A litany of scams: Laos and Vietnam

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First published 19th November, 2008

In part two of our litany of scams series, Daniel McConnell discusses his experiences in Laos and Vietnam. These two countries are apples and oranges when it comes to scams -- in Laos they're few and far between, while Vietnam they come thick and fast. Read on to find out about some of the scams you may come across.

Laos in general was pretty laid back when it comes to scams -- sure there's the occasional dodgy money changer or an errant tuk tuk driver, but Laos is not a hotbed of scams on an industrial level. The only scam that really comes to mind could have been either a mistake or genuinely mischievous.

Laundry lost in Laos
During my travels in Laos, I lost a lot of clothes and believe it can all be traced back to partaking in the wicked trade of laundry services. On the upside, as my clothes vanished, my clothing accounting improved. Also, given my clothes are now being worn proudly from the waters of Don Dhet to the mountain trails of Phongsali I'm not completely aggrieved. I won't be surprised if, during my next trip to Laos, I see copies of all my t-shirts for sale.

If you wanted to dodge this scam; the easiest thing to do, is to count your clothes before you give them away. You could, in theory, take a quick digital photo of them laid out on a bed beforehand, but we'd suggest that would be taking things a bit far -- perhaps washing them yourself would be a better option.

When it comes to cutting edge scams, Vietnam is where it's at, and the capital city, Hanoi, is a veritable snake-pit of scam artists and con merchants. You'll need to have your wits about you to avoid being routinely financially liberated.

Hanoi taxi & hotel scam
Is this the hotel you requested?Basically a taxi driver picks you up at the airport and follows one of the following tactics:
» Tells you your hotel is closed and takes you to a hotel that will pay a commission
» Takes you to a hotel with the same name as the one you requested, but with a different address.
» Pulls up at the hotel you requested, but then, a guy in front of the hotel comes to your window and tells you the hotel is full and directs you to their "sister" hotel.
» Some other random combination of the above!

Thankfully we knew enough about Vietnam to dodge this bullet but the lengths we needed to take are worth rewriting.
» Know where you are staying in advance and check the address carefully upon arrival.
» When you are dropped off at the wrong hotel check the name on the hotel
» Be forceful with the driver and get them to take you to your desired hotel
» Give the driver the money you agreed on not a new per person amount
» Have both currencies handy so you do not have to rely on a drivers dubious exchange calculation

Hanoi cheap cheap accommodation
More general advice here which is worth knowing about. If you go cheap in Hanoi you had better agree on going with the hotels tour services. This is because the super-cheap guesthouses make their money on the tours -- not the rooms. If you stay at a super-cheap place and don't use their tour services, you can count on having a hard time when you check out. It is worth paying a bit more and sorting out tours by yourself.

Roadside selling
Be prepared to give your neck a thorough work out. A firm no and shake of a head is generally enough to discourage people but in tourist havens like Nha Trang the surge of salesmen is relentless. You are not even safe in a restaurant as they will come in and try to sell you all manner of things right at your table.

Watch out in particular for persistent street sellers who follow you along the street -- pick pocketing remains a serious problem in Vietnam, and a persistent merchant can distract you while your pockets are pilfered.

Nha Trang at dawn and not a hustler in sight

The ultimate confidence scam
To this day I do not know if this was a scam as it was so well executed. As often the case, it started with an innocent walk to find an internet cafe. I was gently accosted by a man who had mistaken me as a member of his New Zealand extended family. He proceeded to tell me he had a couple of hours to kill and would I come for a drink with him. Wanting to further my travelling experience I promptly hopped upon his scooter and we headed off to a river side bar.

