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Reading the Vietnam forums on popular travel review site Tripadvisor, one theme immediately becomes apparent — the ripping off of tourists by taxi drivers, shoeshine boys, street traders, unscrupulous travel agents, etc. Not a day goes by without some unfortunate visitor telling tales of US$50 airport taxi rides, US$5 bananas or ‘luxury’ Halong Bay cruises that turn out to be anything but.

 

Yes, tourist scams exist in every country with a tourism industry, but it seems in Vietnam the scamming is a lot more widespread and upfront than in most other countries — strange for a country whose people set such store by the concept of ‘face.’

 

What’s interesting about scam forums on Tripadvisor are the various types of reaction. The most outraged are, of course, the victims, particularly those who are inexperienced travellers and haven’t done a great deal of pre-trip research, and who arrive expecting a friendly country full of smiling people in conical hats and have their expectations dashed before they’ve even left the airport. Their bad experience colours the rest of their holiday and they go home and tell their friends/family what a dreadful country Vietnam is.

 

Then there are those who, despite having fallen prey to some scam or other, just shrug it off, figure that they’ve only lost a few dollars, and don’t let it ruin their trip. They might be a bit more on their guard for the rest of their stay, but they figure that a few bad apples don’t spoil the entire barrel. They get home and tell stories of an exciting country that is challenging but rewarding to travel in.

 

Cultural Relativists

 

And finally there’s a group I refer to as cultural relativists. Usually reluctant to be called ‘tourists’ (they prefer the word ‘traveller’ or, in some appalling cases, ‘nomad.’ God help us) they are well-travelled, love rough and ready destinations like Vietnam, and see being ripped off as part of the travel experience. If a taxi driver overcharges them or a shoeshine guy steals their shoes, it’s OK, because everyone has to make a living — though luxury hotel or private airport transfer rates seem to fill them with rage. Seems the right to make a living doesn’t extend to everyone. 

 

Unfortunately for Vietnam, the first group is usually the most vocal — people with something to complain about tend to shout the loudest. And the latter two groups may seem admirably tolerant and open-minded, but their indulgence of scamming and tourist hassle does more harm than good. Yes, everyone has a right to make a living, but if they can’t do so honestly, they don’t deserve to, and seeing their cheating or stealing as part and parcel of travelling in Vietnam simply makes the problem worse. 

 

Tourism in Vietnam has been the preserve of the intrepid and adventurous for too long — if the industry is to take off, it needs to attract holidaymakers and less experienced travellers, the type who generally fall into the first group. At the moment, it is scaring them off.

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