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Hey Taxi!

Public transport in Vietnam is one of the most difficult arrangements for travelers. What is available has no specific routes within the cities.  The Xe Om (motor taxi) is convenient but is vulnerable for the passenger in the traffic in the big cities. Privately hired cars are comparatively expensive. Catching a cab is the best option all round.

There are about 14,000 taxis in Hanoi and about double that in Ho Chi Minh City.  In the last couple of years ‘taxi scams’ has been the most popular topic in Vietnamese forums as well as travel forums overseas. What I am saying below is to make some explanation from a culture angle about this issue and hope that you will have a better understanding about this particular problem and maybe other social issues in Vietnam.

Labor management is a very important part of every company culture. It makes or breaks that business. Everyone knows that. Vietnamese taxi companies also know that. They have done quite a lot to improve their service and brand name. They try hard by training a service culture into employees. They created a Taxi Association in order to make a fair competitive market. They have organized an active inspection team to clean out all ‘scam’ acts from their workers.  They even require their workers to deposit an amount of money with the company which is forfeit if they are caught treating their customers improperly.  They are doing more and more to gain customer’s satisfaction – your smiles. Do those acts work? Yes, but not fully. The problem is that the ‘working culture’ of Vietnamese is different from other countries. I’ll explain:

The personality of the majority of Vietnamese is based on and influenced by a culture that we called Tiểu Nông (Agriculture Minded – AM) (I am not too sure about my translation).   AM is a product of an agricultural society that makes people narrow-minded: short term acts, not thinking much of consequences, oriented to personal profit and thinking less about social profit in general. It has been this way in Vietnam for thousands of years so it will take time to change the culture. The attitude means an individual Vietnamese may get success, but the long term outcome can be broken relationships and businesses. Teamwork has never been the strong suit for Vietnamese. Taxi drivers in Vietnam are very much part of this AM group because most of them have had a very limited access to education. Human Resources are the most difficult part to control in Taxi enterprises. Moreover, Vietnamese in general work emotionally, and are not good at following the regulations!  It is useless to teach them only to obey regulations; they require a good understanding of the reasons FOR the regulations as well as being offered additional incentives if you expect to get good results. This explains why the ‘village culture’ is still exists and why you must follow the rules from that particular area. This is a complicated consequence of Vietnamese society.

I believe things have been changing with Vietnam’s integration into the world economy. These bad habits will not be suitable with the demands of economic expansion. Until this can be achieved travelers need to be aware and protect themselves from this possibility. I have some tips for tourists when you use a Taxi in Vietnam:

  • Always know the name and if possible the address where you want to go.
  • Take your hotel card with you for the return trip and get someone to write in Vietnamese your destination so you can show the driver.
  • Use good brand taxis with their meter on and with the meter sealed in a plastic box.
  • Never use a grubby taxi; the new and clean one seems to be more able to be trusted.
  • Negotiate the price before boarding for ‘fixed routes’ like Hotel to Airport or the reverse.
  • Ask Reception in a hotel to call the taxi for you wherever you are anywhere if possible, even you are not staying there.
  • If you feel something is wrong, stop the Taxi, pay the bill, then leave.
  • If an argument arises, get the number plate, taxi number or any recognizable identity you can see, look for locals to help, speak loudly to get attention if you can but on no account get in a fight.
  • If you have any complaints to Taxi company, make sure you have basic evidences like taxi number, timing, routes..etc, and don’t forget to rush them to follow your case. One or two phone calls only may not be effective enough, you need to ring them more frequency.

Now,  it’s your turn, do you have any personal tips or experiences about Taxi scams to share with people? Please kindly leave your comment to help the others. Cheers & Safe travel!

Junk or Junk?

Some time ago I started to put my free time into the Trip Advisor Forum that seems to be the in-place for travelers now so I could get back the fluency of ‘Westerner’s conversation’ that I lost when I quit my tour guide job a few years ago.  These days I find this forum useful for me (apart from spammers and touts) as I can see the ‘travel trends’ that people are moving towards, and that helps me keep ahead in business. The Halong Bay section of the forum now seems to be the hottest.  Experiences are mixed – good and bad – but that’s what you would expect with such a large enterprise.  I am not trying to recommend any specific cruise agents to you in this article, just wanting to alert you to use your common sense to help you make the right choice in general travel shopping (especially online shopping).

Purpose of your visit

You should ask yourself first: “What am I coming to the bay for?  Relaxation?  Sight-seeing?  Photography?  Luxury?  That is the first step towards choosing the right Junk boat.  If you are on your honeymoon or a photographic expedition, an affordable charter Junk can be found – or even a small capacity one would be suitable.  A trip just for relaxation may require a bit further research on Junk facilities. A few Junks now offer massage, cooking classes or Tai Chi exercising on board, and they seem to be the ones for leisure customers.  If you are not too sure about the purpose, then just choose a classic Junk that offers a basic cruise with transfer, food, and sightseeing included.  Don’t worry too much about what you might miss on a ‘classic option’ as most Junks in Halong Bay go by the same routes and you are unlikely to miss the highlights of the Bay.

