TOP 11 important things you should know before visiting Vietnam
Vietnam is a real gem. Surprisingly, there`s still not too many backpackers and locals are still curious about foreigners – but this country is just spectacular! As it covers more than 1,500 kilometres in lengths, you might imagine how diverse this land is! From the most touristy beach-towns full with bars and sea-food restaurants to lush-green rice terraces in the hill stations among the tribal people. From Ha Long Bay with the islands that will take your breath away to modern Ho Chi Minh metropolis and floating villages in Mekong Delta. Well, we have traveled right through from South to North of the country and that`s why we already have a ticket back! And here are some tips for a pleasant journey!
1. Landscape and weather
First of all, remember that Vietnam is quite a huge country – it is around 1,650 km from the northernmost point to the southernmost point in lengths! Its width from the Eastern coast to the Western border is about 500 km at the widest part and about 50 km at the narrowest part, which is in the central Quảng Bình Province. The landscape therefore is so various! Here you will find river deltas, the central highlands, the central coastline, and the mountainous northern region – there will be something for every type of traveler! Vietnam is home to water buffalos, crocodiles, monkeys, tigers and even snow leopards. Also, endemic gray-shanked douc, one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world!
But the weather can be tricky. Yes, you should prepare for heat and humidity as the climate of the entire country is considered to be mild tropical or subtropical. But remember that as the landscape varies, the weather varies, too. It is quite cold during the winter months of December to February, it can snow in the mountains around Sapa. And yes, this country has its monsoon rains as well – the southwest monsoon is from April to September and the northeast monsoon is from October to early April. The best time to visit Vietnam would be spring and autumn not to go into these wild temperature changes and rain. Then the temperatures are more moderate and rainfall is lighter.
And these guys like air-con, so you should always take some clothes for rain and for lower temperatures as well! But some sites like temples are not air-conditioned, of course, so be aware that if crowded they can bring a lot of challenge, especially during the hot months.
The biggest cities in Vietnam are Ho Chi Minh City, which is a bustling metropolis in the very South of the country and the capital Hanoi in the North. Ho Chi Minh is super-modern, but Hanoi is full of history. If you wish to cross all the country – we definitely recommend you to do that! But, if you stay on the place, there`s also lots to do in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi! And try to explore less touristy places – we even went for a random town just to see how the local life really is, and it was just an amazing experience! And tours often are not better than a self-planned route.
There are over 92 million people living in Vietnam! And Vietnamese culture comes from Chinese, Japanese, French and American colonial time influences. There are many ethnic groups living together! Even Vietnamese flag stands for the people – it consists of a golden star with five points to represent farmers, workers, intellectuals, youth, and soldiers. The red background pays tribute to the bloodshed during the wars. More than 70% of the people are considered to be irreligious or still follow their ancient folk traditions, but Buddhism and Christianity has also spread out. Vietnamese worship a number of cultural symbols, especially the Vietnamese dragon, the Lac which is a mythical holy bird, the turtle and the horse. And they will give you receipts or cash back holding that with both hands. There are some cultural things to know.
White is considered to be the ideal skin colour and, as in many Asian countries, locals themselves avoid sun as much as possible, as tanned skin is related to a labourer. You will see many whitening products sold! And a white Westerner will be the centre of the attention. You will also see many Vietnamese ladies being together with fat, rich Westerners. Well, as locals explain themselves – it`s a win-win situation. Lady gets her way out of the communist country while the man gets an obedient wife that can be difficult to find in nowadays Western society. But, again, just go with the flow and try to understand the new culture not to condemn it!
We encountered so many different people in Vietnam! Well, to be honest, if you go only to touristy places, locals might seem too pushy, too eager to cheat you, but it changes just when you are outside the most popular attractions – and then Vietnamese people show their warm hearts! Of course, we should warn you about the first ones. Drivers would name you the price for the ride at least three times the real one, so always question the passengers first (you will need internet translator for that). Be aware that in touristy places locals will try to trick you! And Vietnamese tend to lose their temper quite fast. If you haggle too much or remark something they don`t like –you will experience shouting or further disregard in the best case. We had never come across such nation that gets offended so fast and express it so bright. Yeah, Vietnamese can be quite tricky.
