Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Staying safe and sane in Vietnam

I was lucky when I traveled for a month through Vietnam. Nothing bad really happened to me. I was not the victim of a scam or crime. That being said, both scams and crimes are ubiquitous. I was a diligent traveler, always maintaining situational awareness and highly skeptical in all situations, but alas, I did manage to get ripped off twice

Once I bought a bahn mi on the street and was asked to pay 40,000 dong – double what the price should have been. 40,000 is $2, and that’s about the price of a Banh mi in the US. Too expensive, I thought – and it was. But I already had my sandwich in hand, so I had no bargaining power at that point and had to pay. Lesson learned: when ordering food from the street, if the price is not clearly printed on a sign or menu, ask first. If they tell you a price which seems steep, walk away or try to haggle. I started doing this with all street vendors. I asked first, and 3 out of 4 times, the prices seemed inflated. When I shook my head and walked away, they would call to my back, “How much you pay?” I would counter offer with half of what they told me, and they would usually agree to that. Haggling is part of life in SE Asia, for locals and tourists, but it was frustrating to have to haggle for a sandwich.

The second time I was ripped off was by a Vinasun taxi driver in Nha Trang who took me to the wrong hotel. I showed him 3 things: the name of the hotel in English and Vietnamese, the full address in Vietnamese, and an image of the map. And he still purposely drove me to the wrong place. I had GPS on my phone, and when I saw him start to drive of course I hollered at him from the backseat, “stop!” in English. I even tapped his shoulder to get his attention but he continued to drive. He pulled over at an entirely different hotel that hardly matched the information I gave him. He insisted this was my hotel, I refused to leave the car, an argument ensued, and eventually a staff member from the wrong hotel came out, shouted something at the driver, and he proceeded to drive me to my correct hotel. What should have been a 40,000 dong cab ride became 107,000. I was livid. I should have refused to pay, but I didn’t know if I had that kind of power, and I was tired of arguing. Lesson learned: I think I did everything right, and just got really unlucky. I'm not sure how I could have avoided this experience, apart from insisting that I not pay the full fare. It is worth noting that after this one bad experience, I had no problems with cab drivers in Vietnam. 

Here are some of the precautions I took while traveling in Vietnam:
  • Wearing my backpack to the front, with straps buckled around my back.
  • Never holding my phone or camera away from my chest.
  • Never standing on the edge of the street to take a photo or check my phone.
  • Only taking Vinasun and Mah Linh taxis.
  • Telling the cab driver to turn on the meter.
  • Asking the hotel to call taxis, when staying at a hotel.
  • Booking all hotels and tours online, with companies that had solid reviews.
  • Taking the train, never bus.
  • Always asking the price of something before ordering it.
  • Always haggling if the price seemed expensive. 

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