Foreign tourists willing to tip in Vietnam, but fear pressure can ruin experience

By Tu Nguyen   June 29, 2024 | 03:00 pm PT
Tipping is a common cultural practice among many international tourists, but they deem it inappropriate for service providers to try to force it on visitors via "suggestions."

A story of an American tourist being asked for tips and pressured to buy souvenirs has drawn attention within an international online forum about Vietnam travel.

In January 2024, Carol Leong and her husband visited Vietnam. During a boat tour in Ninh Binh, the rower demanded tips and pressured the couple to buy souvenirs, causing a delay in their return to the dock.

The story has sparked a cultural debate on tipping, which is seen as originating in the United States, and its impact on tourism in Asian countries, including Vietnam.

Mike Coyne, an American traveling with his wife on their first visit to Vietnam in February this year, told VnExpress that tipping in the U.S. is not mandatory, but certain service providers such as tour guides, hairdressers, drivers, and restaurant servers often expect it. These are low-wage sectors, where tips help improve their income, according to Coyne.

Coyne's wife is from the Philippines, and the couple has spent considerable time traveling across Asia over the past 31 years. During their initial visits to Asia, Coyne felt welcomed and comfortable everywhere. However, he felt the increasing number of tourists has negatively affected various aspects of Asian tourism. For instance, tipping practices similar to those in the U.S. (10-15% of the bill) can disrupt the local economy, leading some guides to display unprofessional attitudes by demanding tips.

According to Coyne, if tour guides or service providers are paid a sufficient living wage, they shouldn't ask for tips from tourists. However, if they are polite and inform Coyne before the trip to the effect of "we largely depend on tips, if satisfied, please support us," he would willingly do so and believes other tourists would too.

"In general, when traveling, I will tip if the service provider shows good, understanding, and attentive customer service. However, if they exert pressure, I will tip less," Coyne said.

Nhóm khách nước ngoài đi bộ ở khu vực phố cổ hồi tháng 11/2023. Ảnh: Tú Nguyễn

A group of western tourists on a street Hanoi’s Old Quarter in November 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Tu Nguyen

Kwangpyo Park, an American tourist who made a trip to Hanoi and experienced a boat tour in nearby Ninh Binh earlier this year, said that his guide recommended tipping the boat driver US$1-2. However, impressed by the driver's enthusiasm and old age, Park tipped VND200,000 (almost US$10). For Park, tipping encourages service providers to deliver excellent service. During his time in Hanoi, Park continued this practice with those who provided great experiences. He also tipped a bartender in the Old Quarter VND50,000 on an VND80,000 bill for recommending a drink he liked.

"I haven't felt pressured to tip service providers during my travels in Vietnam so far. However, if the service is exceptional, I'm always ready to tip more," Park told VnExpress. Like Coyne, Park emphasized that he would still tip when providers "suggest it," but less.

Debbie Nestor, from Ireland, who spent nine weeks traveling in Vietnam last year, said: "I'm always willing to tip those who provide excellent service and always smile in Vietnam." She added that she found Vietnam more endearing than Ireland, despite her home country’s reputation for friendliness.

During her trip to Sa Pa, Debbie was impressed by the friendliness and care of her guide, Hoang, who called her before bed to make sure that she had returned safely to her room. The guide also spent time taking Debbie to a temple and showing her how Vietnamese people pray. These small stories left Debbie a good impression of Vietnam, she said.

On another occasion, Debbie tipped her two guides in Ha Giang about VND300,000 each and VND70,000 for each meal. She said she believed the amounts were not much, but they were all her finances could allow.

Debbie chụp ảnh ở Hà Giang vào tháng 8 năm 2023. Ảnh: Debbie Nestor

Debbie Nestor in Ha Giang in northern Vietnam in August 2023. Photo by Debbie Nestor

Some professional tourism service providers in Vietnam do not share the view that tipping is essential. And some have also expressed concerns about the lack of professional training and "improper attitudes" such as "suggesting" tips, which may give Vietnamese tourism a bad reputation.

In his 10 years as an English-speaking tour guide at Best Price, Vu Son Tung mentioned that not all foreign guests tip. He said that visitors from Japan, South Korea and Spain do not tip. However, most European guests tip, while Americans may be "more generous due to their culture."

The usual tip for a European group of fewer than 10 people is US$5-7 per person, and it’s lower for larger groups. For Americans, tipping norms are around 10-15% of the total bill. According to Tung, he leaves the tip amount to the tourists' discretion, without his guidance.

"Service providers must be adept at making guests happy with tipping; it cannot be forced or taken for granted," he said. Tung often shares anecdotes and maintains a caring attitude towards guests. The length of the trip is also an important factor in determining the tipping amount, as longer interactions allow guests enough time to feel the guide's sincerity. Even if guests do not tip, Tung remains happy as his salary is already stable.

Alex Sheal, from England, founder of Vietnam In Focus, a company offering photography tours in Vietnam for foreign tourists, also agrees with this perspective. Sheal mentioned that the company's main clientele are affluent European guests who never refuse to tip. Before the trip, they often ask Sheal how much they should tip the guide and driver.

"We will provide some suggestions, but it would be a mistake to offer them without being asked. Therefore, don't expect too much and aim to do your best," he said, addressing service providers.

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