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Brian’s Travel Blog: Vietnam’s Foreigner Tax is too Damn High!

downloadI have now been to Vietnam three times, spent about two months there in total and traveled the length of the country twice. The food is amazing and inexpensive; it has many beautiful beaches, mountains and sights to see and a very rich cultural heritage (all of which I’ll talk about in my next post). However, this is not what I want to talk about right now. What I want to talk about is the consistently horrible treatment I have encountered during my several trips there at the hands of people in the tourist industry, warn other travelers about some of the dangers and annoyances they’re likely to encounter while there and give a few tips on how to avoid them.

In all my travels I haven’t been to a country more full of cons, ripoffs, thefts, threats and sometimes violence against tourists as I have in Vietnam. As a traveler in a developing country, you get used to the idea that many locals will view you as being so wealthy that they wont think twice about charging you a little extra for, well, everything. Backpackers tend to laugh this off and accept this “foreigner tax” as a part of life and part of the cost of traveling. Still, Vietnam is on a whole other level when it comes to squeezing money out of foreigners. The ripoffs in ‘Nam start the second you leave the Hanoi airport (again, the North is much worse for all this kind of stuff) where you’ll run into some of the most notorious scammers in the whole country: the airport taxi drivers. While taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers and motorcycle drivers around the world are on my personal shit list for their frequent scamming, Vietnamese drivers take the cake.

During my last trip to ‘Nam in 2011, I actually got into a physical altercation with a taxi driver. I got in a cab to leave the airport and there was a woman in the front seat. I told the cab driver that since I was sharing the cab, I expected to get a discounted price. He refused saying the woman was his sister and that he was just dropping her off. It was obvious this was a lie because there was no indication these people knew each other let alone were closely related. They didn’t so much as speak a word to each other for the whole 45 min ride. Plus, when he dropped her off in the middle of the city, I saw her give him money once they were outside the cab.

When he got back into the cab, I called him out. He immediately got extremely angry and yelled at me to get out of his cab. I refused and told him I wouldn’t get out of the cab until he popped the trunk and took my bags out because I knew he would drive off the second I got out otherwise. At that time he got out, opened my door and forcefully grabbed my arm to pull me out. I did get out. All 6 foot, 250 pounds of me got out, and he ran back around to drivers seat to drive off. I hopped back in before be could and again insisted on him taking my bags out before I would leave. We repeated this dance two more times before he finally popped the trunk and threw my bags out. We then heatedly negotiated a new price for the half-ride as a crowed of Vietnamese gathered and watched. This was my welcome to northern Vietnam and it wasn’t the last time I’d have a physical encounter with a driver there.

So on this trip, when one of my good friends who now lives in Hanoi met me at the airport, I was glad to have someone who knew the ropes there to help me avoid another situation like that. We skipped the cab stand and headed right for the airline buses which would drop us off very close to her house and save us a lot of money and trouble.

To my surprise, the driver of the big name airline company’s bus still tried to rip us off by charging four times the stated online price for the ride. After another heated argument, we talked him down to only paying double what we should have and we only agreed to that because again the level of anger in the man was concerning. On a scale of calm to mad, he went off the chart and straight to veins-popping-out-of-his-neck angry with our first question about the price, and I knew the risk of physical violence was very real if we did not acquiesce.

imagesThe fact of the matter is I haven’t been to a country where you have to be more on guard against scams, ripoffs and out right robberies from people involved in the tourist industry than in Vietnam (especially the North). Some of this is because the currency can be confusing whether you’re inebriated or not, but especially if you’re inebriated: Zeros have this way of blurring together, which makes it easy to mistake 10,000 for a 100,000 or 50,000 for a 500,000 if you’re in a hurry or not fully focused on paying your bill. If you mistakenly hand someone the wrong bill, there is an extremely good chance they won’t correct you and will gladly let you walk away without the correct change. They sometimes will take this a step further and actively try to trick you. An example of this was when I took a 30,000 dong cab ride (less than 2 US dollars) and paid with a 500,000 dong bill. (Yes, the currency is called dongs, and yes I made lots of jokes about that). The driver, hoping I would think I paid with a 50,000 dong bill, handed me back 20,000 dongs for change. When I called him out, he said he didn’t have any change. That’s when I pointed out that he had had change when he was trying to rip me off. He laughed, got out his wallet and gave me the correct change.

