Here at the Ungraceful Guide we are big advocates of ethical travel. What do we mean by ethical travel? No, we’re not going to start in on the evils of animal tourism (although we are REALLY against it). We mean travel that enriches both you and the environment in which you are travelling and doesn’t take from it in any way.
This involves a little work on your end. For example it’s important to know the rules and cultural expectations you are required to observe as a visitor to a place so that you don’t end up offending or accidentally marrying someone. It also sometimes, unfortunately, involves knowing the places, people and scams to avoid.
It is with heavy heart that I say, in no place we’ve ever been has this last statement thrown up more scam warning red flags than Vietnam.
So far the other Southeast Asian countries we’ve been to, Thailand and Laos, have been amazing and challenging in equal measure, owing to the language barriers and cultural differences, but the people have always been super friendly, respectful and quick to help.
Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying the Vietnamese people are not friendly, for the most part they are, but helpful they certainly are not.
When money enters the equation there’s an underlying attitude, something just behind the smile that I can’t put my finger on. Anyone who has been here, particularly travelling on a budget will tell you, when it the time comes to pay for things it can get a little awkward, and quick. A previously shy and smiley face can suddenly seem stern and hardened.
Again I’m not trying to paint an entire country with the same brush and this is only my personal opinion, which amounts to about one third of jack shit and should most certainly never colour anyone against visiting. In fact just the opposite, I think it’s something everyone should experience at some stage in their lives.
In saying that, fore warned is forearmed as they say, so from our research (and some first hand experience) we’ve compiled a list of the top ten risks to your pocket and your sanity to help you navigate the Land of the Blue Dragon.
The Shoemaker Swindle:
A kindly gent/lady approaches you pointing at your shoes asking you to lift your foot so they can either fix it or sell you a new pair, next thing you know your shoe is off for a moment and the transaction is complete you are expected to either pay for the imaginary work, new shoe or deal with a very irate cobbler making a scene.
Your best bet:
Simple, never lift your foot, smile politely or just say no and walk away.
The Taxi Treachery:
There are so many scams with taxi drivers it could nearly be its own post, but the most common of them seem to be:
You get to your destination only to find the price you were quoted at the beginning of your journey is now PER PERSON, this is particularly harsh if you cab shared with a bunch of strangers to keep costs down.
You got in a metered cab to be safe and all of a sudden the meter is moving faster than Usain Bolts speedos on a race day.
You got in a metered cab and the driver tacked on an extra zero to the price and is asking for 450,000 VND (€16.50) for what is quite clearly metered as 45,000 VND (€1.65)
Your best bet:
We are big advocates of avoiding taxis at all costs in all countries unless ABSOLUTELY necessary. If you do wish to avail of a taxi service while in Vietnam we recommend you use either Uber or Grab. Both are apps and thus afford a certain recourse should you have any issues with the driver. For more info on useful travel apps have a read of this wonderful blog.
The Motorcycle Machination:
Renting a motorbike and taking to the winding green landscapes of Vietnam is such an iconic thing to do.
Unfortunately this means there are more than one scam associated with the rental game:
You rent your bike, drive to your destination or to your accommodation and lock the bike safely using the lock provided and head off to visit the attraction or off to bed for the night. Along comes a guy from the rental place with a spare key and boom! your bike is “stolen” and you’re expected to pay full price (between €1000 – €2000 ) to replace a bike that, not only wasn’t actually stolen, was probably only worth about €100 to start off with.
You rent the bike and head off for the day leaving your passport as deposit and when you return the bike has been “damaged” somehow and you are liable for a lotto-winning-esque cash payout at the behest of your now hostage travel document.
You rent the (dodgy) bike and head off only to break down a few kilometers down the road, the rental guys come out to you either with a new bike or a tow truck and sticks you with a bill higher than Snoop Dog on a Friday night.
Your best bet:
These scams are so frequent in Vietnam that there is a wealth of information online. A quick google will turn up a list as long as ‘The Lord of The Rings’ trilogy of where NOT to rent.
Always try to find a place with positive reviews online, or speak to people in your hostel who have rented already and if possible don’t hand over your passport, if you can avoid it. If you offer another form of I.D and they turn you down maybe look elsewhere.
We always rent a motorbike from our hostel as usually we don’t need to forfeit our passport. Sure they have everything we own as hostage!
The Helpful Hoodwinking:
This sting is common enough in any country where tourists and backpackers travel long distances by train bus or taxi. Arriving to, or leaving your destination, you are always no doubt frazzled by the buzz of activity around you, when all of a sudden some kindly individual will help you (without your permission) move your bag from one mode of transport to another quicker than me putting away my wallet when someone offers to pay the bill. And quicker still that once helpful hand will then shoot out for a tip.
Your best bet:
Unfortunately the only way to avoid this is to keep a tight hold on your bags when arriving to or leaving a destination. If they do get to your bags before you do you have two options either stand your ground, take your bag and walk away (but never become angry, stay calm, smile and be persistent) or, if you prefer to avoid any confrontation, hand them a small note or coin. An insult, yes but it shows you have no intention in paying them for a service you didn’t opt in for. A more awkward third option to get them to leave you alone is to take out your phone and record them. People hate to be caught on candid camera.
You are under no obligation to pay and if it comes to it don’t be afraid to match their rudeness with your own, but remember don’t become angry. If you do, you lose!
