Vietnam First and Last Impressions: Scams and Corruption

Submitted by tomo on June 25, 2011 - 11:48pm

What's the first thing tourists to Vietnam do after deplaning?  They go through immigration and then get in a taxi to go to their hotel, reverse on the way home.

Generally, people from Europe or the Americas need to pre-arrange a visa to enter Vietnam, unlike most other Asian countries, or they can be brave and pre-arrange a visa-on-arrival.  

If you've never gone this route, it works like this.

You step off the plane and whereas most people go to the immigration queues, you have to find some special area for visa-on-arrival.  There's a desk with an unorderly crowd hanging around it where you fight to get anyone's attention. Everyone in the crowd is no more or less confused than you are.  Finally, you give your passport and pre-arranged letter with passport photos (god help you if you forgot to prepare photos) to some ununiformed person who tells you to give them some cash, then tells you to wait awhile.  While you're waiting, a local tour guide operator comes up and hands a stack of paperwork to the desk.  After awhile, and for some strange reason, the tour guide gets all his passports back and leads off a group of tourists who arrived well after you did.  Meanwhile, you see a bunch of immigration employees standing around doing nothing.  After waiting a sufficient length of time, someone will call your name except it doesn't sound anything like your name.  If you are lucky and happen to be paying attention you will recognize your passport and be able to GTFO.

So when a traveler, weary from flying halfway around the world, has to deal with this in their first hour in Vietnam, the experience may negatively color their views of Vietnam.

The traveler now gets into a taxi.  In the chaos, the taxi driver found the traveler. There's actually a really cheap bus that takes you in town from the airport, but there's no information posted anywhere about it so only those who have researched beforehand even know about it, much less are able to find it.

The taxi driver can tell the tourist is gullible.  The taxi has a rigged meter that spins quite efficiently, and by the time you're at your hotel, what should have been a $4 cab ride is costing you 10 times that, maybe more.  Maybe the taxi didn't even have a meter, the driver just told you to pay $50 when you get there and is quite adamant that this is not negotiable and won't let you out until you pay.

Our hero, not in-country more than 2 hours, is already cursing all Vietnamese people as lying thieving scamming yellow people.  If he's lucky, he'll also get his phone or wallet robbed by transvestite prostitutes on wheels while he's out walking around later that evening.  Which is all fine because Vietnam's tourism board never had a plan for how to get people to come back to Vietnam a second time anyways.  

Except that this tourist was actually coming here to explore investment options in the region and now plans to tell everybody at headquarters that Vietnamese people can't be trusted, don't invest a dime in that goddamned country.


So at the end of the day, this taxi driver eats is able to get really drunk that night (and hits a few motorbikes on the way home) but denies his countrymen of millions of dollars of foreign direct investment, plus the dollars from periodic return visits with people from back home.  As a stakeholder, the Vietnam tourism industry loses, and no amount of ad spending abroad can buy it back.

Business associations of Japan and recently the ambassador of Singapore have warned of this putting Vietnam in a bad light in their constituents minds. Surely, every foreign chamber of commerce or business group hears these same complaints, after the fact.  Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) may not get it so bad with the taxis.  On the other hand, they are more often targeted by immigration staff for bribes just to enter their country of birth.  There is already enough resentment from the overseas Vietnamese community.  Is there really a need to add more to their arguments that the Vietnamese government cannot be trusted and that bringing money to the country is risky business?

It's not hard at all to find a cheating taxi.  Just stick a white guy in front of the airport or Ben Thanh market.  And reputable taxi companies like Mai Linh or Vinasun would surely want to help protect their brands.  It's just a matter of bringing enough attention to the issue that the existing laws will actually be enforced.

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Jigga (not verified)

Taxi drivers are the worst people on the planet. Don't judge the country based on the experience with them. I travel Vietnam, all countries surrounding, Europe, Africa etc and cabbies are always trying to rip me off. What I do is be assertive, strong and make the deal transparent. And I rarely fail, although many times I have to argue hard and threaten by calling police. But that's the way it goes.

I feel sorry for tourists who don't know the game and are not strong enough to resist them.

Examples of taxi behaviour:
In Saigon, a driver would ask 500.000 for "airport fee" at the counter. He would even rip money of my pockets. Another one would have broken meter and charge 10x more. In Hanoi, for example, there's only few licensed drivers so what happens, right after leaving airport area, the drivers swaps with another driver (a mad young guy driving crazy) and the licensed driver walks back to aiport to get another customer. Go check yourself. In Jakarta, driver would lie he's from XXX (the serious) company and would take your around the city instead of going straight to the location. In Bangkok, they want to forget about using meter. In Phuket, there is taxi mafia (the richest people on the island) which agreed on crazy overpriced fares and noone can have smaller price. Tourists are totally dependent on sky high prices.

