I had wonderful travel to Vietnam. I fell in love with the hearty people, the vibrant culture, and the amazing diversity of landscapes. And I would like you to have the same useful travel experience. But I’m not going to lie: it is a tricky country to explore. Neighboring Thailand or ultra-modern Japan is a breeze compared to Vietnam which has less tourism infrastructure and ways of getting around. Tour scams are common, pollution can be disappointing, and the fact is an extremely poor country makes many people look at you with dollar signs on their eyes. To help you have a safe, interesting, and helpful trip, I am going to share with you Vietnam Tips And Tricks: 24 Key Things To Know Before Your Trip.
1. Sort out your VISA
Firstly, It’s astonishing the number of people who land in Vietnam with no idea what they had to do for their VISA. I agree that although it can be a daunting and confusing process, don’t overlook this.
However, there are many companies that do this for you online for a small fee. I used Vietnam Visa Pro , its design looks crappy, but it is legal.
Upon arrival, triple check all of your documentation and make sure you bring the visa-on-arrival pre-approval papers, photos, and cash with you. EUR and USD will do (although with ridiculous conversion rates).
Steps for your Vietnam VISA Application online:
1 Fill out visa options and contact information.
3 Get the approval letter on your email. It takes 1-2 working days (it’s a weird list of random people who were granted entering Vietnam at the same time you did. Personal information shared with strangers yay!).
4 Make sure you pack the pre-approval letter, 2 photos, passport, the entry/exit form, and cash.
5 Handle it all over to the officers when you land.
2. Be smart about your itinerary
Book in advance at the very least 3 days for a proper tour of Sapa in Northern Vietnam.
A common newbie mistake is forcing everything and the kitchen sink on your Vietnam travel itinerary. If you want to go full North to South, allow at least 3 weeks. Any less and you’ll be rushing and/or forcing you to take flights, taking away a bit of the experience.
I went farther and decided to skip the entire Central part during my 3-week stay. The region is prone to flooding when I went (late November) which helped to make the decision. Whole Vietnam can be divided into 3 main regions – North, Central, and South – and as a rule of thumb, I would say you’ll need a week for each at the very least.
3. Don’t underestimate the size of the country.
I did not know how big and long Vietnam is until you search for directions on Google Maps. In order to give you an idea, a train ride between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is longer than 1,700km and takes about 36 hours.
Going from A to B always takes longer than you expect in Asia and this is especially true in Vietnam. Therefore, plan accordingly and make sure you don’t bite more than you can chew.
4. Weather varies a lot
Generally, Vietnam is wet and hot, but with such an elongated country, it’s only natural the weather changes significantly. when I say significantly, I mean dramatically. 3 completely different weather regions. It can be snowing in Sapa and a blazing hot sunny day down in Phu Quoc.
Northern Vietnam: expect hot wet summers and cool dry winters up North. It can get quite cold here during the northern hemisphere winter – from September to November – particularly next to the border with China.
Central Vietnam: experiences hot, dry weather between January and August when temperatures can hit the mid-thirties.
Southern Vietnam: boasts a fully tropical climate, with only 2 defined seasons – wet and dry. The best time to go is obviously during the latter, from December to April.
5. Hanoi is quainter than you think
The traditional, artistic, and creative side of Vietnam is more obvious in Hanoi, where despite the crazy traffic and busy habits, centuries-old traditions have existed.
Pagodas, temples, and museums pledge a solid set of touristy activities, but Hanoi is so much more than that. Despite being a huge city just like Ho Chi Minh City, it has somewhat of a village vibe that is absent in its southern counterpart.
The attractive maze of streets of the Old Quarter is the ideal place to get lost and shop for local handicrafts in great food or just do a fair bit of people-watching. Make sure that you pick a hotel in this area, reminiscent of a time where each street was specialized in one type of item such as silver, chicken. Among explorations, sit down and enjoy a hearty bowl of pho, a national dish.
6… Beaches are not
The strip of sand in Phu Quoc was the only good beach spot I’ve seen in Vietnam. Putting it nicely, beaches are not Vietnam‘s strong point.
If you’ve been to the dreamlike beaches in the Philippines or even to the islands in neighboring Thailand, you’ll most likely get disappointed. Even the best beach in Vietnam – Sao Beach in Phu Quoc Island – had rubbish that accumulates up to 90% of its extension.
But hey, each to its own! And Vietnam is definitely the place to enjoy local culture and cuisine and meet inspirational people along the way.
7. It’s a paradise for foodies
Lying on a delicate balance of sour, hot sweet, and salty perfected over centuries, food in Vietnam is unique. I love the taste of tamarind, chili, and a lot of fresh greens that come in most dishes.
Not sure because gluttony is now my middle name, but a large part of my memory of the country is related to food. I personally think it’s an unforgettable cuisine with some flavors I haven’t experienced anywhere else. But there is nothing like trying it yourself.
