15 really useful things to know before travelling to Vietnam
Until I started planning my visit to South East Asia, I really didn't know much about Vietnam.
None of my friends had been there, and any acquaintances heading off to Asia in their gap years before university settled for Thailand. In fact, one of my first experiences of anything remotely related to the country was going to see Miss Saigon in London in 2014. The musical, based on Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, charts the final days of the Vietnam War, in which a young woman named Kim falls in love with an American GI, only for them to be torn apart at the fall of Saigon. It is a beautiful story which is accompanied by stunning music (and lyrics which lend themselves to listicles such as this one).
After spending a month in this beautiful country, here are 15 things that are helpful to know before you land.
You need a visa to get in
If you're staying for 14 days of less, good news - you don't need a visa! But if you are staying for 15 days or more, its best to sort out your visa as soon as possible.
The Visa on Arrival (VOA) method is how I obtained my visa, and this is recommended if you're planning to arrive at one of Vietnam's six international airports: it means that your passport doesn't need to get sent off to an embassy and it ends up being faster and cheaper.
I organised my visa through Vietnam Visa Centre and had no problems whatsoever. You simply fill out an online application form, pay the agency fee (typically around $20 for a thirty-day single entry visa) and then you receive an approval letter. You have the option of paying an extra $10 for a 'confidential letter' which means that you receive paperwork with only your (or your parties') details on it, however this isn't necessary.
Print the letter along with your visa application form and make sure you have two passport photographs of the required size. You can get passport photographs taken at the airport however this can be expensive and a hassle.
There is also the option of getting an e-visa online, however at the time of writing this is for single entry only with no option to extend.
Top tip: When you leave the plane, head straight towards the visa application desks to try and reduce any waiting time. I was lucky and only had to wait ten minutes, but I heard horror stories of some people having to wait hours.
Haggle your heart out
Just like many other Asian countries, you've got to bargain to get the best deal when organising local transport or shopping in the markets. In general, restaurant prices are fixed but hotels (and more likely hostels) will offer a discount. If your certain of the price of something, for example a bus fare or a street food meal, then don't be afraid to haggle.
That being said, please remember that Vietnamese Dong means far more to the locals than it does to tourists. If you find yourself negotiating over 10,000 VND, stop – it's the equivalent of around 30p.
Top tip: As a general rule, I start bartering at around half to a third of the advertised rate (sometimes shown on a calculator by the vendor), depending how high the initial price is. I usually settle for around 60% of the original price.
Make the most of your Dong (and Dollars)
It's advisable to bring some dollars with you as these may be accepted when paying for larger items such as hotels, tours and meals in smarter restaurants.
When it comes to your Dong, always keep smaller notes on you for things like street food and local transport. It saves you having to request (and sometimes badger) people for change from a crisp 500,000 VND note (£16.30 at the time of writing).
As a general guide, street food costs around 3,000 – 4,000 VND for a portion and a motorcycle taxi around 10,000 VND. Entrance to museum and national parks is generally between 20,000 and 40,000 VND.
Looking for a bargain when it comes to sleeping and eating? Head for the side streets, especially in Ho Chi Minh City.
Top tip: Be careful not to mix your notes: the 20,000 VND note looks incredibly similar to the 500,000 VND.
Early risers are welcome
The morning is one of the best times to explore Vietnam. The streets are generally peaceful, most tourists are not out of bed so attractions are quiet, and it gives you a chance to slow down. Locals tend to do tai chi in the early hours and many food stalls start preparing early, making it a fascinating time to explore.
The heat is on in Saigon… but it's bloody freezing in the north!
From December to May, it is the dry season in southern Vietnam. In the north, the winter cold sets in from December and doesn't tend to heat up until April.
Needless to say, Vietnam's weather patterns are complicated and can be unpredictable, so there's no 'perfect' time to visit the entire country.
Top tip: For good weather, your best bet would be to travel in the transition months of October and April and cross your fingers.
