Thursday, 16 February 2012

My Challenge to Matt Kepnes - Get beneath the surface!

I have to admit, I had never heard of Matt Kepnes until I just saw his blog post about Vietnam making the rounds in the Huffington Post. From the crassness of posting this 5 year old blog about Vietnam in an international forum like Huffington Post, I will be just as happy never to hear of him again as he is never to come back to Vietnam. It is a huge insult to an entire nation to look at the 0.00001% of Vietnamese who work around and live off tourists, and then to feel qualified to speculate that 87 million people are therefore cheats.

I am writing this post basically to stand up for the other 87 million Vietnamese people who Matt did not meet, and yet has internationally tarnished their name. I used to know a woman from Eastern Europe who once told me possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard - she said that she "hates blacks and yellows" (I am quoting her exactly) - when I angrily pushed her to find out what she could possibly have against such a huge proportion of the planet, it turned out that one black person had stolen her mobile phone outside a subway station, while she felt that Vietnamese people were coming into her country to put her own population out of business - claiming along the way that 25% of her country's population was now Vietnamese! Those of you who have been around Eastern Europe will know exactly how unrealistic this figure is.

This type of generalisation is exactly what we are seeing today with Muslims in the West - because a few have been driven to feel they have to fight 'the West', I have heard too many times that Muslims are somehow 'bad' - this is 2.1 billion people we are talking about!! I have travelled a lot and met loads of people of all religions, and have never met a 'bad' one belonging to any of them, or atheists or agnostics either.

What I am saying is that it can be all too easy to put down a whole population through stereotypes and prejudice, as well as through generalising traits across the people. I come from the UK, and there are some sectors of society (especially the most disadvantaged) who can tend to blame immigrants for their lack of jobs. If someone only met a large number of these very poor people who have been brought up believing that all their problems stem from immigration, and then went on to speak to a lot of other people who had also met large numbers of these same economically disadvantaged people, he could easily conclude that 62 million people across the UK are xenophobic and blame foreigners for their plight, and have his theory corroborated by those others who had met the same people.

This might seem irrelevant, but what Matt Kepnes has essentially done is just this - he has taken an extremely tiny segment of society, namely those people (mostly touts) who make their living from tourists, and strongly implied that Vietnamese people are all cheats. He states that other travellers have also met a lot of these touts, and they have agreed with him that, yes, and surprisingly, these touts do indeed rip people off, thereby confirming this concern that all Vietnamese people are somehow on the make.

He has also said that he can understand what he has been told by an all-knowing English teacher in Nha Trang - that Vietnamese are 'taught...that the West "owes" Vietnam' (Taught by whom? In school? By parents, as above, who bring their children up in the UK blaming immigrants for the country's problems?). I have never once come across this perspective that the West owes Vietnam from any one of the Vietnamese people I have met in 5 years, and find it a completely pathetic statement to forward around. This is especially because the impression from Matt's article is that he never had a single decent conversation with a Vietnamese person, and his entire experience comes from these touts.

I have been an English teacher myself, in Vietnam and China, and know fully well how easy it is for urban myths about the local populations to start getting passed around. So all I can say about this statement, is well done Matt, for sending what is very likely an urban myth global, and propagating a false negative image of Vietnamese people. The truth is, though, that the West has destroyed Vietnam and brought it to its current situation, so any true reading of events may reflect this - but I have still never heard this from locals, nor have I ever heard anything suggesting that the Vietnamese expect foreigners to spend money in their country, again, other than touts who experience a daily struggle with tourists and backpackers to make their own living, and who live in a tough situation themselves.

I have been living in Vietnam for 5 years. Except for those few Vietnamese who make their living from tourists, I have never come across a single Vietnamese person who has ever tried to cheat me - in fact, it has been entirely the opposite. All the Vietnamese people I know are some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever come across - no exaggeration, and they have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome and help us out when we have been stuck. I could give so many examples, but I don't feel that I should need to pick out certain events to say, "Look, here is where a Vietnamese person was nice. And look, here is another time they were generous." It is the rule rather than the exception that the Vietnamese people I have met are extremely friendly, warm and helpful, and the last thing they want is to make money out of you. Other than the tourist area touts, I can't think of a single Vietnamese person in 5 years who has tried to take advantage of me, while there are hundreds who have gone out of their way to help us and make us welcome in their country.

