A place of breathtaking natural beauty and unique heritage, visitors to Vietnam can marvel at the picturesque Halong Bay, explore spectacular cave systems in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, see grand colonial mansions from the French era and many more! Vietnamese street food is another great draw, with its incredible subtleties and outstanding diversity.
However, Vietnam was the place where I encountered my first travel scam and it will always be etched in my memory. In fact, it was THE country that has inspired the creation of this site! Home to a sizeable bunch of shrewd scammers, almost everyone who has been here has met one. Read on to learn how to protect yourself!
A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES
Those three wheel bicycles/trishaws you see lining the streets at tourist attractions? Avoid them at all costs (just like with the tuk tuks in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, etc). What they do is they will approach you and offer a ride where you can pay as much as you want, or not at all! Now, alarm bells would have begun ringing.
However, what they do next is brilliant. They will take out a notebook and show you all the positive reviews in it. You will find extremely detailed reviews praising the driver and the trip in different languages and in different handwriting. As someone who knows a few languages, I was able to verify a number of them.
The cyclo operator is also an extremely glib speaker. He is able to build rapport (this is easy, for instance, enquiring about your country and sharing some knowledge of it) and address any of your fears (such as allowing you to stop halfway if you wish). Once you get onto the cyclo, the driver will then attempt to build trust with you bit by bit.
End of the day, once all trust has been built, he will bring you somewhere secluded. Next, he fishes out a list of prices based on hours of service and demand payment. You pretty much have no choice but to pay.
However, it must be said that a cyclo experience can be an interesting one. To protect yourself, agree a clear price before hiring one and make sure that you stop at a place you know.
2. Overcharging and confusing currency
This is common around the world, but it is much more easily implemented here due to the large note denomination.
Overcharging can occur in many different forms, such as over conversion of currency, giving less change by rounding up/down, not giving any change by insisting on a tip, or even changing the fare once the service is completed!
Many places also quote in USD to make overcharging easier for them. This is done either by rounding up to USD (which is higher than the value in Vietnamese Dong) or by demanding payment in Dong while using an unacceptable exchange rate.
Also beware when a vendor tells you 10, it could mean 10 USD, 10,000 Dong or even something else! Besides this, always ensure that the fee is for everyone in the group and not for each individual.
For popular tourist markets such as Ben Thanh market, prices are also marked up a few HUNDRED times, more if you are a Caucasian.
Always clarify clearly the price to be paid, in what currency and if it’s for the whole group. And always check your change. Finally, at markets such as Ben Thanh Market, be ready to haggle or not buy!
3. Street vendors of all kind
There are some vendors who sell books in boxes at cheap prices. But alas, those books are photocopies! You would not know as these “books” are wrapped up. Some of those are also of low quality – errors in pages, etc.
Then, there are other vendors who will invite you to take a photo with them. Once taken, they will demand a fee, a tip, or a purchase of their products. Ignore, and you will be hounded until you pay.
For instance, we have the fruit ladies of Hanoi. They will offer to lend you a fruit basket and to take a photo of you. It’s difficult to escape if you have taken the bait as they work in groups. Something worse that might happen is that you get pickpocketed in the process.
Also, you might come across fake beggars. Some examples are fake cripples, hungry babies who are actually asleep due to alcohol and people who fake sickness and weakness. Do not donate or you will be hounded as well.
Moving on to Sapa, we have the textile women who tries to guilt trip you. They accompany you on trips and share their life stories so as to build trust and rapport. At the end of it all, they ask that you buy handicrafts from them while crying.
Finally, avoid pesky photographers who offer to take photos of you. Firstly, they will take multiple photos and demand a much higher payment. Secondly, they will not deliver the photos to you as promised.
Essentially, avoid donating to beggars on the streets and avoid engaging the fruit ladies of Hanoi, textile women of Sapa and the fake “photographers”.
4. Unscrupulous tour companies
There are many of such black sheep in the industry (but it happens all over the world, e.g. in Australia, Morocco, etc).
For instance, some of them claim to provide snorkelling, island trips etc which they do, but only allow for a meagre amount of time . There are also many grey areas they could capitalize on such as allowing for overbooking of trips.
For boat trips, it is also important to buy return tickets rather than one way ones, as you might be exploited when you find no other means of return.
Check out online reviews of the tour companies and only commit to the reputable ones.
5. Restaurants that do not display prices
Also, be careful of those that list prices in USD. They might demand payment in Vietnamese Dong and use some unreasonably expensive exchange rate.
Avoid, but if you must try, do ask about the prices before ordering. If all you get are vague replies, that’s the sign to leave.
6. Overcharging by restaurants in other ways
Those nuts or fruits they serve you before the start of the meal? Reject them, as they cost an exorbitant amount.
For those who tend to stay long at restaurants, try to keep whatever you’ve ordered at your table be it empty plates or bottles. This is to collect evidence and prevent restaurants from overcharging you by asking you to pay for something that you did not order.