A couple of bars later I had *learned* about this fellow's family, his interests and that he was also a writer or sorts. Being the first writer I had met on my travels this got me excited. Alarm bells should have rung when he told me he was a foreign currency collector and how he attempted an unsuccessful currency swap. As the session progressed, he got me to write his wife a happy birthday note for his book of writing, after all it was her birthday that very day. On our way home we stopped at a liquor store so he could buy his wife a bottle of wine. In my beer affected state I agreed to buy his wife a bottle of birthday wine which conveniently cost the total amount of money remaining in my wallet. I suspect the wine was exchanged back less a percentage after I was dropped off.

Genuine? ... perhaps -- but more likely a scam. The best scams out there leave you wondering if indeed you've been scammed at all. Tune in next week for Cambodia.

A litany of scams: Thailand

Daniel McConnell is a keen writer who used Travelfish extensively whilst preparing for and during a three month trip of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia with his wife. A litany of scams is an informative and sometimes humorous look at some things to look out for whilst travelling in this part of the world. Let the traveller beware!

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Read 20 comment(s)

  • One night in Vientiane, Laos, my friend and I (both girls) were negotiating the price with a tuk-tuk driver when an African man came out of nowhere and tried to 'pacify' the situation by asking us persistently, "Is there a problem? If there is a problem I can solve it, I can help you – I'm a local." The intrusion seemed awry so we just thanked him politely and said there was no problem. Later, I scooted off alone to a mart down the road to change my USD$ to kip for the ride, and I saw another black man near the store counter, talking on the phone. Right then, I spotted the first man walking towards the store entrance, also on the phone. I suspected he was telling his friend in the store about me because upon seeing me, he quickly walked away.

    After changing my money, I walked back to the tuk-tuk and he continued to harrass me, saying things like 'Why do you not want to listen to me?' Later on, I asked the tuk-tuk driver what that was all about and he warned me against the African man, claiming that more and more blacks had recently entered Laos and were 'mafia'. That was the only instance I felt unsafe in Laos and hope this can serve as a warning especially to female travelers.

    Posted by lennie on 22nd November, 2008

  • For scams, Vietnam wins hands down!

    My 'worst' scam in Vietnam appears to be officially sanctioned.

    What happened?:

    I used LP to find a Sinh Cafe in HaNoi. It turned out to be a life threatening move. The map pointed to Pho Hang Bac (the text on another page was Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen: but who double checks LP?). The former is now occupied by an unscrupulous '#$%@*' with a 'Sinh Cafe' shopfront & who sold an adventure to me with wonderful promises that nearly cost me my life.

    Upon return, I discovered that HaNoi officials don't police trademarks, and there are literally dozens of kiosks operating as Sinh Cafe. And, literally dozens of each of the other popular operators.

    Perhaps the motto here is "In Vietnam, treat every offer / promise / deal with a grain of salt".

    I learnt that unless something is written down (as claimed), then don't expect your money to gain the intended outcome. With that in mind, you can have a great time in VN.

    Posted by Dr Bruce Moon (TF user - brucemoon) on 3rd January, 2009

  • I had an interesting experience changing money at the BCEL on the river in Vientiane, Laos. I had read that this bank offered the best rates and that there had been reports of people having their bags snatched after leaving so...

    I exchange my USD$100 travelers cheque and not wanting to be seen counting 850 000 kip, I put it in my bag and continue on my way. Back at my hotel later I count the money and find I am 50 000 kip or about $6 short. Maybe it was just a mistake by the bank staff but I find that hard to believe when my money was counted by 2 different people. I guess it is something to be weary of.

    Posted by austral31 on 23rd January, 2009

  • Taxi scam in HCMC: Firmly told driver that we wanted to pay by the meter - which ran as expected throughout our journey. But once we stopped the driver quickly reset the meter and claimed that there was a minimum charge - which just so happened to be about double the amount I last saw on the meter.

    Got into a spat with him and only ended up paying what I last saw - but wasn't easy as the amount was no longer there so there was no proof, and he was quite aggressive about this so-called minimum charge.

    Make sure you watch the meter and know how much you should pay before they reset it on arrival...

    Things like that leave a bad taste.