For the most part, and bearing in mind that we are far better off than them financially, they insist on paying for dinners and drinks, as well as the vast majority of traders not raising their prices at all for foreigners, despite not having any money themselves. While Matt talks about the people who did hassle him and try to overcharge him, he has completely neglected to notice the large number of street traders who never hassle people, and quietly come to offer their wares and walk away just as quietly. I actually find this quite incredible, knowing that most of these street traders and touts are the sole earners for their entire families, travel in from the countryside every day and then work 12 hours, sometimes making 50 cents, occasionally making nothing for the day. The issue is that there are so many people in this predicament here - this results in a large number of these street traders, in direct competition with one another, having to be more forceful than in other places.

Unfortunately, if you stay around the tourist districts, then obviously, people will try to make as much money as they can. These touts look at backpackers, and see them as tourists, while backpackers see themselves as having no money either. The problem is that, even with only having a certain budget per day, backpackers are still and will always be infinitely better off than the street traders. When a backpacker claims to have no money because they are limiting themselves to $20-30 per day, it doesn't make sense to people who realistically earn $2 per day on average. That backpackers claim they need to save their money to extend their travel doesn't make any sense to them either because they know that whatever backpackers are now, they will go back to their country in 3-6 months and be able to earn more in a month than they can earn in 2 years (or more). Of course you are still way better off than they are, no matter which way you look at it, even if you are a backpacker on a budget.

So anyway, my advice is to get out of the main tourist drags, if you ever want to be qualified to comment on a nation's people. I have lived here for 5 years and am still not qualified to comment on the population - locals themselves have pointed out that everyone is different, even within a nation. Not only that, but you will have such a rich experience compared to just meeting a completely unrepresentative, tiny segment of society who make their living from tourists. Get to know any number of the other 87 million Vietnamese, and you will come across a huge variety of wonderful people, as in any country, who are not out to cheat you!

Get beneath the surface. Or alternatively at least take an honest look at whether what you are doing and who you are meeting in a country are representative of the whole before you cast aspersions on the rest. I say come to Vietnam - be prepared, if you like, that there are touts, but it is your choice whether to buy from them. If someone is too forceful, walk away. If someone is overcharging, walk away. One hotel owner in Egypt made a very wise comment when we asked him what the 'right price' was for things before we went to the market. He said, "The right price is what the buyer is happy to pay and the seller is happy to receive." If you take this to heart, you will find your travel experience is vastly improved, no matter where you are.

As a final note, learning a bit of the language will go a long way to getting in with the locals - why should we expect people to go out of their way to make us feel welcome? I have never heard of any such concept in the UK for people to go out of their way to make tourists feel welcome - ha, it makes me smile to think of people even considering it. Luckily, people in Vietnam are far more willing than in the UK, and will often try to strike up conversations with foreigners. If you make an effort yourself and learn a bit of the language, then you will find the locals are even more impressed and are amazingly happy to see you speaking their language.

About me: I am an English guy living in Vietnam. Before coming here, I lived in Beijing, China for 2 years as an English teacher. I also wrote 2 books, "The Most Vital Chinese" for anyone needing to get by travelling using hotels in China and "The Most Basic Chinese - All You Need to Know to Get By", which contains the entirety of my knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, and was literally everything I needed to know to live there, so would advise it to anyone wanting to pick up some easy Chinese.

And I am now expanding this into a series of phrasebooks and apps (some free), entitled Most Basic Languages, including "The Most Basic Vietnamese - All You Need to Know to Get By", which follows the same structure and format as the Chinese one above.

If you wish to contact me, click on my name below, then "Send a message" or "Send an email".

