26 October 2010
How to spook a Vietnamese taxi driver
Michael Jennings
This is actually in Saigon

I was in Hanoi a couple of weeks ago. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been getting richer very rapidly ever since it de facto abandoned socialism, but is not yet rich enough to have metro systems in its cities, and private car ownership is still relatively rare. There are a few buses, but for a person unfamiliar with the local geography and the local language, riding a bus can be problematic as it is easy to catch a bus that will make an unexpected turn and take you to an unexpected place.

However, motorcycle ownership is ubiquitous. (Seriously, apart from the mobile phone, is there any invention that is more empowering for people in poor countries than the motorcycle?) People who in some countries would look to buy a stylish car here look to buy a stylish motorcycle or scooter - Vietnam is Italian brand Vespa’s largest market by far. This leads to one way of getting around. If you are a foreigner, men sitting by the side of the road next to a motorcycle will often look at you and either utter the word “motorbike” or make a gesture imitating the turning of handlebars. If you say yes, you explain to them where you want to go, agree on a price, you get on the back of the motorcycle and they ride you across town. This, of course, involves a certain amount of haggling over the price, is only good for one person at a time, and is not ideal if you have a lot of luggage or the weather is bad, Plus there is an element of danger. This is not perhaps as bad as you might think, as traffic speeds are relatively low, and there are relatively few larger vehicles on the roads. Colliding with another motorcycle at low speed is unlikely to lead to serious injury, whereas colliding with a bus at higher speed is more dangerous.

Motorcycle taxis are useful, but they have the various hassles just mentioned. Fortunately, the bulk of the larger vehicles on the road are taxis.

As a rule, I do not like using taxis. Having got in a car, you are then totally at the mercy of the driver. There are many, many, many scams by which taxi drivers will attempt to overcharge you, particularly if you are a foreigner, look tired, are hailing a taxi at an airport or other tourist destination, and are not familiar with the city. These can vary from the simple “We will go via the scenic route” trick to the at times enjoyably creative and baroque. Sometimes drivers will be insistent on taking you to where they want to go rather than where you want to go, possibly because the owner of the hotel or shop at that destination will pay them commission, and sometimes simply because they are going that way. Sometimes they will commit outright fraud against you - watch out for being given forged money as change if you are ever in Buenos Aires (and indeed watch for every other form of taxi driver bad behaviour if you are ever in Buenos Aires). The trick of the rigged meter which has a special setting for unwary foreigners is annoyingly common, too.

There are some places where taxis are more honest, and some where they are not. For instance, I have never encountered a dishonest taxi driver in China, but I don’t think I have encountered an honest one in Bulgaria. (My sample size is limited, as after a couple of dishonest ones, I decided to never get into a taxi in that country ever again). The trouble is that you can never really know which category the country you have arrived in fits into until you have some experience, which is why dishonest taxi drivers are attracted to airports, where they find customers who lack experience, and as a bonus are usually very tired and unfamiliar with the alternatives to taking taxis. There is probably a (weak) correlation with wealth, and there is certainly a correlation with the rule of law, but it is still not always easy to pick. (On the other hand, in Singapore, there is a sign in large letters in multiple languages inside every taxi giving the number of the taxi and a phone number to call if you have any complaint at all about the taxi driver. I do not know what the punishment is for being a dishonest taxi driver in Singapore, but I suspect it features loss of licence and a fine of many thousands of dollars and that it is strictly enforced. Singapore taxi drivers take you where you are going, by the most direct route, and charge what is on the meter. And I could have picked that).

