Saigon should not continue letting its reputation be tarnished by the ‘ugly Saigonese,’ those who see foreign tourists as cash cows and blatantly extort them, a seasoned urban studies expert argues.
Dr. Nguyen Minh Hoa said he did not coin the term “ugly Saigonese,” but learnt it from a Malaysian professor, who is the head of an institute for environmental research and has frequently been on business trips to the southern Vietnamese metropolis.
“Professor Badarudin began using that phrase after being badly treated many times by a few people in Saigon,” Hoa said in a piece sent to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
The Vietnamese urban studies expert used the former name of Ho Chi Minh City in his statement.
He is among many readers who provided feedback on recent Tuoi Tre reports that unearthed scammers exclusively targeting foreigners in the city.
These scammers are coconut peddlers who are willing to charge foreign tourists cut-throat prices, or invite them to pose for a photograph with their ganh – the bamboo yokes hung with baskets at each end used to carry the fruits around – and demand up to VND200,000 (US$10) for it.
A recent undercover Tuoi Tre mission revealed that foreigners are charged by street vendors as much as VND200,000 for two coconuts, which normally cost only VND30,000 ($1.4) at most.
“The professor told me he is annoyed by the xe om [motorbike taxi] and street peddlers almost every time he is in the city,” Hoa said.
“He once had to pay VND2 million [$93] for a taxi ride from the city’s downtown to RMIT University in District 7.”
Hoa said he works at an organization frequently visited by scientists all over the world, most of whom are cheated by Vietnamese cabbies at least once.
“The taxi drivers would drive without resetting the meters, or take our guests on roundabout trips,” he said. “And our female guests always fall victim to the dishonest vendors who sell coconuts, key chains and maps both on the streets and in the markets.”
Hoa underlined that these international scientists will have a negative impression of Ho Chi Minh City thanks to such bad experiences, no matter how the Vietnamese side tries to excuse and explain.
“Even worse, these international guests will share their bad stories with others,” Hoa said.
Hoa himself is a frequent flyer, and he said it is no surprise to see more than 80 percent of visitors to Vietnam never come back.
“There are dozens of warnings about scams, rip-offs and pickpockets in Vietnam on global travel guidance websites or forums,” he said.
“Our tourism authorities have also strived to improve things, but it does not seem to be enough to reassure tourists.”
The power of public voice
Hoa said the ‘ugly Saigonese’ are those who come to Saigon from other localities to earn a livelihood.
Ho Chi Minh City is known as a melting pot, and while some try their utmost to contribute to the city’s development, others only seek to earn money by all means, even through scams and crimes.
“These are the real ‘ugly Saigonese’ who ruin the reputation of this city,” Hoa pressed.
One problem is that laws are not harsh enough to penalize these scammers.
“The question is why such ugly actions do not exist in Malaysia, Singapore, or South Korea but they can easily be found in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City?” he said.
Hoa said while local residents and tourists cannot bank on the law to have the ‘ugly Saigonese’ penalized, another kind of power should be deployed to “prevent them from bringing the city into disrepute.”
“We should use social attitude and the public voice,” he elaborated.
The expert said the scammers or dishonest peddlers may be discouraged from continuing their acts when they are repeatedly mentioned in the media and condemned, criticized and boycotted by members of the public.
“They will have to review their behavior and actions once their family members, such as parents and children, feel ashamed of what they are doing,” he concluded.