Tag Archives: Pickpockets

Cycling in Vietnam: Summary & Advice

Our two week tour of Vietnam proved a great experience.  While we only cycled a few hundred kilometers on nine days of cycling, the mix of activities fit the conditions we encountered.  For instance, the two days devoted to Ha Long Bay did not involve cycling, nor did our day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)

Our experience of Vietnam and its people was very positive.  We had three different sets of drivers and guides – for the three separate regions – and all of them were helpful, experienced, interesting, and personable.  All of our hotels were clean, comfortable, and endowed with good breakfasts.  The personnel were courteous and helpful.  The included meals at chosen restaurants were tasty and copious, if sometimes repetitive.  Overall this trip was “two thumbs up.”

So, should you do this trip?  And if so, what might you need to know beforehand?  Here are a few thoughts.  Some we learned ahead of our departure;   some we wished we had.

So many colourful occasions

So many colourful occasions

Should you do this trip?

If this is your first cycle trip overseas, Vietnam may not be the best place to start.  Vietnam’s travel infrastructure is not as well developed as locations like northern Europe.  You’ll be more exposed to traffic with unfamiliar rules.   Our day cycling in Hanoi was not for everyone – although we wouldn’t have missed it.  Language challenges may be greater here – important should you get separated from your group.  The different cuisine could leave you battling a stomach bug on a ride, and facilities are often hard to find.  But if you’ve got a few tours under your belt, and are looking for more culture, history, and different landscapes, then we’d highly recommend the tour we took.

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Best Time to Go

Using climate sites, we determined that February is generally the driest, coolest month of the year, and the average temperature is good for cycling.  However, averages can be deceiving.  On our own tour, it was 60F (16C) in the north, and 95F (35C) in the south.  Most of the time it was cloudy and misty, and in central Vietnam it rained non-stop for two days.  However, two weeks later, some friends enjoyed blue skies all the way.  So, we still think February and March are good bets, as long as you avoid the holiday rush at Tet – usually over by mid-February, occasionally a bit later.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Visas, Vaccinations, Medications & Trip Insurance

Finding online information about visas was challenging.  There are a plethora of companies offering to help get you a Vietnam visa for a fee, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s legitimate.  In end, Cheryl and I opted to leave our passports at the local Vietnam consulate for a few days.  Others in our group were happy using the services of a local travel company specializing in Vietnam.

Vaccinations were another matter.  This is a complex subject, and a lot comes down to your assessment of the risks versus costs.  We all updated our basic travel inoculations, but we fretted over rabies and Japanese encephalitis.  Different members of our group got different advice from different travel clinics.  How big is the risk?  Frankly, it’s small for both diseases.  Still, losing the gamble would not be fun.  Some in our group opted for both.  Cheryl and I elected just to be cautious about mosquitoes, which can spread more than just encephalitis.  As for rabies, we found a local doctor who offered much cheaper rabies shots provided we came in as a group;  the cost saving came from a technique developed by the WHO.  The lower price tipped the scale for us.  Our decision was reinforced when a friend was bitten by a dog in Cambodia; she underwent the full post-bite inoculation series upon her return to Canada.

Advised by a conservative doctor, we also had prescriptions for anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, loads of insect repellent, and even a set of clothing impregnated in pyrethrins.  To our surprise, during our two weeks in Vietnam surrounded by flooded rice paddies, we never saw a mosquito, and so left most of our supplies untouched.  We did run out of some common medications like decongestants;  Paul reacted badly to the smoky air that seemed to blanket the country.  However, we easily replenished our supplies locally.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

For the first time, we elected to take the Dukoral oral vaccine against traveler’s diarrhea.  Traveling friends swore by it.  Still, the jury’s out on how effective it was.  We used bottled water, even for teeth-brushing.  We stuck mainly to the tour-sponsored restaurants and didn’t indulge in street food, although we ate salads freely.  Had we slipped up, we were prepared to follow a questionable meal with Pepto-Bismol and a stiff drink – again, as advised by our travel doctor.  But, despite eating a wide variety of dishes from set menus, no one in our group had any problems.  So we didn’t really need that rice wine with snakes in it.

