The first time we visited Vietnam was only for a quick two weeks stroll around Mekong Delta. It was where we were first introduced to wonderful Vietnamese cuisine and coffee, to honest smiles of hard-working welcoming people and beautiful landscapes of rice fields and fruit plantations spreading around every smaller road just off the highway. And we fell in love with the Vietnam we got to know in such a short amount of time. But what changed when we came back to stay in Vietnam for two months and actually backpacked across the country from the south up to the Chinese border?
Throughout this article, I want to share with you my best tips and honest observations, and give you all the advice I have to offer on how to make sure you’re aware of the scams that can possibly happen to you during your trip.
Why most travellers say they will never return to Vietnam after their trip?
Now I have read a lot about this before we came back to Vietnam. And I often asked other travellers we met on the way. What answers did I hear?
Most of them said that Vietnam was their least favourite country in the whole South East Asia. They often accused Vietnamese people of being rude to them, of being racist, or of being unhelpful. Finally, what puzzled me the most, I heard a lot of stories of people being scammed or robbed – the former by vendors, restaurants and hotels and the latter by thieves snatching bags, phones and wallets driving past tourists on a motorcycle.
I thought I either must have been in a different country the first time around or that I must have been the chosen lucky one who honestly had a blast in Vietnam.
Well, that’s the beauty of traveling, everyone has their own opinion and we don’t have to all agree with each other, right?
Now, it made me think that in Cambodia it was us who were the unlucky ones. Every single person we met who had travelled across Cambodia simply loved Khmer people and the honest and welcoming atmosphere. Cambodia was, however, the only country in South East Asia where after a month there, we honestly could not wait to leave for some of the same reasons our friends would claim they would never return to Vietnam.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Falling off my bike in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia
I’m gonna be honest – the trip around small villages in Mekong Delta amazed us with the scenery. It was magical. But let’s break down the things we heard people say about Vietnam that we’d argue with after our first experience there.
#1 Vietnamese people are rude.
Not once we had a situation confirming this statement in Mekong Delta. On the contrary, everyone was lovely, welcoming, warm, polite, despite of the fact that nearly nobody spoke English there.
#2 Vietnam is expensive.
We were both amazed how cheap accommodation can be in Mekong Delta. We even had one guest house in My Tho where we paid 10 USD / 7,50 GBP for a double room with air conditioning, a fan, fast wifi and hot water. It was nothing fancy, but for budget backpackers in Vietnam, it does the trick.
Food was also extremely cheap – from fresh coconuts straight from the tree for 7,000 VDN (0,30 USD) to rice noodle soup Pho Hu Tieu on the street for 10,000 VDN (0,45 USD).
We couldn’t believe those prices.
We spent half the amount of our daily budget in the first two weeks.
#3 People want to scam you every way they can
As I said – didn’t happen once. The only time I heard of someone getting scammed was when a fellow backpacker we met told us she scheduled a boat trip on the canals in Can Tho and the boatman overcharged her and didn’t provide the service they both agreed upon at the beginning. Personally, I haven’t experienced any inconveniences.
For these reasons listed above, you can imagine how much we enjoyed the first stay in Vietnam and how we couldn’t wait to come back and check out the rest of this amazing country.
HITTING THE FAN – The further up north, the angrier we got.
Or maybe I shouldn’t say angrier. Let’s think about it for a moment.
Our nearly two month trip across Vietnam started off in Ho Chi Minh City. We were there for the second time and it made a much better impression on us than the first time around. We were really pleasantly surprised how easily it was to get things done – book a bus, order food, talk about nearby attractions – we thought it really stood out how good Vietnamese people were at problem-solving. Everyone was really helpful and lovely.
Our second stop was Dalat (here you can read about how amazing this place is – if you’re going to Vietnam soon, mark it on your map and definitely check it out!). And it was a similar experience, although we did notice people would try to take a little bit of advantage on the fact that we were tourists.
Please, check out the examples listed below.
We bought Bánh mì nearby our hotel on the first night, paying 15,000 VDN per baguette, but it was so lovely and fresh, we had a craving for it the following evening.
