One thing I have learned (or should I say real world lessons I have paid for) while being in Southeast Asia is how naive and guilty Americans are. When we are traveling abroad our guilt is used as a powerful leverage tool to part us from our money.
Two things to keep in mind when traveling in tourist areas in Southeast Asia:
- There are police EVERYWHERE and they are there to protect you. You will probably not get outright rolled over or beat up just minding your own business. (Although there’s always pickpockets.)
- The police can NOT protect you from simply being overcharged. So the main tool of the scam artist is using guilt to get your money. And guess who the number one easiest target is to use the guilt trip? Americans!
In general Americans are raised to help people, and we easily feel responsible if someone is unhappy or hurt. This is our Achilles heel.
I’ve been pickpocketed and stolen from in Southeast Asia – but by far the most effective scams in terms of dollars are the ones where I am convinced to give my money away freely. And it has been because I thought I could help “save” people and improve their lives, or I felt responsible in some way for someone else’s well being.
It’s a good thing Americans want to help people – and I even think it’s a good thing we’re a little naive. As was said to me, “Americans have good hearts” – translation: Americans are easy targets for money when traveling.
Right now I’m in Vietnam and wanted to share a couple of the “scams” I encountered here. Vietnam is not as cutthroat as Thailand in my experience – but you really need to keep your guard up.
In Vietnam there is security on almost every corner in the tourist areas so the chances of being outright robbed seem more slim to me. But remember there’s nothing illegal about someone asking your for money and you giving it to them, or with someone charging you too much for something. That’s all fair play in business anywhere.
If traveling in SE Asia, I would keep in the forefront of your mind that you have a big bullseye on your back. People that work in the tourist areas are there specifically to part you with your money. And you’ll notice their first two questions are “Where are you from?” (If you answer “America” – then they know you will easily be guilt tripped into forking up cash) and “When you arrive Vietnam?” (Translation: “How smart are you about the scams here, are you easy?”)
So here’s a couple of the scams I encountered, certainly not limited to only Vietnam.
- SHOESHINE BOY – A boy comes up to shine your shoes, says it only cost $1.20US. Seems like a good deal. He quickly informs you that your sole is loose and offers to glue it back in. Of course, he had yanked your sole out of the shoe to make this happen. But in the moment you are impressed with his professionalism. When you get your shoes back they have Dr. Schole type insoles in them. He asks if you like it, you say yes. Now he says you owe him $12US. Why ten times the amount? Because he did the extra work of gluing and the insole. Now he’s making a scene on the street and everyone is staring at you, wondering why you won’t pay this poor helpless little boy. You are evil, you are cold. You don’t have $12 for the hard working boy? You are a bad American. So you fork over the money feeling horrible. I did a little ok on this, only gave him $5US.
- CLOTHES MARKET – I have fallen for this so many times I just hate myself. In SE Asia clothing sizes I am a XXXL – so the clothes are a little more expensive because they are bigger. When I get home and put on my clothes I find small size clothes mixed in with my regular ones. I would say 20% of the clothes I buy have been switched to smaller sizes, and I guard my cl9thes like a hawk! I don’t know how they do it. The other thing that REALLY irritates me is buying matching shorts with belt, and getting home to find the belt has been switched for a small. I’ve fallen for the three times already. Of course when you buy from the outdoor stalls you can’t really try the clothes on. In general, the clothes I’ve bought are pretty good quality. It’s just the size switch.
- MOTORCYCLE RIDES – Vietnam motorcycle rides are not as bad as the TukTuk’s in Bangkok. But know that every overpriced place they take you to is getting a cut. That restaurant that costs $10 instead of $3 is kicking some back to the driver. The bus trips all do it too – you make a pit stop to have lunch at a place that is four times the normal price, and there’s nothing else around it. What a racket.
- TAXI DRIVERS – If there’s no meter running, make sure you negotiate the fare before you get in the taxi. Both Vietnam and Thailand (and probably everywhere else too) are notorious for this. The main scam is simply overcharging. Often the more elaborate scheme is to make wrong turns, ask people for directions along the way making it look like a very difficult destination. I was in Se Racha Thailand where there is only ONE tourist destination in the whole town: a buddhist temple on a little island. But my taxi driver had no idea where it was (turned out to be four blocks away) and had to drive all over town asking everyone for directions. What did I do? I simply refused to pay the full fair. Even at 50% of his asking price it was still a ripoff, but at least I felt a little less of the sting.
- BANGKOK AIRPORT TAXI – This is the worst. When you go to the “airport approved” taxi counter they give you a piece of paper. You are quickly brought to your driver and he asks you for the ticket and he reads it for destination information. Then you get to your destination and pay 600Baht, and he asks for a 100Baht tip which you give. Hey, that’s only about $20US, a good deal. The scam? That ticket they gave you has your taxi driver’s number on it with a phone number to call if you are overcharged or if the meter is turned off. You are supposed to keep that ticket, but the people at the counter won’t tell you that (even if you ask directly which I did my second time to Bangkok). They “no speekee engrish”. If you just keep that ticket and let the driver see that you have it – your fare now will only run maybe 200Baht or less, including the 50baht airport surcharge.
