Vietnam to investigate firm that stranded tourists in Bangkok

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Some of 701 tourists abandoned in Thailand come back to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City the night of June 17. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Vietnam's tourism ministry has ordered an investigation into a tour operated by an unlicensed company that left 701 Vietnamese customers stranded in Thailand after failing to provide services the tourists had paid for in advance.

Half the tourists returned to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by air Monday night, while the rest came back on Tuesday, worn out from their ordeal. Unexpectedly, they were forced to pay for meals, accommodation and transportation, though they had paid for those services as part of a tour package purchased from Travel Life in HCMC.

"I have never been on such a terrible tour. It was like going into exile," said a woman from Hoi An.

A report by Vietnam News Agency said the six-day tour which began on June 12 was organized for employees and customers of food provider Herbalife Vietnam.

The tourists spent their first two days in Thailand at a Herbalife conference in Bangkok, it said.

Sightseeing and other recreational activities were supposed to follow, but Thai 2020, Travel Life's partner in Thailand, refused to provide those services because Travel Life failed to pay it up front as their contract required.

The tourists said there were many problems with the tour from the outset.

They arrived in Bangkok at 10 p.m. on June 12, but had to wait until 1 a.m. for a bus to take them to their hotel, with groups of nearly 80 people being crammed onto 45-seat buses.

Later they were told there were not enough rooms at the hotel, and groups of four were forced to share rooms intended for two, she said.

A tourist named L. said they were promised at least a three-star hotel, but ended up in moldy, smelly rooms with sockets loosely attached to the wall and the doors that could not be shut.

A man from the southern beach province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau said he and his fellow tourists did not dare express their anger to the Travel Life guide when he admitted that his company had not paid for their services in Bangkok as promised and that they would not be receiving them.

 "We were so afraid of being left there in Thailand," he said.

Nguyen Thi Huong, deputy director of the My Uc A (America-Australia-Asia) travel company that sold the plane tickets to Travel Life, said she was called over to Bangkok to escort the tourists back to Vietnam as Thai 2020 had Suvarnabhumi Airport freeze their ticket reservations.

Huong said Travel Life has not fully paid her company either, which has caused it to incur a VND500 million ($23,780) debt to En Viet, a ticket agent of Vietnam Airlines. 

Initial investigations by HCMC tourism authorities showed that Travel Life, which was established in 2011, does not have a license to offer tours to international destinations.

The company was registered to an address in Tan Binh District, but its office is currently located in Tan Phu District.

Business insiders said the company did not charge customers enough to provide the services promised to them.

It charged between VND7.7 and 8.1 million ($356-385) per tourist, but even tours that are considered cheap tend to cost at least VND9 million, they said.

Tran Thi Thuy, the company's accountant, said Travel Life failed to properly calculate expenses. "Things got out of control."

Thuy said the company received more than VND4.5 billion from Herbalife, but the cost of plane tickets alone was VND4.3 billion.

Nguyen Thi Kim Khanh, director of Travel Life, said company lost between VND3-4 billion.

Khanh did not show up at the company office when HCMC tourism officials arrived there on Monday, and did not come to the department office the next day after being summoned to do so.

Directors of Herbalife were also not present at their office in HCMC for an official visit on Wednesday. It released a statement denying any responsibility for the problems, saying it had not directly organized the tour.

As of Monday evening, Travel Life staff members were still receiving bookings for a tour in Cambodia, which Thanh Nien reporters were able to learn by calling and pretending to be customers. 

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