Down and Out: Scammed in Ho Chi Minh City

| July 9, 2009 | 34 Comments
saigon Down and Out: Scammed in Ho Chi Minh City

Photo by tph567 (Creative Commons)

Although most travelers in Vietnam feel relatively safe, crime endemic to areas frequented by tourists do occur, ie petty crimes such as pickpocketing. Indeed, violent crime remains rare—especially violent crime targeting westerners or tourists.

Back in 2002, having spent a month travelling about Vietnam, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)—my last stop before heading up the Mekong River into Cambodia. Emboldened by the rather effortless travel of the previous few weeks, I settled into a tropics-induced complacency where I assumed that nothing could, or ever would, go wrong—especially where it concerned me. Add a dash of late-20s bravado—a recipe for danger!

It was in this frame of mind I entered HCMC. The city that bears Uncle Ho’s name is both delightful and disconcerting. HCMC is Vietnam on methamphetamine. The ante’s always up in this city: where Hanoi slows down and shutters its windows, HCMC is just getting warmed up. Take, for instance, Notre Dame Cathedral: lit up at night in neon, it looks more like it holds a nightclub in its bowels than a nave. HCMC sprawls—not lazily, mind you—in all directions. And here, like elsewhere in Vietnam, yet more fiercely and savagely, cyclos and motorbikes dart through the streets, like swarms of two-stroke bumblebees spitting exhaust. They move en-masse, as if they possess—like insects or birds in flight—the preternatural ability to sense in which direction the congregation will move. And like this they continue, and occasionally one or two will fall off to drone down back alleys or splash through puddles and disappear.

For days, I walked the bustling streets of Hanoi with its decrepit beauty juxtaposed against the gleam of new high-rises, its frenetic order, and its moments of peace down shadowy alleys.

One day, I was approached by a random tout on a motorbike who offered—as is usually the case—to take me on a tour of the city. “Very cheap!”, he said. Spurred on by the aforementioned tropics-induced complacency, I agreed. He took me out for the afternoon, taking in the sights and attractions in HCMC: Dam Sen Park, Cholon Mosque, the Binh Soup Shop and Giac Lam Pagoda—an amazingly ornate site with gilded statues (over 100 of them) and colourful wall panels depicting the path to enlightenment. It was beautiful.

After an uneventful afternoon taking me around to see the sights, he offered to take me to a “friend’s” restaurant. “Here it comes,” I thought “he wants to earn some commission”. Regardless, he seemed like a nice guy, it was early evening and I said, “Sure.”

Winding our way through the streets, the bustle of HCMC slowly gave way to the ramshackle suburbs. On the way, passing neon lit stalls and mazes of street signs, I thought to myself, “You’ll never find your way back to the guesthouse on your own.” And while my subconscious tugged at the hem of my concern, the feeling of goodwill flooded back and I put it out of my mind.

“We’re here!” the taxi driver said. This was no restaurant, but somebody’s driveway, a carport really. And upon my arrival a number of men came out of the house, setting up a card table and bringing out a stove and pots and pans. “Cool”, I thought. When a case of Heineken was brought out, there was no doubt we’d be in for one hell of a party.

For the balance of the evening we ate, we drank, we smoked and we had a good time. By the end of the evening, having polished off most of the Heineken, I pushed my chair back from the table and looked at my new ‘friend’. “I think it’s late,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”.

There was some chatter, some laughter, and finally a ‘receipt’ was produced. I glanced at it: VND80,000—the equivalent of about six Canadian dollars. “Cheap”, I thought and immediately reprimanded the cynical voice in the back of my mind for cautioning me.

“This is only 80,000? I must give you more,” I said. Silence. Stifled laughter.

“No, no, no. Not dong. Dollars”.

I looked at the receipt again. US$80? They were asking US$80 for half-a-case of beer and some beef soup? I slumped back into my chair.

“I’m sorry,” I don’t have enough money,” I said. Which was true—and while I had about US$50 tucked into my boot, I only had the equivalent of about US$20 in my wallet. “See?” I said, and opened my wallet.

At that moment, two rather burly Vietnamese men came out into the driveway. Where were these guys at dinner? Polishing their brass knuckles, I guess.

I slowly came to the realization that I was very methodically and very deliberately being robbed. And while I hadn’t yet been threatened, the situation didn’t look good. I felt pretty screwed.

“I need to go to an ATM”, I said. And with the promise of payment, my ‘friend’ and I returned to his motorbike. No ATMs nearby, I was told—we’d have to go back into the city.

Upon first arriving to Vietnam, I found it curious that there were armed soldiers stationed outside of most banks. And while I found this a bit disconcerting at first, I stopped taking note of it after a few days.

When we finally found an ATM, the streets of HCMC were deserted. The ATM was bathed in fluorescent light, and in its shadows was a young soldier, cradling a semi-automatic weapon. Leaving my ‘friend’ in the shadows I sidled up to the soldier, asked if he spoke English—he didn’t—and offered him a smoke.

notredame Down and Out: Scammed in Ho Chi Minh City

Photo by Quang Minh (Creative Commons)

I looked at my watch—4:30am. The sun was going to be up soon. I was going to wait my ‘friend’ out. After an hour or two passed, the soldier and I had finished off my pack of 555s in relative silence. My beer buzz was wearing off. The streets were coming back to life.