When we were handed the baguettes, the same lady who served us before, gave us 10,000 VDN change from a 50,000 VDN note.
What I hoped it meant: It must have been a mistake.
What I thought it meant: She purposely gave us less change hoping that, as tourists, we wouldn’t notice.
We said: Oh, but the baguettes are 15,000 VDN.
She said after a few seconds: No, no, 20,000 VDN.
I tried to hand the baguettes over to her and asked for my money back.
She said: ‘OK, OK,’ and gave us another 10,000 VDN.
You do the math. I’m not gonna tell you what to think.
The baguettes weren’t as good as the night before.
As we moved up north situations of similar sort kept repeating more and more often. And I had a lot of conversations with Greg about it. I didn’t want all of the other travelers we had met earlier to be right. I kept repeating to him:
It’s just bad luck. Maybe /insert the next destination/ will be better.
I’ve come to realize that a lot of Vietnamese people working in the tourism industry like to gamble – in a sense I would like to explain to you below in the following examples:
Imagine a loud night market, regardless whether it’s a touristy spot or not. And you can get here anything you want. Let’s say you want a pair of flip flops.
You go to the first stall with flip-flops you actually want. They look nice and simple. You see a sticker on the shelf saying ’50’. OK, so 50,00 VDN, that’s alright for basic flip flops. But you don’t know the local prices, so let’s take a look at other stalls and see if this actually is a good price or not.
At the next stall you see exactly the same pair of flip flops.
You ask the vendor how much they are.
He LITERALLY looks at you from head to toe.
After a moment of silence, he says: ’200’.
You smile and say: ‘OK then, no, thank you.’
Then he says: ‘OK, 150!’
You smile and say: ‘I will buy them from the lady there, she sells them for 50.’
And he says: ‘No, no, 150, good price, good price.’
Now imagine this would happen to you at least 5 times a day. Not only on markets but anywhere.
In a few places, it was a struggle to find a fair price of a bottle of water, because in most towns there are no 7 Elevens or Family Marts in Vietnam, only local shops in regular households, so you buy products from the homeowners.
They would look at me and say ’20,000 VDN’ while I know a bottle of water is usually below 10,000 VDN.
It’s the checkout day at your guest house. Before breakfast, the owner asks you how are you getting to the train station.
‘Oh, we will take the public bus.’
‘I can get a special bus for you to take you there.’
‘Oh, OK, cool, how much is it?’
‘120,000 VDN for 1.’
You smile. ‘It’s OK, we will take public bus, it’s 15,000 VDN.’
‘But this one better.’
‘Yeah, but we want to take the public bus.’
‘But this one is nice, with aircon, tourist bus.’
‘No, thank you.’
No lies here at least. Only overcharge, plain and simple.
A tip from us? Be assertive.
Now, why do I call it gambling? Because they clearly want to take the risk – maybe you’ll buy that bottle of water for twice its worth? Maybe you are naive enough to buy flip flops for four times as much? And if you don’t – what’s the worst that can happen? You will walk away – but another tourist will come in a minute anyway, so no loss there.
Motorbike parking. Security desk which also serves as the checkout for parking. You drive up there, a queue of motorbikes behind you. The note on the desk says ’FEE 10,000’. But, unfortunately, you don’t have any smaller notes than 100,000 VDN. You hand the note over to the security guy. He holds it in his hand, throws it in a big drawer full of notes and gives a look to the person waiting behind you.
You don’t want to think he’s hoping you gave him 100,000 VDN by mistake, thinking it was 10,000 VDN.
He then takes out a note of 50,000 VDN and hands it over to you. There are hundreds of notes in that drawer, you can see there are 10’s, 20’s, 50’s, 100’s, it’s not like he’s having trouble looking for the correct change.
Finally, he takes out two 20’s and hands them over, too, doesn’t look at you once. You drive away.
And you can’t accuse anybody of anything. But all these examples I called ‘examples’ for the sole reason of them repeating on a daily basis – unlike in any other country in South East Asia.
Tip no. 2, my dear traveler, make sure you’re given the correct change!