Even if Vietnam is one of only 5 still existing communist countries, it doesn`t seem that classically communist – as tourism has spread out, locals have adapted – they know how to do business, they are up and living the modern city life. Of course, you still should remember that you are in somewhat conservative society. Even if the shorts and tiny tops are ok for tourists, always be reasonable traveler and do not try to expose your body too much, especially when in religious sites! Be respectful, always get permission if taking photography. In some places taking photos is prohibited. And, of course, be patient as Vietnamese do not tend to consider time as the biggest issue – nobody is in a hurry and not everything is on time. Just enjoy the new environment and open your mind to get to know this new culture!
3. History and war
Vietnam started with dynasties, and the first one that is considered the beginning of the Vietnamese state was the Hong Bang Dynasty. But after that Vietnam was a part of the Chinese empire for over 1000 years – therefore the influence of Chinese culture is strongly visible. By the time, the kingdom of Vietnam was expanding to the south, conquering even a portion of the powerful neighbors of Khmer Empire. But in 1858 the French came and incorporated Vietnam into French Indochina. After the World War II France reoccupied the southern portion of Vietnam, but later on the French-Viet Minh War begun. In 1954 Vietnam was divided into two countries by the Geneva Conference: Communist Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam, but in 1959, the Vietnam War began as Ho Chi Minh declared a war in an effort to unite Vietnam. The Vietnam War raged for several years while the US supported the South and communist countries supported the North. The North eventually won uniting the country under communist rule in 1975. In 1976, the Republic of Vietnam is declared. But here you should know that in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is called American War as Americans basically invaded the country and did too many war crimes. Yes, some Vietnamese still won`t be too happy to talk about these happenings and we felt that in some places foreigner is not welcomed if thought to be American. But, of course, in most places situation has changed, though you should be considerate, too. Sometimes it`s hard to see people with big US flag on their T-shirt – ignorance is one nasty thing. Go through a bit of history of your destination!
And, just so that you know – there are only five remaining Communist countries in the world as of 2019. And those are China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Though North Korea does not consider itself to be one, calling itself a “dictatorship of people’s democracy”, and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, removing all references to Marxism-Leninism from its constitution.
Generally, Vietnam is considered to be quite a safe country to travel. It`s just the traffic is probably the most dangerous thing there. Be very mindful of the road traffic, about which we will talk more in the next point. A number of travelers have died while engaged in adventure tourism in rural and mountainous areas. Remember that some terrain can be hazardous and far from any rescue services. Consider well before taking tours and avoid illegal tour guides!
There are also some unexploded landmines, especially in the central part of Vietnam and also along the Laos Border. In the big cities the air pollution can cause respiratory conditions. In Vietnam, there`s also a risk of Zika virus transmission.
Remember that Vietnamese law requires everyone to carry ID at all times, just keep it in your safe pocket! But generally Vietnam is quite relaxed – beer and music is all around! Though be careful with drinks – some could be spiked, some drinks, especially rice wines can have very high and sometimes fatal levels of methanol. Keep in mind that penalties for drug possession or distribution can be severe – even the death sentence.
Oh, be very careful with the road traffic in Vietnam! Traffic accidents are the most common cause of tourist death, did you know that? And Vietnam is a real challenge – you have to be super-alert when moving around in Vietnam. Always!
If you think to enjoy a nice walk around the city, forget about it – sidewalks are filled with motorbikes, they are not meant for pedestrians! And, when you`re crossing the road, remember that locals do ignore the pedestrian crossings! We came across funny local leaflets with instructions how to cross the road in Vietnam – “First, be confident. Then look on both sides. Cross the road, and do not stop”. Well, to be honest, that works as drivers will just try to avoid you. It’s also advisable to hold out your arm to let the traffic know that you are actually crossing the street. Of course, you can never exclude accident possibility but if you walk slowly, you might get on the other side of the road. If you run or wait for the better chance, you might never reach it.
Though some cities are quite big and difficult to cover by foot. Then the best option is to rent a bike or bicycle. It is very cheap to do so – generally 5 euros a day. But be very careful as the traffic in Vietnam is crazy! People are driving on sidewalks and on opposite directions. They ignore the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. So when riding a motorbike, always wear helmet!
