Vietnam


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!

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!

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.

Popular travel community website Tripadvisor has just released the results of its annual hotel visitor survey, and for us at the Duxton the results make heartening reading!

When asked what makes a hotel great, the most important factor (chosen by 30% of respondents) was location. Our guests often comment that they stay with us because we have the best location in Saigon, and it’s also good for our banqueting business. There are other international standard 4* hotels in Saigon, but none of them are in district 1!

24% of respondents cited hotel staff/great service as the most important factor in a great hotel. This is an area we take very seriously. We know we may not be able to compete with our 5* neighbours in terms of number of rooms, extensive facilities or brand awareness, but we CAN and DO match them for service, as our guest feedback will confirm.

The Duxton also scores well in terms of rate, with 54% of respondents saying they prefer to pay between $100 and $200 per night for their hotel stays. Our internet rate of $150 sits right in the middle of this band.

All in all, the survey bears out what we at the Duxton see as our strengths – the best location in the city, fantastic service, and competitive, realistic pricing. Thanks Tripadvisor!

Guests often ask me why they never see any destination marketing for Vietnam. You know the kind of thing – the successful Amazing Thailand or Malaysia – Truly Asia campaigns, which, by combining memorable slogans with consistent messages and inviting images, have firmly established those countries’ ‘brands’ in the minds of travellers.

 

Currently, no such campaigns exist, or have ever existed, for Vietnam, the country relying on its tumultuous recent history and exotic allure to attract visitors. But with only around 5% of visitors coming back for repeat visits, clearly more needs to be done if Vietnam is to compete with its more aggressive (in marketing terms) neighbours.

 

The most recent slogan – The Hidden Charm – didn’t really cut it, implying as it did that Vietnam’s attractions aren’t obvious and have to be tracked down! But things seem to be improving. VNAT (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism) is currently working with Spanish tourism consultants to establish a marketing plan and a consistent brand message for the country, and if the work-in-progress report I saw recently is anything to go by, Vietnam should soon be making the kind of marketing effort and infrastructure investment needed to maintain and increase its tourism business.

 

The challenge for Vietnam’s marketing team is to establish a consistent brand message which encapsulates all the various attributes of such a large, diverse country – friendly people, nature, beaches, bustling cities, history, shopping, culture, food and so on. So how do you settle on a message that will resonate with travellers? Easy – listen to travellers themselves. Find out what visitors like about Vietnam, and just as importantly, find out what they DON’T like – tourism authorities here are very keen on organising Tourism Festivals and building ‘Tourist Villages’, little realising that most travellers want to see the real country and will go out of their way to avoid such artifice.

 

We applied the same process when putting together our current brand message. We looked at guest feedback (in-room questionnaires, Tripadvisor etc), had a couple of guest focus group sessions, and informally chatted to in-house guests and restaurant customers, and learned that the two main reasons people come back to the Duxton are its central location, and its friendly service. This enabled us to come up with the Heart of Saigon concept, which encompasses central location and caring service. A bit more consultation with visitors and resident expats, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to do the same for Vietnam!

 

 

Further to my previous piece casting doubt on the doom & gloom coming out of the tourist industry in Vietnam and beyond, this article from Jones Lang LaSalle gives further reasons for optimism!

At the moment it seems like I can’t open a newspaper without reading gloomy predictions about the tourism industry, both in Vietnam and globally. Monday’s Saigon Times predicted that, despite a good first half of 2008, visitor numbers for the rest of the year would decline, due mainly to increasing airline ticket prices.

 

And yet if I wander outside the front door of the hotel, I can see that HCMC itself is full of tourists and business travellers, and our hotel has been 100% full for the last two nights – and this is supposed to be low season! Is HCMC bucking the global downturn in tourism? If it is, here are 10 reasons why:

 

1.                Cost

 

OK, so it  might cost you a bit more to get here than it did last year, but once you’re on the ground HCMC remains a very cheap place to visit. Taxis, drinks, food, entrance tickets and other daily expenses are all way cheaper than in the countries most tourists come from. And the recent fall in the value of the Vietnamese Dong means visitors get a lot more for their dollar, pound or euro.