    Posted by Rodney on 28th July, 2009

  • My only rip off in VN occurred in Saigon on 15 July – just 3 weeks ago at time of writing, was outside the city’s famous Ben Thanh market, a cyclo driver, like many simply wouldn’t leave me alone, so, when I finished perusing the place, as my hotel was a few bocks away, perhaps 1km) I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, no the problem of crossing streets with motorbikes all driving in the opposite sides to me (from New Zealand) I thought "fine, we’ll do it." I asked and reconfirmed on the price – 15 000VND. He seemed friendly enough, spoke good English so he was talking like an old friend. So, off we went for the short trip. And since 15 000 isn’t much for hard manual labour in the heat, I decided I’d at least buy him a bottle of water at the 7/11 by the hotel. Well, after maybe 5 mins he stopped 3 blocks short of the street in which the hotel is, and said cyclos aren’t allowed in that area. Funny, as I’d seem them a plenty there. But the real shock was when he told me the fare was 150 000 VND! That’s more than the price of a taxi to travel 4 kms back home in NZ, and he hadn’t even brought me to the hotel! (Fortunately I could see a distinctive neon sign down a street so I knew how to get there.
    Anyway, I was furious and had a stand up row, saying “you said 15, 000!” He kept saying “no no no, 150 000,” I started shouting loudly “it’s a scam!” His face puckered up and he looked angry yet fearful, he got 100 000 by which time I was really erupting and he rapidly pedaled away. I can understand the poverty people here suffer, and maybe overcharging a bit, but not 1000%, and just being plain devious from what he’d said. Certainly during my time there, I saw some sights that tore me inside, like a young guy aged early 20s, obviously been employed in the dangerous task of clearing landmines from the war, with only one leg, the other just half his thigh. His pleading eyes made mind water and I gave him some money, if his English had been better I’d have also invited him to have a meal with me.

    Posted by Paul Jeffery on 9th August, 2009

  • After arriving by bus from Cambodia, the first Vietnamese person I met (cab driver) scammed me. After grabbing my luggage, I flagged a Vinasun taxi as I saw many of them driving around. I showed him my hotel address, made sure he had a working meter, and hopped in. He said the hotel was "very far". I asked him if he accepted US dollars, and he replied no but he could take me to an exchange. I clearly repeated no, because I knew I had VN dong locked up in my luggage. I'm sure he understood because he said "OK, OK" and his English was somewhat decent. That sonofa$&#@% drove a huge circle with me complaining at him half way around. Then he stops at an exchange store which got me really fuming. By the time I arrived at my hotel, the meter was at 192,000 VND (~$13 USD) for a true distance of only 1 or 2km max. Not the worst that could have happened, but beware.

    Posted by Aaron on 20th October, 2009

  • While in a bar at Nha Trang a woman working there was friendly to me and said come back tomorrow and we'll go to this restaurant. We got there and it was a street cafe and I thought it would be cheap so I had lots of seafood and at the end of the evening was presented with a big bill of 527,000 dong. Street cafes can give you a false sense of security and if you don't know the price of the meal in advance you could easily get scammed as well. Also on the minibus journey to Nha Trang the driver and his friend said the fare was 200,000 dong but about 30 minutes into the journey they then indicated on a piece of paper it was now 400,000. For about an hour they repeatedly showed me the new price. Refused to pay and about 10 minutes before getting to Nha Trang he said ok, just give us the 200,000 now. That - along with the driver's appalling driving - spoiled the journey abit. Looking back have consoled myself that Vietnam was still a cheap country to visit even if it should have been even cheaper!

