WHY MONEY MATTERS – VOL. 1 – To tip or not to tip in Vietnam, that is the question. For many travelers, a recurrent cause of anxiety is when to give gratitude for services through tips, and how much is enough. This may differ from country to country and even within the country, depending on if you are in the big city or a small village. If you plan to travel on the Ha Giang Loop, or the wider rural area of northern Vietnam, let me give you some confidence and guidance that might be both universal and specific.
Any good reason why you give a tip?
Depending on where you’re coming from, tipping might be a quite unfamiliar concept or an institutionalized “to do” at certain places, such as at the restaurant, when staff earns part of the income from tips.
At the core of tipping is the wish to appreciate the service you’ve received. How much you tip would depend on that service. Your empathy, your awareness and your general generosity are all playing into how “correct” your tip will be. How, when and whether by money or a gift might also be an issue in the complexity of tipping. In some cases, a direct personal tip is correct; in others, you must tip collectively.
“I’ve already paid good money for […] so why give anything extra?”, you might wonder. True, and my first advice about tipping in general is to do it only when it’s justified, and not because it’s an absolute obligation. Even more so, don’t tip if you feel the service has not been up to scratch. Nonetheless, giving or not giving tips might break certain customs and norms.
Besides all this, there are some other key factors in play that indicate this practice might be motivated not purely by the purpose of bestowing gratitude for a service. Some possible extra reasons:
- showing off towards your buddies;
- showing power: leaving a small tip, or no tip at all, sends the message that the service was bad;
- helping an underpaid or disadvantaged person;
- ensuring future good/better service;
- avoiding disapproval: you don’t want the person servicing you to think badly about you;
- a sense of duty.
There are also some good arguments why tipping should be abolished; why it’s discriminatory, and why it’s cementing bad salary practice/laws. As valid as these arguments might be, your holiday might not be the ideal time or place to make that stand-point. Not to tip, for whatever reason, might simply not be fair to many people who rely on that money. In any case, let’s turn to our question: to tip or not to tip in Vietnam?
Tipping in Vietnam: not deeply rooted, but appreciated
Most of my Vietnamese friends would never give tips. For anything. It would simply not cross their mind. They might round off a bill simply not to receive back small notes, but that’d still be an exception. Now, most of my friends are also mainly low-income earners and don’t frequently visit tourist places. But they’re not mean with money at all. Generosity is wide-ranging here, and inviting a friend or even an unknown for a beer or some other treats is commonplace.
In other words, tipping in Vietnam is not a deeply rooted culture. That said, tipping in the tourist sector and bigger cities is certainly not uncommon, and sometimes it’s actually much expected. While all price ranges exist, Vietnam is in general a country where you, as a tourist, can get around on a very low budget. Food, accommodation and transport are all very affordable. Of course, low prices have a lot to do with salary levels. People in the tourism related service industry receive in general a very low paid. And still, most of these workers will bend over backwards to ensure you get the best experience. So there’s a good reason to tip in Vietnam, both because of the service and because even a small tip might make a big difference for the receiver.
A Warning: everyone is a millionaire in Vietnam
On arrival to Vietnam, and after your first money exchange or ATM withdrawal, you’ll join the all-inclusive multi-millionaire club of Vietnam. The Vietnamese currency consist of many zeros, which might be a bit confusing. The good thing is that there are no coins to keep track of. Everything is in notes.
The currency is named dong and abbreviated as VND. The smallest note is 500, which you probably might never come across, and the largest is 500,000. The exchange rate is around 23,000 VND to 1 USD.
By law, everything should be paid in the local currency in Vietnam, but in the tourist sector it’s not uncommon for providers to accept other currencies. However, for tipping I’d suggest local currency, as changing foreign currencies outside the cities can be a quite complicated issue.
The other suggestion is to keep a mix of notes so that you always have some change available to tip properly. And of course, it’s important to keep track of the zeros and color of the notes when you tip in Vietnam! If you don’t, you might give a disgracefully low tip, or make a very costly mistake.
So, when to tip in Vietnam, and how much is good enough?
More and more high-end services include a service fee in their customer’s bills. Regrettably, this fee does not always find its way to the service staff. Therefore, a direct personal tip to someone is welcome.
Tipping in Restaurants
The Vietnamese kitchen is really something to look forward to. You’ll find delicious food everywhere, from basic street food-stalls to high-end restaurant. Besides upscale restaurant, tipping is in general not expected for your meal. As said, a small tip by rounding off your change or around 5 to 10% tip will be appreciated.
Tipping for your Accommodation
Tipping’s really only expected in boutique and luxury hotels in Vietnam but, as said, you should feel free to leave a tip anywhere you stay if the service’s been great.
On a motorbike trip, you’re very likely to stay nights in homestays. These might be basic, but the hospitality, food, and interactions with a family of all ages will be a highlight of your discovery of Vietnam. There’s no direct expectation for tips in a homestay, but it might feel very right to leave something extra. The trick is extra money might not be accepted, so you could award a money gift to a newborn or a wrinkly old grandmother. Something in the range of VND 50-100,000 would be appropriate.
Tipping Tour Guides in Vietnam
While going on a guided tour might be one of the most expensive choices, it has many advantages. A guided tour will help you to get a much better understanding of culture, life and food in Vietnam. It’s also likely to take you to places you otherwise wouldn’t have found, and if going on a motorbike tour, your guide might even carry you behind or assist with any mechanical issue that you may encounter.
If you have the money for it, we highly recommend hiring a guided tour. Here you can read our 7 reasons to do the ha giang loop with a local guide.
Especially if going on a multi-day tour, your guide is at your service throughout, which implies for them being away from home. While treatment and payment of guides varies greatly among agencies (be suspicious when tour price is surprisingly low, as it’s normally the guide’s salary and/or employment conditions that makes it as low).
A tip in the range of 10-15% of the total tour cost might be appropriate. If you do your tour as a group, a good practice is to collect the tip and give it as a group-tip at the end of the tour. If the tour includes additional driver(s), a separate tip of around 5-10% would be proper.
Tipping When Going by Taxi
Going by car or motorbike taxi is fairly cheap, and drivers don’t expect tips. Still, rounding up to nearest VND 10-20,000 is courteous. I also recommend trying to pay with smaller notes, so the driver doesn’t need to struggle to find the change.
Tipping is not everything: feedback matters too
As tipping is not always expected, another important way to give your appreciation is by word. Street food sellers will possibly even refuse a tip, but they’ll certainly love to hear how much you’ve enjoyed the meal. And while your hotel/hostel might not expect to receive any tip, they’d certainly love and benefit from a good review on TripAdvisor, Google or other platforms.
On the other hand, if the service was below what you had expected, and you feel you have constructive criticism to give, then ask to talk to the right person -maybe the owner or manager. Arguing with or criticizing your waiter or guide might be awkward and result in little future improvement. However, a good owner or manager is always curious to get feedback, even if it’s not always rosy. You might need some courage to do so, but if you present things constructively and politely, it’ll go down well.
It’s not only about money: you can help local businesses with good reviews on Trip Advisor, Google or other platforms. QT Motorbikes & Tours has grown based on great reviews, and we’re proud of it!
In any case, I suggest you to be especially polite and careful if you’re not happy with the services of a family business. It’s by far more responsible to give the negative feedback directly rather than spewing your negative experience on a written review. Before doing so, bear in mind you could deeply affect a small business (in a harsh economic context) just because they had a bad day.