Judging from recent debates on the Tripadvisor Vietnam forum, tipping is a hot topic amongst travellers to Vietnam. Should I tip? If so, who should I tip? And how much?

 

In some parts of the world, particularly the US, tips are expected and taken for granted, and in some establishments a tip is even included in the bill, meaning the customer is obliged to tip even when they might feel that it is not deserved.

 

In Vietnam, this isn’t the case, and the culture of tipping is still in its infancy. The Vietnamese rarely tip in restaurants or bars, though women usually tip in hairdressers or spas.

 

So what to do? In my opinion, you should tip to reward good service, polite/friendly/professional service, or service that exceeds your expectations. Such service, outside international hotels at least, is sadly all too rare in Vietnam so I always reward it when I experience it.

 

Here are my guidelines for tipping:

 

Restaurants

You will find that the standard of service in Vietnamese restaurants is way below what you would get in other tourism destinations, such as Thailand. If you do get good service, then 5% of the bill is a reasonable amount, which will usually equate to between 15,000-30,000VND. Less is too little, more is too much!

 

Bars

Bar staff are generally paid very little and make up their wages with tips, so if you get good service, tip by rounding up your bill – again, 15,000-30,000VND is reasonable.

 

Hotel Porters

10,000-15,000VND is the usual amount for a helpful porter who has escorted you to your room and/or delivered your baggage. I personally find that tipping porters/concierges ensures you get excellent attention and service throughout your stay!

Taxis

Polite, friendly, honest taxi drivers are a rare species in Vietnam, so if you get one, reward him with a tip – rounding up your bill is the best way, or if he has really gone above & beyond the call of duty, hand him 10,000VND to let him know his efforts are appreciated.

 

Please note that some taxi drivers may assume you want them to keep the change if it’s a small amount and not bother to give change. If the driver has given you good service, then by all means let him keep it. But if he’s been surly, uncommunicative or generally indifferent, insist on getting your change in full. If he claims he has no change, take your money back or stay put in the cab. You will find the change will miraculously appear!

 

Spa/Massage

Many massage parlours of dubious repute pay their staff so little that they live off tips, and will consequently openly ask for tips. I have even heard cases of masseuses refusing to allow customers to leave until they have paid a tip! Obviously such practices should be discouraged – generally, if a spa or massage parlour is touting for business by handing out leaflets on the street, it is best avoided. Most reputable spas (including our own) discourage their staff from asking for tips, but if you have had good service, then 50,000-100,000VND is the usual amount and will be gratefully received.

 

Tour Guides/Drivers

If you’re on a tour with a guide & driver, and you feel they’ve really done a good job of making your trip memorable, then a tip of $10 per day (total) is reasonable. Tips probably account for 60% of their earnings and they have a hard job, being away from home for long periods of time. However, if the service is indifferent or unremarkable, or if they openly ask for tips, give them nothing.

 

 

In all the above cases, you should only reward good service. Tipping for poor or indifferent service provides staff with little motivation to improve the way they treat customers. If the message that great service = big tips starts to get across, the country’s currently poor standards of service will hopefully improve, and more tourists will come back for repeat visits. However, if the message is foreigners are going to tip me whatever I do, things will not improve and Vietnam will continue to have a reputation for offering poor service, whilst restaurateurs will cut wages and expect staff to live off tips. So, please tip with care and only when it’s deserved!

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Travel blogger Kip Cole has posted this excellent Saigon walking tour on his/her blog. Saigon isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly city in the world but this route is pretty easy on the feet!

ITB Berlin has, along with London’s World Travel Market, long been one of the world’s biggest and best-supported travel trade shows, and this year the organisers decided to take the concept to Asia. ITB Asia took place at Singapore’s Suntec Centre from 22-26 October, and I went along to check it out and assess the value of exhibiting there in 2009.

 

In short, I was pretty impressed. Although on a smaller scale to ITB Berlin, there was a good cross-section of exhibitors present (including hotels, tour operators, media, websites, tourist boards and technology providers), and the event was impeccably organised, as one would expect in one of the world’s best-organised cities – I hope the organisers of the recent disastrous ITE HCMC were there!

 

I would say the only drawbacks were the lack of space to sit down & rest, and the lack of additional events such as seminars and parties. But I’m sure that, once the event becomes more established and popular in the coming years, conferences, seminars and social events will spring up to accompany it.

 

So a good start then, and a useful event for me in networking terms. Hopefully you’ll be able to visit us at our own booth in 2009!

The annual BBGV (British Business Group in Vietnam) Charity Fun Run took place in HCMC yesterday, and this year the Duxton got involved as a food sponsor and by entering a team of around 40 runners.

Our catering team did a great job of serving over 1000 hot dogs to those taking part, and we ran out of food much earlier than we thought – those hot dogs must’ve been good!