We also bought travelers’ health insurance for our trip.  Since our Vietnam tour was only part of a ten-week away time, we ultimately bought full-year travel coverage, plus a rider for the extended time.  A friend who works as an insurance broker tracked down the best deal for us, which had trip cancelation and lost baggage insurance into the bargain.  Fortunately, we never needed any of it – but we have in the past.

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Clothing

What to take can be a challenge.  We packed largely for biking in the “average” climate.  Turns out we were under-dressed for the cool conditions in the north, and our polyester biking gear was too hot for the steamy heat down south.  Check the temperatures in Hanoi and Saigon.  Cheryl wished she’d brought some compact down, and a couple of extra light pants and long-sleeved tops for the North.  As you may know, the local inhabitants wear long pants and sleeves, even when it gets warm;   tourists are obvious because they wear shorts and singlets, even when it’s chilly.  The cycling rain gear we brought turned out to be too warm; we did better with the semi-disposable ponchos we picked up in Vietnam for a dollar.  After the first day, we eschewed our heavy lace-up shoes in favour of Keen’s sandals;   they were cooler and dried out more quickly after a rain.  Even the locals mostly rode in flip-flops, rain or shine.

Finally, after Cheryl’s run-in with a pickpocket in Hanoi on Day One, we wished we had more clothes with zippered or concealed pockets – anything to make it easy to spread our cards and cash around.

Whenever we stayed two days in the same hotel, we were usually able to wash a few light clothes and have them dry before we checked out.  Laundry prices at the hotels were often fairly high, although at one or two locations that charged by the kilogram instead of per piece, we found them very reasonable.  And the clothes always came back neatly folded, flower scented, and well before the promised time.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Cycling Equipment

Taking your own bike helmets is absolutely necessary.  In some countries, bike tour companies have the odd spare for those without.  In Vietnam, even some of our guides rode without helmets.  Paul had taken a spare to Vietnam and left it with our last guide, who was most appreciative.  Biking gloves were also a good idea, although not essential.  And they did get very sweaty in the steamy south.

Since distances were relatively short, we decided not to take our gel seat covers.  Some of the tour operators supplied bikes with gel covers included.  The bikes themselves were mostly decent Trek mountain bikes; the ones in the hilly north were almost brand new and had disc brakes; in the flat south, they were older and less well equipped.

We had also taken rechargeable blinking lights for front and back, but ended up not using them.  While we use them at home, especially when riding country roads with higher speed limits, we decided not to in Vietnam.  In the traffic conditions we usually encountered, we suspected they might have been more distracting than helpful.  Bright clothing was useful; for one thing, it alerted drivers that we were tourists, unfamiliar with the local driving customs.  It also helped us keep track of our group.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Unlike trips in Europe, the bikes did not have carriers or panniers, only a small pouch on the handlebars.  However, the van was seldom far away, so we could generally leave extra clothing there and retrieve it if needed.  However, we were glad we’d brought a couple of small packs to wear.  The operators also supplied water bottles for the rides, but we were glad we’d also brought our own – especially handy on non-ride days.  Given the frequent advice not to drink tap water, we were always buying large bottles of water and refilling our own.  Or drinking the beer, which was often cheaper.

Perhaps the most useful thing we took were rear-view mirrors that attached in seconds with Velcro.  None of the bicycles came with mirrors, but every scooter on the road had two, and we soon knew why.  For about US$4 each, the mirrors were well worth it.  Two per bike wouldn’t have been remiss.

P1050650croppedsmall

These paths left little room for passing.

Money, Cards, & Internet

Since almost everything was included on this tour, the money we needed was primarily for drinks, tips, and extras.  Since many of the smaller shops didn’t take cards, a bit of cash was essential and that in Vietnamese Dong.  To keep our wallets filled, we relied on debit cards at ATMs.  We had no trouble finding ATMs, although perhaps only half of them worked with our cards.  One in our group had a “special” card that was non-standard.  She never got it to work, but fortunately she had another.  Advice when traveling: always have more than one type of card, and keep them separate, just in case.  When Cheryl had hers stolen, she still had another – and I had two as well.  The limits on ATM withdrawals were quite low, but then, we didn’t need much money.  Larger hotels and restaurants accepted most credit cards.

The free Internet in every hotel was excellent without exception:  fast, ubiquitous, and reliable – much better than we later experienced in Australia.  We had no problems backing up photos to the cloud – until we left Vietnam.  Reminder:  don’t forget your power-plug adapter.

