Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Hustled in Huế (and elsewhere)

The title of this post is quite brief and self-explanatory, though an alternate title could be “How I got tricked, then thought I got tricked really bad, then had things turn out ok in the end in Hue.” As a bonus, I also listed the scams I experienced elsewhere in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.

It should be obvious, from my previous posts, that I really liked Vietnam a lot. Vietnam lived up to, even exceeded, my expectations, and it was definitely the pick of the Southeast Asian countries I visited, which included Cambodia and Thailand. What made my Vietnam experience better was that I had almost no problem with safety, other than that probable pickpocketing attempt the first night in Hanoi, the heat (since Taipei was and is still in the midst of seriously hot weather), or the food. However I didn’t escape unscathed when it came to being overcharged and tricked. Vietnam does have a reputation for this with travelers, as do other Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, looking at you). Again fortunately I wasn’t cheated that badly so I can look back at it as a humorous experience and with just a little head-shaking.

The first time I got cheated was when I got into Huế. I had just gotten off the train and through the exit, when I was confronted by drivers and touts. A couple of guys appeared at my sides, asking me where I was going. Now, I needed a taxi since I didn’t feel like walking, so I told one guy my hotel. OK, he said, 5 [US] dollars. That sounded cheap to me so I decided to go with him. That was mistake no. 1 as I was hustled over the price. Another guy said he was from my hotel, and he pulls out a card of my hotel and hands it to me. “That’s my hotel. I was just dropping off a guest,” he said.  This made me believe him, which was mistake no. 2 as I was hustled again (read on, please). The card was just a hotel card and didn’t have his name.  To be honest, the guy seemed nice and not aggressive or tricky. But then, that’s how a lot of hustlers are.
Hue is a former capital of Vietnam, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by its train station. I have to admit the Hue station fit the description of a small town train station, with a small, old one-story building, an exit that was virtually next to the platform, and a mob of drivers hanging around right outside.

Hustle no. 1 was I was overcharged by a few dollars by the taxi driver. I’d actually emailed the hotel before about how to get there from the train station and they had said I could walk 15 minutes or get a taxi for US$2. Taxis are very cheap in Vietnam so US$5 was definitely too much for a car trip of 10 minutes.

Hustle no. 2 was I was completely tricked by the second guy who said he was from my hotel. His English was quite decent and he asked me about my travels while in the car. When I said I was going on to Da Nang, and that I was planning to visit the emperors’ tombs, he said I could buy a bus ticket from him to Da Nang, and book a day-tour to see the tombs. Sure, I said. And with that, he had the driver drive me to a hotel (not my hotel) and led me inside to buy the bus and tour tickets from a travel counter, which many Vietnamese hotels have. I paid for a daytrip to see the tombs for around 200,000 dong (US$10) and a bus to Da Nang for around the same price – I had planned to take the train from Hue to Da Nang, but given my overnight train had arrived 1.5 hours late, I didn’t want to chance the train since I was taking a flight in Da Nang. I would get picked up at my hotel by both buses, which was good. I can’t remember the exact price. I handed over the money, got the ticket receipts, which had no telephone number or company name on them, and walked back to the taxi. There were a few guys hanging outside that hotel who the hustler exchanged greetings with, resulting in big laughs and even a mock kick. My hustler did seem like a tricky guy at that moment and I’m sure he was telling them of my gullibility with glee. In the car, he said how he and his family managed my hotel and others as well.

When we reached my hotel, he got out and pointed me to the hotel entrance, which was in a small alleyway near the road. Then he said goodbye and got back in the car. I thought that was weird he didn’t come inside. When I entered the hotel and talked to the receptionist about the guy, she was puzzled and said she didn’t know anybody by that guy’s name (Son). At this point, it finally dawned on me that maybe I had just been tricked (yes, I’m a bit slow). I showed the tickets to the lady and she pointed out there were no phone number or company or hotel name, so it was impossible to contact the people if my bus didn’t come.  Lord, how I really wanted to whack myself at that moment.

