It’s not something you really think about before you get on a plane to go somewhere. But figuring out whether to give an extra VND50,000 or VND100,000 at the end of a massage or a guided tour can sometimes be a nail-biting or downright confusing experience — no matter where you are.
While upmarket places will often relieve the stress (and awkwardness) by adding service charges, an intrepid explorer may need to keep a few pointers under their non la to navigate these murky waters.
While many guidebooks tout that Vietnam has no tipping custom, more foreigners are getting on the bandwagon and forging expectations.
Veteran Hanoi-based tour guide Phuoc Dao says although Vietnam doesn’t have a traditional culture of tipping, foreigners should be aware that expectations are changing rapidly.
“Knowing what scenarios and which places [to tip] is necessary. Even some Vietnamese people are starting to do it.”
Like anywhere else in the world, commissioning a service remotely connected to the tourism sector will make you think about how much you should give, says Hung Do, a separate guide who leads tours across the country.
“It is becoming expected in service sectors connected with the tourism industry,” he explains. “In bars, hotels, massage places, beauty salons and on tours, it is definitely good custom to give a little bit extra to encourage good service. Just like anywhere else.”
The bigger challenge, however, is working out how much to give, as Mike from Ho Chi Minh City explains.
“I will usually give somewhere around the 10 percent mark as a general rule — more if the service is good, less if it is bad,” he says.
“This goes for anything from taxis through to eat-in-meals and delivery. But you just don’t do it in street food joints. It’s just not done.”
There exists some debate over whether it is necessary in restaurants or taxis, with some foreigners agreeing with Mike’s 10 percent rule. Others suggest it is enough to round up the bill to include loose change.
The custom is certainly becoming entrenched in places where there are professional and established service sectors, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City.
For Laura Matheson, an American expat living in Hanoi, it is perfectly reasonable to give hotel porters and maids VND20,000 and guides around US$5 to US$10 (VND105,000 to VND210,000) per day — sometimes more.
Calculating the amount for a massage or beauty treatments can also be difficult, says Matheson, particularly up north where the practice can vary.
“I’ll usually give VND50,000 extra for a VND100,000 massage,” she says.
“But it can be confusing if you first have to bargain over how much to pay for the service. Sometimes, you just need to be firm but it isn’t always like that. Most people appreciate the extra money.”
Unbeknownst to Matheson, local expectations of a ‘fair amount’ have been significantly influenced by western norms and the swelling number of foreign tourists and expats, says Trung, a tourism expert based in Hue.
“Americans never say goodbye without doing it — they see it as a duty — whereas Japanese or Chinese tourists will rarely tip, so I don’t really expect it from them. Australians and Vietnamese are generally somewhere in between.”
Interestingly, generous travellers can find themselves walking a tightrope of expectations: tip below the line and be judged — sometimes very harshly. Tip excessively and risk digging a deeper hole for the next person.
According to Professor Dung Ngo from Hanoi University’s Department of Tourism and Management, this can raise ethical questions.
“The biggest source of international tourists to Vietnam is actually China,” Professor Ngo says. “And while other important sources of tourists are Russia, Japan and Korea, the fact is that Vietnamese workers in the service industry are often tipped by those from the US and European countries.”
Professor Ngo argues that tipping can sometimes reinforce bad behaviour among service providers, which can come at the cost of encouraging sustainable improvements in tourism that could help Vietnam to better compete with competitors like Malaysia and Thailand.
“Tourists often have good things to say about the warmth of the local people, but not the local services in Vietnam,” she says. “Service can vary significantly between the north and south. Last year, I went to Hoi An — a favourite destination of many international tourists. Many of them could afford to tip a lot more than Vietnamese people and I could see this was affecting the service.”
Making a Difference
But in a country where annual per capita incomes average only US$1,600 (VND33.6 million) and prices continue to rise, some argue there is a moral imperative to help people achieve a basic standard of living that foreigners may take for granted. Others say it will take more than a simple VND20,000 to fix wage inequalities.
Hung Do offers a reminder that tips can comprise between 30 to 50 percent of a service provider’s income, depending on where they work.
“I know people who are earning around US$100 (VND2.1 million) a month, so they can make a big difference.”
So, what do you do?
Hung Do recommends clarifying expectations beforehand by asking at the tour office, asking other foreigners around you or having a look online to limit any big surprises.
“Even so, I always see that a flexible traveller is a happy one,” Hung says. “Things aren’t going to be like how they are at home, but it’s good to reward good service and motivate people to do better. They have to remember Vietnam is committed to being a top travel destination.”
Phuoc agrees with the need to be flexible, but also says that you should be respectful and grateful when travelling through Vietnam.
“It isn’t too hard to figure out the rough standards where it has become more common, and if you want to give more you should,” he says. “But you should never tip for bad service. This is bad for your experience and bad for the next customer.”
Lastly, it’s important not to feel pressured into giving crazy generous amounts. Remember — if you’re a traveller it’s possible you’re already being charged a little bit more or a service charge. Resist the pressure if you genuinely can’t afford to tip generously.
But not everyone expected to tip here is a traveller, and most of the tipping math really depends on how far you want your dong to go — particularly when you call this country home.
So one final advice. When in doubt, tipping with a smile and a proudly spoken thank you will see you through.