Food in Saigon is usually a bargain; even most of the city’s “expensive” restaurants are cheap when compared to similar quality in the West. But a strange thing happens to many who visit this fair city: they can develop a sense of cheap food entitlement and start to argue over small surcharges on the bill. Having recently witnessed another tourist meltdown over the equivalent of less than a dollar, let me prepare you for a few of the hidden charges you may encounter in a Saigon restaurant.
Something you may notice upon sitting down at a restaurant in HCMC is the lack of napkins on the table. It’s not unusual to find none or to find that the table just has a roll of toilet paper. Instead, when you sit at the table, your server will bring you a wet-wipe wrapped in plastic, likely branded with the restaurant’s name. These wet-wipes are almost never free; their cost will be added to your bill. While they aren’t expensive — I’ve never been charged more than 5,000 VND for one — they can start to add up if you are a big group or you use lots during a messy meal. If you really don’t want to be charged extra for a wet-wipe, simply don’t open it. Leave it on the table and show your server that you didn’t use it when you ask for your bill so you don’t get charged.
In the West it is quite commonplace to get free iced water when you visit a restaurant. In Saigon, since tap water isn’t the safest thing in the country, this is usually replaced with a glass of tra da, or iced tea. Alas, tra da may not be free and you may see a small charge per glass added to your bill — it’s usually only around 4,000 VND a glass, but I’ve seen people lose their mind over this. Be warned that some restaurants, usually higher-end establishments, will charge as much as a soft drink for their tra da. If you’re not sure, ask your server.
Another charge that can sneak up on Saigon restaurant goers is parking. If you drive yourself to a restaurant in Saigon by motorbike, they will usually have a place for you to park. This could be in a row in front of the building or a lot on the side. You go in, have your meal and come back to your bike, only to find the parking attendant asking for around 5,000 VND to give your bike back. For some reason this used to grind my gears, and I know people who refuse to go to certain restaurants on principle because they are charged to park. If you’re parking in a separate lot, you’re definitely paying. If you’re parking in front or under the restaurant’s awnings, you may be able to argue your way out of it if you think it’s worth your time. I’d say your best practice here is to assume you always have to pay to park your bike; then when you don’t get charged, you’ll be extra happy.
By Max Murta
Last updated on 23rd October, 2014.