 

2.                Accommodation

 

At the last count, HCMC had 175 star-rated hotels, and many, many more mini-hotels, guest houses and dormitories. So whilst I am duty bound to praise the city’s luxury hotel scene, there are rooms available for all pockets – the $5-a-night dorm bed can still be found in the backpacker district!

 

3.                Food & Drink

 

HCMC has thousands of restaurants, bars and cafes, from cheap street food outside the markets to fine dining restaurants. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can get a 3-course Asian lunch for $2, a French bistro meal for two with wine for under $20, or a buffet including 10 main courses as well as freshly-grilled lobster, shrimp, lamb and beef for $20, but you can in Saigon! (The last one of these is available in our Grill restaurant every evening from 18:00 – hey, this is my blog so I’ll plug my hotel if I want to…)

 

The city’s nightlife, whilst a lot more sedate than Bangkok, still has plenty to offer with a wide range of pubs, cafes, lounge bars and nightclubs, and despite HCMC’s curfew reputation many are open until 02:00 and beyond.

 

4.                Shopping

 

The regular visitor will notice an increase in the number of high-end luxury stores but that’s not really what Saigon shopping is all about. It’s more about hunting down local crafts such as lacquerware and silk, haggling over original artworks in the city’s countless galleries, finding discount designer goods, and exploring the city’s lively markets, such as the legendary Ben Thanh, Chinatown’s Binh Tay market, and fascinating local markets such as Tan Dinh or Nguyen Van Troi.

 

5.                Cholon

 

Cholon is HCMC’s Chinatown, located around 5km west of the city centre. Not too many tourists bother to make the trip, which is a shame as Cholon gives you a taste of the old colonial Saigon, before the developers moved in. A fascinating architectural mix of old pagodas, French colonial and 1960s brutalism, as well as some fantastic Chinese restaurants and the huge Binh Tay market, where everything you can imagine is on sale, in bulk.

 

6.                Getting Out

 

There are also some great places to visit within a couple of hours’ drive of the city. The Mekong Delta, the nation’s ricebowl, is worth a couple of days at least, with its scenic waterways and sleepy villages. A tip – avoid the tourist traps of My Tho and Vinh Long and try the comparatively unexplored province of Ben Tre. There’s also the splendid beach at Long Hai, and Can Gio biosphere with its peaceful mangrove forests.

 

7.                Hub

 

These days HCMC is a regional transport hub making it easy to travel to anywhere in Vietnam and SE Asia. Buses to the likes of Mui Ne and Phnom Penh can be had for as little as $10, while domestic flights to the beautiful island of Phu Quoc or the friendly highland city of Dalat cost around $80 return. And the arrival of budget airlines such as Tiger Airways and Air Asia means it’s cheaper to get to Bangkok and Singapore than ever before.

 

8.                Relaxation

 

Sure, HCMC is a noisy, bustling city where relaxation can often seem impossible. But it also has more spas than anywhere else I’ve ever been, all of which offer relaxing massage and other treatments. Many hotels have rooftop pools, high above the heat and traffic. And there are hundreds of coffee shops with gardens, sofas or balconies where you can escape the hustle with a cold drink. And of course, all at extremely affordable prices.

 

9.                History

 

Mention Vietnamese history and people immediately think of the American War. HCMC has two key attractions for history buffs. First there’s the War Remnants Museum, a disturbing, fascinating look at the conflict through armaments, documents and rarely seen photographs. Secondly there’s the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 90-minute drive out of the city, where you can explore the Viet Cong tunnel networks that mystified the US troops for so long. Combined with a visit to the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh, it’s a memorable day out.

 

10.             The People

 

One memory visitors to HCMC always take back with them is that of the local people. Lively, smiling, joking, always on the move, they make Saigon the fascinating place it is. You may get annoyed by street traders, motorbike taxis and shoeshine boys constantly offering their services, but give them a smile and you’ll always get one back, whether you’re buying or not.

 

 

So there are just 10 reasons to pay us a visit – I’m sure you can think of more!