In my mind this crossed a line. There is a huge difference between the occasional over charging that costs you a dollar or two here and there and a cab driver trying to short change me by 25 dollars. In another incident during my time in Hanoi, a cab driver manipulated the meter and charged me much more than my ride should have cost. I didn’t fight him on this because it was late, I was tired and I didn’t feel up for the heated argument that was sure to follow. I handed him the the 100,000 dongs he said I owed. He then moved the money down to his side and out of my sight and came back up with a 10,000 dong note and said I hadn’t given him the right amount. This was a bridge too far for me and I called bullshit, but, in typical Vietnamese taxi driver fashion, he did not back down and instead instantly went from calm to insanely angry. I again had no choice but to pay since the only other way this could have played out was to fight and you can not fight with a Vietnamese in Vietnam because any nearby local will join in on their side no matter what the situation or cause of the fight is and the police will be of no help either. You are in their country and you will not win and based on several stories I heard, some of these cab drivers are not above attacking women either.

Other scams I heard of are cabs that have push buttons to run the meter up and motor bike drivers reaching into open wallets while people were looking for money to pay them, grabbing a handful of cash, and driving off. All of this goes to say be very, very careful with cab drivers in ‘Nam. While cab drivers around the world have consistently shown themselves to be sucky people, drivers in ‘Nam stand out.

IMG_1697Sadly, cab drivers are not the only scammers a traveler has to worry about in ‘Nam. Everyone from tour operators to souvenir shop owners to tailors will gladly take as much of your money as they can while giving you as little as possible in return. Tour operators frequently advertise accommodations, boats, and transportation that have nothing to do with what you will see and get once you start your trip. While I can say I got a good deal on a trip to Ha Long Bay thanks to some good tips on where to book it through from some friends, I was about the only person in our tour group who was satisfied with what I got. I paid a little extra for a few upgrades per my friends’ suggestions and still came out paying less than just about everyone else. Other people in the tour group seemed to constantly be arguing with the tour leader as one thing after another didn’t match up to what they had been promised. Some people on the tour also found out they had paid, in some cases, twice as much as other people for the same tour. Do your research before you book any tour and a couple of ten dollar upgrades can go a long way to making it a much better trip. (Opt for the private bungalow instead of the “nice” hotel if you do an overnight to Cat Ba Island).

When it comes to shopping in ‘Nam, I honestly tell people to just skip it. Everything I have ever bought in that country has been defective and broken nearly right away. I once bought a wine bottle holder that couldn’t hold a bottle of wine. How the hell does a gift shop make defective wine bottle holders and what benefit is it to the shop owner is it to sell them? Do they actually save money by making them in such a way that they’ll fall over when you actually try to use them? Sadly, this was just one item in a long list of items I got there that I wish I hadn’t. And, even more upsetting, it applies to several suits I had made there.

IMG_1950Hoi An, is a river town famous for it’s old and extremely adorable city center which is full of tailor shops and has been for centuries. People flock there to have clothes made and most are, just like I was, very happy with the initial results. However, everything I had made there has since broken, lost buttons or torn. Despite paying more to get what I hoped would be better quality, I’ve had to take every single thing made there to other tailors to have them repaired. Contrasts this to the suits I had made in Thailand and Cambodia that are older and still in perfect condition. If you insist on getting clothes made there, Mr. Kim’s does seem to have the best reputation.

While I might have just had a particularly bad run of luck over my three visits to ‘Nam, that does not account for how widespread similar stories are among travelers and even expats. The aggression and scamming is not reserved just for Americans. Stories were evenly spread among travelers from all nationalities. One involved a Dutch girl I met who was “befriended” by a local and taken to a place where she ordered tea without asking about the price first and was stuck with a 500 dollar bill. To me, all this adds up the inescapable fact that Vietnam, or at least the people in the tourists economy part of it, don’t appreciate having foreigners in their country anymore, assuming they ever did.

