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City Hall in Ho Chi Minh City | © bvi4092/Flickr
City Hall in Ho Chi Minh City | © bvi4092/Flickr
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How to Be Street-Wise in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Picture of Matthew Pike
Writer
Updated: 30 November 2017
Ho Chi Minh City is rough around the edges. Every day, tourists fall prey to the same scams, losing their money and expensive gadgets in easily preventable ways. The police can only do so much to protect wealthy foreigners who land in this city and have more money than travel awareness. It’s up to you to keep yourself out of trouble. Here’s what you can do:

Wear backpacks rather than purses or bags.

Bag snatchers are lurking everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City. They watch for easy targets—both locals and foreigners. Thin purse straps are the easiest for bag snatchers to take advantage of. Even if your purse is slung across your body, it can still come free with a strong pull. The straps also break much of the time, and if they don’t, you can get some serious whiplash. Getting a purse with thick straps will give you more protection, but backpacks are the best option. If you do have a bag with a single strap, at least keep the bag on the side of you that is away from traffic. Even when you’re sitting in a restaurant, keep your bag attached to you. Put one of your legs through a strap. You can also lift the table leg and put that through one of your bag’s loops. There are usually hawkers doing rounds through restaurants who will try to sell you things. Most of them are decent people who are just trying to make a living, but some of them will try to steal your belongings. In the backpackers area, be extra wary of bag snatchers.

Prime time and place for bag snatching | © Soreen D/Flickr
Prime time and place for bag snatching | © Soreen D/Flickr

Never use your phone or camera near traffic.

The same story has been told a quadrillion times: “I was taking a quick picture and then my phone was gone. I turned to chase the thief, but he was already too far away.” If you snap pictures near traffic, you’re serving up your gadget on a platter. Criminals who try to grab your phone but fail to do so, normally keep driving. However, if they successfully take your phone, they often sell it for a month’s wages.

Ask for the prices of goods or services beforehand.

No matter what you do in this city, or anywhere in Vietnam, always talk prices before accepting service. Tourists often assume that since everything is cheaper in Vietnam, inflated prices won’t be too bad. Yet motorbike taxis looking to scam you will ask for $5 instead of $2. Annoying, but not outrageous. Some bars, though, won’t show you a menu with prices on it. Then, at the end of the night, you’ll find yourself with an absurd bar tab. Oh, those bottles of wine cost $200 each? Should’ve asked.

Get the price before you take a seat | © Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr
Check prices before sitting down | © Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr

There are fake police.

There are scammers in the city who pose as undercover police to try and get money from scared tourists. They flash an official-looking ID and then demand money after describing fake charges. They’ll ask for your documents and tell you that you have to pay a fine if you don’t have these documents on you. Just walk away. The more brazen ones will flash a gun to scare you, but they will rarely shoot. Real police wear uniforms, and real undercover police will not demand money—not right away, at least.

These are real police | © Rdivilbiss/WikiCommons
These are real police | © Rdivilbiss/WikiCommons

Don’t leave your phone on the table.

Back home, it’s common for people to leave their cell phones out on the table. Everyone does it. Unfortunately, it’s a habit that may result in you buying a new phone every couple of days in Southeast Asia. You won’t even notice your phone is gone until you get that instinctive itch to check for new messages. “Anyone seen my phone?” It’s likely that no one will have seen it, and it will be highly difficult filing paperwork with the police. Your indignation will mean nothing to them.

Don’t walk around alone.

This advice is standard for travelers around the world, but it’s smart for a different reason in Vietnam. This reason mostly happens to men. Women will approach a man and tell him how sexy he is, asking if he wants to come have a good time. If he agrees, they can easily make money. If he refuses, they start feeling him up and groping him. While he’s distracted, their hands will go into his pockets—or slide off his watch. After he notices what’s happened, the girls will have already disappeared into an alley. Chasing after them is a sure way to find even more trouble. There’s always protection nearby. The underworld in Vietnam protects its own.

Lots of places to walk around | © Terrazzo/Flickr
Lots of places to walk around | © Terrazzo/Flickr

Leave your jewelry at home.

Vietnam’s economy is growing fast, but it’s still a poor country. Many people in Ho Chi Minh City work long hours to make a couple hundred USD per month. Your gold bracelet and Rolex watch symbolize half a year of work for them. Stories of hold-ups are rare, but pickpockets are everywhere.

Do not fight a local.

Avoiding fights should be part of Life 101, right? Unfortunately, when tourists—usually men—feel they’ve been wronged, they escalate the situation. There’s no such thing as a fair fight in Vietnam, though. Fights always involve groups and objects flying through the air. No matter what, just walk away. If somebody has wronged you, let the bar staff or others diffuse the situation. There are stories out there of foreigners getting stomped by a dozen locals with metal poles and bricks. Is your pride worth that much?

Don’t be scared.

This is less of a strategy and more of a reassurance after bombarding you with all the threats you might face in Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic aside, Ho Chi Minh City is not a dangerous place. Most of the stories of scams and robberies come from people who are new to the country. If you practice basic travel awareness, you’ll be fine.