Photo credit Vu Tuan
As a traveller in Vietnam, you will likely have an amazing and and crime-free experience. But many tourists have their trip soured due to a few common and annoying scams that target fresh-off-the-airplane travellers.
Learn the following tips and tricks so that you can have a great trip without getting too hung-up over a few avoidable scams.
1. Not Receiving the Proper Change in Vietnam
Always count the change, always!
Let’s say you had a great stay at a hotel and are ready to check-out. You know how much you owe (250k Dong), and so you hand-over a 500k Dong note to the hotel owner. As he gathers your passport and returns your “change” to you, he engages in chordial banter about your trip and your home country, etc. Everything is splendid and you are happy.
But, because of all the tiny distractions, you didn’t notice that your change wasn’t the requisite 250k Dong, but only 70k: one 20k note and one 50k note, as if he had accidently dropped the zero on the 200k note.
Was it an honest mistake? you wonder. Not likely: this scam happens so often, so consistently, and from so many different people, that it is unlikely to be an accident. Even people who you’d swear were good and decent may do this to you.
If you are from Canada, Australia, Japan or another high-trust country, you probably don’t think about whether or not to trust cashiers. Worse still, you may feel very sour when you inevitably are short-changed, especially when it keeps happening, again and again from seemingly nice people.
In any case, buck up, be vigilent, and when you do eventually let your guard down, consider it a tax on your failure to be more conscientious.
The above hotel example is a real one. When I ran back inside to correct the mistake, the otherwise-nice owner genuinely seemed surprised and rectified the situation. Was it an honest mistake? Or, was he just a good actor? Who cares: just learn the following lesson…
Lessons: Don’t let the feeling of non-stop victimization sour your trip, and always count your change!
2. Fake Parking-Lot Attendants in Vietnam
Somehow you keep paying for free parking because old ladies yell at you
Imagine pulling-up to a Vietnamese national park or a famous beach. As you approach, you are suddenly confronted by 2 or 3 angry old ladies in straw-hats yelling at you and pointing at a row of parked motor-bikes. Confused by being yelled at, you slow down. You think to yourself: “isn’t there parking inside the park?” Because you slowed down, someone steps in front of your bike, preventing you from proceeding any further. They are getting very angry.
Gosh, you think, I don’t want to cause a fuss. So you obey and park where they tell you to. You hand them 50k Dong and everything seems fine. Then, when you arrive at the park and purchase your ticket, you discover that there is plenty of free parking within the gate.
You, like many others, have just been scammed by the dubious business of independent parking-lot attendees. These scammers rely on the anxiety that all tourists feel when they travel in a foriegn land: do not get in trouble, do not stand-out, just follow the rules. So, a few confident scammers can use intimidation to will you to do what they want.
One point of solace is that, despite the coercive and fradulent tactics, the scammy bike-guarders will keep watch over your bike and return it to you. Like many scams in Vietnam, it is hard to know whether they are doing something explicitly illegal or whether they are just using manipulative business tactics.
The clever thing about this scam is that there are many many quasi-illegal parking-lots all over Vietnam that seem to operate honourably and provide a needed service: you need to park your bike in a crowded city, they guard your bike, they maintain order, and they quickly help you in and out of the parking-lot. And yet, they are probably operating illegally, privatizing public space that is theorectically everyone’s to enjoy.
The Lesson: It is difficult to distinguish between a scam and a legitimate 3rd-party parking lot. If you can, find out before your trip about parking options at your destination.
3. Counterfeit Businesses & Products in Vietnam
That isn’t a real Laphroaig you just purchased
Vietnam is a manufacturing: many famous brands produce most of their products in Vietnam. This means lots of discount name-brand items — but also a problem with fake replicas.
By fake replicas, we are not just referring to fake Gucci bags or North Face bags: we also mean copy-cat businesses and services, as diverse as restaurants, hotels, alcohol, and even airline booking websites. Even grains-of-rice can be contaminated with tiny plastic pellets.
All of this copy-cat “entrepreneurship” is done shamelessly in full-view of the public. It is so pervasive that you can often see a whole row of copy-cat businesses neighbouring one-another, like the famous Bun Cha Dac Kim restaurant in Hanoi.
Bascially, there is very little enforcement of intellectual property laws. Furthermore, Vietnamese people are very technically sophisticated: they find it easy to reverse-engineer a process and copy it, rather than creatively come-up with new, high-risk ideas.
Big Tech cracks down on fake accounts, hurting everyone
The copy-cat problem is so pernicious that it has attracted the attention of Big Tech. For example, Etsy will no longer accept new Vietnamese-based “handicraft” businesses. Etsy had to over-react to the problem of fake-products that flooded their handicraft platform from Vietnam. Not only were the bad due to fake products, but some of these acounts also resorted to incredibly hostile tactics to harass their legitimate competitors (like posting fake negative reviews).
These copy-cat merchants have ruined Etsy for honest Vietnamese artisans, of which there are many. It is a terribly sad situation for all the wonderful artists in Vietnam.