Check your restaurant bill carefully. Should you point out something that has been charged but not ordered, check the new bill again. Sometimes, they might not have changed the variables taxes on the bill.
Do some online research and eat only at reputable/legitimate places.
Always inspect your goods after purchase, especially those that are wrapped, as they might be swapped (same scam in Hong Kong). The same goes for your change or if you were to change money at a money changer.
Also, note that a very common scam in Vietnam is that vendors will claim that something is free. Once you have used it (service, food, etc), payment will be demanded and you will be hounded until you pay.
Besides street vendors who peddle fake ware, there are many shops which sell fake stuff as well, such as silk and even war relics!
Buy only from reputable establishments, which you can find online or from your hotel.
Also always verify the item both before and after purchase.
8. The place is closed
A popular scam in Asia (Thailand, India, etc), someone (anyone!) might approach you and inform you that a place is closed.
They will then offer to bring you somewhere else where they can get commission.
Never trust an overly friendly stranger who approaches you on the street, especially one who can speak good English.
9. Karaoke/prostitution (illegal in Vietnam)
This is a simple scam, yet one that many inexperienced male tourists fall for.
At the karaoke, a male tourist might be approached by a hooker. Money is given to book a room but the hooker disappears. Next, the bill comes and the tourist is charged an obscene amount! If you refuse to pay, you will simply be beaten up by the mafia there.
As shared by a reader in the comments section below, even the hookers are a scam in themselves. Pretty girls are advertised on flyers, but when push comes to shove, they do not turn out to be as advertised.
Avoid such activities.
10. Massage scam
As generously shared by another reader, massage places in Hanoi are a big scam.
They advertise a low price for their services, but when the bill comes, you will find that you are charged for a ton of ancillary products, such as water!
Only check out reputable institutions by researching online or asking your hotel for a recommendation.
1. Motorbike rental
Motorbike rentals can get pretty tricky in Vietnam (especially in Nha Trang and Mui Ne). There is the standard scam, where the owner follows you, “steals” your bike back and then demand compensation. Another common one would be mechanical problems in the bike which the owner will demand a repair fee for.
Also, there are many fake Honda motorbikes around.
Rent your bike from a reputable place. Consider investing in your own lock and key as well as it can’t be “stolen” by the owner. Also test out the bike upon rental to identify any problems and sound out immediately.
It would be good to know your bike or to research the specs on the web before booking to prevent getting a fake Honda.
In Vietnam, you also require a Vietnamese driving permit. If you are caught without one, the motorbike can be impounded for a month and you would have to continue paying for the bike.
2. Motorbike taxi
Some motorbike “taxis” might approach you with an offer, which they claim is cheaper than normal taxis. Or they might say don’t worry about the fee, just go first and if you’re happy, you pay how much you want.
They might even say that there is no bus to the place that you want to go! That is usually nonsense. Some others use the “cyclos scam”, where they claim to bring you around for free but in actual fact, bring you to a secluded spot and demand a huge sum of money.
Do note that these people have no training or certification. This means that not only is your wallet at risk, but your life is at risk as well.
There are taxis with tampered meters. There are also some who demand tips and some who claim to take shortcuts but are in fact longer routes (good to know the location).
Note that there are also fake Taxis in Vietnam (like in China)!
For those who arrange for taxi transport from the airport to your hotel, do be wary as well! There are operators who learn the details of these arranged pick ups and pose as the assigned driver from the hotel. They pick you up, call their accomplice and then claim that the hotel is full. They will then bring you to another hotel where they get commissions from.
Taxi meters are based on distances, not time. So if you see one jumping wildly even when you are stationary, you know it is a scam!
To prevent yourself from falling prey to those, only take cabs from Mai Linh (green taxi), Vinasun (white taxi) or Taxi Group. Also, never agree to a fixed fee, unless you have done your research and know the market rate.
The rough cost: 10,000 Dong to exit airport; 150,000 Dong to get to the main tourist area. If you realize that you are scammed, do not pay. Instead, take a photo of his ID and meter and threaten that you will report it to his taxi company.
4. Purchase of train tickets from private travel agents
These touts will approach you and claim that the mode of transport you taking is delayed. They then offer to help you get a new ticket. However, they will buy a cheaper ticket than the one you requested.
As most people do not know Vietnamese, they are unlikely to spot the difference. It is also pretty much impossible to demand a refund as by the time you realize the scam, you would have been on the train already.
There are also some who might offer to carry your luggage as the distance to the platform is rather far.
Reject the help of these touts no matter how official they look.
5. Purchase of train tickets online
Would you believe it.. There are even fake train websites in Vietnam! A good resource for train planning is Seat 61 (http://www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm).
If possible, only get your tickets from your hotel or reputable travel agents.
6. Long haul buses
This is a common transport option for backpackers wishing to travel from the North to the South or vice versa. However, there are also many scams associated and it is important to only buy from reputable companies!
Besides booking a lower quality bus than you had paid for, some buses might even stop unexpectedly at night and force you to stay elsewhere. Lo and behold, there is only one hotel in the vicinity and the owner is more than ready to accept you.