The Currency Predicament – Is it a dong or is it a dollar?
And this is something I was also told by other travelers, but wasn’t convinced after our first trip across Mekong Delta. They said that you can pay in USD nearly everywhere. I thought they must have gone to really touristy places and stayed at high-end hotels and resorts.
I was unpleasantly disappointed.
A few facts for you about this:
I ask about the price of motorbike rental and they say: 5 USD.
Now 1 USD at the time of our trip was 22,300 VDN.
It would suggest 5 * 22,300 = 111,500 VDN
Let’s round it up, even, to 22,500.
5 * 22,500 = 112,5000 VDN
So why if I want to pay in dong – their own, official, national currency, the price I’m given is 120,000 VDN, higher than in US dollars?
My question is – how much do locals or domestic tourists pay? I bet they don’t pay in dollars.
The price of my room is 18 USD.
If I want to pay in dong, it will be
18 * 22,500 = 405,000 USD, rounded up.
If I want to pay in dollars, now, this is a tricky part, because they don’t make 18-dollar notes.
I give them a note of 20 USD. And they give me change in dong.
2 USD * 21,500 VDN = 43,000.
21,500 for each dong, just because.
I’m still confused after multiple situations just like this one.
There is no way to make rules like that fair. Because I don’t even want the prices to be lower. I just want it to be clear, simple and not so sleazy.
HOW WE GOT ROBBED IN VIETNAM
Now this is the third act of this post and it’s a powerful one, too, so fasten your seatbelt.
At the end of our journey, we came back to Hanoi to a lovely hotel where we adored the staff and how polite they were to us throughout our stay. We spent there six nights because we had a lot of last shopping to do before leaving the country.
Now after Hanoi we planned a three-day transit in Bangkok and I was glad we had about 2650 Thai baht in our wallet in the suitcase. I know it because I checked on the day of our arrival to Hanoi. The money was there.
We never carry around the wallet with us when we go sightseeing because there is a higher risk someone will steal it if you have it with you walking around the Old Quarter. It should be easier if you hide it properly in your hotel room, shouldn’t it?
And I remember this one time we didn’t hide it during our stay in Hanoi. It was when we took all the dong we had out of the wallet and there was nothing left in there apart from the Thai currency we had ready for our quick visit to Thailand.
Let’s set the scene – we are sat in a coffee shop one street away from our hotel.
I say to Greg, ‘Shit, the wallet is on top of the suitcase, I forgot to hide it.’
He answers, ‘We have all the money with us anyway.’
I forgot about this situation. Until yesterday evening.
The plane was descending towards the Suvarnabhumi Airport when I found the wallet in my backpack and wanted to take the cash out, put it in my pocket and get it ready to buy the Airport Link tickets. And a few Thai notes were still there folded in half, just how I left them, hidden in the rear compartment of the wallet. My heart started pounding when I noticed I only had 650 THB.
2000 THB were missing. And I wish there was an explanation for it.
Firstly, I understand the occasional higher prices. I understand tourist prices, too. I gladly paid twice or three times as much for coffee in a touristy spot than I usually would in a local coffee shop. It makes sense. But I don’t think that gambling over the fact that whether I’m stupid or not, and trying to sell me any product for five or six times its worth is a good way to approach tourists.
Secondly, this whole currency paranoia, these illogical explanations as to why it works the way it works, I thought it was just annoying. Make up your mind, Vietnam, Cambodia does the currency thing so much better.
Thirdly, you have so many beautiful places across the whole country. How do you not believe in yourself? If you did, you’d know that tourists coming here actually are willing to spend their money anyway. Why force them?
Lastly, I’m not angry. I’m heartbroken, disappointed and I feel disrespected. Because I defended you for a long time, I argued in your defense so many times and now I feel like a total idiot.
Thank you, Vietnam, for this goodbye kiss. It was an eye-opening experience. I want to think I will visit again, one day. But you have to change first.
Take care of yourself.
– You know who.
And you, dear traveler, if you’re planning to pay Vietnam a visit, enjoy – and expect the unexpected.