Budgeting

The range of fares varies from 50 USD to 500 USD per cabin (each cabin usually sleeps 2 people). Junks are now divided into three levels: under 100 USD, under 200 USD and above 200 USD.  Personally I think the middle range between 100 and 200 USD suits most people.  These offer a comfortable cruise with nice bedding and facilities. The risk of being ripped-off is lower in that range too.  If you are looking for a relaxing trip at the end of a long journey, just choose the middle range as the safe option.

Book through an Agent or Direct?

This has both Yes and No answers!  If you are in rush, booking through an agency seems to be the better option as most Junk operators have limited access to direct customers, so they focus more on local sales partners  who employ the sales people and handle all the booking systems. The sales culture is also quite different if you try and deal direct with the operator; mis-communication due to language difficulties is much more common in direct sales attempts, and both the operator and customer lose out if the Junk departure time is missed. However, if you choose the high-end option, most of these operators offer booking online and you can deal with them directly. The deals may lead you to a good buy depending on your travel dates (high or low season or availability of the Junk). Nothing is lost to try this method if you have the time, BUT, note that there are a number of fake Junk websites on the internet now. Double check to make sure you have the correct website of the Junk you are looking for.  Making a phone call in advance is recommended.

Booking via a reliable travel agency also saves much of your time maybe money too.  As I stated above, Junk companies sell their vacancies through any available agency but the selling price will vary from agency to agency depending on their sales volume – low volume equals a higher price. Travel agencies also have the power to do a deal with a special booking you may have, so don’t hesitate to bargain when you deal with a travel agency. If you travel with your own big group for a party, school meeting or photography, I am sure an agency would fight hard with the Junk operator to get you the best deals.

Junk or Junk?

Halong is the place you should spend more time and money to enjoy even if you are budget travelers. Choosing the right Junk is important; don’t get excited and take the first cheap deal that comes along.  Safety in Vietnam is not the high priority it is in the West.   There have been number of accidents and deaths in Halong Bay because of fire and lack of safety instructions on the boats. While the Government controls security and safety for all Junks in Halong, it is difficult to monitor and control. Make sure your Junk provides at least basic or above safety equipment such as fire protection, emergency exit instructions and life vests for all passengers. Food is also important; if you are vegetarian travelers, make sure you ask for the right menu for you at NO additional charge. If you find your Junk is suspicious in any way, ask for details of the menu they provide. It is good anyway to flag to them that you are alert to these matters so that they pay more attention to your booking. There is another question to ask them: “How is your boat and service different from the others?” Check that the answers are correct.  All these things may take you a little time, but it is worth it to ensure that your time and in Halong Bay will be a time to remember with pleasure rather than the opposite!  One final thing – does the boat company do anything towards protection of the Bay’s environment?

Choosing the right Agent

There are thousands of travel shops around Vietnam now where you can place your booking. It is essential that you book your trip in advance in the high season (from October to May) to secure your seats. The better Junks often sell out in advance. Book it from Hanoi agents – they are closer to the Junk operations and get better updates and price. Spend time on the official Junk website to view the real pictures and facilities they offer. The agent you book with must have:

  • Travel license – meaning that they are an established organization and you can claim for a refund to Vietnam Tourism if something is not delivered as they promise.
  • They must understand what they sell – Make a phone call to see how professional they are, how they respond to your concerns and then you will find out how much knowledge they have.
  • Book with a company that does not own their Junk. They may steer you to better  Junks instead of just pushing their own. Ensure that you deal with a specific Junk brand rather than a non-Company boat.
  • Don’t just trust promises, pictures or other materials they provide. Ask around or visit some trusted forum like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet.

As you know, crap is all around out there in this world. Whatever happens, don’t be too difficult to please as Halong Bay can please you simply by its own beauty. Have a good trip!

Official web pages of Junk Company in Halong Bay

Bai Tho Junk

http://baithojunks.com/vn/

Huong Hai Junk

http://www.halongdiscovery.com/

Emeraude Classic Cruises

http://www.emeraude-cruises.com/Halong-Bay

Oriental Sails

http://www.orientalsails.com/

Paradise Cruise

http://www.paradisecruises.org/

Indochina Sails

http://www.indochinasails.com/

10 restaurants I like from Saigon to Hanoi

Food is always the most important part of every trip. I am lucky to have chance to travel throughout my country more than one time. Every city or province in Vietnam has their own specialty. It is likely impossible to list all them here. I just want to show you my personal favored list that I often go. My choice is simple: hygienic, affordable and unique foods that you may not find in anywhere else.

Saigon

1, Pho Le (Beef noodle soup)

It tastes quite differently from most of Pho from the north. It is a bit sweeter I think. This shop serves with a big bowl, plenty of extra fresh vegetables and herbs. Chicken eggs and meat balls can be ordered as aside at small additional charges.

  • Address: 303-305 Vo Van Tan St., Ward 5, District 3.

2, Luong Son Quan (Bo Tung Xeo)

This is a popular place for both Vietnamese and tourist. It offers the beautiful grilled beef with self grilled service at your table. Beef is very tender plus secret mixed source. The other specialties are also available such as snake, scorpion and other you may not want to hear.