Water puppets in Hanoi.  (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Water puppets in Hanoi. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Tips

Tipping provided us with considerable confusion, and our group had several lengthy discussions on what to do.  Tipping porters at hotels and airports was easy enough, usually around US$1.  At meals, we only paid for drinks, and tipped on that amount.  However, all the set meals were included in the tour price, as were hotel stays, but we never figured out how tips should be handled on these items.  Mostly we just muddled through.

The real confusion came with tipping cycle guides and drivers.  We received three different guidelines from the tour operator and the booking company.  Some implied a sliding scale, depending upon the size of the group, others did not.  None were clear on whether the suggested amounts were a total for guides and drivers, or an amount for each.   In the end, our group held lengthy discussions and came up with a per-day per-couple minimum for guides and a smaller minimum for drivers.  Then, at the end of each segment, Rob would collect the amounts in an envelope and present it to the service provider.  Even that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.  Most of the time – but not always – there were two drivers, one for the van, one for the bike truck.  Drivers sometimes came and went without notice; twice, last minute changes of plan had us miss our farewells with a driver.  The line between drivers and guides was often blurred:  on one leg, our cycle guide spoke little English, so a second attractions guide rode with us, and the first guide doubled as van driver.  One day, our cycle guide was under the weather, so, he brought in cyclist friend and sat the ride out.  In the end, we did the best we could.  We tried to remember that everyone we dealt with worked long and hard, and none were overpaid.  Tips were always welcome, whether in dong or US dollars.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Cycling Protocol

Finally, it would have helped if we’d reviewed our cycling protocols.  The six of us had often ridden together at home as part of a larger group, and we should have known better.  Somehow, in the excitement of a foreign country, we forgot some of our practices.  Especially in the Mekong Delta, the trails turned and branched endlessly, and it was very easy to miss a turn.  If each of us had stopped at every decision point until we could see the following rider knew where to go, we would never have become separated.  As it was, we lost members twice, both times for more than twenty minutes – which seems like an eternity when you’re listening to crickets.  We will allow that following the protocol can be challenging here, as there are so many decision points.  So, don’t hesitate to ask your guide to slow down, especially if you want to stop to take photos.  At day’s end, we were all reunited, and after unruffling a few feathers, had a good laugh about it all.

P1050616croppedsmall

There’s lots to distract an avid photographer. “Which way’d they go?”

Bon Voyage!

We trust you’ve found these thoughts useful in planning your cycle trip to Vietnam.  Have a great time, and let us know how it went.

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Rest stop in a northern village.

Rest stop in a northern village.

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Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel

In last week’s post, Paul tells the story of losing $75 to a scam in the Dominican Republic.  This week, he draws some lessons from the experience.

Many travelers express concern about getting ripped off while traveling.  Unfortunately, for many in our age group, this fear keeps them from traveling … or from being as adventurous as they might be.

While it’s important to recognize the risks while traveling, it’s easy to scare oneself.  In over four decades of travel, we’ve suffered perhaps half a dozen losses, and a few more attempts.  What little we have lost was a small price to pay for the stories we acquired in return.  Almost surely have we missed a greater number of positive experiences due to over-caution.  We continue to seek the middle ground between being open to everything, and being “open season” for crooks abroad.

Everyone's selling something.  Are you buying?

Everyone’s selling something. Are you buying?

To put our $75 loss in perspective, it was the price of a tour.  To a minimum wage worker in the DR, it was a week’s wages.  Still, it seems unfair to the Dominicanos who stick to less lucrative but legal work.  Moreover, no one likes to feel he’s been taken, including Paul.

A little caution goes a long way towards avoiding a rip-off.  Knowledge of common cons can be helpful as long as it doesn’t frighten more than enlighten.  Check out WikiTravel’s “Common Scams” and Rick Steve’s “Tourist Scams & Ripoffs”.  Maybe you can spot the one that hooked Paul.

Understanding the psychology behind a successful scam may also help you recognize one more easily when you’re the intended victim.  This article from FraudAid lays out some of the basics.  Paul uses it to deconstruct his own experience with the one that got him – and the earlier scam, as he was struck by the common patterns in two very different cons forty years apart.