I know the country’s modern history includes the long and brutal French occupation that was immediately followed by the long and bloody ‘War of American Aggression,’ better known in America as the Vietnam War. I also know that while the whole country was involved in the war, the North took the brunt of it. It would be very understandable to me if this left some lingering resentments that might help explain some of lousy and downright hostile treatment tourists encounter in the country and especially in the North. But maybe this is just the way their culture is. I have not been there long enough to make any kind of guess one way or the other. However, if the treatment so many tourists are receiving there at the hands of people in the tourist industry is not reflective of the culture as a whole, then the Vietnamese people need to be concerned. Tourism and the way people are treated while visiting a country is that country’s face to the world and Vietnam is being made to look like it has a very ugly one. I hope there is something that can be done about it, but until then, I will say there are many countries in the world where a traveler will be treated very well, so if this is an important factor for you in picking a place to visit, keep this in mind. And, if you do go to ‘Nam (and there are many reasons to) keep your guard up in a very big way.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

4 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Blog: Vietnam’s Foreigner Tax is too Damn High!

  1. Dude, Vietnam drove me nuts with the constant scams. I got a hair cut in Hue, and despite the fact that the price was clearly marked on the wall of the hair shop, the lady tried to quadruple charge me and things escalated quickly. I had to argue for some time just to get down to double price.

    I wrote this in my blog about the dreaded Hoi An to Da Nang bus –

    Danang is only 45 minutes from Hoi An, so I took a local bus. The lady on the bus charged me 50,000 dong, which seemed like a really high price for a non-aircon bus going 30 kilometers. By comparison, the 15 km city bus I took in Saigon cost 4,000 dong. I paid it without really thinking on account of the hangover, but then looked at my Lonely Planet. It said that this particular bus route was notorious for overcharging foreigners, and it should run 10,000 dong. Sure, prices may have raised since the book was printed, but not by a factor of five in 18 months. I tried to watch what other people paid, but the bus lady shuffled every new passenger into the back, out of my line of sight. Suddenly, I realized why she insisted that I sit in the very front seat when I got on the bus – so I couldn’t see the other passengers pay. I called the lady over and asked her for my change, but she insisted everyone was paying 50,000, and she had other passengers confirm this (although she was obviously telling them to agree with her in Vietnamese). The two guys across from me backed her story. Later, I asked the two girls behind me, and they sheepishly admitted that they had paid 15,000 dong, but they seemed scared of the bus lady. I wonder if she split her profits with the random dudes that she convinced to lie on her behalf.

  2. I had a pretty good time in Vietnam- only scammed once haha. The cab situation was super easy for me as long as I took the correct cab companies. This is something both Vietnam and Indonesia have going for them, cab companies that build their business on a brand and reputation- in Vietnam, Vinasun,Mai Linh, in Indonesia Bluebird and Ekspress. In Thailand I can never seem to get cabbies to use the meter and always have to negotiate and start walking away before I get a rate anything close to acceptable.

    At the airport in Saigon though I tried to buy a sim card and 2 gigs of 3g internet. I researched ahead and got the right carrier. The cost was cheap ($25) and, after I paid, everything seemed to be working. Two days later my data stopped working and I have to trudge around town to find a cell phone store. My 3g voucher was never applied to my account and I suspect my cash was pocketed at the official telecom Airport kiosk rather than a mistake occurring.

    Overall I found the people and the place was cheap even with the lost $20. But the country is still one of the most corrupt places in asia and underdeveloped/poor.

    In general some internet research and common sense can help you avoid a lot of nonsense but nothing beats having a local friend with you.

  3. If I am planning a trip abroad, I will first ask you. This kind of personally-acquired info is very helpful to avoid pitfalls and a lousy time.

  4. Nice article. We came to Vietnam from Laos and experienced instant culture shock. The people in Laos are friendly, laid back and don’t see you as walking dollar signs. I was reeling from the moment I got to Vietnam to the moment I left. Even though I am a visitor to your country, I don’t appreciate the locals treating me as though I am a rich idiot.
    I would always recommend other SE Asian countries over that one – even when you get out of the touristy areas the people treat you pretty badly.

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