Motorbike is definitely the most common transportation – we barely saw cars! This is because it is easier to get along with the traffic. Motorcyclists also tend to overload their ride, so sometimes they lose some packages, sometimes it causes accidents. And, if you do not want to rent one, you can hire a driver! Use the Grab app – there you will be able to hire a motorcycle driver and this is quite a good option!
Then there are public buses, usually in different colours and prices – the cheapest ones stop more often while more expensive ones will bring you to your destination faster. Of course, the bus condition depends on the place you are, e.g., in Ho Chi Minh City buses were huge, comfy and not too crowded.
Intercity bus drivers are always looking for the passengers. In the bus stations they will surround you and try to get you on their bus regardless if they are going the same direction you wish to go. But always check the price for the bus in the ticket booths as drivers will name you higher one. If the distance between the towns is not that huge, you actually do not need to book the ticket, just find the bus station or bus stop. Though in this case always carry change and try to get to know the price from other passengers and then give the exact amount of money to the driver or conductor. Often you will be asked extra fee for luggage which is above 10 kg, but sometimes you will be allowed to keep it in your lap without charge. And always watch your bags!
But if the distance between the two destinations is bigger, go to the bus station and book the tickets in advance. The cool thing is that in Vietnam you can find tourist buses – some of which actually drive carefully! But always read the references about the bus company online and then chose the safest one! Some drivers are crazy, but some are very good. Sleeper buses often are in two floors, the bottom one has more comfy seats as generally none of them is meant for bigger people. Of course, it is reasonable to travel long distances during the night, but again, during the day the visibility is better and this is the way to avoid accidents. And keep your belongings secure!
Train rides are the most comfy ones, but they tend to be more expensive than the buses. The train stations usually have information centres and tickets can be purchased after taking the queue number. But there the ticket sellers won`t understand the question for “the cheapest tickets” – locals will just assume that foreigner wants sleeper cabin, air-con and other extras. Though here is the homepage where you can find your trains yourself https://vietnam-railway.com/ But it is always better to purchase the tickets in the station, not from homepage or from the hotels or other in-between offices as then you will be charged a service fee, even if they won`t tell you that. And buy your train tickets in advance!
There are also taxis in the biggest cities. Be aware that those taxi drivers that are parked near the touristy areas will cheat you and their taxi meter will not be correct. Better try to get official city cab – just wave it down on the road. Or just use the Grab.
And then there are flights. If you wish to cross all the country fast, there are inexpensive local airlines like Viet Jet Air. But still, we advise you to stop in as many places along the way as possible as Vietnam has so much to offer!
6. ATMs and cash
Well, here all depends in which place you are. In Ho Chi Minh City and most parts of Hanoi ATMs worked great, there were no problems with MasterCard or Visa, and ATMs were located on every corner, safe to use. But outside the big cities rarely ATM would work. In Nha Trang, there was even a street full of ATMs and only one of those 15 was fine! Others were requiring 6-digit PIN, or just refused to take MasterCard even if the label on the machine said it should work. So never leave cash withdrawal for the last moment – you might not find working ATM that easily!
And also it is not easy to find ATMs where it`s possible to withdraw more than 100 euros. And you will always be charged a transaction fee. Sometimes even restaurants, bars, or shops charge an additional 3% for the usage of the card. Many places, especially markets, accept only cash. And keep in mind that they won`t accept wrinkled or in any way damaged notes even if they will always try to give you these. So check your change!
7. SIM and Internet
There are 4 major GSM network operators in Vietnam – Viettel, Mobifone, Vinaphone and Vietnamobile. And it is easy to purchase Vietnamese SIM card anywhere on the streets kiosks or phone shops if you haven`t bought it in the airport. To purchase SIM, you will need to show your passport. And it is easy to top up your card as you can buy credit anywhere and instructions will be there in English. But, hey, internet in Vietnam is available everywhere. Most of the restaurants, bars and hotels have free wi-fi, so we managed to live without SIM for the first weeks! Of course, locals will be interested to sell you SIM anyways – in bus stations, train stations and on the street – they will approach you themselves. Unlimited internet can be bought for 4 euros a month, but there are many various options. So no stress about these things!
