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Avoiding scams in Saigon

We’ve recently done a few posts on common Vietnamese scams from Hanoi; one about avoiding general scams in Hanoi and the other about avoiding taxi scams. Saigon has many of the same problems, but here are some things to look out for that are specific to the city.

This is what a good taxi looks like.

This is what a good taxi looks like.

The most common place to be scammed in Saigon is in a taxi. Whether you’re getting a taxi at the airport or just catching one in town, the best way to avoid being overcharged is by sticking to either Vinasun or Mailinh taxis. Finding cars belonging to one of these two companies isn’t usually an issue but around some of the more popular tourist destinations, especially the War Remnants Museum and the airport, you may have to try a little harder — these areas are notorious for dodgy taxis disguised as reputable companies. Some of these imposters have meters that jump wildly in price; others have no meter at all. Really, try to avoid imposters at all costs. It’s worth walking a couple of extra blocks to find a reputable car.

This is what an imposter looks like.

This is what an imposter looks like.

At guesthouses and hotels in Saigon the more popular scam of the moment is location switching. You book a room in advance online at a seemingly reputable place but when you arrive, and check in, you learn that they are overbooked. So instead of the room you were expecting, you will be shuffled to a different location, sometimes neighbouring and sometimes much further away. Sometimes the new location is just as good but, more often than not, it isn’t nearly as nice.

The best way to avoid this is by properly vetting your prospective hotel. Generally speaking, these places will have developed a reputation. If you’re caught by surprise, do as Sarah says in her posts from Hanoi and avoid giving your passport as early collateral. Try to see your room before you check in. If you get the run-around, walk down the street and find another place — someone nearby will have space.

Saigon does have some more serious scams. The most notorious scam in Saigon is played out in a high stakes card game (and this scam happens elsewhere in Asia too, and we recently highlighted it being on the rise in Phnom Penh). Sometimes referred to as the ‘poker 21 scam’ or the ‘blackjack scam,’ this intricate hustle has parted many unsuspecting tourists from their hard-earned cash.

The set-up is generally straightforward; an unsuspecting, solo traveller is approached on the street by a well-spoken man. After general conversation, you will learn that this man’s niece/daughter/sister happens to be moving to your particular country of origin. In order to calm their fears about the dangers and costs of this move, you will be invited over to this man’s house, where you will meet this young woman, and over the course of a free meal you can tell them about how awesome home is.

But once you’re inside the house, things begin to go sour. First, the moving woman won’t be home; she will be seeing to a sick relative in a nearby hospital. Much to your luck however, you will get to meet a nephew/uncle/brother who happens to be on leave from his job as a high-stakes, cruise ship card dealer. Subsequently, after lunch this man will teach you how to play some variation of blackjack, usually a game called Poker 21, then teach you how to cheat. After you have the basics down, you’ll be offered the opportunity to join in a high-end operation to cheat ultra-wealthy gamblers out of the riches. The catch? You have to show how you handle pressure with real live cash.

You will be spotted $200 in practice chips when, low and behold, a businessman from Singapore or a woman from Brunei will show up looking to play. Eventually, this low level practice game will turn into a game where the savvy businessman will throw $50,000 down on a can’t lose hand. To match the bet you will have to pony up some of your own money — an unseen loan shark will cover the rest — then you will promptly lose; goodbye money.

It may seem like common sense to not start blackjack games with strangers but these individuals are surprisingly charming and most people find themselves in hot water before they even grasp the situation. Some have tried to leave, only to be intimidated into staying. Your best advice would be to avoid the situation all together; don’t gamble in a stranger’s house.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Lastly, I wanted to mention something that isn’t quite a scam in the traditional sense but is something to be aware of. The money in Vietnam may look different to what you’re used to back home; it’s brightly coloured, made of plastic and each denomination is a different size. However, some of the bills are similarly coloured. A 500,000 VND bill and a 20,000 VND bill each have a similar blue hue. The 100,000 VND bill and the 10,000 VND bill are also quite similar. Sometimes, especially when you’re in a hurry or it’s getting darker, it can be easy to get confused and instead of paying with two 20,000’s you grab two 500,000’s. It’s a quick, and mildly expensive mistake that can happen to the best of us. Just try to remember to double-check a bill’s denomination before handing it off.


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