Getting around is easy and comfortable
By some miracle, I persuaded my mother to board a sleeper train with me from Hanoi to Đồng Hới. As luck would have it, she found it a far less horrific experience than she'd imagined. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and the journey smooth.
The public transport in Vietnam is good – most buses and trains leave on time, prices are fair and tickets are easy to buy. There are local minibuses (they leave when full) paving well-trodden routes and plenty of taxis and rickshaws trawling the streets.
Top tip: Book your tickets direct at the train or bus station for the best rates. When it comes to taxis, Mai Linh and Vinasun are reputable companies.
On your bike
It's fairly easy and cost-effective to hire or buy a motorcycle in Vietnam, although I would only advise doing this if you are an experienced rider.
You can still experience the thrill of a motorcycle ride without driving one yourself - various Easy Riders companies are set up all over Vietnam. This is most common around Dalat, but chances are most other tourist hubs will have similar options.
Take care of your stomach
Unlike India, where every person I speak to who has been there complains about contracting a stomach bug, it seems to be easier to prevent in Vietnam.
Follow these few simple rules and you'll fare better: don't drink the tap water, check that your street food is piping hot and fully cooked before eating (if you're going for soup, you want to see is bubbling), and avoid fresh salad that may have been washed in unclean water.
The beaches aren't amazing
If you're coming to Vietnam for miles of soft, white sand and soaring palm trees, you've come to the wrong place. That being said, Phú Quốc is a lovely place to unwind, and both Nha Trang and Mũi Né often feature on traveller's itineraries. If you come with no expectations, you're unlikely to be disappointed!
The country has a turbulent history
The Vietnam War may have been the first war to be televised, but there is a lot more to this country's history. Centuries earlier, Huế was home to emperors and the tombs are popular tourist attractions today. Many, many centuries earlier, the Vietnamese created a trade system for animal skins and tropical goods in exchange with Chinese scrolls on literature and philosophy.
Top tip: There is an incredible BBC4 documentary about the Vietnam War which is well worth watching if you can find it.
The wifi is great
Having come from Australia, where some connections were painstakingly slow, the wifi in Vietnam was a pleasant surprise. Nearly every guesthouse we stayed in had quick wireless internet which made planning our trip and keeping in touch with incredibly easy!
Top tip: We found that most passwords were easily guessable (e.g. the name of the guesthouse, or 12345678…)
Sometimes, it's worth paying more
Vietnam can be a very cheap country to travel. You can avoid pricey hotels, high-end restaurants and first-class transport and have an incredible time, but some things are worth spending a little extra on.
Take our cruise of Bai Tu Long bay. It was a fairly sizeable chunk of our holiday budget, but the thought of joining a crowded ship for a hasty trip around the busy waters of popular Halong Bay didn't float our boat (excuse the pun). We had a great experience with Indochina Junk and if you're inclined to spend a little more, it's totally worth it.
Cross the road with conviction
In Vietnam's cities and busy towns, crossing the road can be a daunting task. It's best to do as the locals do: raise your hand to let people know you're crossing, and walk with conviction. Hesitation can lead to accidents so once you've started crossing, get to the other side pronto!
Laundry is cheap
There's nothing better than receiving a tightly-packed cube of freshly cleaned and folded clothes. Add to the fact that it's super cheap, and you're onto a winner.
It's generally cheapest to get your laundry done outside of your hotel, but some guesthouses offer competitive rates and it saves you the hassle of going elsewhere to pick up your clothes.
Vietnam has some of the best food in Asia
From delicate vegetable spring rolls to the popular meat-filled bahn mi, Vietnamese meals are a delight. Try some street food and eat in places where you see lots of locals for the most authentic and reasonably priced food.
Our food tour in Hanoi gave us a great introduction to the city's fare, and we recommend doing at least one food-related activity during your trip to better understand the country's cuisine, such as a cooking class. They're fun, and you usually get copies of the recipes so you can try to replicate it at home!