Hung and another cyclo driver each quickly took a US$50 note from the wallets of an Australian couple after dropping them with their two children at the Independence Palace last Thursday.
The couple gesticulated, asking for their money back, but Hung and his friend just smiled and rode away.
The Australian man said they had been brought from Ben Thanh Market, a kilometer away.
He said it was their first time in Vietnam and so did not know prices or directions.
“We feel unhappy because they took a lot of money,” he told a Tuoi Tre reporter.
An investigation by Tuoi Tre found Hung is one of 10 freelance cyclo drivers stationed around Ben Thanh Market. They charge foreign tourists exorbitant prices, usually 10 times what is agreed in advance.
They would grab money straight from customers’ pockets if the latter are reluctant to pay.
Last Tuesday Hung allegedly snatched $200 from another Australian tourist after driving 1.2 kilometers from Ben Thanh.
The woman said he had agreed to take $20.
“I was shocked and angry,” she said.
Sometimes the rip-off is accompanied by violence.
That happened last Wednesday when Minh, a driver in the same group, took Chang Lee, a 28-year-old Taiwanese, from Ben Thanh to Tran Hung Dao Street in District 1.
Minh called a colleague named Long to wait for him there.
When he arrived, he announced a huge fare and quickly took some notes from the customer’s bag.
They quarreled and Lee grabbed Minh’s arm to drag him to a police station.
Long showed up and rescued his friend and they both left.
Lee said Minh had agreed to take VND150,000, but took VND1 million.
On another occasion, four tourists from New Zealand were in four cyclos from the group.
When they stopped at a café to pay money, Long and Minh named a number and the tourists refused. They argued and the drivers snatched VND100,000 notes from the tourists, screaming “More, more.”
They only left after one of the male visitors was furious and slammed a table.
The tourists said VND6 million, or around $300, had been taken.
“We found the cyclo interesting and we wanted to try them; we did not expect that to happen,” one of them said.
A woman in the group said the drivers had been very friendly at first, telling them about popular places in the city and showing them where to shop.
A local man living on Tran Hung Dao Street said he sees the cyclo drivers arguing with tourists every day.
When some female tourists said they did not have enough cash, the drivers would escort them to a nearby ATM to withdraw money, he said.
A representative of District 1 Cyclo Association said their members sign an agreement to charge tourists only VND50,000, around $2.5, an hour and wear uniforms.
But he also said they only serve clients of travel agencies. So tourists traveling on their own end up with thugs like Hung and his gang.
A police officer said the District 1 police have photos of several drivers notorious for cheating customers in the area, and so victims can go to any police station to report.
It is not clear if the tourists have been given their money back.
One day after Tuoi Tre published the story, it cited a city official as saying that local authorities will look into the issue and deal with violations strictly.