Do your homework, know what to expect, and this is the most rewarding country in Southeast Asia to explore.
TAKE YOUR VISA SERIOUSLY, VERY SERIOUSLY INDEED
Yes, it seems like common sense, but I have seen tourists turned away at the airport for visa misinformation or failing to print their visa-on-arrival pre-approval paper. Double, triple check all of your information, have your accommodation address ready to go for the arrival form, be very respectful to the immigration officers, no matter how cold they are. Get stamped and enjoy.
THE PRICE FOR GOODS AND SERVICES IS…WHATEVER YOU’LL PAY
This is something that is difficult for us North Americans to understand. We are used to a fixed price for everything and we generally believe what we hear and read.
Remember, it is normal in Vietnam for locals to overcharge or inflate prices when they feel they can get more money for something. It’s been happening here in Vietnam since long before tourists ever arrived. It is not necessarily that they are “ripping you off”. It’s just the fluid way that small transactions happen in Vietnam. Sellers will make false claims, pretend you’ve agreed to a higher price, or give you back less change than you’re owed. Happens every day. Be careful, educate yourself and know that….
SOME PEOPLE WILL LIE TO YOU
This is another hard one for first-time travelers to understand and it sours many trips to Vietnam. Though politically communist and still state-organized on a larger scale, Vietnam is hyper-capitalistic on street-level. Tourists have only been coming for twenty years. To the Vietnamese, there is nothing wrong with doing or saying anything it takes to get your business.
In the rush for tourist cash, locals (tailors, hotel staff, travel agents, taxi drivers) will do or say ANYTHING. The good thing is, unlike in Thailand, everything is negotiable. Be very weary and….
BE PREPARED TO WALK AWAY FROM ANY FINANCIAL TRANSACTION
Vietnamese love to do business and hate to see a customer walk away. Generally, they get the upper hand the second you ask “how much”. Don’t let them keep you held down. Name your price. Stick to the price you want and just politely walk away if they don’t go for it. They will call you back if it’s a fair deal, or offer you their lowest price while you’re still within earshot.
Don’t let them squeeze any higher amount out of you. The Vietnamese respect a tough customer, even if you feel you’ve wasted their time and want to ‘give in’, don’t.
DON’T CONFUSE ’15’ AND ’50’
One of those “petty” things to watch out for. Street vendors such as coconut sellers or shoe shiners will trick you and claim that you agreed to a higher “50” thousand dong and not the “15” thousand you were 100% sure was understood. The price of a coconut or a shoe shine is around 15,000 dong, so be sure that “15” is understood before the coconut is cracked open or your shoes are shined. Don’t fall for the “50”. Once their end of the deal is met, you can’t win the argument. It’s ’50’.
What I do is try to take out 15,000 dong and show it to the seller before we commit. Or, I use my fingers to illustrate “1” and “5” so there is no confusion in the end. 35,000 dong may seem like a small amount to fuss over, but being overcharged is a tourist’s #1 reason for never returning to Vietnam.
BUY YOUR TRAIN TICKETS DIRECTLY AT THE TRAIN STATION, NOT FROM YOUR HOTEL OR AN AGENT
I love the train in Vietnam. It’s a great way to see the pastoral landscape safely, peacefully and without the constant honking.
Almost indefinitely, your hotel will ask you “where are you going next?”. This is because they want to buy your train ticket, or arrange your flight or bus ticket, for a substantial “service fee” (200,000 dong / ticket, generally) that they will tell you is the actual cost of the ticket. Yes, your hotel is lying to you. Happens every day to me, too.
Take a half hour of your time, hire a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) to take you to the train station and buy your tickets directly there. Or, when you arrive by train buy your ticket out of town right away. Tickets do tend to sell out days in advance, so don’t go to the train station with no ticket expecting to hop on the next train.
BREAKFAST IS OFTEN INCLUDED, AND OFTEN SUCKS
Noodles, sandwiches, spring rolls: Vietnam has amazing and cheap street food around every corner. You don’t need to force down a bland hotel breakfast to get the day going.
Hotels will try to lure you in with the “breakfast included” offer. Breakfast won’t be terrible, but it is probably not worth considering in the cost of your stay. In Vietnam, it is super easy to run out and grab an amazing bowl of soup for 20,000 dong no matter where you are. The streetside soup, and coffee (10,000 dong), will be much better than the greasy eggs and stale baguette offered by your hotel.
I’ve had some decent breakfasts in $30+ hotels in Vietnam, but at most hotels I skip breakfast and hit the streets for my first of many amazing meals throughout the day.
TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS ARE THE #1 CAUSE OF TOURIST DEATH WORLDWIDE; RIDING A MOTORBIKE IN VIETNAM KICKS ASS
Adam driving north of Mui Ne, seconds before he crashed into the sea and was eaten by a shark (photo by Steven)
I’ve had three little motorbike falls in Vietnam. Nothing worse than some ugly scrapes and a shake-up. However, I’ve seen some friends have more serious falls and I’ve seen some very-bandaged backpackers limping around Mui Ne and Sapa. Motorbikes are very dangerous.