Once a country is rich enough and/or the rule of law is strong enough, the problem of dishonesty does not entirely go away, but it is replaced by something else - the problem of regulatory capture. Governments feel the need to set fares, so that customers can be sure of what they will pay. (There is still lots of scope for refusing to turn the meter on, taking the passenger the long way, etc, just the same). Governments feel the need to restrict the number of licensed taxis, so that drivers are guaranteed a decent income, or something. In places such as Sydney and New York, this has simply led to taxi licences being sold from party to party for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, taxi owners demanding large returns on their immensely valuable licences and so lobbying governments (successfully) to set high fares and to further restrict the supply of licences, and drivers still making a pittance after paying most of their fares as rent to the taxi owners. Thus you end up with a situation where fares are high, supply is low, and taxi drivers are paid poorly. In London, we have restrictive licensing, in which what is actually a relatively low skilled job is turned into a high skilled one by requiring taxi drivers to train for several years (gaining “The Knowledge”) before being permitted to drive a taxi. Supply is restricted by an artificial shortage of drivers, and high fares are justified. The drivers are well paid, but customers are again poorly served. In both London and New York, alternative classes of taxi have come into being outside the regulatory system, and these basically come down to the system you find in third world countries before taxis have been given meters. You approach the owner of the taxi (in London, the office of a minicab company), agree on a price in advance, and you are taken there. Of course, Transport for London recently noticed that minicabs were not regulated enough, and started imposing all kinds of onerous licensing requirements on them, too (accompanied by a publicity campaign aimed at scaring the public away from using any vehicle without a licence), so the cycle is unending.

Which gets me back to Vietnam. In Hanoi, there are very few actual regulations on the operation of taxis. There is no limit on the number of taxis. I do not know if the government requires taxis to have meters, but they all have them. There is a sign on the top of most taxis including the world “meter” in large letters, as it is understood that customers want meters. The flagfall and cost per kilometre of riding in the taxi is prominently displayed inside and outside the taxi. There are over a hundred taxi companies, and the name of the taxi company is displayed on the side of the taxi. Those taxis that have are known for being reputable have the name in more prominent letters. There is no regulation of fares. Different taxi companies charge different fares. More importantly, smaller taxis charge less than those using larger cars. Taxis in fancier cars charge more than in less fancy cars. In most places, taxi fares are regulated to a single rate. This leads to a uniformity of cars used as taxis, as passengers would generally choose a more spacious or more expensive car if the cost is the same. This means that in Hanoi there are lots of small taxis (which use less fuel, cause less pollution, and cause less road congestion), whereas in many other places they are rare. (The most common vehicle used for taxis in Hanoi is probably the Daewoo Matiz / Chevrolet Spark). There are lots of taxis in general, which is good if you are trying to hail one. I suspect that drivers still do not earn very much, but that is the nature of the profession, and a consequence of the fact that in Vietnam, a lot of people do not earn very much. There is fast economic growth, and economic opportunities come out of that.

And as a passenger, the experience was a good one. Taxi drivers always turn on the meter. Fares are low. Due to the level of competition, fares are very similar regardless of the taxi company. I am also told that fares change rapidly in response to changes in the price of petrol and/or interest rates. My guidebook said that there are a few “tourist taxis” which pick up passengers near five star hotels and charge exorbitant fares, but I did not encounter one. My only taxi driver incident was more amusing than anything else.

I had an iPad with me in Vietnam. When I first connected to a WiFi hotspot in Hanoi, its maps application downloaded a detailed map of the entire city of Hanoi. Once I had that, the assisted GPS in the iPad allowed me to see where I was at any time on this map. Basically, if I was moving, I would be able to look at the map, and a little animated blue dot would show me exactly where I was. After a nice dinner at James Waterton’s home (thanks mate) I got in a taxi, got out the iPad, showed the driver where I wanted to go on the map, and away we went. As it happened, he headed in the exact opposite direction to where he was supposed to be going. I let him do this for a couple of minutes, and when we were stopped at a traffic light, I showed him the iPad, and pointed out the blue dot to demonstrate that I knew exactly what he was doing.

After that, he took me straight back to my hotel.

  1. On Restrictive Licencing:

    In my home town, as well as the artificial limit on the number of licences*, the council (ie the council officials, many of whose relative are probably black-cab drivers) has recently decreed that ALL black cabs must be eight-seater vehicles.

    A nice barrier to competition, is it not, given the cost of such things?

    And of course, it has the effect that single person hires are rumbling around in what amount to small buses, with all that means in terms of fuel usage, carbon emissions (if you care about such things), congestion, and so on. There are simply no smaller vehicles to choose from.

    * And boy, do the drivers complain if anyone suggests a few more taxis on the road might be a good thing - shameless is hardly the word.

    Posted by Andrew Duffin on  26 October 2010 at 04:14 pm

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