Don’t get us wrong, we adore Vietnam. The people are infectiously happy, the ancient cities are a treat to explore, and I could eat nothing but crunchy banh mi for days.
But like any country, especially one that has witnessed rapid economic and social growth, you’re bound to meet a few locals trying to get ahead with scams and tricks. While there’s nothing to fear, here are some words of advice to make sure you’re always one step ahead.
1. The eager cobbler
Picture this. You’re walking along in Hanoi when suddenly a man stops you on the footpath. He points at your shoes and is trying to tell you something but you don’t understand. The man lifts your foot, takes off your shoe, and before you know it you’re being handed a repair bill for your shoes (which were perfectly fine beforehand).
The eager cobbler is a common scam and it seems innocent enough. They stop you, try and find a fault with your footwear, and then charge for the cost of repairing it (or sell you a new pair of shoes).
How to avoid it: Unless your soles are worn down to rice paper, your best approach is to just keep on walking.
2. The dodgy taxi
Dodgy taxis are so common throughout Southeast Asia they’re pretty much an essential experience, but not if you’re clued in. While taxi licensing isn’t well regulated, there are still some signs you should look out for before getting into a cab. For instance, the Vietnamese pride themselves on providing professional services, and they’ll dress accordingly. If your taxi driver isn’t wearing a shirt, tie and slacks, it’s likely they’re not a licensed cab driver.
Similarly, some cabs will paint their cars to look like licensed taxis (which are usually green or white). They’ll also put a sign on their doors advertising they are ‘metred’. Ironically, this is done to attract tourists who might be worried about unmetered taxis. Once these hapless passengers get in, they quickly realise they’re being taken for a ride (and not the one they intended).
How to avoid it: Before climbing into a taxi, check for branding to make sure it is properly licensed operator (such as Vinasun Taxi), the driver is dressed professionally and the car isn’t spruiking its ‘metred’ services.
3. The squeaky donut
Street food is everywhere in Vietnam (and it’s absolutely delicious), but there are a few street snacks you should be wary of. Occasionally you’ll walk past street vendors carrying plastic bags of little brown donuts. They’ll stop and ask if you’d like to try one for free (a universal red flag, people). If you say ‘yes’ and taste one, the vendor will gently pressure you into buying a small bag of donuts. On the surface this might seem simple enough; after all who doesn’t want a bag of crunchy fried donuts? The problem is the oil used to fry these donuts is unregulated. You don’t know where the oil has come from and it could go unchanged for days (or even weeks) at a time, meaning your donuts might have been cooked in unsanitary conditions. Many travellers have reported feeling sick after eating street donuts.
How to avoid it: With so many great street food options available, skip the donuts and opt for another street snack instead – like banh mi or banh xeo (stuffed pancakes).
4. The motorbike/cyclo tour
Walking down the street you might have a motorcyclist slow down and practice some small talk – ‘where are you from?’, ‘how do you like my city?’. Eventually they will ask where you’re going and offer you a ride for a small fee. If you agree and climb aboard, they’ll then charge you an inflated price once you arrive at your destination. Try to argue and they’ll say you misheard them when they first picked you up. It’s a common trick that takes advantage of curious tourists who want to experience the country’s famously frenetic traffic up close.
The motorbike scam can also be an invitation to see the rice paddies just outside town, or as a guided city tour (such as in Hue or Hoi An).
How to avoid it: If you’re tempted by the idea of a motorbike ride, talk to your tour leader or hotel reception about booking a tour with a licensed tour operator.
5. The luggage handler
From Rome to Rio, the luggage handler is a common character around the world. If you’re getting ready for an overnight train, or simply loading your taxi for the airport, you might meet one. They’ll swoop in unexpectedly and pick up your bag, carry it to your carriage or car, and stow it for you. Meanwhile you’re left standing there wondering what just happened. As the luggage handler sees it, they just provided you with a service and should be tipped.
How to avoid it: The best thing you can do to prevent this is to keep a close eye on your bags around train platforms and ask the train station staff or taxi driver to help you lift your bags. If you’ve been stung, you could try hold your ground and refuse to offer a tip (although it might be better to give them something small to make them go away).
6. The fruit seller
Less a scam and more a minor inconvenience. In Vietnam’s major cities, you’ll find fruit sellers walking around with long bamboo poles on their back; on each end there’ll be a tray loaded with local fruits, such as pineapples, rambutan, custard apples and mangosteen. If you buy fruit from a fruit seller, just be careful you’re not being overcharged. The real problem comes when they try to sell you a photo opportunity. It might be a snap with them, or one of you carrying their bamboo pole, but they’ll usually try and charge you once you’ve taken the picture.
How to avoid it: If you don’t want to pay for a picture, politely but firmly say ‘no’.
It’s important to remember that these tricks are few and far between and, while it’s something to be mindful of, they shouldn’t keep you from enjoying all the temples, street food and tea houses this beautiful country has to offer.
Now you’re all clued in, jump on one of our Vietnam adventures.