Many people love Vietnam. Many others, particularly long-term travelers, don’t care for it and feel that one trip was more than enough. After all no matter how much or how little you travel, there is always that one place you like the least. Some countries just rub you the wrong way, for whatever arcane reason. That country for myself and many others is Vietnam. Here’s why.
Don’t get me wrong, the culture is great, the scenery is impressive, and the food is delicious. However our real complaint is with the locals’ attitude. As a professional traveler I am regretfully used to dealing with tourist prices and persistent touts who will not take no for an answer. But in Vietnam it’s different. Far too many locals will blatantly rip you off while laughing about it, will take you for every Dong you have (keep your thoughts clean, that’s the local currency) then follow you to the ATM and wait while you take out more, or will screw you over / scam you every chance they get.
You come one time and leave, I’m still here.
was how one local explained it to me.
What You Can Expect In Vietnam…
And Travel Tips On How To Handle It
The price will increase anytime you pull out more money than the amount asked for.
My motorcycle broke down and I was informed by a group of nearby locals that it was 1km to the nearest mechanic and rather quickly quoted 50,000VND ($2.50USD) for a motorcycle tow. I pulled 46,000VND out of my pocket in loose bills and was repeatedly told “not enough.” Only then did I reluctantly open my wallet to reveal another 150,000VND. The locals saw this and suddenly the price jumped to 100,000VND. I tried giving the main guy a crisp new 50,000VND bill and next even upped my offer to 70,000 but he kept insisting the new rate was 100,000. In the end I walked my bike to the shop rather than be extorted. The locals were happier not making any money off me rather than accepting the price they first quoted me — which was already a wildly inflated tourist rate.
Keep tons of small denomination bills separate in one pocket and large bills elsewhere. However it is worth noting that I do this in every country visited yet found limited success with this tactic in Vietnam as locals would either pat my other pockets to feel for a wallet or more bills and even in a few cases tried to stick their hands in my pockets!
Locals will joke with other nearby locals as they rip you off.
I’ve eaten at countless “restaurants” that are really just locals’ houses, many of which have the price clearly posted on the wall. However despite this fact when going to pay it often became a scene. First off the lady in charge will start speaking Vietnamese — not to me but rather to the others in the restaurant — essentially saying “I gave this white guy a half portion yet I’m going to charge him twice as much” or some equivalent. You’ll notice this because there will be a mixture of laughter and random responses in Vietnamese from the other patrons. Only a fraction of the times did pointing at the sign and complaining get me a better price.
Learn numbers in Vietnamese before you even arrive and don’t hesitate to say không! Pronounced like “kong” with a long ‘o’ this is a very strong way of saying no. Don’t yell it but do say it firmly.
Mechanics are everywhere in Vietnam…but don’t expect them to be honest.
Don’t get me wrong, they are good at what they do — just not when a white guy is the one in need of assistance. During my three months in Vietnam I spent 2/3 of it on two wheels and my bike broke down several times. Most mechanics would replace parts one after another until the bike started working and then charge (a foreigner price) for everything. Only one mechanic that I encountered started systematically removing replacement parts after the bike was running again until the found the culprit and then billed me only for that part.
Bring a few tools and spare parts (spark plugs, oil filter, etc) with you and fix whatever you can by yourself. Even one or two spare two tubes is advisable. You will get flats, and they are not always patchable.
— Derek Freal (@the_HoliDaze) April 15, 2014
Standard practice is to always throw out 100,000VND — or some multiple thereof, such as 200/300,000 — as the price. This is a clear indicator you are not being given a fair price.
Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in the bigger and more touristy cities. A fair tourist price is 10,000VND per kilometre. While looking for a ride one day in Hanoi to a place 1.1km away I was repeatedly quoted 100,000 by over a half dozen different drivers. After telling them that I know the real prices and am not paying 100,000 for a 3-min ride, none would come lower than 50,000. One guy even tried to argue with Google maps saying “no, it’s not 1.1km — it’s 6-7km.” Are you f’n kidding me?! Once again the locals were happy to make nothing rather than give me a fair price.
You can try saying no and walking away but again I found this has limited success in Vietnam. The locals will rarely chase after you offering a more fair price, as in other countries, and instead just let you wander on alone. But don’t give in to them! If more people do this then they will start to realize that foreigners cannot be blatantly extorted at will.