However, getting out to the countryside on your own two wheels is an unforgettable experience and one of the highlights of Vietnam. Rent your own for $5 (manual) or $7 (automatic) throughout Vietnam. Don’t forget to fill it up with gas to avoid stalling in the middle of nowhere. Be sure to have travel health insurance and bring your information card to have ready in the case of an emergency.
If you are apprehensive to drive your own, please don’t. Lack of confidence will make you a worse driver. Pay a little extra to have a local such as the Easy Riders take you on a day trip ($13+/ day).
VIETNAMESE PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF THE TOURIST INDUSTRY ARE AMAZINGLY HOSPITABLE AND SWEET
Time and time again, I hear travelers complain that they were treated like “walking ATM machines” throughout Vietnam. Generally, these travelers largely stuck to the aforementioned “backpacker trail” and didn’t study-up on prices before going in.
I’ve had nothing but extreme hospitality and kindness outside of the tourist areas. Happy school children waving “hello”, invitations to karaoke and beer in the evening, free snacks on the “hard seat” trains…the list goes on. Just like everywhere else, people are great in Vietnam. Don’t let the touts and scammers sour your opinion.
VIETNAM IS BIGGER THAN YOU THINK
My first trip to Vietnam, my friend Paul and I gave ourselves 11 nights to backpack from Hanoi to Saigon (HCMC). We obviously didn’t do our homework.
The train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (1726 km) takes about 34 hours. By bus, maybe 50 hours. It’s not unlike a trip from New York to Los Angeles.
If you’re doing the whole north to south trip, give yourself three weeks or be prepared to rush, or fly. There is so much to see between Hanoi and HCMC. You don’t want to watch it whizz by your window. Don’t underestimate Vietnam’s size and give yourself time to explore. If you only have a week or two, stick to either the Northern, Central or Southern regions. Don’t try to force it all down in one short fling.
BE SURE THE SOUP IS BOILING
Stomach illness is common among first-time visitors. Soup that has been sitting too long is often the culprit. Try to eat only at restaurants that are busy, as their ingredients turn over more and they are likely to keep the gas on all day. Try to look under the lid to make sure the soup is at a low boil.
AVOID PACKAGED ‘DAY TOURS’ AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
It’s tempting, because they are easy, and advertised all over the backpacker districts. Trips to the DMZ, the Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta, the My Son ruins….
These “tours” cost as low as $5/day, but will make unnecessary stops all over the route to give you the chance to spend money at their friends’ restaurants, gift shops, bathrooms, etc. It’s a big fat waste of time.
Spend the extra money to hire a private car, or brave it on your own rented motorbike. Once you pay the money and get on the cramped little “bus” you are basically a prisoner for a day. “It was OK” is generally as good a review as these day trips will get. Go your own way.
VIETNAM HAS A LOWER ‘BACKPACKER’ QUOTIENT THAN ANY COUNTRY IN THE REGION
Refreshingly, Vietnam still feels very Vietnamese. After the tourist zoos of Phuket or Siem Reap, Vietnam will feel a bit wild and off-the-beaten-path, as long as you make the effort to get lost.
Yes, a “backpacker trail” exists in Vietnam and it is generally: Hanoi – Ha Long Bay – (maybe) Ninh Binh – Hue – (maybe) Da Nang – Hoi An – Nha Trang – Mui Ne – Ho Chi Minh City. I love all these places, but this is where you will encounter other tourists (for better or worse), and be treated most like a tourist. Still, with 85 million Vietnamese citizens and just 5.5 million tourists a year, Vietnam’s foreign tourists are generally diluted by the country’s young population and dynamic fabric of town and urban centers.
KEEP YOUR BELONGINGS SECURE ON THE OVERNIGHT BUSES AND TRAINS
I’ve never heard of any theft on the train, but I’ve heard numerous stories of others having valuables stolen on the overnight “sleeper” buses. Personally, I’ve had an amazing and much missed hat stolen on the bus. Always take your belongings with you at rest areas and meals. Assume that if it’s hanging out, or left alone, it can be taken.
HANOI FOR TRADITION AND ‘ATTRACTIONS’; HO CHI MINH CITY FOR STYLE AND MODERN CULTURE
The eternal Hanoi vs. Ho Chi Minh City debate is pointless. These two great cities are both worth visiting, but for different reasons.
Hanoi is very much the governmental capital, and you can feel it immediately. The body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved here. The ancient pagodas still point out from the willowy lakesides, the French quarter is better preserved and more quaint. It is the quintessential capital city- straight, low-key and traditional.
