I really thought, by now, after over four months in Asia and experience with virtually every taxi scam permutation known to man, my naïve London belief that anyone in a metered taxi with a light-up sign will know where they are going, own a map, and not take the piss too badly would have disappeared.
Apparently, however, this is still not the case.
We arrived in Hanoi on the Reunification Express and fended off the first wave of touts, who boarded the train brandishing offers of motorbikes and taxis.
Z, who, like any small boy, likes nothing better than hopping on the back of a motorbike and whizzing through city traffic, wanted to take a xe om (motorbike taxi). I said I couldn’t be arsed to haggle, and as we were only going a kilometre or so we might as well take a metered taxi. This was not my best idea…
With hindsight, our first warning sign was pretty obvious. The first taxi we approached didn’t want to use his meter. If we wanted a meter, he said, we should go with his friend. No prizes for guessing why…
But I think it would have required advanced paranoia to have spotted the problem when, after I ask the driver to take us to the Tam Thuong guesthouse and show him the address, he makes a phone call and hands the phone to me.
“Hello,” says a female voice. “This is the Tam Thuong guesthouse. You have a reservation?”
“No,” I say. “Do you have rooms free?”
“Yes, yes,” she says.
“How much are your rooms?” I ask.
“Different prices,” she says. “We have many different rooms, many different prices. We are waiting for you and I have told your driver where to go.”
I hand the phone back to the driver, mildly confused by his generosity in using up his phone bill on us, slightly concerned by the lady’s unwillingness to price, but otherwise unsuspecting.
One of the more surprising educational outcomes of longterm round the world travel for kids is serious global street smarts. So it is my spawn, not me, who spots, a minute in, that the taximan’s meter is fast. I am ashamed to say that I dismiss his concerns and demands to get out on the grounds that we are right around the corner.
At the 1.5km mark we are some way off where I think we should be, according to my map. I ask the driver why we are on this road, and how far we have to go.
“Not far,” he says. “Tam Thuong guesthouse is just here.”
“Ah,” I say, and start tip-tilting the map to implausible angles to try and correlate our street location with our guesthouse location.
Lo and behold, we pull up, at an address which does not correlate to the address I had given our driver. A chap emerges and grabs our bags.
“Hello,” he says. “Welcome to the Tam Thuong guesthouse.”
I notice the meter is now pushing 90,000 dong ($5), or about three or four times the price I had guesstimated the fare would be. I also notice that the guesthouse we have arrived at is not in an alleyway, whereas the Tam Thuong guesthouse is.
First things first, I think, and pay the driver to dispose of the ticking meter, drag Z out of the city traffic and follow our host inside. I look again at the door of the place we have entered. It reads “Friendly” something or other.
“Is this the Tam Thuong guesthouse?” I ask, rather bewildered.
A lady whose voice I recognise from the phone says, “Yes, yes, this is the Tam Thuong guesthouse. Would you like to see a room?”
By this point, I am feeling slightly dazed. It’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland moment. Three separate people are telling me this is the Tam Thuong guesthouse. But the signage is against them. I am utterly mystified.
I cast my eyes around the place. I pick up a card from the table.
“But this card says “Friendly [something]”,” I say. “Not Tam Thuong.”
“This is the Tam Thuong guesthouse,” she reiterates.
I wander outside and scrutinise the exterior signage. This definitely reads “Friendly” something. I check the street name. This is also incorrect.
I go back in. The chap grabs our bags to take them upstairs. I grab them back.
“Would you like to see a room?” asks the nice lady from the phone.
“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I would like to go to the Tam Thuong guesthouse, where I paid that man 90,000 dong to take us.”
“What’s up, Mum?” asks Z.
I explain the situation to him in language which is neither child-friendly nor complimentary to our taxi driver. Having exhausted permutations of the f-bomb, I drop the c-bomb, a word which Z has been eager to learn since I last used it on some dogs which were following us down a back street in Kampot, Cambodia.
“What did you say, Mum?!” he says.
“Not to worry,” I say. “I used a bad word.”
“What word, Mum?” he asks, face lighting up. “Did you use the c-word? What is it?!”
“Never mind that,” I say. “We need to get the fuck out of here and to our guesthouse. Wherever the fuck that is.”
“I told you we should have taken a xe om,” Z says. “Let’s just get a xe om now.”
“Can I help you?” asks the lady, who, to her immense credit, realizes that the game is up.
“Yes,” I say, summoning reserves of English politeness. When in Asia it is always best to extricate oneself from challenging situations without creating any loss of face. I adopt the position of one who has wandered in off the street asking for directions. “Please can you give us directions to the Tam Thuong guesthouse?”
She, too, decides to discount the previous five minutes of asseverations and our earlier phone conversation, and gives us accurate directions to our guesthouse. This is, in fact, a mere five minute schlep through a spectacular dust devil, followed by an epic tropical rainstorm, assuming you know the alleyway in question which, of course, we don’t, and can keep your eyes open, which, of course, we can’t.
As we leave, I can’t help noticing that she has acquired 30,000 dong from somewhere. I can only assume this was our driver’s commission.
Anywise. Herewith ten simple tips to avoid or mitigate most taxi scams.
TEN WAYS TO AVOID GETTING STUNG IN A TAXI
1: Ask someone who knows – a local, expat or someone at your guesthouse – how much the fare should be.
2: Carry a map (or use your GPS).
3: At stations or airports, get a cab from a rank, not a tout. In the street, take only a cab you have flagged down, not one which has slowed because you look lost/foreign/like a tourist/like a mark.
4: Say your destination clearly. But also write down your destination and show it to the driver. If it’s off a main road, write down the main road.
5: Ask the driver if they know where your destination is.
6: If they don’t, or affect not to understand you, get a different taxi.
7: Check the taxi has a meter, that it is set at the starting point, and the driver is prepared to use it.
8: Once moving, check the speed of the meter.
9: Follow your journey on a map and raise it with the driver the minute the route seems odd.
10: If the meter seems fast or the route seems odd, get out and get another taxi.