Before we landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, we have been reading a lot of negative comments about the place — taxi scams, dangerous roads, unfriendly locals etc. We got so worried about our safety (especially with our young son with us) that we even started regretting booking a flight there.
However, when we were actually there, everything went fine and we are now back in one piece (and no bruise nor hole in our pockets)! :)
So have our worries been wasted? Not really, as our research beforehand had actually helped us identify the common scams and things to take note (some are common sense, really) when traveling in Hanoi. The managers in Calypso Suites Hotel (read our hotel review here) were helpful by offering us many tips on theDos and Don’ts upon arrival so that also served as a reminder and reinforcement of what we were already aware.
As for you, our dear reader, things for you will be simpler as I am listing down the important things you will need to know when in Hanoi:
AIRPORT TRANSFER TO HOTEL
There are many stories about taxi drivers overcharging tourists, bringing them to another hotel (belonging to their friends) and convincing them to stay there instead (thus earning commissions, and even threatening to stop the taxi and force them out onto the highway if they do not concede to their overcharged taxi fare demands.
Sounds scary? Fret not; as the easiest way to stay away from all these possible (and likely) troubles is to arrange for an airport pickup and transfer from your hotel directly. Most hotels should provide this service since such scams are well-known in Hanoi. At around US$19 for our case, we could thus have a peace of mind and reached our hotel safely.
Upon arrival at the airport (good to remind/double-check with your hotel again on the pickup arrangement just before your departure date), the hotel’s designated driver should be holding up a placard with your name and your hotel’s name and standing in the Arrivals Hall just after you collect your checked-in baggage and leaving the Customs.
Be mindful of scams however, as there have been incidents when one would pretend to be from your hotel and try to sniff out your name and other details, before leading you to his vehicle and well, anything (bad) can happen after that. To prevent this, make sure your name and your hotel’s name are written clearly on the placard before acknowledging your identity.
For our case, the driver had not indicated our hotel’s name on his placard so we checked for our hotel’s name by asking him verbally. We could only confirm that he was not a scam after he had successfully given us the correct answer.
It is inadvisable to exchange for the Vietnamese currency (Dong, or VND) in your home country, since the exchange rates are usually worse when compared to exchanging in Vietnam itself. Upon arrival at Hanoi Airport (after leaving the Customs), there will be several banks and money exchangers available, and I would advise you making your currency exchange here (even a small amount of VND could come handy initially). From our experiences, you may be able to get just a slightly better exchange rate in Old Quarter, we find the small difference barely worth the hassle.
Remember to make quick comparisons between the various shops at the airport before you commit on one though, and double-check that there are no hidden costs involved, which they may named it as ‘commissions’.
Anyway, in the event that you need to perform currency exchange in Old Quarter itself, you may find such services at some tour agencies and jewelry shops. Some of the shops are unlicensed money changers and are thus referred to the ‘black market’ by the locals. Interesting, these shops may offer better rates than the licensed ones so it’s your call which to choose. You could ask around in Hanoi for such shops.
When returning to the airport for departure at the end of your trip, do note that there is NO money changing services after you have passed through into the Departure Hall (we learnt this the hard way). So if you need to exchange your remaining Vietnamese Dong to your home currency, this would be your last chance to do so in Vietnam. Beyond this point, USD will become the default accepted currency for the shops and restaurants inside, though you may still pay in Dong.
If you have any excess Dong at this point, either spend them on the items and services in the airport (prices are marked up a lot) or donate them to the needy via the many donation containers placed around the airport (great to do some good deeds as the last task in Hanoi!).
CROSSING THE (CHAOTIC) ROADS
It’s true that the traffic conditions in Hanoi is more chaotic than in many countries, with numerous motorcycles and cars zooming past non-stop and most of them are not following the traffic rules (Words of Caution: Do NOT assume vehicles will stop for you in front of zebra crossings).
However, once you start getting used to it and follow the guidelines below, crossing roads will be much safer and less problematic:
– Before crossing the road, attempt to choose a good spot to cross, meaning to avoid traffic junctions (unless it’s a traffic lights junction and the vehicles do stop) and roads that are too wide.
– Check both ways (yes, some motorcyclists will go in the opposite direction even if it’s a ONE-WAY street!) and wait for a gap between vehicle flows.
– Start crossing at a relaxed, constant speed (please do not run). Most motorcyclists in Hanoi are used to such conditions and will avoid you once they spotted you. Still, keep your eyes sharp in case you are unlucky to come across motorcyclists/drivers who are reckless or distracted.
– If a child is with you, it would be wise to carry him/her in your arms since the drivers may not notice them given a child’s height. I carried our boy often when the traffic was too busy. Even if carrying is not feasible, make sure the child is on the far side of the traffic flow, so that he/she is shielded by you. As mentioned above, this may not always be possible however, since traffic may flow in both directions.