We also have a partner if you are travelling with Budget Airlines from the UK, who sell hand luggage to fit their allowances. This is


  1. Absolutely right. I think the "I was ripped off and will never go back to Vietnam" and the "Vietn am, I loved it" groups divide quite clearly, leaving a big gap in the middle.

    Like your 'right price' comment: just because somebody else pays less doesn't mean that people who paid more were ripped off. Some people just can't get their heads round that. I have > 200 days in Vietnam over the last 14 years and will be back for more this year.

    The 'must see' lists in all the guide books are behind a lot of the rip off tales. If people go to Vietnam (or any where else), believing that they 'must see' , then unscrupulous locals can rip them off, knowing that more 'travellers' will be along tomorrow willing to pay whatever the price is that the 'must pay' since they 'must see' .

    I can count the occasions when I felt ripped off on about one and a half fingers.

    I can't count the number of random acts of kindness I have had: Someone who came 25Km after me to catch up and give me back the key for the padlock of my bike and was made up with a smile as he handed it over and peeled off/duck farmers in the delta who invited us in for rehydration after taking pity on me and my sons cycling through the delta/the sea side restaurant owner who sent home so his wife could come up with something vegetarian for me and my son and who came up with a feast for me/my son/my friend and our moto drivers for a pittance more than the cost of the coca colas we had and so many more.

    In business, people will try to maximise their profits. That's why they are in business and that's what keeps them in business. If a traveller's interactions with locals are only ever of a business nature, they will feel that they are being milked for their cash. Happens everywhere.

    Of the beaten track where the interactions are human to human, it is so different.

    The people who leave feeling they have been ripped off leave having missed out on so much, but maybe they were just so busy seeing their 'must sees' that they only got what they were looking for.

    (Never been on a tour, not seen all of the 'must sees'. Been a lot of places, had a lot of fun.)

  2. I was in HCMC last week and I injured my leg rather badly. I was staying at what might be the shabbiest guesthouse in District 1. My flight out was the next afternoon, so, unable to walk much, I stayed in the lobby, resting my leg. The hotel staff, two fresh-faced kids just out of their teens, took it upon themselves to care for me -- fetching me things, bringing me bottles of ice-water, and cooking me lunch.

    That's the Vietnam I know and love, and I feel sorry for people who come to the same country and notice only touts and scammers.

  3. Thats hard to believe. In the five years you have never been 'ripped off' to any extent. Please share your location and job....

  4. Whether or not you find it hard to believe, it is what has happened. If someone is overcharging, I don't buy something. I have been in a taxi with a dodgy meter, and I got out.

    I have been an English teacher and alternative healthcare practitioner in Saigon and have been here for 5 years.

  5. I live in Vietnam and I got angry reading Matt Kepnes article. It is sadly so far from my personnal experience. Too bad, vietnamese press took this article seriously. I completely agree with you: with experience you walk away from troubles, how can this guy be an experienced traveller and get cheated during 3 weeks?

  6. I really couldn't believe it when I saw it. I poked the Nomad on twitter a few times and he was defensive and oblivious. Unreal.

    I also prodded him with my blog.

    Good read. Thanks for denouncing his crap.

  7. Thanks so much for adding all your comments. I wish more people would get past the tourist touts and experience the same kinds of things as you guys.

    I also loved your blogs Guy - very amusing and right on the mark! Thanks a lot for posting!

  8. Thank you, and here's another one someone just sent me.

  9. Thank you so much Jim McGlasson. Feel so much better after reading your blog.

  10. Thank you. I don't live in VN, but I'm there at least a week each month. I too have had 95% positive experiences there, which is completely on par with my experiences in other places I've traveled to extensively (Thailand, Japan).

    I'm really surprised this guy is a travel writer.

    Oh, and why did he wait five years to publish this article?

  11. I guess walking into a store and being told the painting is 100 usd is fine with you even if its a 15 usd painting ?. Is that what you are saying?.

  12. Thanks all for your further comments, and Guy for the other blog too, which I really appreciated reading.

    I totally agree with you Joel, that I am surprised he manages to write for something like the Huffington Post when that is the quality of what he has to say. I can't remember reading anything as full of holes for a long time. We probably have to go back to the 'dodgy dossier' created to propel us into the Iraq war - although I am sure the next one on Iran will be out in no time at all.