The next morning, I went out to the street at the scheduled time to wait for the bus for the tombs daytour. The time passed agonizingly slowly- 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, and I really got annoyed. F**k, f**k, I kept repeating to myself, cursing my own stupidity as well. Every time I saw a bus or van drive onto the street, I would eagerly hope it would stop, only to be disappointed as it passed by. To be honest, the money wasn’t that much but it was the act of being conned that really got at me. I felt foolish standing outside my hotel for so long, especially when pedestrians or vendors looking at me. I think I went inside to wait, because I can’t imagine I waited out there for over 20 minutes. The bus came after over 20 minutes and I was off on the tour. The tour turned out well, though not without some further hiccups. This will be for another post.

Now, the next morning (two days after I arrived in Hue), I would be taking a bus to Da Nang, another city close to Hue, from where I’d take a plane to Ho Chi Minh City. I was still a little apprehensive about whether the bus would come, though it was lessened by the fact my tomb daytour did turn out to be real. I waited for about 10 minutes when a guy on a motorbike stopped and called out to me. I was puzzled and was close to ignoring him since I thought he was some random driver, but he said my hotel’s name and something about the bus to Da Nang. I got on, with my small luggage wedged in front of him while I sat behind him. “Where’s the helmet?” I asked, and he said there was none, it’s ok. I had no choice but to go along with the ride, riding pillion helmetless on a motorbike in Central Vietnam. Now if this was Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, I would have refused, especially as a helmet is mandatory for anybody riding on a motorscooter or motorbike, but this was sleepy Hue, so it was alright (though I’d have preferred a helmet anyways). The guy dropped me off at a waiting room in the first floor of a building, and soon the bus arrived. Within two hours I was in Da Nang, safe and sound.

In the end, things turned out alright, with both trips that the guy tricked me into buying being real and even good value. But I learned my lesson. In future, I wouldn’t be so quick or foolish to trust somebody without concrete proof of what they say.

Hustle 3 was actually in Da Nang, not Hue. After I got off the bus at Da Nang (the bus was going on to Hoi An) at a travel agency, a taxi driver was there and told me it’d be US$5 to go to the airport. I accepted as I thought US$5 was a decent price and didn’t even think of asking him to do it by meter (yes, making the same mistake as I did outside the Hue train station) instead.
Then, since I had over 3 hours before my flight, I asked him if he could drive me to a scenic area in Da Nang – I’d seen the coast from the bus driving into Da Nang and it was very beautiful. The driver offered me several options, and I chose to go to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20. Now, by Vietnam standards, this might have been overcharging, especially as the mountain wasn’t too far from where we were. However, given that this was an out-of-the-way destination- a mountain by the sea, and because I didn’t want to wait in the airport for 3 hours, I thought it was ok and I don’t quite see this as a scam.
What was possibly a hustle was that, after the driver drove me to the mountain, he drove me back to the exact same spot where we’d agreed on going to the mountain, and said that from there to the airport would be US$5 in addition to the US$20 for going to the mountain. I didn’t remember if he had said going to the mountain only was US$20, and I had thought the US$20 would be for the mountain and the airport. I had no choice but to agree, and for some reason he kept the meter on on the way to the airport. When we entered the airport, he even asked me to pay the car fee, and when we reached the dropoff point, he told me the total was US$25 or 550,000 dong. He was quite smart with money since he insisted on US$1- 21,000 dong rather than 20,000 or 20,500 (which the rate is close to), which some hotels offered. I was paying him in dong, but I took out my calculator. US$25 was 525,000, not 550,000 and I paid him that.
Whether that was his way of getting a little extra or an honest mistake, I don’t know but I was a little suspicious.
What was definitely a scam and made me annoyed was that the meter had showed about 40,000 (US$2) for the drive from the place we’d returned to (from the mountain) to the airport. I asked him about this, but he insisted that we’d agreed to US$5, which I did indeed, so I didn’t protest further. The main reason I felt annoyed is that since I had given him extra business – by going to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20 – I thought he might at least have loosened up on the airport fare and agreed to the metered amount. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was actually a decent guy to talk to, but it was clear when it came to money, he was very sharp.

