Tag Archives: Travel scams

Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi

Day 1:  Our jet-lagged party of six was greeted by our friendly guide Nam upon landing at Hanoi airport in Vietnam  and we felt instantly in good hands. On our trip from the airport to the Authentic Hanoi Hotel, my first thought was “where is the sun”?.   The hazy sky of Hanoi seemed a combination of exhaust, smoke, and humidity, and it was hard to pinpoint where the sun actually resided.

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A roundabout near our hotel

Hanoi is a crazy chaotic city with an astonishing number of small cars, trucks,  scooters, bikes, pedal cabs and people that drive, walk, cycle and park in whatever direction they want, on the roads and sidewalks.   The majority of vehicles are scooters, which carry up to four people, and are often used to carry huge loads including fish traps, produce, poultry, eggs, and building supplies.  Whole families with the dad in front, mom in back, and two small children sandwiched between them are seen everywhere.  Most intersections are  uncontrolled and the infrequent traffic lights are largely ignored.  There is a constant cacophony of honking, and weaving going on, but there’s a certain rhythm to it all that works.  Paul summed up the rules of the road as “Everyone has the right of way;  just don’t hit anyone.”  Road rage seems nonexistent.  But more than half the scooter riders wear face masks to filter out the fumes.

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Intrepid pedestrians

Crossing a busy road for the first time was a life-altering experience.    Traffic will never stop for pedestrians, even at a crosswalk.  Our guide Nam instructed us to raise a hand, move into the fray (and pray), walk slowly but steadily, make no sudden moves,  and weave in between the traffic.  The ‘raise your hand’ step didn’t seem to  be used by the locals, but perhaps helped the locals recognize us as tourists and make some allowances for us.  The method of  give and take, ebb and flow, seems to work.   Nam shared with us a story of his friend who got a ticket from the local police for not stopping at a traffic light.  The police asked him “Did you see the light” and he said “Yes’.  The policeman then asked”  So why didn’t you stop” and he said  “because I didn’t see you”.  Wrong answer, followed by pretty large fine.

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The 1000-eyed Buddha might have foiled the pickpocket

I wasn’t paying attention on the first day while walking in a crowded tourist area in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake,  one hour into our first outing, and  had my wallet stolen from my purse.  Cancelled the cards quickly, but lost some cash.  Took a day to shake off the funk, but it was a reasonably inexpensive lesson.  After several tips with my bag zippers pinned together, I had grown careless.

Dinner out at a nice restaurant with nearby croaking frogs.  Great spring rolls, beer passable.

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The sacred unicorn

Day 2: We also had the second day on our own, so we visited the Museum of Natural History, where we discovered the four most important sacred animals for the Vietnamese – the phoenix, unicorn, turtle and dragon.  Of these, only the turtle closely resembles the western concept.    We now had our “Hanoi legs”:  using bottled water, finding our way around the restaurants and local shops, figuring out the money  (15,000 Dong = 1 Canadian dollar) and how the ATMs work, and returning to the correct hotel at the end of the day.  Still, we kept forgetting to watch for mopeds traveling counterflow on both sides of the street, and seriously doubted our sanity when we contemplated a city tour by bicycle the following day.

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About one ATM in five honoured our cards

We failed to notice that the Temple of Literature was on tomorrow’s tour agenda, and spent a couple of hours marveling at this centuries-old university.

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At the outskirts of Hanoi

Day 3: Our single day of cycling in Hanoi consisted of a visit to crowded cemeteries and rural pottery plants, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed Mondays and Fridays, unfortunately for us), the Ethnology Museum,  the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Citadel.  As with almost every meal on this tour, we enjoyed a copious set-menu lunch at a nicely appointed restaurant revealed to us by our guide.  Still enjoying the spring rolls.

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Excess kumquats

After our first and only day of cycling 30 kms within Hanoi, at the end of the day were amazed at how well we had done in the traffic, without feeling the  panic we would have felt doing the same at home.  The relatively slow pace of the cars/scooter/bikes probably made this workable.  Speeds ranged from 10 kph for the latter to 30 for the former.  We finished the day with a colourful water puppet show just a block from the spot I last saw my wallet.

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Nam, our guide for the North

We especially enjoyed the personal stories told us by Nam:  how he’d helped a friend dig up his ancestor after three years in an overcrowded cemetery so his bones could be reburied more compactly;  how he’d paid for his condo with a backpack full of Vietnamese cash (worth about US$ 38,000) delivered by scooter;  how he’d paid his bride’s parents about one percent of that for the ”bride price,” and a bargain at any price.  Friends of Nam’s, faced with a bride price financially out of reach, did an end run around the parents by getting in the family way.

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At the Museum of Ethnology (Objects not to scale)

We were most fascinated by the Ethnology Museum, where we learned a little about some of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, some male-dominated, others ruled by the women.  We would run into several of these groups during our rural cycling in the days to come.  We tried out some of the houses on stilts, not unlike one we would later spend a night in.  We fell asleep dreaming of the quiet country roads we hoped were in our future.

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Several ethnic minorities live on stilts

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Changing of Ho Chi Minh’s guard

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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.

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