    To the last comment, I have re-read everything I said and can't see how you assume I think overcharging is ok. You must have missed the whole point that I was saying there are touts etc, but that you can't extrapolate that segment of society to assume Vietnamese people are cheats - a kind of racism I do indeed see from a lot of people here, when the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese people are just like you meet everywhere else.

    So no I don't think that is ok at all. Why would anyone? but I think it would be a fool who purchased a picture for $100 when they thought it should be $15. Or at the very least, that they learned a lesson (from my own personal experience of being stung in the past - but not in Vietnam) that they will carry with them and not be stung like that again. I assume you are carrying a little anger about a personal experience from the way you phrased your assumption and think you should let it go for your own sake.

    If someone tells me a picture is $100, I might do one of 3 things. Laugh out loud, tell them they must be joking and that I will pay them $1 and then see where we go with the bargaining, or simply walk out and buy it next door for $15.

    No I don't think people should try to overcharge like that, but the buyer also has a responsibility to themselves to decide how much they are actually willing to pay. If someone insists a painting is $100 - just don't buy it. They lost a sale and you got to get another painting in a place where the staff were more pleasant.

  13. Thanks for the good post, you said exactly what I was thinking. I'd just add, that people need to realize when they're actually being ripped off. Agreeing to pay $50 for a Halong Bay cruise when someone else on the boat paid $45 is not being ripped off. You agreed to the price. If I'm not happy with a price here, I don't buy, it's that easy. Also, tourists should learn to count to 10 and say "how much" in Vietnamese. It wouldn't take more than a few minutes to learn, but it can save a lot of trouble when negotiating.

  14. Thanks, I completely agree. If you only pay prices that you are happy with, and happen find out later that someone else has paid less, so what - since you made sure we were happy with the price in the first place, it is irrelevant. You also then have the benefit of knowing we can get something for a bit less next time if so.

    I saw a good case a few years ago. I went on a tour to the war tunnels, and we met an older American guy on the minibus, who lived in Hong Kong and had come over just for the weekend. During the obligatory 'extra' part of the tour to the 'museum' / tourist shop, he happened to buy a lacquer drinks tray for $30. Of everyone I have ever seen buy anything anywhere, he was probably the most happy of all. He couldn't believe that he had got something he considered so beautiful for just $30 and was showing it round to everyone on the bus. The rest of us on the bus couldn't believe that the shop had managed to actually receive that amount of money for something we knew you could get in the market probably for $10.

    The question is, was he ripped off? I honestly don't think so. He knew the price before he bought it, was pretty much ecstatic at getting it for that price, and really excited to take it back to Hong Kong to show his friends. None of us said anything, but I actually think it is a good example that this guy paid what was the right price for him. I personally wouldn't be happy with that price, but then I don't live in Hong Kong, and I just wouldn't buy it if I couldn't get the price down. I would get it elsewhere and for a price I was happy with if I wanted it. Then if I found out someone else got it cheaper, I still wouldn't care that I paid a couple of dollars more, and would just bear in mind that if I needed to buy the same kind of item again, then I know where I can go with the price.

    Personally, I think life is too short to be worrying that you paid 'too much' when the price you paid, you were actually pleased with at the time. If you are not happy with a price - don't buy something.

  15. I too struggle to believe you have not been ripped in the five years you have been in Vietnam. Despite all the positive things you have written above, and the worthy attempt to paint a more positive picture of the Vietnamese, by making this statement you have discredited yourself amongst many of the other expats who have spent an equal amount of time here and have been ripped off countless times. Never been charged for five beers when you only drank four? Never struggled to get your deposit back from a landlord? Never been taken the long way round by a taxi driver? Just because you are happy paying 200k for something the last customer paid 50k for doesn't mean you are not getting ripped off

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Thanks for your comment Fred. That's fine - no I haven't had any of those things happen. So what? I understand people have had those things happen to them, and agree that people being dishonest about things like rigging the meter, charging for too many beers are ripping people off. I have never actually had a single problem with a landlord. I don't care if people feel I have been discredited for telling the truth. Possibly I don't attract situations where people want to rip me off - I don't know.

