Monday, August 27, 2012

I Almost Got Scammed By A Happy Tours Taxi in Saigon

And now for the very much awaited sequel of I Almost Got Held Up By Billy Jake UVA 709. Of course, if this was going to happen to somebody, that somebody would obviously be me. FML, yeah? Let us go to the prologue.

As much as I do not want to arrive late at midnight in a city that I barely know, Cebu Pacific’s flights do not give me much of a choice. Of all the flights I have had with them, it seems only their Korean destinations have normal travel hours. For my Manila to Ho Chi Minh flight today, we arrived at around quarter to one in the morning, and given the time and absence of a rail system connecting the airport to important parts of the city like they have in Northeast Asia, it was obvious that a taxi was the only choice, unless you fancy walking. I have read the Ho Chi Minh Wikitravel page prior to this and I have been forewarned that taxi scams here are common. Their advice was clear, go for Vinasun or Mai Linh. I should have paid attention to that.

However, there was neither Vinasun nor Mai Linh at the taxi stand. The instructions on Wikitravel only said that the green Mai Linh taxis could be found after the Customs area exit, where I instead found taxis of different names. Seeing other people take them, I also approached one. A guy pretending to be an airport officer asked me if I wanted a taxi. I knew he was pretending because he was wearing a shirt with another taxi brand name on it, or maybe they are self regulating? Naïve much? Born yesterday ang peg?

I got ushered into a taxi called Happy, or Happy Tours, or whatever. Suffice it to say that I did not end up happy, more on relieved though. The only word I understood aside from “taxi” was “meter” which would be good to hear for a stranger in a foreign land wary of scams like this. Or not. I showed him the Hostelworld booking which contained the guest house’s address and asked if it was far. He said far.

The flag down rate was a little under 200,000 dong. I did not suspect something fishy because I thought it was one of those airport taxis with more expensive flag down rates. We have those at NAIA. They could also have that here. It was when the meter started running that I got a bit baffled. Every drop of the meter was around 30,000 dong. Well, aside from the language barrier, there is also this thing I would like to call “dong conversion barrier” because everyone is a millionaire in this country.

My basis for conversion is my Jetstar Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi flight, which I booked for around 1,000,000 dong. Checking my credit card bill, the reflected amount was within the vicinity of 2,000 pesos. Using that as basis, I figured that 100,000 dong would be around 200 pesos. I also exchanged money at the airport because I could not find HSBC’s ATM at first (it is facing Burger King). They gave me 400,000 dong in exchange for my 1,000 pesos, which means 100,000 dong is around 250 pesos if you follow the bloated exchange rate that they have at the airport.

After around 15 minutes of roaming around, the meter was already displaying 1,350,000 dong, which was more expensive than my Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi plane ticket. Wow. I was looking at the other numbers reflected on that screen, but it was obvious that I was just in denial. I saw a uniformed man in dark blue taking a peek inside the taxi window and looking at me with a worried expression that I interpreted as “You got punk’d.” The taxi backed away for a while and then I finally saw my guest house. It was time to outwit this moron.

You see, taxi driver, I AM FROM THE PHILIPPINES, and our taxi drivers also come from hell. I might as well just pay you to get this over with but my mind says that I could not let this happen. Paying more than 2,000 pesos for a fifteen minute taxi ride is on a different level altogether from the 600 peso scam rides we have in Manila. No. I have to do something. It is time to use the language barrier to my advantage.

First step, do not act worried. Do not act as if you know his game. Play the shy tourist in need of help. I asked him if the price displayed on the screen was the price I had to pay. Rhetorical question. He said yes. I asked him if I had to pay 1,350,000 dong, trying to emphasize each digit so as to be clear. He said yes. That is when I started to overload his brain with some good old English. I could have also done it in Aussie to further confuse him but I was just not in the mood.

I explained to him over and over again that I only have 1,000,000 dong and that I would have to ask my friend from the hostel to give me an extra 350,000. Of course he could not understand what I was saying. He just kept saying something in Vietnamese, which I figured out to be the amount in question because of the Chinese based numerals he kept on repeating that I happened to recognize.

After a while, he got tired of our pointless conversation. I was not. I was just buying time. He then got out of the car to open the door for me. Voilà, despite not being locked, the door could only be opened from the outside. Classic. Do all these taxi drivers get trained by the same Satan?

We continued arguing as I stepped out of the vehicle and in a rather interesting plot twist, he was forcing me to get back into his taxi through gesture, broken English, and Vietnamese. Are you insane, dude? And so I reasoned out and got back to our pointless conversation. It seems that he just gave up. Thank you, language barrier. I asked him to park the taxi closer to the guest house’s gate. He did not. Instead, he waited on that spot.

I kept on waving at him to wait as the security guard unlocked the guest house’s gate. I had to make him believe that I was going to keep my end of the bargain. Fuck you, moron. It is a good thing that the guest house’s receptionist spoke English. I narrated my story as he and the security guard glanced at each other with an expression that I translated as “Okay, someone got scammed again.” 

The receptionist went out and talked to the driver. I did not go with him anymore. As much as I wanted to deny it, I was scared shitless. I am not a stranger to this kind of situation because I have a big sign on my forehead saying “Trick Me”. If I have to share all my personal anecdotes on how people managed to fool me before, believe me, a day would not suffice. But heck, this is another country. This is Southeast Asia.

And so let us digress a little. Why the difference between the north and the south? Being Southeast Asian myself, I admit I have only been to the former British Malaya, which is to say: Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei; fairly affluent countries where I never experienced being cheated big time, except maybe when buying souvenirs, but then again I guess that is common in the souvenir selling arena. All of my past travels before have been in Northeast Asia, where people go out of their way to help you instead of giving way to an opportunistic hidden agenda as they like to do on this side of East Asia. Well, at least in South Korea and Japan, that is the case.

Oh well, I guess that is what Vietnam and the Philippines share in common. How depressing. So forgive me if once again I almost fell for the same taxi scam trick. I would pour more time on research, as my next destinations are mostly in Southeast Asia, and the mindset one needs to have here is just different from that when traveling in the north. Adapt.

Epilogue? I paid 200,000 dong, which is what Wikitravel Ho Chi Minh says to be the average fare. It is still expensive for a fifteen minute taxi ride but hey, not complaining. I wonder if this is going to be a trilogy. If so, I wonder where the third installment would be. Until then, I have to rest. Reporting straight from Vietnam, this is your Saigon correspondent. First-hand experience. I survived.

NB: When in Vietnam and in need of a taxi ride, take Vinasun or Mai Linh. A lot of people online trust them. So should you.

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