Last Update: August 2020
Do tourists and travelers in Vietnam get scammed? Oh boy, don’t get me started. Just google “Vietnam Scam”, the number of search results are through the roof.
I have to admit that I am a Vietnam addict, I keep going back. Obviously not to get scammed of course. Besides, scams are everywhere in South East Asia. Yes, also in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and wherever. It holds some truth though that scams seem to happen more often in Vietnam.
I pride myself in being very attentive and observant in recognizing scams. No real bad things have happened to me in +10 years of South East Asia travel yet. However, I came close a few times. Usually, it involves just small amounts of money and afterwards it makes for a good story.
Here’s what happened to me in Vietnam. I call it “The Coercive Scam“.
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The day started out so well…
The views of the blue ocean on our left and the bright green mountains on our right are stunning. I relish the fresh coolness of the morning. The breezy winds, caused by the speed of our rented scooters, are pleasantly tickling my back. We just left busy Da Nang behind and I am looking forward to the spectacular scenery ahead of us on our way to Hoi-An.
A girl comes in from behind us and maneuvers her scooter between us. ‘Hello, where are you going?’, she yells to overcome the noise of the engines. ‘Hoi-An’, I yell back. ‘Do you want to see the marble mountain?’ I never heard of it, but it sounds intriguing. ‘What is it?’, I ask. ‘It’s the most beautiful viewpoint in Vietnam with a temple cave’, she yells again and points to a high peak covered in green. ‘I can show you the way, I live next to it’.
I look at my buddy who nods and say ‘ok, show us!’. She signals us to follow her as she takes a right turn towards the mountains.
The foot of the mountain turns out to be fully built up with stone sculpture shops. One shop after another they stand shoulder to shoulder. The store fronts are packed with hundreds of sculptures on display. Some of them are huge, almost the size of a small truck. Mythical lions, elephants, giant Buddhas, gargantuan eagles and much more.
We follow the girl through the maze of shops until she finally halts at what must be the largest store of them all. ‘This is my family’s shop’ she says, ‘you can park your bikes in the back’.
She leads us inside, sits us down at an opium table and serves tea. We chitchat about her family and the store. She wants to know our names and where we are from, all the usual small talk conversation.
At last we are given a tour of the store with mixed in stories about the hardships of a sculptor and that no one is buying anymore these days.
Gradually it starts to dawn on me where this is leading to, but up to now she shows no signs of trying to sell us anything. Maybe I’m too suspicious, darn this country for doing that to me!
‘You can go up to the viewpoint and the temple cave’ she says, and so we do. She accompanies us to a booth at the base of a concrete stairs where we have to buy a ticket. I don’t remember the price, but it wasn’t a lot. As I turn around while climbing the stairs I see money exchanging hands from the ticket booth to the girl. Ah well, let her make a little something, I don’t mind.
The marble mountains are situated just South of Da Nang and consist of 5 limestone hills. The scenery is drop dead gorgeous with lush green vegetation and multiple caves containing shrines and pagoda’s that add a mystical feel. A 156 steps stairway leads to the summit of Mount Thuy, offering fantastic panoramic views of the area. This was a great excursion, one that I tremendously enjoyed.
The Plot Thickens
We spend about 2 hours on the mountain before we head back to the shop to collect our motorbikes. We still had to go to Hoi An.
‘So, what would you like to buy?’ the girl asks upon out return. ‘Ah no thank you, we’re not buying. The sculptures are beautiful, but way too big and heavy to carry on our journey. Also, we didn’t bring money anyway. So, thank you so much for your hospitality and bringing us here, but we really have to get going’.
We walk to our bikes only to find that our helmets are missing. ‘Where are our helmets?’ ‘Oh, I put them somewhere safe so nobody would steal them’ the girl replies. ‘You know, we can ship any sculpture to your home and we accept credit cards’. ‘No thank you, just give us our helmets and we’ll be on our way’.
That escalated quickly!
The girl now puts on a sad face and mutters: ‘You have to help me, I’ve waited 2 hours for you to come back’. Call me crazy, but I’m a sucker for a sad face. I felt sorry for her and wanted to help. We accepted her hospitality and consequently we should do something in return. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the whole “feeling obliged” thing is a main part of the scam.
‘How much is this?’ I ask and point at the teeniest-tiniest 2inch carved lion. Her face clears up and she answers ’45 dollar’. ‘What?, I thought it would be more like max 5 dollars or so. I’m sorry, that’s way more than I can afford. Please give us our helmets, we really have to go’. ’42 dollar’ the girl tries. I feel it’s no use haggling over such a huge price difference. ‘Our helmets please’.
Her mood changes instantly from sad to angry. ‘No, you have to buy first, I showed you the mountain, now you buy!’
