Gangster tourism

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Hired goons from souvenir shops in the "˜city of love' brutalize tour guides who don't obligate their customers to buy

  Foreign tourists at a vendor stall near Da Lat Market. Coercive "brokers" for souvenir shops in Da Lat have been beating tour guides for not bringing in tour groups.

Tour guide Tran Tri Dung decided his customers would enjoy a stop at the Da Lat Market to pick up some souvenirs.

The decision meant his group would pass up several popular shops outside the market that are known for selling home-style jams, one of the city's specialties.

For that, Dung was severely beaten in the street. Twice.

Many specialty shops have unwritten agreements with local tour guides that the guides will bring their tour groups to the shops for a commission of up to 30 percent.

Dung refused to do so, and so he was beaten. When he refused a second time in one day, he was beaten again.

A source told Vietweek that Dung asked for police protection following the beatings. The police said they could not have someone follow him all the time and that he should tell them again if it happened again.

The story reveals the persistent problem that tourists are often taken to shops that sell low-quality products because tour guides are on the take, and a culture of shadowy virtual gangsterism governs the show.

"[This kind of] brokering is a common phenomenon at tourist spots in Vietnam," Do Thi Hong Xoan, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, told Vietweek without commenting further on the issue.

Da Lat "˜specialties'

Dung was assaulted twice on September 29 while he led a group of 140 tourists from Hanoi through Da Lat in Lam Dong Province.

Located on the Langbiang plateau 1,500 meter above sea level, Vietnam's famous resort town of Da Lat is famous for its temperate climate, beautiful flowers and fruits.

Among its specialties are preserved fruits, sugared fruits, jams and jellies.

Dung was assaulted by men who worked for Bao Khanh and Hoai Nam, two shops that sell such specialties on Nguyen Tu Luc Street, near the Thung Lung Tinh Yeu (Love Valley), and at several other nearby destinations.

Soon after Dung dropped his tour group off at the Sammy Hotel in Da Lat, three men approached and told him to take his tourists to the two shops. When he said he would take them to the Da Lat Market instead, the men began to beat him to the ground with their motorbike helmets.

At around 2 p.m. the same day, he was beaten again by a man in front of the Da Lat Flower Garden. He escaped by running into the garden.

According to Nguyen Van My, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Tour Guide Association, a leader of Dung's travel agency, HCMC-based Vietravel Company, had to call a senior government official in Lam Dong before police took any action.

Da Lat police now say they have identified the people who assaulted Dung: Tran Van Quang and two other men, identified only as Hoang and Tam. They said Quang had admitted to the crime and confessed that the three worked as brokers for Hoai Nam and Bao Khanh.

Pham Thi Lan Huong, owner of Bao Khanh, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the shop does not hire "employees to work outside the shop."

The paper reported that tour guides in Da Lat are often threatened by shops.

The shops pay out up to 30 percent of their sales for every group of tourists that visits. The sum is shared between the "broker," the tour guide and the driver, the paper reported.

Even without the work of brokers, many of these shops are raking in huge profits by selling low-quality products from China that are re-labeled as their own.

On August 23, Da Lat police dumped 2.3 tons of low quality jams of Chinese origin. They had inspected 95 specialties shops and found 91 of them violating labeling regulations or selling smuggled products.

Slaps on the wrist

On October 1, a spokesperson from the Lam Dong People's Committee, the provincial government, said "jam brokers" are a stubborn problem that has damaged the province's reputation in many ways and that the committee had instructed authorities to take action.

Also on that day, Da Lat Town police force said they had identified 20 jam brokers and asked them to write and sign a statement that they would not force tourists into their shops by colluding with drivers and tour guides.

The town's deputy chief of police Phan Van Thong said the coercive jam brokers "have been operating in Da Lat for many years despite the fact that relevant agencies have carried out many measures."

He said his agency would take "strong action" in the near future to put an end to the problem.

But Thong did not elaborate on what would actually be done.

In fact, the police made a similar promise back in 2006, after several fights between jam brokers in Da Lat.

However, in February 2011, three brokers were arrested and are still under investigation for allegedly killing a competitor.

Those three brokers were also working for Hoai Nam shop (one of the alleged employers of the men who beat up Dung). One was Dinh Van Thuan, the elder brother of the shop owner Thang.

Phung Quy Ngoc, chairman of the Lam Dong Province Tourism Association, told Vietweek that the problem was difficult to fix because tourism authorities had only a limited ability to investigate the shops.

However, when asked for comment about Dung's assaulted on September 29, he only said: "I have not heard about this case."

Asked whether the decision to refuse the brokers was Dung's alone, or whether it was company policy, Nguyen Minh Man, chief of communications at Vietravel only said "the fact that Dung was assaulted is an alarm for tourism areas.

"There should be stronger intervention by local authorities to purify the local tourism environment," he told Vietweek.

"˜Tourism mafia'

My, the chairman of the HCMC Tour Guide Association, said two of the three brokers who assaulted Dung had been fined for similar behavior last year.

He said many tour guides have been assaulted for trying to protect their customers from such rip-off schemes. He said most of them work for small companies and they feared retribution for speaking out.

My himself was assaulted two years ago by a man hired by a local tourism agency after he told the media that several companies had made a pact to sell a specific package tour at ten times its actual cost.

"I'm tired and frustrated of fighting the mafia alone," he told Vietweek.

"Now there's another one, Vietravel, to fight [against the problem]. And the preliminary result was that the tour guide was assaulted."

He said Da Lat is where the "jam shop prison" model was born and that it has been duplicated at specialty shops in Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Phan Thiet, Dong Nai and Ha Long.

"Buying local specialties is what tourists like to do. Other countries also promote this and pay commissions to tour guides, but it is controlled to maintain reasonable prices," he said.

My criticized Khanh Hoa Province authorities, who have reported that the consumption of fish sauce and fisheries by tourists has slowed down to economic difficulties.

"My God!" he exclaimed incredulously. "Things are so difficult that people can't afford fish sauce [a primary sauce in Vietnam] to eat? The actual reason is that tourists no longer buy fish sauce after buying fake products there."

He said the problem was both lack of governmental and law enforcement intervention, and unscrupulous practices by many tourism companies that participate in the "mafia" game.

Dung, the tour guide who was assaulted recently, said he was still afraid of being attacked again.

"I would not mind if my assault helped improve Vietnam tourism," he said. "But we are waiting for strict punishment against the jam brokers for their brutality."

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