Become a non-stop detective
How to deal with all the fakes and copy-cats? As a traveller, you must adopt a skeptical mindset about the veracity of everything. For example, you cannot simply Google-maps-navigate your way to a hotel or restaurant and expect it to be the authentic business. Instead, you may have to work a little harder to find the real business, like a detective, using any and all resources available to you.
4. “Hello Donut?” Ladies Are Too Pushy
Somehow you get tricked into buying things before knowing their price
The following anecdote isn’t clearly an outright scam — but it is a good lesson about the naivete of tourists. The “Hello Doughnut” trick happens all the time, despite how rediculously easy it is for travellers to avoid.
In popular tourist streets of Vietnam, there are dozens of small middle-aged Vietnamese woman wearing straw-hats and traditional clothing, who step infront of tourists and temp them with tasty doughnuts. “Hello, Doughnut?” they chirp.
They are pushy, they are pleasant, and the doughnuts look very nice. By some act of will-power, they get people to say yes without asking for the price. Once consumed, they demand $20-$30 for these tiny doughnuts (50x the actual price). Tourists are too shy or cannot calculate the currency conversion in their head, and so they dutifully pay the outrageous almost-criminal price.
This sounds simple to avoid, right? The answer is both yes and no: such unscrupulous businessmen/women have perfected a level of confidence and tact that somehow disarms you and magically gets you to obey.
The Hello-doughnut scam is a nice example of a bigger problem you’ll encounter in all forms of Vietnamese commerce: your lack of knowledge about local prices leaves you vulnerable to being ripped off. Plus, the skill of salemanship among Vietnamese retailers is something you’ve probably never encountered. Just like the donuts, you may find yourself buying things you didn’t agree to.
The lesson: ignore pushy people, learn to instinctively say “no” to everything (“không”).
Sales Jujitsu – Vietnamese Salesmen Are Clever
Aggressive salesmen have some common tricks they employ. For example, they will serve you something before you’ve had a chance to ask “wait, how much?” (Bao Nhieu?) and then refuse to take it back — they’ll do things like quickly push the item on you and then pretend to be busy with something else, or out-of-ear-shot, ignoring your question of “wait, how much?“, leaving you standing-there like a fool holding your (un)purchased item.
These sorts of tactics are strangely effective, and they put you at a severe disadvantage.
6. Airport Security Steal Your Stuff
Did you “accidentally” forget your tablet in the airport security line?
Even among the best airports, the baggage x-ray and security line is one of the easiest places to be robbed: you are distracted, in a hurry, and your valuables are scattered over a long line surrounded by pushy people. I’ve personally caught thieves red-handed going through my things while I was putting on my shoes in an airport security line.
But did you know that the airport security personnel are also partaking in this scam? In the small regional airports (like Phu Quoc) you must be extra vigilant during airport security: if anything valuable gets accidentally “set aside” for the lost and found, the staff have a nice little scheme to acquire free things.
While you are distracted with re-assembling your personal belongings and putting on your shoes, they have been known to take a tablet or laptop and place it innocently in the “left behind” pile. Maybe you remember to check your bag afterwards and they give it back to you as if they were the heros for finding it (“you left it behind!”) or maybe you don’t notice and you fly away, never to see it again.
Fortunately, the staff are probably not going to put-up a fight, because of the surveillance and need to maintain a facade of you being the forgetful one.
This is also the easiest scam to avoid, in Vietnam or elsewhere:
- Make a mental inventory of all your valuables, and re-check after security.
- Always remove things in your pocket before you enter the security line, and pack them together in your bag.
- Use as few bins as possible, so you can more easily monitor them.
- Consolidate all of your valuables (tablets, passport) into one bin.
6. Fake Charges From Vietnamese Apps
Don’t get lulled into giving-away your banking info to Vietnamese apps
Weird fake charges are always showing-up in Vietnamese people’s bank-accounts and debit cards, especially when they are used to pay for things online. A prime example of this is Grab-App (the Uber of Vietnam).
This happened to us: usually, we pay for Grab-services with cash, but the first day after we entered-in our Mastercard debit-card info into Grab, a random $1000 dollar charge was debited from our card. Fortunately, due to a personal bank-employee connection, we were able to initiate a re-claims process — but getting the charge reversed could take ~2-3 months. It’s something we’ve been through a few times.
Although fake charges are a scourge on the Vietnamese banking system, it is possible that a Western credit card won’t have the same problem. However, if you have the option to pay with cash instead of entering-in your bank-account/card-numbers info, don’t take the chance!
Are Vietnamese apps inherently less secure? Are the employees who work for these companies just randomly invoking charges on the user-base? I don’t know, but it has happened to use more than once.
Conclusion – Learning to Cope with Vietnamese Scams
These small scams operate in the grey-area between explicit criminality and pushy sales tactics. As a traveller in Vietnam, your first skill to learn is how to detect the “confidence game” of sales-people and scammers, and disarm their clever tricks.
If and when you fall prey to these scams, don’t let it sour your trip. Instead, consider these scams as valuable life-lessons in human psychology and salesmenship. Maybe these lessons will come in handy in your own country. For example, the next time you go for a big-ticket purchase, like a house. You may be grateful that you already practiced how to deal with these less-serious scams.