– Last but not least, try to maintain eye contact with the drivers approaching you. This makes sure they are aware of your presence and give you time to react in case they are not.
WALKING AROUND IN OLD QUARTER
Corridors in Old Quarter are mostly non-existence since they are usually taken up by parked motorcycles or wares from shops and food stalls. As a result, you will end up walking on the sides of the roads when walking around.
Pedestrian side-walks taken up by parked motorcycles…
Fortunately, drivers in Hanoi are used to this and will usually avoid you. Just remember that at times, it’s wiser to wait for the traffic to clear if it’s getting too rowdy and congested (e.g. near traffic junctions).
A bigger concern would be the safety of your personal belongings. Snatch thieves are less common in Hanoi, compared to pickpockets, especially at crowded areas such as the weekend night markets. It would thus be wise to keep your belongings close to you. We carried all our valuables in waist pouches in front of us, leaving the rest of our necessities (water bottles, wet wipes etc) in our backpack.
Passports should always be kept in the safe box in your hotel and a photocopied version carried with you when you are out. Sometimes, when performing currency exchange (in banks especially), the staff will request for it to verify that you are indeed a foreigner before they approve your request. Same when applying for Prepaid SIM Cards too.
Also for safety reasons, try to avoid walking on the streets after 11pm (for your info, weekend markets end at 11pm), as advised by our hotel.
Taxi scams are prevalent in Hanoi and stories about tourists being overcharged or extorted for sky-high fares can be found all over the Internet. However, as long as you are taking taxis from the two regulated and reputable taxi companies mentioned below, such incident would be very unlikely (Words of Caution: Beware of look-alike taxis).
These are the two reputable taxi companies:
– Taxi Group: Taxis come in different sub-groups like ‘Hanoi’, ‘Hanoi Tourist’, ‘CP’ and ‘3A’ but they all have a distinctive overhead signboard which reads ‘TAXI GROUP’. You may also verify using the booking numbers they display on their sides: ’38 56 56 56′, ’38 26 26 26′ or ’38 53 53 53′. They are mostly white in colour with a red stripe across the taxi.
- Mai Linh: Their taxis are less commonly found than Taxi Group’s but is still one of the bigger and reputable taxi companies in Hanoi. Their taxis come in two designs: One that is mostly green, and the other consisting of white and green. What’s interesting is that we have observed look-alikes while in Hanoi, so be very sure to double-check that their ‘Mai Linh’ logo is indeed present on their taxis. They also bear an unique ‘TAXI’ (the ‘A’ is shaped like a mountain) signboard on the top of the vehicle. Their booking numbers are: ’38 61 61 61′,’38 33 33 33′ and ’38 222 555′.
As a general rule, avoid taxis that are parked and waiting outside places of interests (unless you are sure they belong to either of the taxi companies above, which I believe is unlikely). Usually these taxis belong to the smaller taxi companies which are less regulated, giving opportunities for their taxi drivers to prey on unsuspecting tourists by manipulating the taxi meter or extorting a much higher fare than an originally agreed price.
If you have difficulty flagging a taxi from these companies from the road (though unlikely since they are fairly common), you can always call the numbers above and wait for your taxi to arrive. If you do not have access to making local calls, seek help from the Information counters, shops or restaurants you have just patronized to call the taxi for you. No booking fee is needed and you are not expected to pay more than what the meter states upon arrival at your destination (of course, small tips for the drivers are always welcomed).
Upon boarding the taxi, it’s a good practice to note down the taxi number (a 4-digit number located on the passenger-side front windscreen, rear window and near the rear of the vehicle). This will be helpful when you need to trace the taxi you have taken, in case of lost items or disputes.
As for the meter, it will always be encased in a transparent plastic box, sealed with secured cable ties on both sides.
The ‘Fare‘ digital display (top left corner) should be empty in the beginning, until the taxi starts moving, starting at a value of ‘14.0’. This is the standard starting rate for the taxis we took (Disclaimer: Accurate as of time of writing). Note that ‘14.0’ means the taxi fare is currently 14,000 VND (NOT USD14!). The meter should only start jumping (didn’t really notice how fast or how much it jumps, but the frequency of the increments is low, especially when compared to Singapore’s) after some distance has been traveled. Anyway, as long as you are taking taxis from one of the reputable taxi companies, it’s unlikely that the meter has been tempered with.
I also noticed that the drivers are always well-dressed, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and tie. So if you noticed yours is casually or untidily dressed, that could be a warning sign that you have boarded one of the look-alikes instead! There should also be a taxi driver license displayed on top of the meter. If you are feeling suspicious of the taxi you have boarded, you should immediately leave the taxi. Taxis are aplenty and all over Hanoi anyway.
Last but not least, remember to get at least a name card of your hotel and have the staff write down theaddress in Vietnamese to show the taxi drivers. Also, it is recommended to prepare the Vietnamese names of the destinations you plan to visit (we wrote them down in the first few pages of our travel journal) since many taxi drivers would not understand much English.
