A staff in her uniform tag which read “Tourist Police” helps tourists cross the street in the center of Ho Chi Minh City
Photo: Tuoi Tre
Standing outside the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica in the middle of District 1, my friend and I froze at the shouting coming from a Vietnamese man dressed in a green uniform running towards us. He stopped in front of us, then took the strap of my friend’s camera and draped it around her neck.
“You have to be more careful,” he admonished. “This camera would be worth a lot to a thief.”
He was right on two counts: the camera wasn’t cheap and we weren’t being careful enough in an area frequented by tourists with too much money and not enough common sense. I looked carefully at his uniform tag which read “Tourist Police.” This was something new. He chatted with us for a few minutes before leading us across the street to explore the post office. This was also something new. In my eight months in Vietnam I’ve learned to shadow locals when crossing the street but had never had someone actually lead me across the pavement packed with motorbikes and careening cars.
Ever since that encounter I have seen dozens of tourist police working when I take visitors around town. They magically appear with a hand held up to stop cars whenever tourists cross the street and their eyes follow those people as they stroll around snapping photos. I’m not sure if there’s truly an increase in the number of tourist police in the city or if I’m just truly paying attention for the first time. I tried to ask one of the officers but due to the language barrier he instead led me to a public restroom, (“No charge,” he announced with a big smile.)
This type of hospitality helps counteract the negative headlines and poor reviews about travel in Vietnam scattered across the Internet. For example, a 2010 article in The Economist pegged the number of tourists who would return to Vietnam at just 5%, compared to Thailand’s 50%. They cited, among other reasons, the high numbers of tourists who report being scammed. Message boards are filled with warnings to watch bags and purses and to never trust a cabbie who tells you an attraction is closed. And as I write this, three of most viewed stories on Tuoi Tre are reports on travelers being tricked into buying things they don’t want and tours that don’t deliver what they promise.
In response to these problems the government continues to make changes. The latest was announced this month and focuses on shady taxi drivers. According to the director of Tan Son Nhat Airport there were more than 2,000 reported cases in 2011 of drivers overcharging customers or refusing service to those traveling short distances. Now, local companies have been ordered to revoke the licenses of those caught. In addition, the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has been tasked with finding a way to make it easier for people to report violations.
So now the big question – will it work? After debating both sides over breakfast, my friend and I agree that the key is getting the information to tourists as soon as they step foot off a plane or a bus. Visitors are most vulnerable in these spots and smooth salesmen are available by the dozens to offer terrible “deals” to take people to their hotel. It can be tough to get a ride from a reputable company since they’re in demand from locals and expats alike in these areas. Tourists need to know that it’s worth the wait to get one of these generally trustworthy cabs as well as approximately how much a trip should cost in case they get into a car with a fast-running meter. Making it simple to report violations, no matter the language, will make it safer for all passengers. The abuse won’t stop until people know how to speak up.
Tourists won’t be the only ones to benefit from these changes. Expats also get taken for rides now and again. Earlier in the week I hailed a cab from a solid company and asked the driver to take me to the Bitexco Financial Tower. I sent a few quick texts to the people I was meeting, then lifted my head and looked outside. We were on the wrong road in the wrong section of town. The end result was a fare more than double what it should have been. Did the driver just get lost or did he do it on purpose to run up the meter? I don’t know, and in the end it didn’t matter because I had no other choice but to pay him. Hopefully I’ll have more options in the future.