For vibrancy, culture and nightlife, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is the place to be. Sexy neon lights, rooftop bars, sophisticated cafes, a burgeoning art and music scene, Saigon is the city most foreign expats prefer, and for good reason. The ‘attractions’ here are not the draw; it’s the culture and people.
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO YOUR DONG
Vietnam uses the dong as its currency. Making jokes about your ‘dong’ is a prerequisite for travel here. However, handing over more of your dong is a serious problem for newbies in Vietnam. Be careful.
21,000 dong = 1 usd
Remember, 10,000 dong looks a lot like 100,000 dong.
50,000 dong looks a lot like 500,000 dong.
Look your bills over twice before handing them off. It’s a small, easy mistake that could cost you a day’s budget.
YOU CAN BE STYLISH, BUT DRESS CONSERVATIVELY
Young and colorful, Vietnam is an increasingly stylish place. Don’t think that you have to dress like a damn dirty hippie to avoid appearing posh. Bring your nice clothes. However, do as the locals do and be moderate. I know, it’s hot. But, notice that locals don’t wear bikinis on the street, or walk around with no shirt showing off their tattoos? Please do.
DON’T PUT YOUR IPHONE ON THE TABLE
I don’t know how many disgruntled expats and travelers I have met that are heartbroken over their smartphone being snatched when they weren’t looking….“…I put it right there on the table and the lady selling coconuts must have grabbed it. How could this have happened?!”
Your things are pretty safe in Vietnam, just don’t flaunt them or put them down carelessly where anyone could grab them and take off. Escape via motorbike is easy.
Loop the strap of your day bag or purse under the leg of your chair. Keep your phone in your front pocket and don’t limp-wristedly take photos in super-busy areas. Place your bag or purse between you and the driver, if riding on a motorbike. Be weary of any strange, sexy women approaching you at night. Don’t let it all hang out.
TRY TO ONLY USE MAI LINH OR VINASUN TAXIS
Over the years, taxis in Vietnam have become safer, less scam-my, and overall, more hassle-free. However, some drivers will still, sometimes aggressively or even violently, scam you. This happens much less-often with Mai Linh or Vinasun taxis. Especially, if you’re arriving for the first time at one of the three international airports, try to stick with these two more-reliable companies.
Enjoying some respite atop the Sheraton in Nha Trang (photo by Steven)
Anywhere I go, I love rooftop bars. Cool breeze, city lights, paper airplanes…Vietnam has more rooftop bars than any other country I’ve visited.
In Nha Trang, try the Sheraton at happy hour (sundown, best time). In Saigon, the Duc Vuong Hotel on Bui Vien or Broma Bar’s top floor. In Hanoi, check out Pacific Place’s expansive view. These bars are changing every year, so do your research and go grab the best seat in town. Often, they have happy hour specials- the best time to imbibe.
FOR THE BEST VALUE HOTELS, TRY THE ALLEYS
Take a few minutes to explore on foot, especially the smaller alleys or backstreets, and you will find much friendlier, cleaner and cheaper hotels. There is an abundance of hotels in Vietnam. I have never been shut out. Don’t accept the first place, take a look around and bargain the price if staying more than one night.
BOOKING HOTELS OR HOSTELS ONLINE WILL NOT SAVE YOU MONEY
In Thailand, booking through sites like Agoda generally will save you a few dollars. There, I often walk into a hotel, check out the room, then book it online right in front of them because the online price is $10 cheaper than the walk-in rate.
For whatever reason, the price in Vietnam is always cheaper when you show up in person. Plus, you can check out the room and bargain it down a bit, generally. Can’t do that online.
YOU CAN ALWAYS CASH TRAVELER’S CHECKS AT SACOMBANK FOR A 2% FEE
I live by American Express Travelers Checks. I hate paying inflated ATM fees. Only some banks in Vietnam will cash these, however. Consistently, Sacombank is the place to go to. It may take a while, but you’ll get them cashed for a 2% commission fee. Once a week, I generally cash $200-300 at a time because it takes a while. Cash is generally safe in your front pocket as long as you don’t flaunt it.
GET OFF THE ‘TOURIST TRAIL”
Like any other country in Southeast Asia, don’t take the easiest route possible. Instead of Nha Trang, check out Quy Nhon. Instead of staying in Saigon’s District 1, try District 3, or District 10. Give Da Nang a shot, it’s a big, friendly city with very few tourists. The people get friendlier, the food tastier, the prices cheaper and the culture more intact. Explore.
THE BEACHES MAY DISAPPOINT YOU
If you’re coming from The Philippines or Thailand, Vietnam’s beaches may be a bit underwhelming. The Pacific coastline is rocky and rough in the winter. Phu Quoc may have expansive white sand, but it still can’t compete with Boracay. Vietnam is more of an urban / cultural destination. There are some nice beach towns, but the beaches are not the highlights of Vietnam.