Keep resisting to those mongers like I do. I don't treat them like human beings, I ignore if they call me. Generally never follow anyone who is calling you, too kind to you - you always going to loose money. I never ever follow the places or standpoints where tourist dummies are. I know how to trick these bastards everywhere. I know where in Saigon locals get the taxi, i know where in Bangkok locals get the taxi and avoid the airport fee. Looks impossible but it's just 100m walk, of course the route is not highlighted, instead there are arrows to standpoints with overpriced taxis and buses. I know how to ride 2x cheapier taxi even in trick-proof Phuket (99% tourists tricked here!). Also beware of tuk tuks, they are nowadays same money hungry as taxi drivers! I recommend motorbike taxi or rent. I don't use bus and still don't get tricked and reach my destination fast, using the services of these bad guys..

Anonymous (not verified)

Actually, the further from the tourist path you venture the worse it gets - Imagine every transaction, and I mean every, being one of 'they are not one of us, they must pay more'. It is a badge of courage for the locals to make people who are different from them to pay more. Add to this the little fiefdoms each cadre of a particular ward/sector/level, and you have rife corruption on top of all that.

Jasmine (not verified)

Interesting blog and discussion! I'm going back to Vietnam for the 1st time, so I'll get to see for myself. Fortunately, I can speak, read & write the language fluently. Although my family & friends have visited, I've only heard stories from their experiences. I was raised overseas since I was a young child, but have traveled extensively throughout the world.

From my collection of globetrotting, petty crime is everywhere, especially in big cities of any country. Some are worse than others. I believe that there are things that you can do before you go to help prevent such mishaps. They're basics that all travel books will tell you. Research as much as possible about the place. Be aware of your surroundings, etc.. Having common sense is crucial. Always act like you know what you're doing & where you're going, even if you don't. Try to learn some of the language or a few important words. Try to blend in, not stick out like a sore thumb. Don't be flashy & so touristy. Yes, I know for some, it's easier said than done. Just use your brains & follow your gut feelings. One thing with big cities, they're all alike. Once you tour the major monuments, historical sites, leave and venture to the outskirts where you can get the real deal. See how the locals really live and what life is truly like from day to day. Gems are always hidden away from the city center!

I have to say that taxi drivers anywhere in the world are the same. They can be total jerks who will cheat you whenever the opportunity arises. Not to mention, they're horrible drivers to boot! Whatever it takes to make a few extra bucks off of you. That's why I take public transport whenever possible. Living like the locals can teach you many things!

Vietnam is a developing country and most people are poor. It's understandable that those living in poverty will do what they can to make ends meet. We can't generalize or judge everyone the same way. Just be cautious and firm if you encounter the few bad apples! Vietnamese people are known for their hospitality & friendliness. I do think that the authorities should wise up and enforce rules & regulations to make tourism safer & less frustrating for visitors to the country. It will and can only benefit them. Word of mouth spreads like wildfire and can be damaging. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for VN. Not only that, but VN has plenty to offer the world. Treat your tourists like customers that you want to become regulars. No one wants to invest in a corrupt community or dangerous area. VN needs to get a stronger hold on that concept!


Hi Jasmine,

Thanks a lot for your very lucid and thoughtful comment. I hope people read it along with the main post.

Many problems with "scams" and such are common throughout developing Asia so most travelers who had bad experiences in other countries as well as Vietnam won't be so quick to place blame on Vietnam when telling their friends about their journey. But not always.

The problem is when someone travels on the backpacker circuit around Southeast Asia and has problems especially in Vietnam, whether it's with getting overcharged or dealing with visa issues (most Westerners don't need to arrange visas before going to any other country around here EXCEPT Vietnam) or with especially criminal greedy taxi drivers.

Vietnam, especially Vietnam's tourism industry, can't sit around and ignore these problems. What you say about word of mouth and the effect on the investor community is spot on.

Anonymous (not verified)

Viet Kieu here, just got back to the states from Vietnam. Scams are every where, especially in saigon. My last week spent was in saigon and that place angers me. We went to a club called "gold" or something like that . Me and 3 other viet kieu friends bought a bottle and one was given free for 250 usd. At the end of the night, the bill came out to be 500 usd. The other 250usd was from coke/water/green tea ... ARE THEY SERIOUS?! how u spend 250usd on coke/water/green tea? .. we argue them for 5 mins and they wouldn't budge .. Paid them and gtfo. They even ask us to tip our bartender, the one that reported what we drink to the cashier, laugh. We just walked off and will never come back to that place. Terrible

Theres lots more but this one really done it for us in saigon


Did you know that club before going? I've never heard of it. There might be many clubs that are in the suburbs that could rip you off. It's better to go someplace that's popular, that someone you know regular goes to. Too bad you don't remember the exact name or address so we can tell other people to avoid it.

SuperDude (not verified)

I just came back from my second time being in Vietnam, and this is what happened:

1. At immigration I provided the letter, photo's and 25USD. 15 mins later I walked out. Very efficient. This was in Hanoi.
2. I arranged a taxi (private driver) through the hotel. He was waiting there and took me to the hotel and never charged me anything. All arranged by the hotel. I just gave him 20.000VND tip.
3. I never felt unsafe. Travelled from Hanoi to Saigon. Didn't see any pickpockets, shemales or what ever that tried to cheat me.

