TOURIST WARNING TO VISITORS OF SAIGON - TAXI KIDNAPPING
by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
I’m blogging this not to frighten my family and friends but in the wish of informing tourists planning to go to Saigon, Vietnam. My friend and I were kidnapped by a taxi driver in Saigon, and were fortunately released. Let me tell you what happened.
My friend Cynthia and I booked a package tour via Philippine Airlines for 4 nights in Saigon, staying at the Lavender Hotel near Ben Thant Market. We arrived Saigon in the afternoon and after resting, we visited the market and had supper at nearby Pho 2000 (where Bill Clinton had visited). After supper, the Night Market near Ben Thant Market was in full swing, and we browsed around. By around 8:30 p.m,. we decided to have drinks at the Saigon Saigon Bar in the historic Caravelle Hotel. Not knowing that it was walking distance, we took a taxi.
I should mention that my husband and I had visited Vietnam last February and our tour guide had emphasized then that Mai Linh Taxi was safe. This information was embedded in my head, and the taxi Cynthia and I hailed in front of the Night Market was Mai Linh. We got in, closed the doors, and told the taxi driver to take us to the Caravelle Hotel.
Cynthia and I had no idea what amount the taxi meter should have started with; we were thoroughly confused with the Vietnamese dong with a lot of zeroes (1 dollar equaled approximately 20,000 dong). When we approached Caravelle, the driver did not stop right in front of the hotel but turned into a dark parking lot, and then he demanded 632,000 dong. The meter showed these figures.
Cynthia spent a lot of time trying to figure out the dollar equivalent of this figure. Cynthia kept asking how much that was in dollars, and the driver was adamant about wanting 632,000 dong. Cynthia and I finally figured this was around 30 dollars, and puzzled we told the driver it only cost $7 dollars from the airport to our hotel. The driver would not budge. Finally we said we should talk to a policeman to sort this out.
He started up his car and said we would go to the police. He continued driving, away from the city center, and meantime Cynthia and I discovered that the backseat doors did not have handles, that we could not lower the windows. In short we were trapped.
We tried to call our hotel with our cell phones but it was dark and even with some light (from another cell phone) the fine print in the back on our key card was impossible to read. In fact, even if we had gotten hold of the hotel, what would we have told them? – we didn’t even know where we were.
He continued driving for around 15 minutes, and meantime we started to pray. Every time we asked where he was taking us he would say, “Far far away.” We were afraid he would take us somewhere isolated and rob and hurt us. All sorts of frightening thoughts rushed to my head.
Perhaps it was from panic but I thought we should try to call the attention of other cars. I started banging on the left side window. At this the driver snapped and yelled something which clearly meant, “Stop it!” Then he reached for his glove compartment. I assumed he had a weapon in there.
At this time, Cynthia calmly and firmly said, “Stop the car now, so we can talk.”
To our surprise he pulled over to the right side of the wide avenue. He said it would cost us more to take a taxi from here to our hotel. I said I didn’t care and to let us out. He did not open our doors, and then I fully understood that we were his captives and he wanted ransom money. I fished around in my wallet and thought of offering him dong to release us. On second thought I decided to offer him dollars (he had earlier displayed an ignorance about the dong-dollar exchange). I said, “We do not have that kind of money (referring to his demand of 632,000 dong), but I have some dollars and I’ll give it to you.”
He said, “Five dollars.”
I said, “Yes, we will give you five dollars.”
He extended his right hand and demanded the money, “Give! Give now!”
Firmly I said no, “Take us to hotel. Open door, let us out and I give you money.”
He started the car and turned and headed toward where we had come from. He kept wanting the money. I was firm, “No, hotel, open door, we get out, I give you money.” I made sure he saw the dollar bills in my hand. He said something like how did he know we would give him the money when he let us out. I said, “I promise” in the firmest voice I could muster. (At this point I was quite willing to give him more than five dollars.)
He brought us near Caravelle, not in front of the hotel, but across the way, where I supposed he thought he wouldn’t be spotted by security guards. He got out, came around and opened the right rear door. Before this Cynthia and I had planned that Cynthia would take down the plate number and taxi number and information. Pencil and map in hand, she slid out the car. I moved slowly to allow Cynthia time to write down the information.
When I was outside, I stood in front of the man and before giving him our ransom money pointed an accusing finger at him and scolded him, “We are old enough to be your mother and you take money from us this way!” I handed the wad of bills to him and he quickly went to the driver’s side and drove away.
We told the security guards at Caravelle about what happened to us and they called a taxi to take us to the police to file a report. We opted to go to the Saigon Saigon Bar to catch our breath. We had B-52 drinks, little drinks in small glasses, that we downed.
Later that night we reported the incident to the staff in our hotel who became defensive, thinking we were blaming them. We assured them that we simply wanted the matter reported to the authorities and Mai Linh.
I will truncate the story and say that the next day, the hotel called Mai Linh who said the car wasn’t theirs and there the matter ended. They did not report the incident to the police. We did not want to waste any more of our time on the matter either and did not file a police report. Cynthia and I resolved we would post this incident in the internet to warn other tourists.
Tourists – beware! - even though Mai Linh and Vina Sun are reputable cab companies in Saigon, there are fake Mai Linh and Vina Sun taxis around. Get a cab from your hotel or other establishments; they usually have dispatchers. At the very least, take Vina Sun, make sure the driver is in uniform with a badge, and check the doors to make sure the handles are there. If you are not sure, walk. Downtown Saigon is small and one can walk from one landmark to the next. It will be safer.
The report that Cynthia and I presented to the hotel:
Incident Report 7/15/11
Taxi - Mai Linh Group
Taxi #: 263
Plate number: 52X 2258
8:45 p.m. We took a taxi near Ben Thanh Market to Caravelle Hotel. Driver demanded 632,000 dong; we gave 100,000 dong thinking he meant 63,200 dong. He demanded 632,000 dong. He started to drive away taking us away from the center of town. We said we wanted to be brought to the police. He kept driving. We realized the back doors did not have door handles and we could not open the windows. One of us started banging the back window. Driver became angry and reached for his glove compartment. One of us suggested he stop the car so we can talk. He did, and said it would cost us more if he let us out there. He wanted $5. We said yes.
By 9:20 p.m. we were back in the area near Caravelle. We gave him the $5, he left. We had taken down his plate number and taxi information.
The driver was around 30 years old, 5'1'' 130 lbs, wearing a baseball cap, light skinned Asian man.
Here's a picture of me and Cynthia in the Saigon Saigon Bar immediately after the abduction - note our tense faces!