Scams in Saigon: It’s more than just the coconut peddlers

Foreign tourists in Ho Chi Minh City should watch out for the vendors who could force them to pay up to US$5 for a coconut, but they may still fall victim to many other scams

A coconut peddler tries to lure two foreign tourists on Nguyen Du Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, on May 5, 2015.

Foreign tourists in Ho Chi Minh City are now advised to watch out for the vendors who could force them to pay up to US$5 for a coconut, five to six times what locals pay, but there are many other scams foreigners may fall prey to.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

Tran Xuan Hung, director of Viking Travel & Media Corp, sounded an alarm about these dangers in an op-ed sent to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Tuesday, shortly after reading the coconut rip-offs in Saigon article the same day.

These coconut peddlers will 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 ($10) for the tool.

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.

“But there are many other tricks the street vendors in downtown Ho Chi Minh City use to target foreign tourists,” Hung wrote.

Getting cheated by hard-life appearances

Some visitors are moved by the apparent hard life of the peddlers, who sometimes bring little, sick children with them to work, so they are willing to buy their stuff to help.

Tourists usually ask for the prices, and will be told in English that they can pay whatever prices they want, Hung said.

“But the vendors then charge them VND50,000 to VND100,000 [$2.33-$4.66] and the visitors, failing to argue, have no choice but to open their wallets,” he said.

The Viking director said some peanut and coconut sellers tend to tell tourists that their goods cost only “fifteen thousand” (Vietnamese dong) each, but in fact demand “fifty thousand” once the products are delivered.

“They intentionally mispronouce the word 'fifteen' in subtle ways to dupe tourists,” he said.

And there are also dishonest shoeshiners who quote VND20,000 to get a nod from their foreign customers, but will eventually ask for up to VND200,000 for “repairs they make without asking permission from the customers,” Hung said in his piece.

“The tourists may start a blazing quarrel with the boot polishers but in the end they will pay to settle things.”

Tourists could also fall victim to cyclo rickshaw drivers who take them on a roundabout ride and stop at an empty area to extort their money. The foreign visitors will pay immediately in fear of being assaulted.

The writer also noted that these scammers are now hunting for victims not only in the downtown area, but many other places such as Cho Lon, Thien Hau Pagoda and An Dong Market in District 5 and Binh Tay Market in District 6.

“The peddlers are more and more blatant in their rip-offs toward tourists,” he said, adding European visitors in small groups are their favorite target because they “look polite and affluent.”

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Tuoi Tre reported on Tuesday there are around 30 coconut peddlers who overcharge foreigners in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, but Hung said the real figure “must be two to three times that number.”

Each area is under the control of a particular group of scammers, who can speak English and are willing to become gangsters, Hung said.

“They are confident in cheating tourists in broad daylight and are not scared of anyone.”

How to protect tourists?

Hung suggested that Ho Chi Minh City follow the model of Da Nang, Vietnam’s central tourism hub, which runs a hotline to receive complaints against dishonest peddlers.

“The city should also set up security stations at its famous attractions such as the Central Post Office, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, or Saigon Square,” he added.

Hung said it is more convenient for tourists to report to this security force, rather than having to complete the time-consuming formality at local authorities’ offices.

“Tour guides taking holidaymakers around the city should also warn them of these scammers,” he said.

Local authorities have seemingly begun to take action.

Huynh Gia Giang, chairman of Ward 6 of District 3, said the ward administration is preparing a plan to “seriously handle the coconut rip-off issue.”

The Ward 6 administration will also join hands with the War Remnants Museum to hang signs in English to warn foreign visitors of the scams.

The administration of District 1, meanwhile, has called on Tuoi Tre to “provide information about the scammers” so that it can “work with them,” the district’s deputy chairman Le Truong Hai Hieu said Tuesday.

“However, it’s difficult to collect evidence showing that tourists are charged VND50,000 for a coconut,” Hieu admitted.

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