I stepped gingerly from the ATM kiosk into the first buttery rays of morning. My ‘friend’ was gone. I had been ‘mugged’, but it was a half-hearted affair. I was happy that the lesson had only cost US$20.

I walked back to my guesthouse through the streets of HCMC. Stopping on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral, in front of me was Saigon’s ceaseless traffic, moving preternaturally—like a murder of a million crows—I withdrew into the shadows.

Out in the sun, the poor were spearing tourists with their eyes, who were trying, in vain, to neither notice nor react. Next to me, a woman fixed her makeup in a cracked compact. Her lipstick dried the color of rust.

“I love this city”, I thought to myself.

Avoiding Scams

Confidence ‘con’ men, street hustlers and other unscrupulous scam artists often target tourists—especially ‘obvious’ tourists (white socks with shorts and a safari vest, anyone?). By being alert and knowing what to watch out for—you can avoid unpleasant experiences like the one outlined above.

Regardless, good travel insurance is a necessity. Check out these links for some safety tips:

  • Travel Scams 101: Sensible Sanchez highlights some of the more common traps for young players
  • Travel Safety Tips for Women Travelers: By taking some basic security precautions both prior to departure and while away, women travelers can greatly reduce the travel risks they might otherwise face.
  • Travel Safety Hub: Regularly publish articles and checklists with tips and tricks to stay healthy, safe on the road, and reviews of travel safety gear

What’s your best travel scam story?

There are a myriad number of ways in which unscrupulous people will try and get you to part with your hard-earned money or favourite things—and while it just might be the world’s second oldest profession, new scams surface all of the time. Please leave Kathryn and I a comment about what happened to you…

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Category: Dan's Blog

About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Check him out on Google+.

Comments (34)

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  1. I’m sure I’ve been scammed more times than I can count. However, the one time I realized I avoided being taken was also in Southeast Asia, at Nong Khai, just after you get through Laos immigration on the Laos side of the bridge. There I was approached by several people offering me a taxi to Nong Khai. They said it was a long way (it’s not) and offer a price of 400Thb. This is a total rip-off as the journey is only about 2km. I avoided it by taking the 15Thb bus across the bridge and then hopping into a tuk-tuk after Thai immigration, out past the carpark (where there are more touts and scammers). Whole thing costs 40 or 50Thb. Not quite as interesting an experience, but worth sharing I guess.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Steven—I remember that crossing well. The atmosphere of the border at Nong Khai. Actually, I had written about that crossing the past. Five or six years ago, from my journal: “There is something about it like a baptism. First, the exhilaration of passing through no-man’s land, absolved of citizenship, neither resident nor tourist of any country. Then, your eyes beginning to open at Immigration like those of a new-born child awakened during the sacrament. Awakened, of course, not to the possibilities of new beginnings but to a glass half empty; a passport anointed with the ink of the entry permit. Finally, the passport officer handing you back your name and your face—your unfinished life.”

  2. mina says:

    Hey! I just tweeted or twitted (or whatever the kids call it these day) a link about some shadiness I experienced in Luxor — here are some more: – although none of our experiences were nearly as terrifying as yours sounded. Good job avoiding what could have been a really bad situation.

    Thanks for the links, I’m sure they will prove to be useful.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Mina. Appreciate the links to those posts. Yours is a great blog. Can’t wait to hear about your wedding and then your travels! Having read about the places you’ve been, you guys do a great job conveying a sense of place! Looking forward!

  3. Jen Laceda says:

    My husband and I went to Hanoi in 2002. We exchanged $100 US at the airport and we got 1,000,000 dongs.It may even have been 1.5 million dongs. Anyway, we took the taxi from Noi Bai airport into the city centre, having negotiated a price we thought was fair and having indicated that tolls and taxes included. We were getting scammed just sitting in that taxi. Our driver stopped at imaginary toll booths to collect toll 3x during the entire ride. At one point, he was asking for 3,000 dongs then 40,000 dongs, then another 40,000 dongs! We were handed this baloney piece of torn paper that had Vietnamese scribbles on it, which we felt was picked up from some garbage can. I was so upset. Then , our driver insisted on taking us to his friend’s guesthouse and wouldn’t take us to our hotel, even after we explicitly told him we had prior arrangements. When it was evident he wasn’t going to take us to our hotel, we had to, literally, toss the fare at him and jump out of a moving cab to get away from this nightmare! God, I miss Vietnam!
    Oh hey, we have more scam stories from Prague (scammed by train workers & set up for robbery in the train) and from Barcelona (where I was robbed by a 5 year old gypsy!!). Oh yeah, I was detained in a Philippine airport because immigration officer claimed I had a criminal case (turns out to be just a similar name, but they asked for ‘bail money’). I said F-you and flicked them the birdie.