Another version is that they stop at a petrol station and force you off. Coincidentally, someone at the petrol station will extort you to pay an amount to take a cab to somewhere to transfer to another bus.
Book through your hotel or a reputable travel agent.
7. Luggage fee
Sometimes, you might be asked to pay more because you have a larger or heavier bag by bus or train staff. It is pure nonsense, there is no such rule. Do not pay.
1. Trading on popular names
When any company in the travel industry becomes popular/famous in Vietnam, there will be new companies popping up with similar sounding names and many have been scammed in the process.
For instance, good companies that have been a victim of their success include (the real sites have been hyperlinked) ODC Travel, Handspan, Kangaroo Café. The most notorious of the lot would be the dozens of Sinh Cafes around the country – the real one is now called the Sinh Tourist (http://www.thesinhtourist.vn/)!
It is good to have done your research for reputable agents online, but still stay alert in spotting the fakes with subtle differences.
2. Fake hotel scam
In today’s online world, it is easy for unscrupulous hotels to create fake reviews. Some hotels also advertise low room fees online. However, when you arrive, they will claim that the low fees were for the standard rooms which have been fully booked. To book the higher end rooms, you have to pay a lot more.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, there are many copycats hotels which trade on popular names.
Stay at reputable ones. Also, to verify a hotel, check its location in addition to its name.
3. Hotel fee scam
Some hotels demand that you pay more (e.g. double) as the fee advertised was for one person and not for one room (usually double rooms). If your passport is held at the reception, your bargaining power is further reduced.
Besides this, some hotels might advertise certain facilities online, such as a fireplace or air conditioning. However, to use them in your room, they will demand additional fees!
Remember to ask for your passports once the hotel staff has inspected them upon your check in. Also clarify the fare to be paid, and if possible, do not pay everything upfront.
1. Pickpockets and snatch theft
As with places with crowds, pickpockets and snatch theft are common and one must always be alert and careful.
This is more common in Ho Chi Minh City, where the bag snatchers even have a name for themselves, which is the Saigon Cowboys. Watch out for child pickpockets as well!
Sometimes, pickpockets work with street touts. A street tout talks to and distracts you, while the pickpocket steals your valuables. Be wary in such situations and check your bag if you feel someone brush against you.
Do note that other cities such as Hanoi and Nha Trang face similar situations too.
If you want to avoid becoming a victim, it is best to keep your cash safe and secure. Only carry small amounts of cash around with you. Avoid carrying the purse or wallet in the back pocket. Also, use a spare wallet, money belt or anti-theft bag to further protect yourself from pickpockets.
Further, keep most of your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead. Also, consider using hotel safety tools such as a hotel safe lock or door jammer to further strengthen the security of your hotel room.
Do consider checking out the articles on the Netherlands and Spain as well, where the real pros operate.
2. Hanoi shoe repair
This is a less common scam, though watch out if you are wearing worn out shoes!
For this scam, some guy approaches you out of nowhere and applies glue to your shoes. Next, he would take out a thread and tell you that your shoes are about to fall apart, which he can repair for $1.
If you didn’t realize, that glue is actually a solvent that dissolves stitches! Should you say yes, he would then proceed. However, the trouble does not end when the job is completed, as he will be demanding $10 or more!
Be alert and not let anyone apply anything to your shoes!
3. Drugs in Hue
If you are offered drugs, do NOT take them. You will be reported to the police and the “reporters” will be rewarded for tipping the police off. Firmly reject.
4. Invitation to a card game
This is a pretty common scam around the world, such as in Malaysia and Morocco.
Anyhow, the script is similar. Firstly, a friendly man approaches you, asks where you’re from and remarks that his relative will be going there to work or study!
In this context, rapport is easily built as it feels that you have found someone close in a land of strangers. There will be also be this urge to share more about your home country, which the scammer will tap on. He will invite you over to his house where you could share helpful advice over a meal. But upon reaching the house, lo and behold, the man’s sister/daughter is not there!
Instead, you find the man’s brother/uncle who will get you to play some card game such as blackjack or poker. You might also be taught some tricks so as to work together to cheat other visitors who will be coming soon. Regardless of the situation, you will lose. Here’s a fascinating recount of an experience with this scam.
Avoid engaging with an overly friendly local on the street, especially if he has a good command of English.
5. Internet cafes
Keyboard loggers, viruses, spywares and what have you are common in Internet cafes.
Do not do anything in there that can potentially expose your personal or financial data.
6. Paying excessively more when buying through agents
As kindly shared by one of our readers, Frank, he paid 290k VND for a SIM card through an agent at the airport. It was supposed to provide 30 days unlimited 3G access, but died after 5 days.
When he went down to the official store, that was when he realized that the plan he had purchased was a 90k VND plan.
Buy from the official shop.
E. GETTING HELP
1. Emergency numbers to call
- Police: 113
- Fire: 114
- Ambulance: 115