  • Address: 31 Ly Tu Trong St., District 1

3, Banh Xeo (Saigon Pan Cake)

The shop located in a small alley of Hai Ba Trung street in Saigon. It is always crowded by locals. There are couple of courses are served but highlight of restaurant is Banh Xeo which is the typical southern food.

  • Address: 46A Dinh Cong Trang – District 1 – Ho Chi Minh City.

Nha Trang

4, Lac Canh Restaurant

Lac Canh is small family run restaurant, it’s also famous for grilled beef but they offer in different flavors. Other grilled seafoods are also available here.

  • Address: 44 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm – Nha Trang City

Hoi An

5, Mermaid Restaurant

The one of very first restaurant opened in Hoi An. The founder owned number of restaurant in town but still keep Mermaid in purpose of providing affordable menu and unique tastes. I recommend to get some specialties of Hoi An and Stuffed Squids. They are the best in town.

  • Address: 02 Tran Phu – Hoi An Town

Da Nang

6, Quan Ba Thoi

This is a must – visit place for fans of seafood while you are in Da Nang. Restaurant of Ba Thoi offers the fresh seafood at affordable price. Just ask any locals for direction.

  • Address: 96 – 98 Le Dinh Duong – Da Nang City

Hue

7, Lac Thien Restaurant

Lac Thien is family run restaurant in Thuong Tu gate of Forbidden Citadel. The owner – Mr. Lac is deaf and mute. He is quite good at body language and foods has picture presented so it will be fine for your order. Don’t miss the special Hue Pan cake. Love this restaurant; love this family and also Mr. Coin.

  • Address: 06 Dinh Tien Hoang street – Hue

Hanoi

8, Bun Cha Hang Manh (Grilled pork with noodle)

It is busy all the time, especially at lunch. It offers a unique taste of meat and fish source. Bun Cha is also one of Hanoi specialties. Try it!

  • Address: 01 Hang Manh – Hoan Kiem – Hanoi

9, Snailed Noodle Phu Tay Ho

There are number of shops here for your choice. I think they all offer the good food. Just try to jump to the first one on the line – street. Snails are caught from the West Lake right in front. Fresh taste, a bit rubbery though, broth contents tomatoes, bones and other herbs that make a perfect combination.

  • Address: Phu Tay Ho – Tay Ho – Hanoi

10, Alfresco

The one and almost only Western restaurant I like in Hanoi (I go there quite often actually). It offers great pizza and spare ribs. Pasta I like is seafood with scream source. It is great service there too.

Those are places where I like to go, if you feel like following my routes, please click here to get the printable version. Kindly note that what I like may not the same to what you like. And do you have your own list of Vietnamese restaurants that you fall in love with? please write them down to our comment box below to show to the others. It’s very helpful isn’t it?. Enjoy your meals!

Shouting Noodle Soup!

Weird isn’t it? But that’s what local people call it here in Hanoi (Phở Quát). It arises a big concerning about service culture in Hanoi and some other parts in Vietnam.

Let me explain a bit for someone who has not been familar with life here in Hanoi, ‘Shouting Noodle Soup’ stands for noodle shops (very popular breakfast dish in all over Vietnam) that the owner treat their staffs and customers by shouting at them with different level of bad language (sometimes they really swear to people). Reasons are heaps, but I think one of the main reasons is the consequence of subsidy period that dated back before early 1990s in North of Vietnam. Society was subsistence and corruption violently occurred. It arise a habit of dependence. Further more, the buyer had no choice and totally depended on government supports so service culture was not existed. After ‘Đổi mới’  (The renovation to socialist-oriented market economy), people realized the old business minded is no longer suitable but likely is hard to be changed a habit that existed in years.

I came to a famous noodle soup in the other day with my wife and ordered 2 bowls of Beef Noodle, after about 10 minutes, I recalled and the owner said with cold face: ‘just sit there’! Well, I was in rush and nicely asked one more time after another 5 minutes waiting, the answer was: ‘do you see how busy I am? You can go if you can’t wait’! I was actually lucky because I over heard that there were much stronger worded in other places that now officially added in Vietnamese modern dictionary as ‘Shouting Noodle, shouting Congee , rice and so on’

Some locals event find it normal as they get used to with it, later on they accept it. Shouting shops are still packed (trust me, their foods are great). Many people go there cause of curious too. It arises a question, is it a culture of Hanoian cuisine? and refuse it or not? That is now being a hot topic in most of famous Vietnamese forum discussion.

Good news for tourist, you will be alright I think, as shouting shops most located in small alleys and untouristic places. English also does not exist!

In case of someone wish to try your luck, here are couple of addresses you may want to go. Some I have been, some not. And of course, I am not the shop owner, don’t shout at me 🙂

1, Tongue (pork) noodle shop (Bún lưỡi)

  • Address: Ngô Sỹ Liên Market – Đống Đa – Hà Nội
  • Shouting hours: 11:00 to 15:00 daily

2, Chicken congee shop (Cháo gà)

  • Address: Lý Quốc Sư street (nearby Church)
  • Shouting hours: Day & night

3, Updating….

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