    That said, all those things you mentioned above, I have heard of or experienced myself in China and other countries, and they are not particular to Vietnam. There are 2 very famous bars in Beijing that regularly charge for more beers than people ordered. I had several landlords who cheated me out of my deposit in England too. I also know for a fact from chatting to London taxi drivers that they can tend to take tourists the long way round from time to time. So these things sometimes happen here too? It's comforting to know that people are people no matter where they are.

    Whether people feel it is a bold claim about not having been ripped off is up to them - that simple fact is true. I never said I was happy to pay so far over the odds for something - I know my way around and I know what things cost, as well as what I am happy to pay. No I don't get ripped off because if someone is trying to overcharge me, I don't buy the product. This may not work for others, but it works for me personally.

    You can see the point of my post, which is good, and I am sorry if you are having such an experience here where you have been getting ripped off. I have known hundreds of people here, all of them fine, and the ones who wouldn't budge on higher prices when I have been buying things, I didn't buy from them. At the same time, when I bought a decorative jewellery box in the market for $3, I didn't cry when I found out I could have got it for $2. My main issue with that is that life is too short. I was happy with the $3 and still am.

    I will say again just that I feel the buyer has a responsibility, when they come to countries where bargaining hard is part of life, to be aware of how much they are willing to pay for things before they commit to buying it for a higher price.

  18. I'm Vietnamese. I am really ashamed about what Vietnamese people did to Matt Kepnes and many other tourists. What he wrote is right, I can't deny that. But what he saw is just a part, if he didn't try understand thoroughly, he would only see the ugly side.People who cheated him are often too poor to think about others' problem. All they care about is earning money. I hope foreigners would sympathize for that. And I think there are still a lot of good people in Vietnam. You just need to find out. Hope everyone have a great weekend(because when I write this is on Sunday) :))

  19. I lived in vietnam almost all of 2011, and sometimes i hated it, but most of the times i loved it.
    Matt's gripes are valid points. And the way you answer him is a bit low. Most of the tourists are gonna be going to the tourist spots so saying that you only get ripped of at tourist spots is still a pretty big issue. The way you answer him is like if he got bad service at a Hitlon hotel, and writes about it, is as if you would then condem him for saying that all hilton hotels are bad.
    I got ripped off in the first hour stepping of the airplane. The cab i took from Tan Son Nhat airport (HCMC) overcharged me by double the standard rate. Cabbies in HCHC are notoriously bad. But i had no idea since i was new.
    But people are poor, you just have to take that into account, especially when they see you walking around with a phone that cost them a years salary.
    I worked every day with tourists and almost everyone was complaining that they got ripped off multiple times, that hotel staff robbed them, tour arrangers sell them cheaper seats (selling a ordinary seat for the price of a sleeper bed on the trains.)
    So of course people are gonna be pissed and feel cheated. If they are hurrying trough, they are gonna want to go to the tourist places.
    It's different for us who have lived there and gotten to know the real people and their incredible hospitality and generosity.
    Many times we where driving in the country side in the middle of nowhere and people come out and stop us and insist we come eat with them.. even though they barley speak english.
    Like someone else pointed out, just knowing some words and phrases will help out incredibly. Then the sellers will know you're not a "stupid" tourist and will relax and give you the normal price.
    One strange thing about Vietnam though is that at the bigger markets where you would expect to be able to haggle, the sellers are really set on their prices, and many wont budge over 50.000VND (about 2 dollars) and will just get offended and pissed off. I would think getting the sale is worth more than having the inventory.

