Foreign visitors taking a taxi at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Experts have blamed lax management by transport authorities and taxi firms for dishonest taxi drivers at the airport.
Ingrid Biraud had to pay ten times the normal fare for a taxi from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to Ben Thanh Market during her visit to Ho Chi Minh City last month.
"When we arrived in the center, the counter read VND150,000 (US$7.2) but the driver said not "˜enough money'," said the French tourist.
"So we had to go to the bank. After that, he said I have to pay him VND1.5 million."
Earlier, the driver had asked her to pay VND100,000 as an airport taxi fee, but the real amount is only VND5,000.
Many similar violations have been reported despite efforts by airport authorities to improve taxi service at the city's only airport.
Biraud said she returned to report the incident to airport authorities on the same day and they easily identified the driver as Nguyen Van Loi of Phuong Trang Taxi.
She said the driver had given her the company's business card that had his cab number on it (a compulsory for taxis at the airport), but he took it back soon after leaving the airport.
Loi admitted to extorting the passenger over the airport fee but denied that he demanded a higher fare, saying he drove away after receiving VND1.5 million because he thought the extra money was a tip.
The driver was fined VND2.5 million and dismissed from the taxi firm.
Do Xuan Toan, deputy director of the Tan Son Nhat Aviation Security Center (TASC), said passengers falling victim to dishonest taxi drivers should report to them like Biraud because they can easily identify any driver.
"If they report incidents, we'll be able to identify these drivers and improve taxi services," he said. "But many passengers were either reluctant or unaware of relevant agencies to ask for help." He said passengers could call the airport's operation center at (08) 3 844 1740 to make such reports in English or Vietnamese.
While recognizing certain improvements at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, many foreigners said there were still many persisting problems.
"I remember when I first came to Vietnam eight years ago. I remember getting out of the airport and seeing 15-20 taxi drivers shouting toward me, waving their hands, saying "˜come in this taxi', "˜come in this one', "˜no no come in this one'," said Alexander Simpson, a British expat in HCMC.
"It was a very awkward feeling for me to suddenly step off the plane and be bombarded with people. Lucky for me that time I was being picked up by a friend so I didn't have to take a taxi at that time," he told Vietweek. It was his first trip outside of Europe.
Simpson said he later had difficult experiences with taxi drivers in the city on subsequent visits.
"A few of the drivers took me on longer routes to get to my destination," he said. "For example from the airport to my house on District 1's Tran Hung Dao Street cost me roughly VND220,000. At other times, I've paid VND130,000, so it's quite a shock."
An American expat in HCMC said he was frustrated after "many negative experiences" over the years with fraudulent taxi drivers he took from the airport. He called the situation a "disaster."
The most recent experience was on a return trip from Cambodia shortly after Tet (Lunar New Year).
"There were no Mai Linh taxis around so I was forced to take some brand I'd never heard of. I took the usual precautions of not putting my luggage in the boot (where they can hold it hostage) and keeping an eye on the meter, which seemed accurate. When I arrived at my destination, I paid the fee on the meter.
"At this point the driver hands me a white piece of paper and starts shouting "˜pay ticket pay ticket'. What ticket? He then points to a sign on the dashboard which says that the customer is responsible for all tolls. So I give him another VND20,000 for the road toll but no, he wants VND100,000."
He said he was well aware of the toll and just grabbed his bag and got out of the taxi after refusing to pay the exorbitant fee.
"Imagine how tourists feel! The first people they meet in Vietnam are the unsmiling immigration people after which they have to deal with the taxi mafia," he said, adding that a country hoping to develop tourism as a sustainable industry should manage to control its airport taxis.
Scrutiny on paper
Experts said there should be stricter actions and better coordination among relevant agencies, including the city Transport Department, airport authorities and the police to end violations by taxi drivers that were tarnishing the city's image.
Last year, TASC detected more than 2,000 violations by taxi firms at the airport, with the most typical violations being overcharging (drivers not turning on the meter but asking for a lump sum), picking up passengers in no stopping zones, refusing to carry passengers on short distances and resisting security officers on duty.
During an inspection last September, the Transport Ministry banned three taxi firms Petrolimex, Festival and Happy from Tan Son Nhat International Airport due to various violations.
The three firms were recently allowed to resume operation there after the HCMC Transport Department confirmed they had not repeated their violations.
Mai Linh Taxi, a popular brand for many foreigners in Vietnam, was also suspended from the airport for a month from February 5, a punishment issued by Tan Son Nhat Operation Center after 45 of the company's drivers violated regulations during the first three weeks in January.
In 2011, Mai Linh was involved in 800 incidents that included violations while Vinasun was found culpable in 600 cases.
TASC director Dang Tuan Tu said drivers have been caught breaching regulations only once they leave the airport. He said TASC couldn't do anything unless passengers report the incidents.
"Only TASC and the media have taken practical actions in fighting dishonest taxi drivers," he said, blaming the HCMC Taxi Association for "not playing any role" in solving the problem.
Toan, TASC deputy director, said several regulations have been enforced, such as requiring drivers to provide passengers with a card stating the taxi number and the company's hotline. But he said it wasn't enough.
"The possible violations include drivers refusing short distance trips or agreeing on a fixed fare without using the meter," he said.
He said the Southern Airport Corporation plans to issue a stricter set of taxi regulations by this year's end.
However, he said the most decisive actions must come from the city Transport Department and the HCMC Taxi Association.
"The transport department should tighten regulations for taxi operations. The taxi association should also ban drivers dismissed due to violations from applying for a job at another company.
"A shortage of taxi drivers has forced several companies to recruit drivers without strict evaluation of their skills and ethics," he said.
In a recent case, a passenger who wished to be known only as Tam said a driver from Saigon Dong Nai Taxi offered to carry him from the airport to District 1 for VND200,000.
"I know the fare should be lower for such a distance," he said, adding that he reported the case to the airport authority who fined the driver for the violation.
"I am a Vietnamese but was still targeted by dishonest taxi drivers at the airport. I am sure that more foreign visitors must have been preyed upon because they don't speak Vietnamese and are strangers here."
DA NANG TARGETS IMPROVED AIRPORT TAXI SERVICE
The Da Nang City administration has instructed taxi companies operating at its international airport to post notices about fares from the airport to popular tourist destinations both within the city and nearby provinces.
Taxi fares will be announced from the airport to Ba Na and Marble Mountains in Da Nang, Hoi An and My Son in Quang Nam Province and Lang Co in Thua Thien-Hue Province.
The hotline of the municipal People's Council, 0511 3 888 888 will be displayed in every taxi.
Each taxi firm will have to provide customers with a card with the taxi number, the name of the driver and phone number of the firm's director in case the passengers want to report any violation or problem created of the drivers.
The taxi association will also cooperate with the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism to open classes for their drivers in communication skills, English and the region's tourism destinations.