    Posted by Richie on 6th March, 2010

  • I lived in VN for a year, Saigon. The town is full of dangers and even after many months the scammers still pull their crap on you. Once I got a ticket for driving without a VN license. Well, no one has a VN licsense, so I'm not alone. I was on a motorbike...cheap rental that has seen better days. So the VN cops actually take the bike and hold it for 30 days as "punishment" to the owner of the bike for renting it to a guy without a license. Only the owner then tried to convince me that the bike was "no good" after sitting for 30 days and that I would have to buy him a new bike. But then I scammed the scammer. He had my passport and I was leaving in a week, so I convinced him that I would pay off the police and get his bike out early. So I paid him for the rental, got my passport back, then got all the "documents" I said the police needed to release his bike early. I pushed the date of this early release to the day I was leaving....it was the best I could do considering he was threatening everything from keeping my passport to reporting me to immigration which would have resulted in my being prevented from leaving the country. I lied, you bet. But these guys have made an art out of lying to foreigners, so I flipped the script, as they say. I was on a plane looking down on the city chuckling to myself. I paid neither my traffic fine nor any bribes to get the bike out early. Goodbye, suckas!

    Posted by john on 27th March, 2010

  • Hue - Vietnam, the confidence scam...take 2?

    One morning my boyfriend James, went for a walk to find the gym and was approached by a 'nice' local man. After a few questions he had worked James was from Australia and then proceeded to say he also has family in Melbourne. He claimed to be a Bonsai teacher, that he had finished work for the day and that he was just killing a few hours waiting for his daughter to arrive from the airport. He then asked if James wanted to grab some lunch to chat about Australia etc. James came back to the hotel to retrieve me, we felt a bit sceptical but decided it would be rude to stand him up.

    We ended up having a good chat and lovely lunch that he then insisted he would pay for. We tried to pay for ourselves but then he said he would be very happy if we bought him a bottle of wine to enjoy with his family and the monks at his temple. We agreed, but he wanted Dave to go to the market alone with him to buy it which we declined as politely as possible - so we ended up offering him the money for the wine instead and his face suitably lit up. We asked how much it normally was, he said we should choose how much - but the nicest bottle was $250000 VND, we decided on $100000 VND, handed it over and he drove off swiftly. 2 seconds later a cyclo driver told us the man was a liar and scammed tourists did this to tourists often.

    We may sound stupid for being believers but it’s so hard to be rude and cause confrontation even when you feel something isn’t right. The money was negligible as he paid for our lunch. But again our trust and good nature had been taken advantage of...

    Posted by James on 27th April, 2010

  • Hue, Vietnam -- Confidence scam take 3!

    I'm positive I met the same scammer that tried to take James in April. I was in Hue in August and was approached by a friendly local who immediately recognized my American accent and wanted to talk about his daughter, who he said went to school in Boston. As I lived in Boston, I thought it would make for an interesting conversation. He told me that he was a Bonsai teacher and was waiting for his family to arrive from Ho Chi Minh City. Truth be told, I was skeptical from the start, but he just wanted to get something to eat nearby so I went with him. We had a few beers and I got the distinct feeling he was trying to get me loaded, as he was ordering them so quickly. I told him to slow down and after a few minutes of conversation alarm bells started to ring -- certain parts of his story just werent adding up. Then he asked if I'd get a bottle of wine for his wife. I simply said, "No, I'm not doing that. Never met the woman. Sorry." Then, suddenly, he wanted me to pay for drinks (whereas before he vehemently rejected any money I was offering him). I slapped down just enough to cover the few beers I had and walked away, but not before he gave me a really weird smile and wrote something on a piece of paper as he eyed me up. I was kicking myself all night for nearly falling for a scammer!!!

    Posted by Ben on 16th November, 2010

  • Good article Daniel, and all true. I have been living in Vietnam for many years. If you or other readers want advice, I am one of very few foreigners that can answer all. Probably the only foreigner here that has yet to be scammed (beyond the odd cup of coffee).
    Yes, Vietnam is "scam central". By the way, the "wine for my wife" was a scam. Not only did he (or his friend) own the wine store and scammed all your money, but it wasn't his wife's bday. The writing part made the whole scam seem real.

    My advice..stay away from anyone that approaches you first.

    Any other questions?

