Mafia protecting fake cabs in Ho Chi Minh City

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Owners of legitimate taxis see red as problem has not been solved for two decades; officials plead inability

A man gets into a taxi in front of Ben Thanh Market. Transport inspectors say they have found it difficult to solve the problem of fake taxis in the city. Industry insiders say the drivers of fake taxis are protected by criminal gangs. 

On April 11, a cabbie in Ho Chi Minh City drove Nuraishah Hamza and her friend to a dark alley and locked them inside his car after they refused to pay him an exorbitant fare that was at least 40 times higher than the normal charge.

It was around 9:30 p.m. on that day when the two Singaporean women took a taxi in front of the Ben Thanh Market to their hotel on Nguyen Hue Street in the city downtown, about a kilometer away.

"The taxi driver did not stop at our hotel curb but at a road [adjacent] to it. The meter showed VND590,000 which was shocking to us as we only paid VND14,000 on a Vinasun cab on the way to the market," she said.

After they refused to pay the extortionate amount, Hamza said the taxi driver threatened to drive them to a police station, but finally stopped at a dark alley and insisted that they pay up after locking the doors and windows.

They gave him VND100,000 and US$2 and insisted that they would not pay more. But the cabbie only let them out after locking them in the car for 20 minutes.

Hamza was then told by some locals that they had boarded a fake taxi and that this type of robbery was rampant in Vietnam.

"What I cannot fathom is how this is allowed to happen near tourist hotspots. Ben Thanh Market for example, is visited by thousands of visitors every day and they should be actively protected," she told Vietweek.

 
The taxi that Singaporean tourist Nuraishah Hamza said had charged her at least 40 times the normal fare after she took it from Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Market to a nearby hotel. PHOTO: NURAISHAH HAMZA

Actually Hamza had visited Vietnam twice and she had been previously warned by tour guides not to take a cab without a meter.

"Unfortunately in this instance, the meter was rigged," she said.

Both local and foreign tourists have been ripped off by fake taxis in HCMC for a long time, but this time, industry insiders have revealed that these taxis and drivers are protected by criminal gangs, and officials have admitted their failure in solving the problem. 

Taxi mafia

Ho Huy, chairman of Mai Linh Corp, a major transportation company in the country which runs the popular eponymous taxis, said many drivers of fake taxis have hired criminal gangs to protect their operation."Drivers of major taxi firms have been threatened by the criminals when they try to pick up passengers in certain places," he said, adding that one of those places is in front of the Ben Thanh Market.

In fact, locals say that almost all the taxis that are around the market are illegal ones, and that legitimate cabs are wary of the place because of the criminal gangs involved.

Huy said he was upset that the issue of fake taxis has not been solved for nearly 20 years since Mai Linh first launched its taxi service.

"Taxi firms have coordinated with transport inspectors and the city police to follow and arrest many of them. However, they appear again in the later day like mushrooms the day after it rains."

Huy also said some taxi cooperatives were just collecting registration fees from drivers and doing nothing else, allowing unscrupulous cabbies to engage in all sorts of violations including running fake taxis that impersonate legitimate ones.

According to the HCMC Taxi Association, Mai Linh and Vinasun are the taxis that are impersonated the most.

The association said the common places that the fake taxis operate are the "backpackers' area" around Pham Ngu Lao Street, Ben Thanh Market, the hydrofoil and boat stations on Ton Duc Thang Street, the Diamond Plaza and the Hospital for Traumatology and Orthopaedics in District 5.

These are the places where many foreigners and people from other localities gather often, it said.

Soft punishments

Huy said the measures taken against unregistered fake taxis and their drivers are not strict enough to deter subsequent violations.

Under a 2012 decree on transport violations, the punishment for taxis faking other brands is just a fine of VND2.5 million and a 30-day suspension of the driving license.

Huy said the punishment was too lenient because fake taxis have spoiled the city's image and negatively affected the tourism and investment environment.

"I think criminal charges should be filed against taxi drivers with repeat violations," he said.

Meanwhile, concerned officials say they have found it impossible to resolve the issue fully.

Dam Phan Phat, a transport inspector in HCMC, said his force has faced many difficulties in handling fake taxis.

"They always flee upon our arrival. Downtown city is crowded and we do not dare to chase for fear of causing accidents," he said.

Duong Hong Thanh, deputy director of the HCMC Transport Department, said his agency has documented a number of fake taxis extorting money from passengers.

He said his department, which has the authority to revoke taxi registrations, has been unable to handle unregistered taxis because "they have no registration to be revoked."

Regarding registered taxis faking other well-known brands, he said the drivers of the taxis that have their registration revoked quickly register a new car and continue their operations.

He said his agency will coordinate with the traffic police to step up inspections at "hot spots" like the Ben Thanh Market and the "backpackers' area."

"However, we don't think it would bring about a thorough result because the fine is not strong enough to deter violations. This should be considered robbery and be treated as a criminal offence," he said.

In a recent case, the driver of a fake taxi is believed to have attacked a Japanese tourist who refused to pay him the extortionate fare.

HCMC police said they are investigating the case of Atshushi Hirako, 54, who was allegedly attacked by cabbie Le Minh Phuong on April 12.

Hirako had taken a taxi from the Ben Thanh Market to a hotel in District 10 at around 4:45 p.m. that day. The taxi was marked with a logo designed to make it look like it belonged to the popular Mai Linh taxi company.

Instead of driving to the destination, Phuong stopped midway and demanded that Hirako pay him VND650,000 (US$31) when the meter only showed VND65,000.

Witnesses said Phuong punched the Japanese passenger in the face after he stopped the car and Hirako got out.

A traffic police officer arrived at the scene but only managed to take Phuong's identity papers before the cabbie suddenly drove away.

Police say Phuong works for the 27.7 Tourist Transport Cooperative.

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Another driver of this firm was fined last June for charging two Spanish tourists VND400,000 for a 1km trip.

Hamza, the Singaporean tourist ripped off on April 11, said it was not just a matter of being robbed, but a matter of public safety.

"I can only hope that the [Vietnamese] government will take a harder stance on fake taxis, especially those parked outside tourist spots like Ben Thanh Market," she said.

 "It's a pity that these fake taxis are causing many tourists to think twice about visiting a country as culturally and historically rich as Vietnam again, myself included."

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