The Currency Conspiracy:
You need to be very careful when purchasing anything in Vietnam, as tourism is such a big industry here sometimes you’ll find things priced in dong and sometimes in dollars.
Be specific with people when buying, particularly at markets and stalls, you may find the vendor waves five fingers at you. This gesture is about as cryptic as French art-house cinema without subtitles. It could mean 5,000 VND (€0.18), 50,000 VND (€1.80), 500,000 (€18.50) or $5.00 (€4.28).
Your best bet:
This is easy enough avoided, use the desired note to illustrate how much you expect to part with i.e. if the vendor waves five fingers you wave a 5,000 VND note, always pay in small notes or exact if you can and don’t part with any money before you are holding your purchase. Too easy.
The Dining Deception:
Another common trick are restaurants that display menus and pictures but no prices.
You finally choose a place to eat and are assured by your waiter in VERY broken English that the food is cheap. This seems to be about all your sever knows how to say in your mother tongue, so you assume it must be true as he apparently has used the phrase so frequently. You order away thinking it’ll be fine, sure the whole country is quite cheap how much could it cost? Then the bill comes, like a plastic football to the face on a cold winter lunch break when you were still in junior infants (kindergarten) and there’s nothing you can do having already consumed the offending cuisine.
Your best bet:
Come on now, this goes without saying. Never, EVER eat anything in Vietnam without triple checking the price first. Also, as a general rule we would advise against eating anywhere that doesn’t display the prices, otherwise you may just stand there and take that ball to the face, cause you deserve it.
The Rickshaw Ruse:
As well as running similar scams to the taxi drivers, a common scam with the rickshaw/cyclo drivers is they will offer to take you to an attraction and back for a set fee. This may seem like a reasonable fee, you may have even managed to haggle them down some only to find when you leave the attraction for your return journey, that you now need to pay them an extortionate amount of money for their “waiting time” – upwards of 500,000 VND (€18). They may even pull a card trick to rival David Blaine producing an official time card out of nowhere with the rate on it that you most certainly did not see before agreeing to take the trip.
Worse again, some drivers have been known to take tourists miles away from their desired destination and civilization, and will threaten to leave you there if you don’t hand over a large sum of money (OK so “large” may only be like €5 but it’s the principal of the thing).
Your best bet:
Honestly, if you want to experience Vietnamese traffic first hand, rent a bike, albeit motor or push bike. There’s enough public transport or tours to get you to all the places you could have a want to visit. In our humble opinion anywhere a rickshaw can take you, you’re better off just walking, or be prepared for that football again.
The Moolah Maneuver:
This one is waaaay to easy to fall victim to, and again, is a big one with street vendors and cabbies in particular. Using slight of a hand that would fool Penn and Teller, you will be handed what you think is your change but some of the notes will be swapped for notes of smaller denomination.
This is particularly true of the 10,000 VND (€0.37) and 100,000 VND (€3.67) notes which are quite similar and the 20,000 VND (€0.73) and 500,000 VND (€18.35) which are nearly identical. Ouch.
Your best bet:
There’s no way around this one. Our suggestion is to only ever pay at stalls with small notes. Be super vigilant with what you are handing over, where it goes, and what you’re getting back. Try to only ever use large notes to pay for accommodation or tours and transport or in supermarkets or be prepared to enjoy the most expensive magic show ever.
The Snapshot Subterfuge:
Another commonly reported scam, mostly in big cities is perpetrated by the traditionally dressed, seemingly naive coconut sellers on the street. Do not be fooled!
They will approach with two baskets of coconuts on either end of a long bamboo pole asking you to buy a one. When you kindly refuse they will offer to allow you to get an Instagram worthy shot of you in the typical hat with the pole balanced precariously on your shoulder. Sure why not you could use the followers right?
At this point as you struggle to balance the seemingly easy contraption for your friend to take those Kardshian-esque social glam shots, this seemingly naive native is opening coconuts at a rate of knots and you are now saddled with the bill for every one they’ve managed to open before you copped what was going on. At a near extortionate rate per coconut too. That new profile pic doesn’t seem so funny now does it?
Your best bet:
This one’s a definite no. If anyone tries to hand you anything on the street that is going to distract or discombobulate you, its so they can take advantage of your (we assume) momentary lapse of good judgement. As Katie always says, “if it’s not yours, you’ve no business touching it”
The Suitcase Shakedown:
This to me is the laziest of all the scams. Like put a little work in would ya! You/a helper loads your suitcase into the undercarriage of the dreaded “sleeper bus” or train in preparation for the long and arduous journey to your next destination, you are handed a ticket and informed it’s an extra fee for your valuable cargo as it’s bigger/heavier than normal.
This. Is. Nonsense. There is no baggage fee in Vietnam.
Your best bet:
Just refuse to pay and take your seat. Sooner or later they’ll get bored and realise you are as unbreakable as a world record and give in. They love to try and scam you but they don’t do confrontation.
So there you have it my friends, armed with these warnings you should have all you need to navigate this minefield of malevolent miscreants and feel like god damn hostage negotiator on the other side.
One last piece of advice. Never lose your cool. No matter what, a calm manner and a smile will always win the day. The minute you lose your temper they’ve won, and they know it.
Anyway as always, if you need any more info or have any questions, or just wanna say hi! Please feel free to get in touch.