    Dave in Saigon

    Posted by Dave on 24th March, 2011

  • Good article Daniel, and all true. I have been living in Vietnam for many years. If you or other readers want advice, I am one of very few foreigners that can answer all. Probably the only foreigner here that has yet to be scammed (beyond the odd cup of coffee).
    Yes, Vietnam is "scam central". By the way, the "wine for my wife" was a scam. Not only did he (or his friend) own the wine store and scammed all your money, but it wasn't his wife's bday. The writing part made the whole scam seem real.

    My advice..stay away from anyone that approaches you first.

    Any other questions?

    Dave in Saigon

    Posted by Dave on 24th March, 2011

  • Hallo travellers, globetrotters or global thinkers,

    When going to one or another country - be it for teaching or painting - I have always been very observant, careful but on the same time open in mind - deliberately putting aside the prejudices that might exist - to meet 'another country or people'.

    Last on my travelogue is Vietnam and after 16 months working here I dare say : VIETNAM IS A SCAM. The tourist propaganda is just the same, as you do not get what was ordered or promised. The people who are responsible for the order are the same.

    I see it like this : this country is in a frantic tyranny of making bucks and cheating without any of the human considerations or values that I thought were necessary for a decent humanity. It is bucks without education. EVERY SINGLE ENCOUNTER is an opportunity to win something from the other - that is the very sad social order in this country.

    One cannot say for sure what is going to happen here, but I think it still can go very wrong in this country that thrives on a SOLELY money BOOM. It's - of course - the people down below the ladder - who will resort quickly to scam to survive - but when you live here for a while you know that there is no transparency whatsoever - not from the official side, not from the private side. There is a fundamental distrust in everything.... But it will be 'The People' who one day will hopefully and finally demand order and decency ... and if not this they will revolt against the biggest and 'The Fittest'.

    The chaotic craze is palpable and visible every minute, every day. It is frightening. The lack of a well-planned infrastructure is reflected in the aggressive and absurd traffic.

    All sides of interest are so brutely darwinistic that you wonder where all huminist achievements have flooded.

    Now, I really think that to begin with tourists and ex-pats should stop accepting all the cheats that is their daily torment here. One cannot say that a people is so nice when it's not.

    The marketing strategies that the people in the West with The Reason invented are transformed here in a weapon of belief but a kind of karmic revenge. It is ridiculous and sad. My students mostly ALL WANT to make big money, they mostly ALL WANT to be bankmanagers.

    Three generations of historic difficulties have torn this country apart but it's not the foreigners that made it so secular. And they are not to blame for the 'State' of this country...

    If Confucius were still alive - one of the greatest thinkers of all time - and strongly honoured in the West too - as we know - he wouldn't believe his eyes.

    Posted by peterbelelius on 26th March, 2011

  • Visitors to Laos, Luang Prabang in particular, should know that there is a definite "double economy" in place.While this is common in most countries heavily dependent on tourism, in Laos it is rife almost everywhere one goes. That local traders should get the best price they can for so called non-necessities is understandable but when one is constantly overcharged for basics like water and and basic foodstuffs it becomes tiring and tends to sour the day to day intercourse with the local people.The 'local" price example, of a standard bottle of water (slightly less than half a litre and sold in round opaque plastic bottles is 900 Lao Kip (LAK), but most vendors seem affronted if one offer them twice that, insisting the price is two or three thousand LAK. A three kilomtre ride in a shared tuk tuk should cost about 1500LAK but drivers insist on three or four times that sum. And so it goes on. Many shrug this off by saying "it's still much cheaper than in my country.." But consider this: the average mid-level government employee earns about $100US a month.So when a tuk tuk driver blithely asks for $5.00US for a five kolometre ride that is in local terms a day and half's salary for say an immigration offical. Or conversly the same as a taxi drivers asing for $120.US to take you five kilometres in Sydney. Do not think you are endearing yourself to the locals by paying these grossly inflated prices. You are not. They just think you are a fool paying virtually whatever they ask and if anything have even less respect for you than before.

