Generally, Vietnam is a very safe country in which to travel. Compared to most major tourist cities in the West – Paris, London, New York, Rome – the streets of Vietnam’s urban centers are much less threatening. However, in some of the more popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, there are a handful of tourist scams and safety hazards that all travelers should be aware of. – the first in a two-part series – we describe some common scams in tourist hotspots in the north of the country; Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa. This guide to avoiding common tourist scams will help you get the most out of this fabulous country and avoid any negative experiences.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is one of the busiest and most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia. But, as tourist numbers have risen steadily, so too have tourist scams.
Airport Taxi Scam: Many visitors emerge from Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport dazed after a long-haul flight. Scam taxis take advantage of this by picking up passengers at the airport arrivals gate and immediately saying that the hotel they’ve booked has closed down. They will then offer to take you to another, better, cheaper hotel. Inevitably, this turns out to be a substandard and much more expensive hotel. Bewildered and weary, travelers give in to the demands and check-in. Naturally, the taxi drivers get a cut of the room charge. The solution is either to prearrange your airport pick up through your hotel when you book it, or, at the airport arrivals, look out for the official airport taxi drivers (who wear bright yellow jackets). Alternatively, make sure you flag down a trusted taxi company, such as, Mai Linh, ABC, or Taxi Group.
Fruit Seller Scam: Notorious in recent years, this scam involves local fruit sellers, who struggle along Hanoi’s streets carrying bamboo poles laden with tropical fruit over their backs. The fruit sellers offer tourists a ‘go’ at carrying the bamboo pole, presenting it as a good photo opportunity. When the tourist hands the pole back to the fruit seller they demand money for the ‘service’ or insist that you buy their outrageously overpriced fruit as compensation. Don’t pick up that pole! This common scam can also be found in Ho Chi Minh City.
Hotel Currency Rates: Some budget hotels in Hanoi have been known to swindle customers by switching the room price from dollars to dong, and massively inflating the exchange rate. They may also say that the rate quoted was per person, not per room. Double check when you book, and keep any email confirmation you receive as evidence. Hotels may also charge guests for any preexisting breakages in the rooms. If anything is broken when you arrive notify reception immediately so that they cannot claim you were responsible.
Hoan Kiem Hospitality: A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is a favorite activity for tourists and locals alike. Young men and women will approach you to practice their English and ‘make friends’. While this is often a genuine attempt to establish friendly contact – I have good friends made exactly like this – it can sometimes lead to invitations to expensive meals or day outings, for which you will be given the bill. Use your ‘travelers’ radar’ to assess whether contact is genuine or not.
Famed for its mystical limestone karsts rising from the sea, Halong Bay is a captivating sight. But, these days, it can get pretty darn crowded with boat tours. Before you visit you should take note of a few things.
Tours & Cruises: A day cruise (and usually a night too) around Halong Bay is one of the most popular tours in all Vietnam. Tourists often book all-inclusive tours from Hanoi. These vary wildly in price and quality. Travellers who book onto the cheaper ones are often disappointed: bad food, terrible accommodation, sloppy service. More importantly your major concern should be safety. Vietnam has a poor maritime safety record and there have been incidents in recent years in Halong Bay, including sunken tourist boats and on-board fires, which have led to tourist deaths. Our advice is to spend more on your tour, and thoroughly check its credentials before you book. Not only will this ensure better quality, it will also mean better safety standards. An all-inclusive tour to Halong Bay from Hanoi should be around $100-150, anything less and you run the risk of disappointment. Another point to be aware of is that boat tours are often cancelled due to bad weather, especially during the monsoon months from July to September. Good tour companies will reimburse you, but many of the cheaper ones do not. Make sure you understand the policy of your tour clearly.
On-board Theft: Unsurprisingly, there are reports of belongings and valuables being stolen on-board some of the cheaper tour boats. Take care not to leave your valuables unattended. At night, tour boats should have lockers available to passengers so that you can sleep easy knowing that your possessions are safe.
Floating Restaurants: There are hundreds of floating restaurants in Halong Bay, where fresh, reasonably priced seafood is available. However, these restaurants represent the most captive market in Vietnam; with water on all sides, where are you going to run if your hosts decide to overcharge you? Establish in advance (before you’ve made the voyage there) the cost of meals, and whether drinks and the return boat fare are included in the price. The restaurants in Ben Beo, off Cat Ba Island, are said to be better and less touristy than others. A boat out and back should be around 150,000 vnđ, but don’t pay your fee before the return journey to dry land is complete, otherwise you might find yourself stranded at sea.
A mountain town surrounded by towering peaks and plunging valleys, unfortunately Sapa’s natural beauty is undermined by the constant hassle to buy trinkets and book onto tours, as well as the odd tourist scam.
Bogus Hotel Bookings: Such is Sapa’s tourist boom that, in recent years, hotels struggle to serve the hundreds (even thousands) of foreign and domestic travellers they receive on any one night, especially on weekends and public holidays. Even if you have booked your room months in advance, you may still find there are ‘no vacancies’ when you arrive. Check the reputation of your chosen hotel before you book, and, if you’ve booked in advance, reconfirm your booking before your arrival. One of the best things about staying in Sapa is having a spectacular view of the mountains from your hotel balcony. When you make your booking check and check again that you will have a clear mountain view, and, as always, keep the email confirmation from the hotel. Many travelers arrive in Sapa only to find that their mountain view is no more than an air conditioning unit and a bare brick wall.
Train Station Pick Up: Don’t accept a ride to Sapa from Lai Cao train station from anyone except your pre-booked hotel or tour agent. If you don’t have prearranged transportation take a taxi ($25) or one of the reliable minibuses that wait outside the station (50,000vnđ).
A Helping Hand? A quiet walk around Sapa town or the surrounding countryside is now almost impossible. At each turn tourists are met with shouts of ‘You buy something?’ or ‘I take you go for beautiful walk’. The hassle is constant and out of control. Many tourists come to Sapa specifically to visit ethnic minorities who live in the nearby mountains. It may be difficult, but you should ignore approaches from friendly young minority girls telling you their life story and offering you a free guided walk to their village. Inevitably, these ‘free’ guides will demand, beg, and even cry for money once you arrive at their village. Don’t make payment for a service you did not ask for or in order to get the girls to leave you alone, as this only sets a precedent – these young girls’ time would be better spent in school, but, at the moment, it is simply more lucrative for them to prowl the streets of Sapa for the tourist buck. All this leaves travelers in a quandary: what’s real, what’s fake? Is hospitality genuine of just a ruse to a scam? Contact Sapa O’Chau (www.sapaochau.org) for more information about the situation and for tours with genuine local guides.