The Tourist Tax

It is your first time in HCMC and you find yourself hungry after a long day of walking around parks and museums. Your stomach might still be adjusting to the local food and you want something safe and light to eat. Luckily a fruit seller wheels her cart over to you to have a look. There are so many unidentifiable fruit on offer, but then you spot some nice, harmless and reliable bananas. “How much for the bananas?” you ask, pointing at them. She pulls out three 20,000 dong notes and says something in Vietnamese. This is great, the art of Commerce punched through the language barrier and you understood each other. You hand over the cash and smile and wave as she leaves you with your fruit. It is only later that you discover that the same amount of fruit is usually sold for half the price. You probably feel a little cheated; the lingering taste of bananas turns to betrayal in your mouth…

That woman preyed on your ignorance and added the dreaded “Tourist Tax.” Additional charges given to people that don’t know the going rates for goods and services. But I want you to stop right there and cheer up my friend, you still just bought a whole bunch of bananas for about a dollar and a half! Even with the Tourist Tax, you still thought it was a pretty wonderful deal. The fruit seller just saw an opportunity to make a little extra money from someone that could part with it. And believe me, as a tourist or an ex-pat living in Viet Nam, you are always going to have more disposable income than that fruit seller. Even if you are one of those backpackers that lives on $5 a day and survives on that beef jerky you smuggled in from home, you are still in a better financial position. You are on holiday, you have options.

This is the fruit seller’s real life, she works seven days a week and she probably has children to feed. I don’t want you to get the impression that every transaction you make is going to have Tourist Tax included, it actually happens pretty rarely. Generally, people don’t increase their prices on a case by case basis. Just remember that when it does happen, try to understand someone else’s struggle, keep some perspective and quickly get back to enjoying your time in Viet Nam.

At this point in my stay in Viet Nam, Tourist Tax is something I recognise and know how to avoid; knowing the price of something or asking for the price in Vietnamese is a strong signal that I know what I’m doing and local prices are always offered. But as time moves on, I find myself not minding too much if I am charged a little extra; it is fine – I have extra, a lot extra.

Be aware that my definition of Tourist Tax is different to outright scams, of which there are many and you should look out for them. Scams seem like a good post topic; I’ll probably write about those later…