Escape from the Vietnam Scam
Are you kidding me?! That’s it, I was not going to be coerced into buying anything. I frantically look around for our helmets until I spot them in the adjacent room through a half opened door. I walk into the room that turns out to be the private living quarters of the family. Grandpa lying on a futon on the floor and grandma sitting in a rattan rocking chair, entertaining two toddlers. I quickly grab our helmets and make a mad dash for freedom.
Realizing that we are leaving without a sale the girl quickly says ‘Ok, 5 dollar, ok’. I reply: ‘too late missy, I really dislike you playing the guilt trip on us and then holding our helmets hostage. We won’t be buying anything’. Whilst saying these words I notice that my finger is pointing, but it feels sooo good!
As we speed out on our bikes I feel like giving my horse the spurs and yelling yee-haw!, yee-haw! From the corner of my eye I see grandma rushing out of the shop, a toddler on each arm. Am I seeing things, or is the old hag spitting at me?
I wasn’t even angry, just a bit sad that somehow it seems so many people in Vietnam are trying to take advantage of tourists in such a foul way. Furthermore, I know it’s just a few bucks, but it’s the coercing nature that makes it feel like a scam. To be honest, I even felt a bit triumphant, because I dodged the scam without having paid one penny. Anyway, little did I know that the story was not over yet.
Vietnam Scam Attempt 2.0
We turn right on the main road to continue our journey to Hoi An when we notice that my buddy has a flat tire on his scooter. Was this grandma’s work? Fortunately there’s an eatery just up the road and we decide to go there for help. There’s no repair shop at the eatery, but one of the locals is willing to fix it for next to nothing.
We sit down and order some food while we’re waiting and this gives us the chance to recap what just happened. A group of young local women in pyjamas with toddlers and babies are playing a game of Cắt tê a few tables next to us. They are loud, laughing and cackling among each other in animated conversation. Every 30 seconds or so they yell some kind of reprimand to their kids in a high pitched voice. This must be their local hangout.
After a while one of the pyjamas with toe-socks and flip flops approaches our table. ‘Hello, where are you from?’. The usual chitchat followed until she asks: ‘Do you want to go to the marble mountain? I can show you, I live next to it’.
‘Oh no, not again’ and I am determined to cut the conversation short. ‘Nah, we were just there and I bought a sculpture. Next, we will go to Hoi An’. ‘Really?’ she replies, ‘what did you buy? Can I see it?’. ‘Sorry, it’s a really big sculpture so they’re shipping it to my home’. ‘Ah ok’ and she turned away without another word. Can you imagine my smug face at that point?
Few moments later a scooter approaches the eatery. I am shocked to see that it’s the girl from the shop. She sees me too, but ignores me and goes straight to the pyjamas table. Of course, as it turns out, they are friends.
She murmurs something in the group and they all go silent instantly. Next, they all look at me with contempt. I can feel my cheeks burn and I signal my buddy at the counter to hurry up with paying the bill.
‘RJ, you lied to me, you’re a liar!’. The loud shrieking voice of the pyjamas girl echoes through the restaurant. ‘You liar, you liar!’. All I am able to produce is a stupid grin as I get up from my chair and walk slowly to the exit. I swear it was the longest 30 meter walk ever. Next, we drove off without looking back. No yee-haw!, yee-haw! in my head this time.
How to Avoid this Vietnam Scam
Similar or variations of the coercive scam can happen to all of us.
Don’t assume that the monk putting an unsolicited bracelet on your wrist does so out of the kindness of his Buddhist heart. Reports of fake monks are plenty and he will demand (too much) money for the bracelet. Do not let him put the bracelet on you, forcibly free your arm from his grip if you have to. Once it’s on it will be so tightly knotted that you can’t get it off easily to make a break for it.
The ever so friendly doughnut lady offering you a free taste while smiling wholeheartedly, suddenly transforms into a hellish fury if you try to leave without buying a whole batch. If you don’t want to buy, stand your ground and walk away. Don’t get caught up in discussions, because the essence of a coercive scam is to never let you win the discussion anyway.
I’m definitely not saying you should have a constant mistrust on your mind. That would take the fun out of travel and it wouldn’t be fair to the good willing locals either. Fact is that the scammers are a minority, always remember that. Common sense is key here. So, if a stranger spontaneously offers assistance that you didn’t ask for it doesn’t hurt to put your guard up.
Being a victim of a serious scam could potentially interfere with your travel plans. Worst case scenario, you could be stranded in a strange country without documents and/or money. Do not forget travel insurance!
Have you ever been scammed in South East Asia? Tell us about it in the comments so we can all learn what to watch out for.