Just use some common sense and you are fine in Vietnam. It's full of friendly people that doesn't hurt a soul.

Not sure why the author of this article is so negative because I had a complete opposite experience.

I live in Malaysia for the last few years and I have more scam stories of Malaysia then Vietnam.


You are fortunate to have had a good hassle-free experience. You might think that all visitors have the same experience. Do you think that's true?

Vietnam has many friendly people who are not out to get you. I have found that other countries are the same. Do you think that only these kinds of people exist?

I am sure there are scams in Malaysia too. And if you've lived there several years then surely you have heard more about those stories than first-time tourists to Malaysia.

The point of the article is not to be hateful but to point out to the Vietnamese public and especially Vietnam's tourism industry how a not uncommon experience for many visitors is perceived and then how that story can negatively affect Vietnam tourism in the future. I think that hiding such stories and pretending they don't happen would ultimately be a disservice to the country.

SuperDude (not verified)

In all countries you have good and bad people. The trick is to spot them on time. I can't say that you are not streetwise or something, but I still believe that this article is very negative although written from from a personal experience.

I think that the article should have been written in a more neutral way instead of stating there that VN is a bad place for foreigners. Honestly if I wouldn't have known better as a first time VN visitor I might have changed my plans and would have travelled somewhere else instead.

I have travelled to almost every single country in SE Asia and yes, in every country I have encountered cheaters, not more then in Vietnam. The trick is not to fall for them, and that's maybe an experience that some tourists needs to get. Some people are better at it then others.

And then again, it's not only Asia, it can happen anywhere although Singapore and Japan are very safe comparing with these developing countries like Vietnam.


Actually, the article is written from the viewpoint of a typical visitor based on an aggregate of many reports. It's not quite the same as a single outlier report nor is it misleading.

Many Western tourists come to Southeast Asia or developing countries in other parts of the world and aren't prepared for the scams that they encounter because it doesn't happen at home. We can blame these tourists for falling victim to the criminals or we can place blame on the authorities that let the criminals continue to operate. Or we can pretend that these dishonest people don't exist.

SuperDude (not verified)

Don't you agree that everyone that goes to a country for the first time does a bit of research first and thinks twice before doing anything at all?

Honestly I think its very naive to expect the same environment as your home country.

But then again, I don't understand where this article is based on, and what the used sources are? Any references that have been used for this article?


Actually, plenty of people travel to Vietnam without researching scams and methods of getting cheated and how to not get tricked before coming here. That's not how people who plan to travel somewhere really think.

Do you think that there are no naive travelers to Vietnam?

stjärntecken (not verified)

It is entirely true, for who would want to visit anyone or any place where people try to scam you at every turn? How bad is crimes and robbery, though?


Unfortunately, scams are endemic to developing countries, and tourist zones in Southeast Asia (Latin America, etc.) are full of schemes to separate fresh tourists from a little spare change.

Petty theft, such as people snatching loose phones/purses is a serious problem. Anyone coming to Vietnam's big cities (Saigon and Hanoi) needs to realize that standing in the road with a phone hanging out or purse hanging off fingertips is at risk. But violent crime is much more rare. For example, foreigners as victims of gun crime is unheard of.

Anonymous (not verified)

 It is the sad truth that such experiences do prevent people from returning or investing in the economy. I also share the utter disbelief that rip off taxi companies with eerily similar names to Vinasun and Mai Linh (even copying their logos?!) are allowed to operate with impunity at the most frequented tourist sites. 

First impressions count, people! Make a change. You'll be glad you did.

Luca (not verified)

I just landed yesterday in Hanoi and I'm Viet Kieu.


At the hotel they tried to make me pay the price for "foreigners" which really angered me and at the connected bar they tried to make me pay double for a drink.


So to say, I lived for a long time in China and 5 years ago the situation was pretty similar to the one described by the article. in 2004 in China I had to fight with taxi drivers in whatever language to get a fair price and to get the shortest trip. Tricked by officials etc. Which really upset me and everytime I got back home in Europe I was very resentful of the Chinese people (though I love the country) and talked bad about them.


But in the last couple of years many things have changed. Taxi drivers don't cheat you anymore and even suggest a shorter way or a less busy street during traffic jam (in Beijing = always!) and officials abide to the set rules. That it, if there is an official notice, you are 100% sure they will follow it and not try to trick or take advantage of you. Actually the governmental services towards foreigners have improved with services and dedicated staff for foreigners even in English (included websites).


What I think from my long intro is that Vietnam needs is time to understand what are the advantages to treat better foreigners. Chinese understood it with time, Vietnamese will as well with more and more contacts. For Viet Kieu will probably be the same as for the Chinese overseas community. Vietnam needs them for global links and investment, especially because Vietnam doesn't have Hong Kong...


I wonder if taxis changed during the Beijing Olympics.  I agree with your points.

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