    • Daniel says:

      I miss Vietnam, too! The good and the bad. Well, mostly it was good. At least, I mostly remember just the good! I’m looking forward to both Eastern and Western Europe, too. With the number of tourists they see on an annual basis, unscrupulous individuals have likely perfected the art of the scam!

  4. John Bardos says:

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    It can be hard to avoid being scammed sometimes. I rarely trust anyone and try to avoid shady taxis and touts if possible.

    In every country I go to, I always ask how much it is going to cost upfront and ask if there are any extra charges. There are often fake luggage, toll both and extra person charges, even in richer countries. In a strange country I always try to ask the information counter at the airport how much a taxi will cost. Then if the driver tells you it is going to be more, you know to try a different cab. Also, by showing that you know the real price, I feel the driver will probably think you have been to the country before and is less likely to try and rip you off.

    Another tactic that worked on two occasions is to take a picture of the number on the taxi. Legitimate taxi companies can’t afford to have government scrutiny of scams, so even just a picture can be enough to get the driver to comply.

    The safest route is always public transportation though. It can also be more interesting. My wife usually walk everywhere in a new city just to get a better feel for everything. We only use a taxi if that is the only choice from the airport.

    • Daniel says:

      All great suggestions, John. Appreciate the comment. It’s important to make sure you work out your costs up-front. With the ubiquity of digital cams and mobile phones, taking a pic of the taxi number is a great idea! Easy to do and conveys your intent if provoked!

  5. Thai Pham says:

    While your description of your encounter is most certainly an all too common occurrence for tourists in Vietnam I do have one qualm about it… You mention banks being guarded by armed guards, however if the person you mentioned had a gun then it was most certainly a military guard of some kind, guns are banned for all civilians and most banks while having security guards can only brandish a club or other “non-lethal” weapon. Perhaps the ATM you ran across was near one of the consulates in town, they always have armed guards outside.

    • Daniel says:

      Good point, Thai. Perhaps, it’s a case, as Benjamin Disraeli put it, of having seen more than I remember, and having remembered more than I have seen. But if I recall, I found the fact that he was armed remarkable—and for some reason that he was military and not civilian. But this was back in 2002 and I can’t recall. He could have been carrying a plastic whiffle bat—I had polished off far too many Heinekens. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Abigail says:

    My best Vietnamese overcharge was in a small town in the hills near the Chinese border, north of Bac Ha. We arrived at this market town, bought some fuel for the bike and walked through the market to get some pho. At a typical soup place, we ordered two bowls in pidgin Vietnamese, and happily slurped away. Whilst we were clearly providing entertainment and interest, the situation was very relaxed and full of smiles.

    On asking for the bill, we heard the words for ‘one’ and ‘five’ and were pleasantly surprised that two bowls of pho were only 15,000 dong (about $US1), the price we’d been paying for one bowl in Hanoi. My husband got out a 50,000 dong note; the cafe owner took it but shook her head. Thinking there was a problem with change, my husband opened his wallet to show he had nothing smaller. The lady quickly removed the 100,000 dong note in there, and held up each note saying ‘one’ and ‘five’. 150,000 dong (about $US10) was a chunk of our daily budget, and made for very expensive soup. She quickly disappeared into the back, then rushed to the front and fanned the smoke of her cooking fire to try and stop us from speaking to her. Her husband, sipping green tea in the corner, shrugged embarrassedly when we appealed to him.

    At this point, the two Vietnamese phrases I had learnt before arriving came into good use: “oi-choy-oi” (oh my god) and “dat quoi”(too expensive). Repeated often and loudly, we began to draw a crowd. Eventually, by standing in the cafe owner’s way and moving so she couldn’t walk around us, we encouraged her into a conversation – her shouting in Vietnamese and us asking for a refund in Vietnamese, English and international miming. We were first offered the 50,000 dong note back, and then she finally threw the 100,000 dong note at us instead.

    We hurriedly made our way back through the market and, grateful we’d filled up before we went for lunch, hopped back on the bike and scarpered. Within ten minutes, my indignation had melted into amusement, and we spent most of the journey back, through beautiful mountain passes and paddy fields, laughing our heads off.

  7. Interesting story. As a westerner living here in Saigon, I would say just to be careful. Luckily I have not had such a bad experience before. I have found HCMC to be safe and fun. Happy Travels

    • Daniel says:

      No doubt — I take full responsibility for putting myself in this position! It shouldn’t have happened. And despite it occurring, I’m still really looking forward to returning to HCMC one day!

  8. ayngelina says:

    Wow, it’s interesting to hear stories about Asia from a man’s perspective, I never encountered this as a woman. But then again I couldn’t go on a bike alone, it wouldn’t be safe.

    Have you been reading Johnny Vagabond’s blog? He seems to be having some of the same adventures.

  9. A says:

    Sounds like a typical scam all over Asia – make “friend” with a foreigner, and get him to pick up the night’s bill.

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