Opinion
Tourists driven away by taxi scams
  • | Tabitha Carvan | November 10, 2011 07:53 AM

In the two years that I’ve lived in Vietnam, a total 35 friends and family members from home in Australia have come to visit us here. That’s a pretty large number, and I wish I could say it was all thanks to my popularity, but it’s not. Instead, it’s testament to Vietnam’s appeal as an international tourist destination; visiting me was simply a lucky bonus.

We served as private tour guides to all our guests, taking them around Hanoi and beyond, organizing transport, and helping them to bargain on purchases. These experiences always left me feeling proud of Hanoi, and pleased that our friends and families could see for themselves why we choose to live here.

Sure, I could see that vendors were trying to overcharge them, but with me speaking a little bit of Vietnamese – certainly enough to understand when I’m being ripped off - it was usually resolved with no hard feelings. And sure, there was a lot of hassle from sellers on the street touting their guidebooks and cigarette lighters, but when we ignored them, they left us alone.

But as soon as we left our guests to explore Hanoi on their own, or when they left Hanoi to travel further afield without us, they became instantly vulnerable to the scammers and touts. We could see them becoming increasingly frazzled, and increasingly convinced that everyone was out to rip them off, as their stay progressed.

There were some notably bad incidents – a camera stolen right out of our friend’s hand, some physical intimidation by vendors – but these kinds of incidents could happen anywhere, to anyone, in any country.

However, there was one problem which almost every single one of our guests experienced, and which, through its repetition, clouded their judgement of their holiday, and made other isolated negative incidents seem like part of a bigger pattern: they were constantly ripped off by taxi drivers.

I would tell all our guests to only travel with reputable taxi companies, but even these companies were taking the opportunity to squeeze money out of passengers who were obviously tourists and new to negotiating the currency. Since I personally rarely have any difficulties with taxis, I was shocked to hear the constant stories of fares ten times – or more – what they should be. It seems this is the norm for tourists to this country, even savvy ones such as the Singaporean Interpol members who were recently ripped off extortionately.

I once ran into a French couple wandering around Cau Giay who were trying to find their way to the Ethnology Museum, which was still quite far away. Baffled, I asked them how they got there. They had tried to catch the bus, but had got off at the wrong stop. I asked them why they didn’t just catch a taxi there, since the buses can be challenging for a visitor. “But the taxis here are so expensive!” they said. “No, they’re not at all, compared to Europe”, I answered, shocked. Of course, when I spoke to them more about their experiences, it transpired they had been repeatedly charged fares in the millions of dong. They were now too scared to step inside a taxi. I tried desperately, as a proud resident of this city, to reassure them, but based on my experience with our guests, I knew I was fighting a losing battle.

Every city that attracts tourists will attract problems like this, but when the simple fact of travelling around a city leaves tourists feeling afraid, or uncomfortable, or angry, it will surely leave a pervasively bad taste in their mouth.

There are simple solutions to this problem: clearer instructions at the airport about legitimate taxi companies and what fares to expect; a hotline for customers to call and speak to an operator in English when they want to dispute a fare; a crackdown on taxi companies operating illegally.

These measures are actually in the best interest of the taxi drivers themselves, because while ripping off a tourist might offer short-term gain, it’s a long-term loss. Vietnam’s repeat visitor rate has been reported as being as low as five percent.

And our guests? They all said they enjoyed their stay, and liked Vietnam a lot. But would they return? No, not a single one.

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