Vietnam's travel attractions are incredibly charming, their travel agents considerably less so. A distressingly large segment of the hospitality industry - from taxi drivers to travel agents - will not scruple at using dishonest means to cheat you out of your cash.
Travel agencies in Hanoi, Vietnam suffer especially from this bad reputation. Copycat travel agencies, hidden charges, and opaque pricing schemes bedevil Vietnam travelers who don't do their homework.
The honest operators that do exist seem to be outnumbered (or outpriced) by the substandard or dishonest ones in the market.
So whether you're booking a package tour to Ha Long Bay or looking for a cheap tour of Hue, keep these do's and don'ts in mind when you visit Hoan Kiem district searching for a travel agency who can give you what you want.
Make sure it's the real agency, not a copycat. Pop quiz: how many branches does reputable tour café Sinh Tourist (formerly known as Sinh Café) have in Hanoi? The real answer is two, but you'd be forgiven for thinking there are over a dozen Sinh Cafés in Hoan Kiem district alone, given their numbers in the Old Quarter. The real Sinh Café offers excellent service (your guide was fortunate to hire their services from their legit office in Saigon, where apparently this kind of copycatting crap doesn't fly).
The others are just there to rip you off.
Make sure you're hiring the real thing by checking their official website and going only to the address advertised on the site. (Consult our list of reputable travel agencies in the list below.)
Save money by booking directly with the tour agency, instead of getting it through the hotel. Every hotel in Hanoi offers tour services, but should you book through them?
Remember that Hanoi hotels tend to outsource these services to third party tour agencies; you end up paying more for tour services while not faring any better than if you bought the tour yourself at the agency. On the other hand, you're also more likely to get pick-up and drop-off right at the lobby if you book through the hotel.
Choose your Hanoi hotel from the following lists:
Buy direct as often as possible. With a few caveats: your guide bought his Livitrans train ticket from Hanoi to Hue at the train station himself, but wouldn't dream of going straight to Ha Long Bay without the help of a travel agency. Buying direct ensures you exercise control over your Vietnam vacation as much as possible, but be sure to concede when a tour agency can obviously do it much better than you can. Buses, trains, and hotels are relatively easy to arrange on your own; not so a package trip to, say, Sapa or Ha Long.
Ask about the inclusions before paying up, not after. Unscheduled inclusions are expensive; beer on board Ha Long tourist boats may cost you upward of $2 per can, and it gets worse from there. If you didn't think to ask about kayaking before you paid up, forget about it, unless you have extra money to burn.
Get everything in writing, and we mean everything, and agree to the terms before paying up. You can tell the shady agencies from the honest ones in this fashion: dishonest travel agencies will hem and haw, while honest agencies will give you their terms on paper with no need for prodding.
Keep your agent's number handy, so you can ask about inclusions. If in doubt, have your agent's number on speed dial so you can call them and ask if something's in doubt.
A List of Hanoi Travel Agencies
The travel agencies listed here have a track record of providing satisfactory service to tourists in Vietnam. The fact that these are often the most victimized by copycat agencies is a backhanded compliment to their reputation.
The list represents a wide variety of budgets and services (Sinh Tourist is probably the cheapest, while Emeraude and Exotissimo represent the upper range of prices and services).
Disclaimer: All information is given to the best of our knowledge and is believed to be accurate. You should make your own determination as to the reliability or suitability of these agencies and their packages; neither About.com nor your guide can be held responsible for damages of any nature whatsoever resulting from your use or reliance upon the companies referred to in this list.
Address: 4th floor, 10A1 Ly Nam De Street
Phone: +84 4 3933 2844
Address: 22 Hang Bac Street
Phone: +84 4 3926 0463
Address 1: 26 Tran Nhat Duat Street, Hoan Kiem District
Phone: +84 4 3828 2150
Address 2: 9 Xuan Dieu Street,West Lake District
Phone: +84 4 3718 5555