thanh Nien Weekly said he and his colleagues could pick up passengers at the airport, but had to join the long queue of other taxi operators.

"We are not allowed to pick up any passenger after dropping customers [at the airport]. Otherwise we will be suspended or fined."

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