    As a foreigner living there you get treated pretty nice, even the cops never harassed me. But on many occasions i've been appealed over the way the Vietnamese threat each other, i just had a conversation with a vietnamese friend a few days ago about how "racist" Vietnamese are against their other Vietnamese, a sad fact.
    Vietnam is still learning how to deal with tourists and they have quite a bit to go.. But im gonna move there again and I will love it just the I did last year :)

  20. I lived in 4 years and understand their culture and behavior very well. You only need to visit any busy intersection in VN to see their behavior and they are like that in all aspects of their life. Not only do they cheat Tay (foreigners), worse still, they cheat their own people, which is not the case in Thailand, Malaysia, Lao or China where I have also lived. Lua dao is incestuous, endemic and institutionalized in VN from Government to tourist touts. Those suggesting all is fine in VN must have a vested interested as it does not reflect reality.

    1. Ha ha - what a ridiculous statements - 'You need only visit an intersection and see their behaviour', 'They are all like that in all aspects of your life'. Thanks for the laughs at your bigotry.

  21. I have only just come across the Kepnes article, which led me to your article here. I find it interesting how Vietnam is such a divisive country amongst the travel community, people either love it or hate it.

    I lived in Vietnam for three years, I never once got ripped off as far as I am aware. Maybe on a bar tab an extra dollar might have been added here and there but, if so, it was very rare. I don't tend to drink much and always check the bill and change pretty carefully anyway. I only used taxis that I knew were reputable so never paid too much for a taxi, or I used a local Xe-Om driver who charged me the same rate that he charged locals. I knew the value of most things in the market, and if they asked a very high price (they often tried, but this is common in markets all around the world, not just Vietnam) I walked away, but I believe that you should pay the price you are happy to pay. I did get pickpocketed but see this as an unfortunate occurrence, rather than a normal pattern of behaviour in the country.

    It is true that in the very touristy areas you will get touts who are less than honest, again not only common to Vietnam. But having seen the lack of respect that these street-sellers get from drunken backpackers day-in, day-out, it is hardly a surprise to see them lack respect in return. As travellers to another country, we have to understand that our behaviour is representing other travellers that follow. I am not saying that Kepnes himself gave a bad impression of travellers, but many before him will have done.

    Many Asian countries place a great deal of emphasis on personal appearance, even those with very little money make the effort to look clean, groomed and presentable. They simply do not understand why people who can afford to travel (and no matter how small our budgets are, we are still infinitely richer than the locals we see on our travels), dress and act as if they are poor. It is an insult to them.

    We might haggle and complain over the last 50 cents because we feel offended that we are being treated differently as a foreigner. That 50 cents could just be making the difference between a family going hungry or having sufficient food on their plates that evening.

    I am sorry that Kepnes will not return to Vietnam as I think he owes the country a second chance, as a reputable travel writer his article has influenced many people, who may now cross Vietnam off their travel list.

  22. I also lived in VN for 3 years and both like and dislike. I still have close Vina friends and come back at least 4 times per year to visit.

    It is strange that even the government, Minister of Tourism and Prime Minister openly acknowledge the problem of "cheating" both with locals and foreigners alike, more so on the later, yet RunawayBrit is blind to these activities.

    As suggested above, I suspect a vested interest or naïvety at the very least.

  23. I've just returned from 2 1/2 Weeks in HCM and had the most amazing time. The people are lovely, helpful, generous and treated me with respect and kindness. I loved the place and am moving there in October to live. You have to step out side of the tourist trail to truly experience the place.

  24. I do not want to sign up to give comment on Matt's Page. I do agree to Matt Kepnes' point of views, as well your Point of Views too, Jim McGlasson. I thank both of you for taking time wrote down such information. Math Kepnes' information helping my country need to be change for something better. YOUR INFORMATION help other who has bad experiences in Vietnam rethink again that not everyone is bad in Vietnam. I DO AGREE TO BOTH OF YOU. A FUNNY REMARK from MATT is that if he has a gf in Vietnam/a business trip, he might come back to VN.I HOPE NEXT TIME HE BACK TO VN. HE WILL MEET SOMEONE GENUINE AND NICE SO THAT PERSON CAN CHANGE HIS PAST EXPERIENCE...SO I WAIT AND SEE..:)))) AND JIM,I WISH YOU BEST IN VN.