2017 Note from Lillie: I wrote this article in 2009, and have since realized that it’s rude. As a kind commenter pointed out, haggling is part of the culture in Vietnam, and should not be seen as attempts at “ripping off” tourists.
With that in mind, feel free to read on to see my thoughts from my time in Vietnam eight years ago, understanding that they are the result of a misunderstanding that has since been cleared up. Thanks!
“I can’t believe it!” gasped David. “That little old street corner soup woman just scammed me!” The little old lady cackled and pocketed the 80,000 Dong she had charged for our two bowls of normally 20,000 Dong ($1) noodles and beef. “Now I’ve learned my lesson to ask the price before I eat the food!” David exclaimed. “You can blame my tourist face,” I said sympathetically, having gotten all too used to the sneaky price changes over my month so far in Vietnam.
Traveling for the past week alongside David, who now lives in Canada, but was born in Vietnam and speaks fluent Vietnamese, we have noticed some shocking patterns with Vietnam’s price scams. Take a peek!
1. Price changes after service.
My first night in Saigon, the taxi driver told me the fare would be one dollar, then demanded twenty dollars from me upon reaching my hotel, vehemently denying that he’d ever quoted a lower price. Two days ago in Hue, our rickshaw driver said he’d take us around for 50,000 Dong ($2.50), but when David tried to be nice and tip him for a total of $60,000 Dong, the driver grew angry and began demanding 200,000 ($10)! Unbelievable!
And yet– every tourist to Vietnam has at least three stories like this. The only things you can do to combat the rapid price change scam are: a) be EXTREMELY clear up front about what the price is, and b) if and when a higher price is demanded, firmly state the lower price, and give up no more than a few dollars extra if you must. Then walk away.
In the end, the Vietnamese police want to keep tourists happy, and thus will side with you if you summon them. We’ve also heard of scammers fleeing in terror the moment the tourist pulls out their camera to record a license plate number or face for public justice. But perhaps the most important way to combat this scam is to expect it. The feeling of utter shock and betrayal when the scam is (inevitably!) splashed upon your unsuspecting self is heartbreaking, otherwise!
2. Nickel and diming the price up with extras.
Oooh, how lovely: a $6 all-day boat ride in Nha Trang to four different islands! But wait… though lunches are included, any beverages (including water) are extra. Though the boat ride between the four islands is included, “entrance” onto each island will cost at least one to three dollars extra. About ten other hidden (and tempting) costs lurk under the surface.
Similarly, a hotel room will often cost $6 a night, but if you turn on the air conditioning the price jumps to $8 or $10. Renting a DVD is only a dollar, but adding the DVD machine to your free hotel TV is three more bucks. Sneaky, sneaky!
To combat this scam, read the fine print carefully, and ask all the questions that would be included in the fine print, should there be no written brochure. Plan ahead if you can (ex: bringing your own cheap water onto the tour boat), or just accept that you will need to budget for the extras you want (ex: walking onto the beach instead of bobbing like a fool alone in the boat for two hours).
3. Blatantly different prices for Vietnamese folks than for tourists.
David stormed out of the Emperor’s Palace in Hue looking like he would kick it down if he could. “Do you realize they are charging you tourists almost double the entrance price they charge Vietnamese?” he asked me. For me, I was so beaten down by the constant price gouging after weeks and weeks of it, that I just shrugged and said, “So it goes.”
Moral, kind David, however, refused to enter the palace on the principle that paying the entrance would support the continued maltreatment of my kind. “Maybe I feel American guilt,” I protested, “but my country owes Vietnam a whole lot more than a few gouged Dong after what it did in the war.”
“You can’t think like that,” insisted David. “It’s hurting Vietnam in the long run to be constantly taking advantage of tourists, because you told me yourself that every backpacker you meet is exhausted from fighting the constant scamming.” I nodded. He did have a point. David continued, “If this government-administrated attraction is officially charging tourists extra without any clear explanation of why, then it’s telling everyone else in the country– including that little old soup lady who overcharged us today– that it’s all right to be sneaky and money grubbing!”
As a true Libra, I can see both sides of this issue. The average Vietnamese income is around $1000 a YEAR, and in my Socialist heart, if a person makes less, they should pay less. That said, it was a little awkward when on the boat today to Cat ba Island, David was charged 50,000 Dong ($2.50) for being Vietnamese-Canadian, while I was charged 80,000 Dong ($4) for “insurance purposes”. (See upper left hand sign which states the price difference for the boat in Vietnamese.) Huh? Insurance? Can’t they at least say something about national pride?
Many say that what makes a “First World” country is having trustworthy, uncorrupt structures. In the U.S. or Canada or Japan, you gladly pay $7 for a bowl of soup because you trust that a price is a price, and you cannot challenge that structure. In a Developing Country, however, constantly shifting prices give a feeling of instability and mistrust. “Shouldn’t that $2 soup actually be $1?” you whisper.
Thank goodness for the Snail Man for redeeming our scam-filled day!
David and I stomped away from the Emperor’s Palace in Hue for blocks, passing through stray-dog-filled parks and motorcycles hollering to give us a ride. Suddenly, we stumbled across a gap-toothed old man selling steamed snails.
“OH!” David gasped with delight, “These are the BEST!” David and the old man burst into animated discussion of the ideal condiment for the snails as the man clattered a heaping scoop of the critters onto a plate for us. The men squeezed a little extra lime into the orange sauce, and then we devoured the escargots, scraping off the intestines with toothpicks and eating the dark horned heads. “Eat more,” said David to me, “You make the man happy when you do.” The snails tasted good but it was a challenge to forget that they were… snails. I tried valiantly, though!
The time came to pay the 10,000 Dong (75 cents) that the old man had quoted David. Suddenly, the snail man’s furious daughter came huffing out of the shed. “I can’t believe you charged them just 10,000 Dong!” she screamed at her father in Vietnamese as David translated. “It’s supposed to be 15,000 for him,” jabbing a finger at David, “and 20,000 for her!” she pointed at me. At this point the old man’s face wrinkled to its absolute leathery maximum as he unleashed a sun-bright grin. “Oh honey, let it go,” he said. “That boy is one of us.”
David handed the man a giant tip and said as we strode off. “It’s to people like him that I want to give my money,” sighed David. “That’s why Vietnam needs to get its tourist treatment right.”
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!