    Posted by Erno Bedo on 7th July, 2011

  • Thanks for this tips! Taking it all onboard and will have a read of this a few times before me and the 'soon to be wife' head off there for our honeymoon in Feb 2012!

    Posted by L Surtees on 28th September, 2011

  • Hanoi - my girlfriend and I have rented a couple of bikes to get a bit further around the city than we can do on foot.

    We have only been biking for about half an hour, when a guy starts waiving and point at my front wheel. I stop right next to him and can hear the whistling sound of air leaving the bikes tube. All too late I realize that the sound is coming from the mouth of the man who stopped me. He already has his hands working the valve on the tube and now air IS leaving my tire.I shout something at him and he leave us with a flat tire.

    "Fortunately" a guy that makes a living pumping bicycles is near by and he offer to help us out for a really good price.

    Stubbornly I refuse his offer and we drag our bikes for a few kilometres till we find a place where we can the biked pumped.

    Posted by Stefan Russel on 12th March, 2012

  • Yep! Same scam re: buy my wife a bottle of expensive wine, got me too! it was very well executed.

    Posted by Robert Fenwick on 16th August, 2012

  • In laos we booked a first class sleeper on thai rail from a travel agent Sout chai travel
    We fortunately paid on visa . However when we turned up at the railway station in thailand no tickets were available and only second class travel was available. It was quite impossible to contact the agent via phone and they didn't answer any email.
    You can now book thai rail online 4 days in advance. Visa has refunded our purchase but we wasted a lot of time .

    Good luck

    Paul Jones Australia

    Posted by Paul jones on 16th January, 2014

  • Basically, don't trust anyone in a touristy area and don't go dirt cheap.

    Posted by Kconan on 31st January, 2014

  • Oh let me count the ways you scam me, dearest Hanoi. I've been going to Hanoi on business a few times a year for the better part of the last decade.

    The first scam was near Hoa Lo prison a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton. This lady carrying two huge baskets of souvenirs kept following us after we left the prison, pestering me to buy a VN Army hat. She kept asking for $6 USD--it was my first time around and everyone with me who had been there before kept saying to her too much. After she followed us for two blocks I'd had enough and stopped, tuned and offered her 80,000 VND--she smiled big, exchanged my cash for her hat, and left. My colleagues all gave me crap about it but I reasoned my sanity was worth more than a couple bucks she'd gouged me for.

    The second scam was in NoiBai airport, upstairs in the gift stores. I bought a scarf and used USD (mistake 1); the change should have been about $10 USD but was closer to $6 USD, and in VND (mistake 2).

    The third scam, I was in the tourist shops of Hoan Kiem lake. I was looking for a wooden box for business cards, wanted something slightly bigger than a normal card box as I accumulate so many. The woman was nice and helped me look through countless boxes until we found the right one, probably a good 30 minutes. Then she drops her line on me and I knew it from the start, "This is a very special box--it costs TEN American dollars." I just smiled and asked for the VND price which turned out cheaper at 180,000 VND. Just to show I wasn't bent for the cash and my appreciation for her time, I gave 200,000 VND and called it good.

    Biggest scam so far,Vietnam Airlines excess baggage fees. I went through HCMC on the way to Danang. Off the plane in HCMC just to be told have to get the bags and recheck them. Fee was about 300,000 VND. Same when checking them in from Danang to Hanoi. In Hanoi however, the guy across the counter looks around a bit, then scribbles a number on a piece of paper, shows it to me: 2,500,000 VND. Yikes!!! I looked at it, looked at him as if he were on drugs, he quickly asks for the paper back, and produces another figure of 1,500,000 VND. More consternated looks from me and he drops it to 750,000 VND, with a look of "that's my final offer if you want your ticket released without a hassle." I paid, got the receipt and left.

    Posted by JM on 1st November, 2014

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