As for the running, it was tough going as, despite the early start (0645), it was extremely humid, and it must also be said that the police didn’t do a very good job of closing off the roads, leaving runners to jockey with motorbikes on several stretches of the route. Surely it’s not too much to ask for these people to respect a charity event and stay off the roads for half an hour?

But anyway a good time was had by all, and congratulations to Mr Pham Van Tuy (F&B) and Ms Tran Thi Ngoc Chau (Engineering), who won the Duxton 1st male and 1st female prizes. Me? I staggered in a few minutes behind, sweaty but happy at beating my 2007 time by 5 minutes!

Time to start training for 2009…

A frequent complaint from guests at our hotel, and from foreign visitors in general, is of being overcharged, ripped off and generally mistreated by the city’s taxi drivers, particularly those operating at Tan Son Nhat Airport. Indeed, a 2007 survey discovered that the number one reason cited by tourists as to why they would not return to Vietnam was being overcharged by taxi drivers.

 

So how can you ensure that your visit to Saigon isn’t blighted by taxi cheats? Here’s my guide, based on 5 ½ years as an expat in the city!

 

Which Taxi?

In my 5 years in the city, only two companies have an unblemished record with regards to overcharging. One of them, Mai Linh, is the Duxton’s taxi supplier of choice – they operate out of the forecourt of our hotel. Their taxis are white & green. Be careful – there are several fake Mai Linh taxis around using very similar livery and logo. The other is Vinataxi – their taxis are yellow. Hoang Long taxis (green/yellow) are also good but their fleet is currently very small, so you may not see them very often.

 

All other taxi firms should be treated with extreme caution!

 

Arriving at Tan Son Nhat Airport

When exiting the arrivals hall at the airport, you will be greeted by a huge crowd of people waiting for arriving friends & relatives. You will also be hassled by numerous taxi touts. Even if you ignore them and push past them to the taxi rank, things don’t improve, as there IS no taxi rank – just a mass of rival taxis jockeying for space and customers. In short, it is absolute chaos, especially when compared to the orderly system at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport. So what do you do? Well, until the airport authorities take steps to install some sense of order, you have 4 choices:

 

1.                Pre-book an airport transfer through your hotel or tour company. A more expensive option, but one that gives you peace of mind and eliminates hassle at the end of a long flight.

2.                Book a taxi at the official taxi counter, which costs around $12 – again, more expensive than a metered taxi, but you get to avoid the chaos outside!

3.                Fight your way past the taxi touts to the ‘taxi rank’, and flag down one of the reputable companies above. Have your hotel address written on a piece of paper to show the driver. Make sure he puts the meter on – if he refuses (he may try & offer you a “deal” or claim his meter is broken) get out and take another taxi. If he accepts, the fare into district 1 should be around 90,000-100,000VND. If it is substantially more, refuse to pay and get the porter at your hotel to sort it out for you. Also, if the driver asks you to pay any tolls en route, refuse – they are included in the fare.

4.                A more crafty ‘insider’ option this one. On exiting the arrivals hall, turn right and take the stairs or lift up the departures area. It is much quieter there and you will be able to catch a taxi dropping off people at the airport, following the advice in point 3 of course!

 

Getting Around

Once you are settled into your hotel you’ll want to go out sightseeing or on business, and you may want to take taxis. Again, use the aforementioned companies, have your destinations written down, and make sure the driver uses the meter.

 

Aircon

After recent petrol price hikes, many drivers are turning off their aircon to save fuel. Not a good idea in a city where temperatures constantly hover around the 30C mark. If your driver refuses to turn his aircon on, get out and take another taxi.

 

Tipping

Tipping is at your discretion and is not expected. If the driver has been polite, helpful or gone above & beyond what you would normally expect, feel free to offer a tip.

 

Beware of drivers “assuming” that you will tip them – e.g. the fare is 25,000VND, you give him 30,000VND, and he says “thank you” and pockets your money without giving you change. Or alternatively, he may claim he has no change. In this instance, insist on getting your change back and stay put in the taxi. He will then miraculously find some change in his pocket.

 

Precaution

All taxis have the driver’s number in the window. It’s worth noting this down. If he gives you bad service or tries to cheat you, you can ring the company to complain and give them the number; and if you leave your bag or camera in the back of the taxi by mistake, you’re more likely to get it back!

 

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Don’t be scared by the above advice into thinking that every single taxi driver in Saigon is a crook, intent on preying on innocent tourists and business travellers! Sure, some of them are, but stick to the companies mentioned above and follow my advice, and you should have a hassle-free taxi experience during your visit. And if you have any other tips to add, please share them with me.

As a marketer who has been heavily involved in social media for the last couple of years, this article on Social Media Optimisation for the Hotel Industry caught my eye this morning.

Before joining the Duxton, I was in charge of marketing for a large IT/web design company based in Saigon, and spent a lot of time discovering various areas of social media and how we could use them for marketing/PR purposes. To tell the truth it wasn’t ideal for a company selling $5-figure software installations, but when I moved to the Duxton, I realised that social media channels would be far more appropriate in a hospitality context. So appropriate in fact, that I’m frequently stunned at how few hoteliers are even aware of the term ‘social media’, let alone actually getting involved!

