11 Common Tourist Scams to Avoid in Vietnam

Beautiful Vietnam | © M M/Flickr
Beautiful Vietnam | © M M/Flickr
Vietnamese people are proud to show their beloved country to foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. The land is stunningly beautiful and the people are wonderful — well, almost all of them. Unfortunately, like any place that welcomes tourists, there are scammers and con artists looking to swipe your cash and valuables. So keep a lookout for the following tricks during your stay in lovely Vietnam.

1. Money switch

It’s usually motorbike taxi drivers that try this one. They use sleight of hand to switch whatever money you give them for smaller denominations, and then they put on a dramatic show of indignation — like you’re the one trying to rip them off. The most common version is switching a 500,000VND note for a 20,000VND, which is easy to fall for since they’re both blue. The best way to avoid this is to pay with small bills. Break your larger bills at convenience stores, restaurants, or other reputable businesses.

Vietnamese cash takes a bit of getting used to. © Tonkinphotography / Shutterstock

2. The groin grab

This one preys on men in touristy areas. An attractive girl will start flirting with a man off by himself, telling him how handsome he is and asking if he wants a massage as she plays with his groin. While he’s distracted, she empties his pockets. Girls often work in teams for this one.

Prime target for the groin grab scam © Creative Family/shutterstock

3. Fake taxis

The two best companies in Vietnam are Vinasun (white) and Mai Linh (green). Some of their drivers are shady, but the majority are honest. Unfortunately, there are other companies that use similar names and matching color schemes. They’ll trick you by pointing to their meter, since everyone knows to only get in taxis that has one. But you’ll quickly notice that the meter climbs much faster than it should. And when you pay, the drivers will often try the money switch scam. Make sure you get in a Vinasun or Mai Linh, or use an app like Grab or Uber.

Try to find these ones of Mai Linh © shankar s./Flickr

4. Fake travel companies

This one is similar to the fake taxis mentioned above. When a travel company gets popular, fake businesses open shops with similar names, hoping to trick foreigners who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese. Research everyone online before you buy from them, and check the spelling closely.

5. The two-shine

If you’re wearing dress shoes in a touristy area, prepare to be hounded by shoe-shiners. Oftentimes, foreigners accept just to be left alone. They negotiate a price, but when the shoes come back, the price has doubled, because the price they gave you was for just one shoe. If the foreigner puts up a stink, underworld muscle is never too far away.

Bui Vien Street. Home turf for the shoe shiners © trungydang/WikiCommons

6. A fine bag of tea

Marijuana is illegal in Vietnam, but many foreigners smoke it openly. The problem is that tourists usually buy it from the motorbike taxi drivers who lurk around the hostels and bars. They’ll let you smell a bag of real marijuana as they negotiate the price, but once you pay, they’re gone and you’re left with a bag of tea. And good luck reporting it to the Better Business Bureau.

7. The coconut photo shoot

This one happens mostly in Hanoi. Street vendors with baskets of coconuts will ask if you want to use their bamboo baskets for a photo shoot. But while you’re clicking away, they’re chopping open coconuts for you that cost an obscene amount. You didn’t ask for them? Get ready for some shouting and a crowd of people who don’t take kindly to foreigners cheating locals.

Sometimes this is an expensive photo op © shankar s./Flickr

8. Bait-and-switch massage

Massage parlors use this one to prey on amorous men. A beautiful woman on the street convinces the man to come inside for a massage, usually by flirting and laughing a lot. Then, once the man has paid, the beautiful woman is gone and a surly woman with gorilla hands comes in. Another common scam is to charge tourists ridiculous fees for things like water, towels and music. When you refuse to pay, gangsters step in. Your best bet is selecting places you’ve researched online, rather than following pretty girls into dark alleys.

Service not as advertised © Mark/Flickr

9. Motorbike taxi

Motorbike taxis — xe ôm in Vietnamese — are notorious cheats. In touristy areas, many of them are gangsters hoping to sell fake drugs to gullible foreigners. But the most common scam they pull is when they agree on a price for a trip and then ask for a lot more when you arrive at your destination. They’ll tell you that you must’ve misheard them, and when you argue, they escalate things quickly. They know most foreigners would rather pay a couple dollars than make a huge scene in a strange area with no friends around.

Motorbike taxi waiting for the next fare © Nhật Luân Ninh/Flickr

10. The wandering fare

Even the reputable taxi companies have drivers that pull this one on tourists. Foreigners don’t really know the best routes, so the drivers use this to their advantage. They take a creatively long and circuitous route, often pretending to be lost so they can get a few more dollars by wandering around through back streets. A good way to avoid this is by having a map open on your phone. If the driver goes off in a strange direction, wave the map at them. But the best way to avoid this is to take Uber or Grab. They follow routes on the map.

Where are we? © der tomtomtom/WikiCommons

11. Baggage fee

You usually won’t have any issues with the larger bus companies, but sometimes they still try to pull some shady moves. One common scam is to tell foreigners that they have to pay a fee when their bags are getting loaded under the bus. The staff know most foreigners will just pay the small fee to avoid confrontation — and foreigners, since they can’t read any Vietnamese — will probably assume the fee was mentioned somewhere but they couldn’t understand it. There’s no such thing as a baggage fee in Vietnam. Just say no and get in your seat. And don’t let them move you to the back by the bathrooms. If you have an assigned seat, stay in it. If somebody’s in your seat, then choose one you want and ignore anyone who tries to move you.

The rainbow of the bus options in Vietnam © xuanhuongho/shutterstock