Hustle 4 wasn’t actually a successful hustle, since I prevented it (yeah!). What was bad was that this hustle attempt happened in the Ho Chi Minh airport. I hadn’t arranged a taxi pickup with my hotel since I thought it’d be cheaper getting a taxi myself. As I got through customs and was walking out of the passenger area, I saw a taxi company counter. I walked up to the guy and showed him my hotel address. 320,000 dong (US$16), he said as he consulted a sheet. I immediately rejected it since I’d seen on travel websites that a taxi from the airport to HCMC’s Pham Ngu Lao, where my hotel was, was only supposed to be US$10 or so. I said I’d get one on my own outside and walked away. Right away, he called me back and said 200,000 dong (US$10). Of course I accepted. I paid him, got a receipt ticket, and got the taxi outside at the taxi queue. It was a good thing I was aware of the approximate taxi fare price beforehand since it saved me from overpaying by 120,000 dong (US$6) or almost a third more than the real price.


Tips
for avoiding the predicaments I got into:
— Always keep in mind local prices. When asking for prices from say, taxi drivers, don’t be fooled by hearing the price in American dollars. US$5 might sound little, but the real fare might be US$1 or US$2. To avoid this issue altogether, do the next step.
–Always ask taxi drivers to use the meter. I did this in Thailand and I managed to prevent myself from being scammed by other drivers who had quoted prices and refused to use the meter (I’ll write about this in a future post).

–Use your calculator or phone if you’re unsure about prices. This helps you figure out the price in your local currency and prevents you from being overcharged. This is especially helpful for Vietnam since the dong exchanges at about US$1 to 20,500.
–When you get taken to a place to book a tour or buy a bus ticket, always note the name of the hotel or agency and its phone number.
–Research the prices of things like taxi trips before you go somewhere, either by asking your hotel or going on Wikitravel or Tripadvisor.

When’s all said and done, I wasn’t scammed out of much money, and the two main hustlers – the Hue tout who claimed to be from my hotel and the Da Nang taxi driver – were actually rather friendly people though this is not an excuse for scamming people, so I don’t have much hard feelings. It’s ironic, as some people say, or write, that one of the reasons they hated traveling in Vietnam was unfriendly, aggressive people, that I found even the scammers kind of friendly. However, I would definitely not want to experience these things again and I learned my lessons. These were basically the only times I was scammed or hustled in Vietnam and it’s a far cry from what a certain prominent travel blogger named Matt experienced and hated when he was in the country.

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4 thoughts on “Hustled in Huế (and elsewhere)

  1. And my number one rule: don’t go with the driver who meets you on the platform. Walking outside and/or around the corner greatly increases the chances of an honest transaction in my experience.

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    1. Yes, that’s a very good rule. All those drivers gathered at the station were probably looking at us tourists like prey. I also experienced this in Thailand where drivers waiting around near tourist spots were charging high prices but luckily I’d learned from Hue and didn’t take them.

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  2. Thanks for the tips. I like your attitude – can relate to the frustration after a similar day in Cairo several months ago (http://goal42.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/chaos-in-cairo-part-i/), but I also realized that it’s just the way these guys make a living, so while it’s not an excuse, they’re still just people, and we enjoyed the conversation especially with one of the scammers/drivers.

    Will re-read your posts here when we make it to Vietnam next spring!

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    1. Hello Bobbi, thanks for the comment. Yeah, it was definitely frustrating at the moment but in the end it wasn’t that bad. Of course, it helped that I wasn’t exactly conned completely.

      Your post on Egypt was very enlightening as well. To be honest, outright trying to steal your money by not giving you your real change or lying to you about the museum being closed seems worse than mere scamming. I’m glad to have read it.

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