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

We think Paul takes secret delight in his vicarious connection with some of the great scams of Hollywood – like “The Sting” or David Mamet’s quirky “The Spanish Prisoner” – even if he was cast in the role of the Mark.  This dictionary of Scoundrel’s Slang may be helpful in understanding his analysis of the events described in last week’s post.  (You may want to reread the story first.)  At each step, Paul the Mark identifies what he might have done differently.  Here’s the rest of the Grifter cast:

  • The Outside Man, or Roper:  the young “father” with the sick baby
  • The Inside Man:  the shopkeeper whose shop was closed
  • On the Wall:  the young boy, on the lookout for the Bluecoats and other interference

As described by FraudAid, the first step is for the Roper to identify the Mark.  Since Paul was a Camera Hugger and traveling solo, he was an obvious choice; had Cheryl been with him, he likely wouldn’t have been a target for that con, although there are other cons designed for couples.  The Roper now has to determine the Mark‘s personality profile and identify what motivates him.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket's delight.  But that's no excuse to miss out.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket’s delight. But that’s no excuse to miss out.

In this case, Paul’s desire to converse in Spanish came through early on.  This put him at a disadvantage; had the con been going down in English, Paul’s “spidey sense” might have triggered earlier.  Operating in a second language can make it harder to pick up subconscious cues.  The Roper also counted on the Mark‘s desire not to look like a “rich tourist” by admitting he couldn’t have recognized any of the security guards from the hotel if he met them on the street.  Had the Mark asked, “Which hotel was that?”, it could have thrown off the con, although a skilled Roper could have recovered.  Before long, the Roper had determined that the Mark‘s wish to help a young family was the psychological persuasion that he needed.

What Paul could have done differently:  taken over guiding the script.  Assuming he hadn’t dismissed the request out of hand, he could simply have asked how much the young father needed and lent or given it to him right there.  Possible savings: $70.

During the second step of the con, the Roper‘s job was to make the Mark dependent upon him in some way.  One way he did this was to throw the Mark off balance.  He did this by quickening his pace to the point where the Mark had part of his attention just on keeping up.  Getting the Mark into unfamiliar territory was also designed to increase his sense of being linked to the Roper.  At the same time, the Roper continued unrelated conversation designed to mitigate any unease the Mark might feel about what was happening.

What Paul could have done differently:  trusted his unease at walking so quickly.  When he noticed that he was feeling rushed, he could have stopped, re-asserted his own agenda, and walked away if there had been any resistance.  It might have been a good time to switch to English.

The final step of the con was the Sting.  Once the Roper arrived at the closed shop with the Mark in tow, events moved swiftly.  Within a minute, Paul found himself staring at the Inside Man‘s $60 receipt with his mouth hanging open … considering his dwindling options.  Chances are the Grifters would not have resorted to violence, but they probably counted on the Mark’s discretion overpowering his valour.  They would have known he’d resist losing face, a motive often more powerful than the fear of death.  Who knows what strategies they might have planned to mollify the Mark if he hadn’t chosen to Cop a Heel?

What Paul could have done differently:  done an about face at the decisive moment.  Paul’s intuition was definitely ringing alarm bells as he stepped through the shop door.  It would have been uncomfortable to have chilled at that point and turned back, but it would have been the wiser course.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early.  The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early. The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

The more general lesson is that our own personal weak points will determine what cons we’ll fall for, and what we need to be vigilant about.  Paul knows that he’s a sucker for a good cause, and is always looking for second-language opportunities when he’s on the road.  He is often less assertive than might be good for him.  His primary personal lessons for avoiding cons:  “Trust your intuition!  Don’t be afraid to assert your own agenda!”

Knowing yourself and knowing the cons can help you feel more comfortable while traveling.  Just don’t let it stop you.  Travel involves risk, as does everything worthwhile in life.  We have friends who lost their entire retirement nest egg to an investment scam from the comfort of their own home.

Seeing Paris' Latin Quarter with a "Discover Walks" local can make it safer

Seeing Paris’ Latin Quarter with a “Discover Walks” local can make it safer

“The best revenge is living well.

If you do get conned, it’s best to remember that Spanish proverb.  Resorting to violence as this young woman did could make a bad situation much worse.

For further reading:

What’s your best advice on avoiding trouble on the road?