Unfortunately all of these experiences are but a brief example of the encounters I had on a daily basis. This isn’t to say that during my three months here I didn’t meet some wonderful, goodhearted people — just that the cold and unscrupulous ones outnumbered them 9:1. Of the “good” people I met here, most were only nice to me because I was traveling with my Vietnamese friend or they wanted me to write something favorable about their business on my blog and/or TripAdvisor.
I celebrated the Tet holiday (Vietnamese lunar new year) with a local family in Nam Dinh.
Every office and business in the country closes down for a week while people leave the big cities to go and join their family in the countryside. This holiday is full of lots of friends, family, fireworks, food, and of course alcohol. I had planned to write about Tet but Amanda of A Dangerous Business beat me to it so I decided not to.
I was welcomed into a stranger’s house and offered a bed for the night.
Ordinarily this happens on a weekly basis when motorcycling a foreign country (at least for me) but during my 90 days in Vietnam it only happened once. It was midnight and had been raining for hours when I realized that I could not safely proceed any further. Luckily after befriending one of the guys over a couple beers he was nice enough to let me sleep for a few hours at his place.
But in the end a couple of simple, decent gestures just couldn’t make up for months of daily mistreatment.
Why Does This Problem Exist?
Unlike in nearby Thailand where the citizens have for decades maintained the perfect balance between treating foreign guests well, giving them a great experience and profiting immensely while also leaving them with the urge to return, Vietnam has only succeeded in taking advantage of foreign tourists and sending them home with a bad taste in their mouth of this otherwise beautiful and admirable nation. That is why Vietnam sees a pitiful 5% tourism return rate and Thailand a whooping 50%.
Part of this is due to the fact that tourism in Vietnam is still in its infancy stage. Ten has ago few outsiders were visiting this elongated nation and ten years before that international tourism was nonexistent. Look at the numbers. Although overall tourism is increasing, the bulk of it is from neighboring countries like China. Tourism from western nations is actually declining slightly, or at best stagnant. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that word is spreading.
If Vietnam wants to continue seeing tourists from the west (and enjoying the money they bring) then the locals need to change their mindset.
Other Tips To Have A Good Experience In Vietnam
BRING FOREIGN COINS There are no coins in Vietnamese currency so these are a strange sight to locals. [Correction: Vietnam does technically have dong coins….but they are not in distribution.] Be willing to give them away as souvenirs — just be prepared because the first thing everyone will ask is “how much is this in Dong?”
BUY A MOTORCYCLE AND GET OFF THE TOURIST ROUTE Motorcycles in a Vietnam are cheap — only $250-350 USD. While people in smaller cities will still try to overcharge you, they are more open to haggling. (Speaking of motorcycles, mine is still in Dong Hoi — if anyone wants to grab it and use it around town or to travel the country, just let me know.)
And Finally…The North-South Divide
Vietnam has quite a past. Over the centuries they have fought off everyone from the Chinese to the French and even persevered through a two decade long war that tore the country in half. They are a very strong, resilient, and proud people, and rightfully so. Ten minutes in the country and you will realize why outsiders cannot break their spirit. However, for Westerns traveling in the north, particularly Americans, please know that you may be treated a little differently by the elders.
The youth of Vietnam are much less-likely to prejudge foreigners than their parents. However anyone 50 years of age or older remembers the Vietnam War and, if they are from the north, almost assuredly lost some family members to south. Or in other words, because of America. I have several elders blatantly express — most often via hand gestures because they couldn’t speak English — their dislike of America. I was not ill-treated because of it, these gentlemen would continue to sit with me, pour me tea and pass the tobacco pipe my way. However it was clear that they still harbored a grudge against America’s involvement in their personal affairs. And honestly, had I been in their shoes, I probably would have too.
However in the south I did not encounter this resentment, undoubtedly because America was fighting with the south to defeat Ho Chi Minh.
I am not saying do not visit Vietnam. I just want to warn you of the type of treatment you can expect. Many people still enjoy that country and I have some wonderful friends there who are very disappointed that I had such negative experiences during my three months there. But it isn’t just me. Many other bloggers have written similar things about Vietnam as well.
For More Reading