OTHER COMMON SCAMS
Besides the Taxi-related scams mentioned above, here are other popular scams which we have heard/read about:
– Fruits Basket Lady: See a lady carrying fruits in their baskets? Unless you genuinely want to buy some fruits, it’s best to avoid her. She may suddenly put her baskets of fruits on your shoulder while you walk past and tell you to take a photo with it. You thought it’s just a good-will gesture and take your photo. Suddenly, she may refuse to carry it back and demand aggressively that you buy her fruits at an exorbitant price in return for her ‘help’ (which you did not want at all). So it’s wise to avoid them and if photo-taking is necessary, be discrete and do it from a distance.
– Cyclos: While walking along the streets of the Old Quarter, many cyclo drivers will whistle or call out to you, inviting you to take a tour with them around the area. Since we prefer to walk or travel around by taxis, we always reject their requests but they can be very persistent and may continue calling or following you. Just ignore them until they give up. There are also stories relating to scams by some of them. In particular, we came across an Australian family during one of our meals who shared their story with us — At the end of their cyclo journey, they paid the agreed price of 300,000 VND to the driver (with three 100,000 VND notes) and after taking them, the driver swiftly switched their notes with three 10,000 VND notes. He then returned them to them, claiming that they had given him the wrong notes. They believed him and ended up giving him another 300,000 VND, and only realised that it was a scam when they reviewed their wallet contents after that!
Vietnam uses Plug Types A, C and G with Voltages of 127V and 220V, according to this website.
In our hotel, only Type C is used and we just needed an universal adapter for our electrical appliances. No issue for our case.
PREPAID SIM CARD
Based on my pre-trip research, I decided to choose Viettel (one of the bigger mobile service providers in Vietnam) as the service provider that I will buy my prepaid SIM Card from.
The problems we faced was when we were trying to get the card, which involved locating a Viettel shop (there are at least two of them in the Old Quarter near the Hoan Kiem Lake, with one near the Water Puppet Theatre) and communicating with the staff on what we need. There wasn’t any pamphlet or price plan for us to refer to, and with the staff’s limited grasp of English, it was quite a pain to finally get the card we wanted.
In a nutshell, I paid 50,000 VND for the phyiscal SIM Card (with no value inside) and another 50,000 VND for the same amount to be topped up into the card for local/overseas calls and 3G data access. Every time a call was made or 3G used, the value in the SIM card will drop until everything has been used up. I am unable to determine exactly how much call time and bandwidth thatI was entitled to, but it was sufficient for our usage throughout our 8D7N Hanoi and Ha Long Bay trip (note that I only bought the card on our 2nd night in Vietnam).
3G reception was also good (we could even get some weak reception when on our cruise ship in Ha Long Bay, away from the mainland). Just make sure the Viettel staff has activated and entered the paid value (50,000 VND for our case) for your card. This can be verified with the SMS received (in Vietnamese but you can still read the numbers) and a simple test to browse a website using your phone’s newly activated 3G subscription.
The Old Quarter is famous for the 36 Streets, where each street has shops lined up along the road selling similar products, such as silk products, embroidery etc.
Various shops sell almost the same stuff, so don’t be in a hurry to buy. Check the prices in a few shop first… Yes, they vary, due to the shopkeeper.
When we first arrived at Old Quarter, we were feeling wary that the shopkeepers/owners would be unfriendly or pushy, thus we were reluctant to pick up and examine their wares and ask about the prices. After we finally braced up to open our mouths to ask, we realised that they were actually quite friendly and open to bargaining (guess our scars from the bad experiences back in Hong Kong years ago were still present ^^|).
Basically the guidelines are:
– Ask for the price of the item you are interested in. Default currency should be Vietnamese Dong, or VND. In your mind, you should have a rough idea of how much a certain amount means in your home currency.
– If you are interested in the item, start bargaining from a reasonable price. This is subjective, but a good first call could be 50% of the quoted price, and work from there until both parties compromise on an agreed price. It’s basic courtesy to buy the item after successfully bargaining to your agreed price, so make sure you are genuinely interested in the item before starting to bargain. Also check the condition of product prior to the bargaining.
Although an item’s price in VND may sound ‘big’ (since it’s always in thousands), the price difference may just be very small after converting to your home currency. So sometimes, it’s polite not to be too insistent on bargaining due to a small price difference as this amount may mean much more to them than us. They are just trying to make a living anyway.
Last but not least, we have observed that most shops are open to bargaining, except for some handicraft shops and most of the stalls at the Weekend Night Markets.
Bargaining was not allowed much here at the Weekend Night Markets.
This pretty much sums up the important things that I’d like to address. Hopefully this information helps to clear up any misconceptions you may previously have about Hanoi, while better prepare you for your upcoming trip there!