Illegal taxis and aggressive vendors give tourists a rude welcome to Vietnam
Last week, Rasnita Mohd Rasid and her friend took their longest taxi ride.
In terms of geographical distance, it was not too long, as Rasid and her friend discovered when they took the return journey on the same route in another taxi.
From Tan Son Nhat International Airport to Ben Thanh Market, the taxi driver charged them VND150,000 (US$7.3), which is when the enormity of the swindle they were victims of really sank in.
The taxi driver who took them from the market to the airport had demanded $400 (more than VND8 million plus another 300 Malaysian Ringgit ($98.6)) and Rasid had ended up paying VND4 million, almost $200.
Worse still, they had been dropped far outside the airport in the rain, and made to walk after paying a colossal sum.
On May 13, three days after this incident, Rasid, a journalist with the New Straits Times newspaper in Malaysia went to the office of the Mai Linh Taxi Company to lodge a complaint because the taxi that had cheated her was labeled the "M.Taxi Group."
Officials of the Mai Linh Taxi immediately recognized that the cab she took was an illegal one that imitates the company's brand.
The company took her to Ben Thanh Market, where Rasnita saw the exact car that she had taken, with license plate 51V-0160. The same driver, far from being frightened, managed to issue a few threats to the group before fleeing.
Do Kien Dat, an executive with the Mai Linh Group, said there have been a number of unlicensed taxis imitating the company's brand waiting for passengers outside the Notre Dame Cathedral, Ben Thanh Market, Bach Dang Port and a few other places.
He said the fake taxis were still around despite the company cooperating with the Transport Department and traffic police to tackle the issue.
Rasid's case is not an isolated incident, according to several members of a team of volunteers assigned to assist tourists. Taxi fraud and other scams and annoyances that tourists are being subjected to have assumed serious proportions, they say.
Tran Duy Nguyen of HCMC Voluntary Youth Force's community service unit said fraud committed by taxi drivers and vendors have increased over the past several months.
Nguyen's unit, which manages the green-shirt tourist security force, has witnessed many cases of foreign tourists being cheated by unlicensed taxi drivers.
"Taking a detour to increase the fare is an old trick. Now they carry passengers straight to their destination but snatch some high value banknotes from their open wallet, when foreigners are not familiar with local currency and calculating," he said.
"Sometimes, they refuse to give back change or just close the door and drive away," he added.
On March 18, a foreign tourist was charged VND300,000 ($14.5) after taking a taxi from the War Remnants Museum in District 3 to the Independence Palace in District 1, which is only two kilometers away. The passenger saw the meter indicating VND30,000 and asked a nearby volunteer for help.
In another case, an unlicensed taxi charged a foreign tourist VND200,000 for driving from Tao Dan Park in District 1 to the Rex Hotel in downtown HCMC, three kilometers away. The hapless tourist should have been charged not more than VND40,000, some taxi drivers told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Nguyen said his unit had recorded many similar cases, but their force is thin and cannot prevent all foreign tourists from being fleeced.
According to a recent report that Nguyen's unit sent to the municipal Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there have been many cases when foreign tourists are hassled and cheated by street vendors. Even tourist security officials have been threatened by the vendors, the report said.
A travel agent director in HCMC said there has been a reduction in the number of Japanese tourists over the past years because of badgering vendors.
He said some vendors have followed Japanese tourists to their hotels or sightseeing destinations to sell poor quality souvenirs. Japanese tourists have become aware of the issue and these vendors now shifted their attention to tourists from Malaysia, Indonesia and Russia, he added.
A tourist guide said many tourists from France, Australia, US, Japan and South Korea have been told by other tourists from their countries not to buy souvenirs in Vietnam to avoid being victimized by street vendors.
Some vendors pretend to invite tourists to buy a souvenir, contrive to have it drop to the ground to ignite a quarrel and insist on compensation, another tourist guide said.
An official from HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism said illegal taxis and vendors who harass visitors have become a headache for the department.
"Because we are understaffed, the department's inspectors rely on the voluntary youth force to protect tourists from such scams," the official said.
She said many tourists now looked to the Internet for useful tips before visiting another country, including Vietnam, to avoid falling prey to such ploys and fully enjoy the trip.
On several forums about Vietnam, international tourists have warned against unlicensed taxis like Taxi Meter, Taxi Vinamet and Meter Taxi, she said.
One entry on virtualtourist.com noted that there were a lot of postings about taxis in HCMC that provided "sufficient" information to protect oneself. "This happens all over the world not just in HCMC," the entry said.
On March 11, a Japanese tourist took an illegal taxi from outside the Ben Thanh Market to the airport. The car suddenly stopped and parked on the side of the road before it reached the airport.
"I was confused and tried to make him drive to the airport since I had little time to check-in. The driver, who I realized was a criminal, refused. I then gave him a VND500,000 bill and expected to get change back. The meter showed VND84,500 but he made it out to be VND845,000," the tourist wrote in his entry.
"We got into a loud discussion and I tried to get out of the car, but the doors were locked... He shouted about the VND840,000 and finally I had to give him $20 more to make him open the door, so I could get out," the entry said.
Peter Murray, who has been in Vietnam for 18 years, blamed the increasing scams on lax management by local authorities.
"For years the press has said that unlicensed cabs in Pham Ngu Lao and outside Ben Thanh Market are illegal. So why are they still there? Someone is clearly getting paid off to allow them to stay - so someone higher up should stop it," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"There could be a taxi counter at the airport where drivers are guaranteed the going rate for an agreed destination, for example, VND80,000 to District 1, VND100,000 to Binh Thanh District, etc., and the passenger buys that token, and the driver does not get the money until they claim it at the airport."