- MOTORCYCLE GUIDES – Vung Tao Vietnam – I experienced this mainly in Vietnam. The motorcyle guides hang out at the ferry terminals waiting for stupid tourists to walk off the boat (hence the phrase “right off the boat”). On my first experience down in Vung Tau on the coast I had the offer of a three hour tour for $200,000VND (about $12US). I told him I’d give him $200,000 if I liked it, $100,000 if I didn’t. It started off with an overpriced restaurant (no surprise) but we did hit several tourist spots which I enjoyed, even if it was a bit hurried. While he drove he talked about his family and eventually his children and in a bit he said I should come to his house for dinner and meet his family. I didn’t think of it as a scam at first, but later he kept asking me if I wanted a massage and I said ok but “no boom boom”. He brought me to a brothel which kind of pissed me off, then said he would make it up to me by bringing me to a real massage place, which also turned out to be a brothel. At that point I just left and told him I’d walk. He insisted he take me to the beach tourist area where it was safer. I agreed and then he was trying to pitch rooms to me. I saw one place but told him I’d find my own. When I found my own hotel 10 minutes later it was half the price and much nicer than what he showed me. While I’m walking to find my hotel he keeps following me down the street insisting I come over for dinner. I just tell him no – so I never saw how this scam would play out. But there’s was definately something going on. I don’t think I was going to get rolled over or robbed, but probably he had things at his house to sell me or wanted money for his family; who knows. I paid him the $100,000VND because he had wasted my time at the yucky places. He didn’t complain and finally left me alone.
- MOTORCYCLE GUIDES – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam. This was the worst. I had walked all over District One (the tourist area) in Saigon and was too blocks from a good restaurant when a motorcycle guide pulled up. His english was very good and despite my insistence on going to my restaurant, he finally convinced me to take a tour that was “all free, not about the money, want to show people real Vietnam.” Curiosity really drove me to see where this would go. He brought me to a normal priced restaurant and several shopping areas, but not the overpriced ones taking a cut. Later we had a couple beers and even played pool at a billiard hall just for locals. This went on for several hours, the whole time he was making a big deal that “not about the money, free” and that he had “many friend in America, America very good.” After about five hours and the billiard hall, he kept wanting to steer me to an outside restaurant. I went along with it to see what would happen. The meal was overcharged a bit, about 3x normal. Then came the catch – we were in the middle of nowhere and he said he wanted to show me his souveniers. I told him I didn’t want any. His motorcyle started to slow down as he kept pressing about these souveniers. “You just see them, it’s how I make my money.” DING DING. This was probably the only time I felt a little nervous while being worked over by a huster. We were in boonies in Saigon at a locals outside makeshift restaurant eating on cardboard tables, everyone was looking at me funny like they had seen this a thousand times before, and my motorcyle guide was getting very agitated I wouldn’t look at his souveniers. I told him I wanted to go back to the hotel and he was getting pissed off. He drove very slowly telling me how difficult his life was. He dropped me off down the block from my hotel (the hotel has security that protects you from con artists). When he dropped me off he asked for one million VND (about $60 USD). I told him I would pay him in front of the hotel and he started going ballistic on me. It was about midnight and no street lights, so yeah, I was a little nervous now. I told him calmly that if he wanted money, he should have told me that – instead of saying it was free. “But you didn’t buy my souveniers!” he yelled. I gave him $200,000VND (About $12USD) which is very good pay for his time. (Hotel staff later said I should have normally paid $50,000VND or less). He asked for another $100,000 tip and I said no. I swear he almost started crying like a little schoolgirl and yelled “I take you out for 5 hours and you not help me.” Then came the kicker, he screamed at me “YOU NOT FROM AMERICA!” and tore off down the street on his motorcycle. A year ago this whole scenario would have bothered me, but I guess I’ve been through it too many times to really care. The interesting part is if he had said “I take you out tonight and you give me $500,000VND if you have good time, ok?” I would have agreed and paid. I just don’t dig the scams. End result? He still made killer money for having me buy his beers all night, so I think he’ll be ok.
- FLIGHT TICKETS HOME – I (and many people I know) have given money to buy airplane tickets in full to someone’s home country, only to find they never bought a ticket. Solution to this is simple – buy the actual ticket for them instead of giving the money. In this way we have indeed been able to help a few people.
What are some of the ways to avoid the scams? First you can be in a pre-arranged tour group. Even my single day trips with guides were very safe. A friend and I paid $50 each for all day trips all over Saigon and the tour guides kept all the scam artists away.
Remember you’re a target. You have a big bullseye on your back. The thing I keep foremost in my mind is that I don’t just happen to run into nice people with hard luck stories. I am running into people that target the tourist areas and have many tricks to play on Western emotions to get money. If I’m in a tourist area, no hard luck story is going to soften my heart.
Would I react differently to someone out in the country away from tourist areas? Yes, I would. I would be more compassionate. But in a tourist area, at least I can keep a little more of my cash on me to get through my vacation in good form.
UPDATE: This blog post was specifically about being scammed at tourist areas: border crossings, ports, airports, shopping areas, etc. If you want to genuinely help people – then my suggestion was to do it through a legit agency, or simply to do it away from tourist trap areas.