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On the tipping issue in Vietnam

On the tipping issue in Vietnam

Wednesday, March 06, 2024, 20:23 GMT+7
On the tipping issue in Vietnam
Tourists enjoy fish massage while visiting a fish farm in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Tipping in nothing more than a hidden cost to get more money out of people. But is Vietnam a tipping culture? Nobody seems to know and I am sure everyone has a story about tipping in Vietnam. 

From my exploration across the country, I do see that tipping is very much centered around tourist locations, personal services, and alcohol. And, as I tried to make a logical rule for tipping in Vietnam, I realized there is no single rule to apply to this process. 

There is no knowledge of how tipping started in Vietnam. One theory is that it was the rich trying to help out the poor by giving a little extra at a shop or café. 

It may not matter where it started but what is important is that it is understood, especially by expats and tourists, so we can walk the fine line between not being ripped off and not being rude to Vietnamese workers in businesses across the country. 

Here are my suggestions on what to do:

Spas and massage parlors

Spas and massage services in Vietnam from my knowledge, no matter if they are regular corner stores or upmarket establishments, pay their staff a low wage. In fact, many of the staff members rely on tips to survive so, for me, giving them a tip after a massage or spa treatment is essential. 

I sometimes visit a blind massage place near my home. These young men and women earn very little and I always make sure I give them VND100,000 as a tip. This is about 50 percent of the price of the massage but I feel good doing it because they give all their effort in the service and they are good people trying to build a life for themselves. (US$1 = VND24,690)

Other services would be similar but at the end of the day you give them what you feel is right. 

Cafés

A staff memeber serves beverages and cakes to customers at a coffee shop in Tan Phu District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

A staff memeber serves beverages and cakes to customers at a coffee shop in Tan Phu District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Generally, I do not offer a tip at a café. In saying that, if it is a local café being run by some young workers I will often let them keep the change if it is VND10,000 to VND15,000. When I go to an upmarket café in the city or at a resort, I won’t leave a tip unless there is a specific reason that motivates me to help out the staff. 

However, if you do tip, just make it quiet and covert because it is something that is better kept private for many reasons within Vietnamese culture. 

Restaurants

Cakes are dispalyed at a buffet restaurant in a five-star hotel in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo: Dong Nguyen/ Tuoi Tre News

Cakes are dispalyed at a buffet restaurant in a five-star hotel in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Eating at a restaurant is similar in many ways to a café. I totally refuse to give a tip at a restaurant that charges value added tax (VAT), is part of an established chain, or is considered upmarket in the pricing. Essentially, if I am going to pay Western prices for food in Vietnam, I am not giving a tip. 

Alternatively, because I live in Vietnam, I also have the pleasure of visiting many local restaurants. These locations in the suburbs and countryside are budget-friendly, lacking any upscale features, and are commonly frequented by local residents. Characterized by red plastic stools and remnants of food on the floor, these eateries are regarded as the top dining spots in Vietnam.

Beers and good food are a foundation of Vietnam and in these local restaurants I will often give a small tip to the staff, especially if they have been friendly. I don’t have to give anything, but a tip of VND20,000 to VND100,000, depending on how many people eat with me, is a nice way of saying thank you. 

This does not include quán diners. These diners serve everyday meals such as rice, pho, and bun bo. Tipping is not customary in these establishments.

Tour guides and taxis

A foreign tourist participates in cultural activities at a tourism event in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: T.L / Tuoi Tre

A foreign tourist participates in cultural activities at a tourism event in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: T.L. / Tuoi Tre

Tour operators and service staff in tourism typically anticipate tips, including taxis and hired car services.

While not ingrained in the local culture, tipping is appreciated for a positive experience and reasonable pricing.

Keep in mind that many workers in the tourist industry receive minimal wages, so exercise discretion and kindness when making your decisions.

I suppose the only general rule I can suggest is to tip when you feel you have received a good price and quality service from a service or food provider. Never feel forced to give a tip because it is not Vietnam’s culture.

Just remember that the people serving you are often at the lower end of the pay scale and by giving a little, it can mean a lot to a young worker trying to get through university or to keep their family fed by working 16 hours a day. It is appreciated. 

I have purposefully avoided the topic of tipping at bars. The variations of culture are just too large, as are some of the amounts that I hear about and I much prefer to hear your stories of tipping at bars in Vietnam. 

What is your tipping protocol? Has the expectation of giving a tip turned into an argument? Have you ever felt uncomfortable because you did not give a tip? Or have you seen the eyes of a waiter light up because you slipped them a little extra to buy lunch or share with their family?

Every town, every region, every day there is a new story about tipping in Vietnam and they are always different. You can’t place a rule for tipping onto this culture. All you can do is be fair and be human, and remember that we are surrounded by people that appreciate kindness.

Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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