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While many safety warnings in travel guide book are no more than scaremongering, touristy areas in Vietnam are really a place worth more precaution. Violent crime towards foreigners remains low, pickpockets and motorbike snatching has found their home especially in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Nha Trang. Thieves on motorbikes are ready to snatch bags, mobile phones, cameras, and jewelery off pedestrians and other motorbike drivers. Avoid dangling your bags along traffic roads. Talking to your mobile phone next to car road and putting your bag on the front basket of a motorbike will tempt a robber. Pham Ngu Lao is the buffet place for all first witness accounts and all veterans seem to have certain experience on it. It could happen days and night, in a crowded road with hundreds of drivers. Locals suggest that they won't kill you but will take all your money. It is true as long as you don't hold your belongings too tight. Reports that a foreign tourist got crashed to death when she tried to drag back what was robbed have been heard.
Also infamously common are thefts on popular beaches. Never leave your bag unattended on beaches.
In hotel rooms, including five star ones, reports that belongings are stolen have been heard occasionally. There is no need to be overly paranoid because most tourists do not get hurt, though basic precautions are definitely needed.
Avoid fights and arguments with locals. Caucasians may be taller then Vietnamese, but if you're dealing with 5 or more Vietnamese guys, you're still screwed. Keep in mind that yelling at people is a 100% insult to Vietnamese, so the reactions of a Vietnamese might be unpredictable to you, if you're not asian. In general Vietnamese people are as peaceful as any other southeast asians, but if you offend them harsh, some of them may happen to be violent. Though they may not do the same in your country, as a foreigner, Vietnamese expect you to act a certain way in theirs. This being said, it is not your country, and you should respect the general law of the land. Most of these arguments can be avoided easily by showing general courtesy, and tolerating cultural differences that may seem rude to you. Show special caution when drinking with Vietnamese men.
Corruption is a big problem in Vietnam and locals are convinced that the police are not to be trusted. For motorcycle driver, police officer may stop you for any reasons including missing insurance papers or driving license, fine you around US$20 for each offense (the average traffic fine should only be about US$5-10). Remember to stand your ground and all officers are required to write all traffic violations in their notebook and give your a receipt and pay to the station (not the officer). If you have a cell phone, threaten to call your embassy and he may back down. You might though just find it easier to pay the fine and get on your way.
Immigration officers are known to take bribes. During the early Doi Moi (the reform in 90s), bribes could be a few U.S. dollars, a few packs of 555 cigarettes. Today although officers still seem to feel okay at taking it, it is absolutely risk-free and acceptable if you don't bribe.
The international monitoring group Transparency International has rated Vietnam as one of the most corrupt nations in Asia.
Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam and the age of consent is 18. Vietnam has laws on the books with penalties up to 20-40 years in prison for sexually exploiting women and children, and several other countries have laws that allow them to prosecute their own citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex with children.
Most scams in Vietnam are in transportation, hotel prices and two-menus system practiced by some restaurants.
Hotel owners may tell you that the room price is 200,000 dong. However, when checking out, they may insist that the price is US$20, charging you almost a double. Another trick is to tell customers that a "room" is a few dollars, but following day they'll say that price was for a fan room only and it's another price for an air-con room. These days, legitimate hotel owners seem to be aware of these scams and are usually willing to help by writing down how much the room is per persons per day (in U.S. dollars or dong), if it has air con or not. Staff of legitimate hotels also never ask for payment from a guest when they check in. Watch out if they insist that you should pay when you check out but refuse to write down the price on paper.
Some restaurants are known to have two menus, one for local people and another one for foreigners. The only way to deal with it is to learn a few Vietnamese phrases and insist that you should be shown only the Vietnamese menu. If they hesitate to show you the local menu, you better walk away.
Many taxi drivers in Saigon and Hanoi install rigged meters, charging up to 2 to 5 times more. The best way to reduce your chances is by taking a taxi from reputable companies such as Mai Linh and Vinasun in Saigon and Mai Linh and Hanoi Tourist for Hanoi (but note that taking these companies is not a guarantee). If you don't know what a reasonable fair is, it is generally a bad idea to agree on a price in advance. Spoken for Saigon, the two recommended companies have quite reliable meters. The former suggested Saigon tourist taxi cannot be recommended at all.
When leaving the airport, the taxi driver may insist that you pay the airport toll. He might not be very forthcoming with the price, and if you give him cash, he will pay the toll and pocket the rest.
Many taxi drivers in Sai Gon and Ha Noi try to overcharge thin faced, just arrived, and gullible travelers. You should consult some guidebooks and travel forums to prepare yourself for those petty scams and to learn more about how to avoid them.
Taxi and cyclo drivers may claim that they don't have change when accepting payment for an agreed-upon fare. The best way to handle this is to either carry smaller bills or be ready to stand your ground. Generally the driver is only trying to get an extra dollar or so by rounding the fare up, but to prevent this scam from becoming more popular it is advised to stay calm and firm about the price.
