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Avoiding scams in Hanoi

Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, has been getting a bit of a bashing in the Travelfish.org forum recently. While I can’t really counter the “Vietnamese are unfriendly” comments with any practical advice, I can try to address bad experiences caused by scams in Hanoi and suggest ways to avoid them.

Keep an eye on your dong

Keep an eye on your dong.

First, let’s get some definitions agreed, as I feel the word “scam” is overused. The dictionary defines a scam as “a confidence game or other fraudulent scheme, especially for making a quick profit; swindle”. So a scam is not someone trying to charge you 100,000 VND for a silk scarf when you know your friend bought one for 50,000 VND yesterday — that’s just good business sense, and you can always say no. A scam is someone doing something wrong/illegal/underhand in order to cheat someone out of money.

Based on that definition the main scams involve transport — particularly taxis to and from transport hubs like stations and airports. They’re scams because you are being blatantly overcharged and cheated by dodgy meters, or by drivers taking long routes or going to the wrong hotel. As it’s such a concern for visitors, I’m going to focus on that alone in my next post, and deal with the other scams here first up.

Exchange rates
One scam to watch for, which I have personal experience of, is the exchange rate con. Unscrupulous hotels quote rates in dollars, then when you want to pay in dong, inflate the exchange rate well up. For a long stay, this can really sting. It’s easily countered, however. Before booking, if possible, ask the price in the currency you are going to pay in. If you’ve pre-booked, then check again when you arrive. If the rate is too high, then get that out in the open before you hand over your passport or any other guarantee. Alternatively, pay in the currency they’ve quoted — usually dollars. In any case, carefully check your bill before paying up.

Other hotel issues
So the hotel puts you in a room with a broken shower/ cracked TV/ripped bedding, and then when you go to check out they try to charge you for the damage. Avoid this by ensuring you inform reception immediately of any damage when you check into a room. If you’re at all suspicious of their motives or attitude, get them to write it down, or fix it straight away.

Also — and this isn’t just related to the above scam — avoid leaving your passport as a deposit. If things get nasty for any reason, it’s easier to walk away if they’re not holding your passport. Instead, if they need a guarantee, pay in advance — you might lose a bit of cash but that’s nowhere near as much hassle as losing your passport.

And make sure you do your research on the hotel you’re staying at first so you don’t end up suffering the same fate as those before you.

Do your research and ask for recommendations

Do your research and ask for recommendations.

Tours can sometimes cause problems. For instance, hotels and travel agents may sell you a “deluxe” Halong Bay tour which is certainly not deluxe, or use fake photos to present a rosier image than the reality. The only way to avoid this is to get recommendations from other travellers or online and shop around, but it’s still a tricky area and one that has no fail-safe solution. This applies for tours and travel booking — the rates that agents charge for train tickets is far higher than the face value and varies by quite a bit between agents.

Although I am keen to differentiate between scams and general over-charging — when you can say no/negotiate/go elsewhere — being over-charged for something you don’t know the fair price of could be classified as a scam in some instances. I’m thinking particularly of visa extensions: the agent or hotel wants US$50. Is that a reasonable price or expensive?

Visa prices change regularly, and differ by nationality and other factors, but Lai, at True Colour Tour, is currently charging US$38 to extend a one-month C1 visa, and US$65 for a three-month B3, so there’s a starting point for you. Whatever you do, make sure you shop around rather than accepting the first price you get. In theory it’s possible to go to Immigration and do it yourself, but having been there, I recommend you pay a bit extra for an agent to do it for you.

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