Anyway, getting back to the article above, here are my thoughts on the seven areas mentioned by the author, and how I’m using them at the Duxton:

1. User-generated content
This is by far the most relevant area to hoteliers. Web 2.0 travel sites such as Tripadvisor and Yahoo! Travel attract millions of visits per day, giving travellers a forum to share advice, experiences and, most importantly for those of us in the business, hotel reviews! This is an area where all our marketing and PR nous counts for nothing – it’s all about how guests experience our product and service.

But whilst we can’t control the conversation (and neither should we try!), we can contribute. Have a look at our Tripadvisor page and see how I respond to reviews, both positive and negative. Critical reviews usually get an apology and explanation, positive reviews get a personal thank-you message from me, and reviews with inaccurate information receive a polite correction. I also visit the Vietnam forum every day and give help and advice when I can. In total this probably takes about 20 minutes of my time each day – a small price to pay in return for interacting with guests, raising awareness of our brand, and positioning the Duxton as a modern, technologically-aware hotel with good local expertise. Such a small price, in fact, that the lack of activity on the part of other hotels is a constant surprise – and disappointment.

2. Blogs
Well, you’re reading this so little further explanation is needed! But here is the rationale behind the Duxton blog. The most important point in Anil’s article is the one about credibility and trust. People are naturally (and often rightly) cynical about brochures, press releases and promotional emails. Blogs effectively ‘break through the fourth wall’ and permit greater honesty and transparency, and customers see this as a more genuine reflection of the organisation’s character than the usual marketing blurb.

3. Online Videos
Another hugely under-used strategy, in the hospitality industry at least. For just a few thousand dollars, hotels can get a professionally made video, even a 360-degree virtual tour, which they can add to their website or post on Youtube, and provide a piece of marketing collateral that is far more immediate and effective than a brochure or a set of still images.

We had this video made in 2007 in conjunction with a Japanese TV channel, and ignoring the rather cheesy music for a moment, it’s been a really useful sales tool, especially for customers overseas who aren’t able to come to Vietnam for a site inspection.

4. Personal Social Networks
In our case, the hugely popular Facebook. One of the first things I did when I joined the Duxton was to create a Duxton Facebook group, making us the first (and still the only) hotel in Saigon to have one. Why? Well, Facebook has a large, active Ho Chi Minh City group that has proven to be very useful for local bars and restaurants to announce events and promotions, and in a city with poor local media and only one decent what’s-on magazine (The Word), a real-time promotional channel was long overdue.

We use Facebook to promote F&B promotions, parties, special offers, anything that we feel is worth shouting about. Does it work? In direct $$$ terms it has so far had little impact, but in terms of raising brand awareness and positioning ourselves as a modern, net-savvy business, then the answer has to be yes!

5. Photo-Sharing
Customers/partners, particularly tour operators, travel agents, press and third-party websites, frequently ask us for hotel images. When I joined the Duxton we were providing them the old-fashioned way – on a CD-ROM, via a login on our website, or by email. All pretty unwieldy, overly complex methods, especially email, which doesn’t permit the sending of large, hi-res images.

The solution? A hosted photo-sharing site, in our case Google’s excellent, free Picasa application. Whenever we commission new shots of the hotel, we can have them uploaded before the photographer has even left the building, so that people who need them for their brochures, articles or websites can download them, and my sales staff can send the link to potential and existing customers. No more CD-ROMs, logins or huge email attachments!

6. Social Bookmarking
7. Articles & Online PR

I’ve put these two together as they are both part of the hotel’s PR strategy. Each month we send out various press releases on any topic we feel like shouting about – F&B promotions, new appointments, hotel awards etc.

But rather than just sending them out to our press contacts, I also add them to our website, submit them to PR websites, and post them on popular social bookmarking sites like Digg and Cyvee. The benefits of this strategy are numerous, and include increased web traffic, a resource of articles for use in email newsletters, brand awareness, and search engine ranking.

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As Anil says at the end of his article, “We have experimented with all of the strategies described in this article and have found significant increases in the hotel’s search engine rankings as well as online revenue.  Social media channels may not result in direct increases in revenue from the channels, but indirectly do cause the hotel’s website to generate additional revenue. “  And that’s the whole point of working in social media – it costs next to nothing, but has a considerable ROI in terms of branding, perception and, further down the line, revenue.

It’s not our primary strategy – hospitality is still about old-fashioned jobs such as working the phones, pressing the flesh and meeting real people rather than Second Life avatars, and to an extent it always will be – but it’s a valuable part of our marketing mix and, in a field where none of our competitors are active, it gets us noticed!

Just to let you know we now have an online photo album at Picasa, so if you need pics of our hotel for your brochure or website, or you just want to have a peek around the hotel, go to our web album now!