When you meet an over friendly cyclo driver who says, "never mind how much you would pay" or "you can pay whatever you like at the end of the trip". He even tries to show you his book of comments from international tourists. This kind of driver has to be a scammer. If you still want to use his service you should make it clear about the agreed price and don't pay more than that. Just be clear what you are willing to pay; the cyclo drivers are just trying to make a living.
The first discovery for many tourists who just arrive in Vietnam is that they need to learn how to cross a road all over again. You may see a tourist standing on the road for 5 minutes without knowing how to cross it. Traffic in Vietnam is a nightmare. Back home, you may never witness the moment of crash, seeing injured victims lying on the road, or hearing the BANG sound. Staying in Vietnam for more than a month, you will have fair chance of experiencing all these.
Roads are packed. Some intersections in main cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City) have traffic lights patrolled by police, most are either non-functional or ignored.
To cross the road, don't try to avoid the cars, let them avoid you. Step a little forward, a little more, and you will see motorcycle drivers to slow down a bit, or go to another way. Make your pace and path predictable to other drivers. Don't turn your speed or direction suddenly. Then move forward until you hit your destination.
The simplest way, if available, is to follow a local, stand next to them in the opposite side of the traffic (if you get hit, he will get it first) and he will give you the best chance of crossing a road.
If you are injured, don't expect that local people are willing to help for even calling an ambulance because it is not free. Make sure you tell local clearly that you will pay the ambulance fee. Hospitals will also not accept your admission unless you prove that you can pay the bill.
Highways are also risky with an average of 30 deaths a day and some locals will not even venture on them if not in a big vehicle (car or bus). Taking a bicycle or motocycle on highways is an adventure for risk takers, definitely not for a family with children.
To get an idea what the traffic looks like in Vietnam, watch the traffic timelapse video's of both Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City.
Petty crime in night clubs can happen. Avoid quarreling with local people because drunken Vietnamese can be violent to foreigners, especially when there are girls around him. Don't leave your belongings unattended. Clubs are full of prostitutes looking for their admirers but be aware that they may also take your wallet and mobile phones away. Walking very late by yourself on the streets in the tourist area is safe, but you shouldn't let any local girls getting into conversation with you. Otherwise, they will touch you, sweet talk you, and then steal something from you without you knowing it at that moment.
Avoid asking the cab drivers for recommended nightspot. Most cab drivers are paid by KTVs and lounges to bring in foreign tourist. Usually when you walked in they will tell you a set of pricing which seems reasonable. But when you check out on the bill, they will includes a number of extravagant charges. Do you homework beforehand and tell the cab drivers where you want to go. Insist on going to where you want to go despite their persuasion. There are a number of reputable pubs and disco around. Try going to those which have more foreigners.
Much of Vietnam's ecology has been severely damaged and very little wildlife remains, let alone anything dangerous to humans. Venomous snakes (such as Cobras) may still be common in rural areas but virtually everything else has either gone extinct or exist in such small numbers that the chances of even seeing them are remote. Tigers may exist in very small numbers in remote areas, but this is yet to be proven. Saltwater crocodiles once thrived in southern Vietnam but have been locally extinct for at least 20 years.
Tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are endemic in rural Vietnam. Malaria isn't as much a concern in the bigger cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, but always remember to take mosquito liquid repellent with you. It may be very useful, especially in the countryside and crowded neighborhoods.
Thanks to much improved hygiene conditions in recent years, cooked food sold by street vendors and in restaurants, including blended ice drinks, are mostly safe. Just use your common sense and follow the tips under the Traveller's diarrhea article and you'll most likely be fine.
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell lots of T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of "Uncle Ho." Many overseas Vietnamese are highly critical of the government of Vietnam you may want to consider this before wearing communist paraphernalia in their communities back home! A less controversial purchase would be a nón lá (straw hat) instead.
It's common to be stared at by locals in some regions, especially in the central and northern side of the country, and in rural areas. Southerners are usually more open.
Asian women traveling with non-Asian men could attract attention, being considered lovers, escorts or prostitutes by some people and may even be harassed or insulted. These attitudes and behaviors have lessened but have not yet disappeared.
The most surprising thing about the topic of the Vietnam War (the American or Reunification War, as it is called in Vietnam) is that the Vietnamese do not bear any animosity against visitors from the countries that participated, and in the South many Vietnamese (especially older Vietnamese involved in the conflict or with relatives in the war) appreciate or at least respect the previous Western military efforts against the North. Two-thirds of the population were born after the war and are quite fond of the west. That said, there are some attractions which present a very anti-American viewpoint on the war's legacy, which may make some feel uncomfortable.
Be sensitive if you must discuss past conflicts. Well over 3 million Vietnamese died, and it is best to avoid any conversations that could be taken as an insult to the sacrifices made by both sides during the wars. Do not assume that all Vietnamese think alike as many Vietnamese in the South are still bitter about having lost against the North.
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