8. Food and drinks
Vietnamese food is great! There is so much variety! The most popular is definitely Pho noodle soup. For this you will never wait too long in the restaurants! Bagguettes with different fillings have remained as a great street-food from French colonial times. And let`s not forget the hot pot – a pot with boiling water and veggies, noodles and everything you wish to mix yourself!
Well, sometimes it can be a bit of challenge for vegetarians. When you will try to explain the local that you are not keen for all the intestines that are being put in your dish, they might get offended. Yeah, we talked about the Vietnamese unpredictable temper before. Also, they love sweet. Even your omelet will be sprinkled with sugar!
Of course, you might get food poisoning and the best to avoid it is to choose carefully between the food-stalls and observe how the ingredients are being kept. You can also read some tips of how to avoid food poisoning in general.
Do not drink the tap water! One of the most popular non-alcoholic drinks is coffee. Yeah, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee-producing nation after Brazil! But, even if many travelers find it tasty, surprisingly, for us it was one of the worst coffees we had tried, and we tried it in many places across the country. Locals love their coffee sweet and cold, and it was funny to see tourists coming straight with their: “Hot and no sugar, please”. Vietnamese also have tea places and those are amazing – they usually add some jelly and fruits making the tea just yumm. Only the plastic is something they shouldn`t really use that much as even the coke that a costumer is drinking on a place is being put in a plastic bag that is thrown out right away.
But then there`s beer. Beer is everywhere and it is super-cheap here. The best part is the “Happy hours” in hostels and bars. And here the „Happy Hour” doesn`t mean discounts, it literally means free beer for an hour or so! Locals usually hope that after this free hour of beer many drunk youngsters will stay and spend lots more money for snacks and more booze, but what people do – they just leave for another happy hour which in different place is in a different time. Man, after Vietnam we really needed some recovery of partying!
Sometimes locals won`t agree with discounted price that you might have paid through Booking.com or other booking site. They just do not really understand that system, but generally it is easier to pay extra 20 cents than make a big hustle about it. But a great way to find nicer and cheaper places is to skip booking sites at all and just go for a stroll in the town. Often rooms in local guest houses are not even registered in those sites, and they often are incredibly cozy and cheap. Do not agree on the first place you see and always bargain, especially if you stay for more than one night. And don`t be afraid of hostels – in Vietnam, they are great – friendly, clean and cheap.
Be careful if you arrive to your place before the check-in time. Sometimes locals just give you the room and the next day ask for additional fee. So it`s better to be clear about this in advance – ask about all the extra fees! The cool thing is that locals also tend to offer many additional trips, tours, dinner etc. – just to make the most of it!
Often the breakfast are included in the price, but do not put your hopes up – it is just something they can get more visitors from and breakfast is usually not that great. Many hostels and hotels will have a possibility to do laundry, but it is cheaper to do it in a separate Laundromat that costs around 50 cents per kilo (make sure your clothes are not wet). After checking-in, hotels tend to keep the passports. Yeah, at first we didn`t trust this system, but nothing bad really happened.
Oh, in Vietnam, you can definitely enjoy shopping – markets are rich with so many interesting and useful things! But be ready to bargain as locals do not hesitate to trick tourists and they usually put enormous prices on. One option is just to walk away slowly – then the prices will drop. Or you can try out your haggling skills – start at least with the 50%-75% of the price that is named. Though this can also be a tricky thing – if salesman will decide that you have named the price too low, he/she will just either stop talking to you or get really angry. Eh, that Vietnamese temper! But you can bargain not only in markets, but also in massage salons and private stores asking for a better deal.
Also, sometimes you will find a real mess around the market building, but never skip going inside as there the picture can be totally different!
In Vietnam, at least most of the toilets will be Western-style, not the squat holes. Though they might not be for free and not always too tidy. Yeah, and there won`t be toilet paper as there is water besides the toilet to clean yourself after. And that also makes the toilets quite slippery as the water goes everywhere – on the toilet, on the floors and even on walls. And the funny thing is that sometimes you will have to remove the shoes before entering the toilet. That`s not a joke. But therefore locals have provided some slippers that everyone uses. Well, not to mention that they are in the Asian foot size.
Enjoy your journey in Vietnam! We are sure you will wish to return here and the cool part is that Vietnam always will surprise you with something new!