Dishes you need to try in Vietnam:
– Pho: the national Vietnamese dish. A hearty noodle and meat soup with fresh herbs eaten mainly at breakfast.
– Bun cha: grilled pork and noodles.
– Cha ca: one of Hanoi’s best, it features white fish sautéed in butter with dill and spring onions.
-Nem Ran/Cha Gio: preferred on special occasions, this fried spring roll involves different combinations of lean minced pork, sea crabs or unshelled shrimps, edible mushrooms, and fried onions.
– Goi cuon: my personal favorite. Fresh spring rolls filled with noodles, meat/prawns/crab, and greens.
8. While Ninh Binh is underrated
Honestly, Ninh Binh was a last-minute addition to our itinerary. I was not sure what to expect and it turned out to be my favorite place of my 2-month backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.
Local people nicknamed this rural area “Terrestrial Halong Bay” (Vịnh Hạ Long Trên Cạn) due to huge limestone cliffs scattered among rice fields, ancient pagodas, and endless caves. The scenery is excellent, the locals are extremely friendly and the whole place still looks like a gem.
Many people visit Ninh Binh on a day trip from Hanoi, but this is not even close to make justice to this place. Stay for at least enough 2 days to discover it at your own pace – by bicycle preferably – and let the rural side of Vietnam surprise you once all the day-trippers are gone.
9. It’s worth to splurge on a Halong Bay cruise
Halong Bay is the number 1 destination in Vietnam and it is reflected in the number of yachts out there. This is one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
In spite of the crowd, this place is unique. The landscape of the limestone cliffs emerging from the water is magical, and there is no better way to enjoy that view than from the sea. Debate whether you prefer a 1-day, 2-day, or even a 3-day cruise but if there’s something to splurge your budget this is it.
The general feedback was that the luxury cruises in Ha Long were a great experience; These budgets can be a real nightmare.
If your budget allows, take one of the top cruise ships, which includes transportation from Hanoi, fine dining, and all kinds of activities: kayaking, tai chi, etc.
10. Ho Chi Minh City is the place to be and be seen
Besides being the business and financial capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant place. If you’re looking for an endless shopping scene, an eclectic music and art offer, and sophisticated nightlife, well this city has the stuff to keep you busy for days. No wonder it is the top choice for foreigners in Vietnam.
I was impressed by the huge offer in restaurants. There í a bit of everything here, from the authentic street food stall to the high-end luxury dining. Cafés, where you can work a bit while grabbing a coffee, are the best I’ve been.
And not to talk about the rooftop bars. Other places in Vietnam also have them, but Ho Chi Minh City is a whole hub of them. The OMG Rooftop has drinks at decent prices and an awesome view over the Ben Thanh Market in the center of District 1. You should stay in this area to be close to everything.
11. Get ready to haggle
Everything is very cheap but you can pay whatever you can bargain with. There is no fixed price. This may be difficult at first, but over time you will get used to it. Now I think it’s more fun this way.
The only thing is that the Vietnamese will try to inflate the price. That’s how they’ve been in business for centuries. The recent trend of wealthy tourists has just made a big mark on the outside world. The best you can do is be informed and prepared to get a good price.
You should hide all the items that make you look richer – watches, jewelry, large banknotes – to make your offer more convincing.
Pro tip: give the maximum price you’re willing to pay and stick with it. No matter what. Don’t underestimate the value of being polite to start walking.
12. Or at least do your homework
If you want to go on a tour, do your homework. Always double-check reviews online and mind there are dozens of businesses with the exact same name.
You should not book tours through your hotel or hostel as they inflate prices tremendously. Instead ask around other travelers, go to a travel agent, or contact directly the company. Ask away all the questions you might have including what I learned to be the most important one, “how many people are going on this tour?”.
About the price, tours are subject to haggling just like almost everything in the country. At the same time quality has a price and a few extra bucks in Vietnam can make all the difference. Especially in tours lasting 2 or 3 days, it is worth to pay extra for additional comfort or to go with fewer people.
13. Be careful with your card
On our meal in Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to pay with a card. Foolishly, we let the waiter take the card inside.
When he came back, our safety piece of paper we had put on the back to protect the 3-digit code was gone. We asked what happened several times and only received a bunch of lame excuses. We had to cancel the card at once.
You might say that card cloning attempts can happen anywhere. True that but it had never happened to me, so it’s a good idea to never leave your card out of sight in Vietnam.
14. Everyone’s a millionaire.
I’m sure that there are many confused souls out there right now trying to work out the ridiculously high conversion of the dong. At the time of writing this article, 1 EUR = 26,200 dong and 1 USD = 22,700 dong. This means 100USD or 100EUR is worth more than 2 million Dong!
The good news is that there have been no coins in Vietnam since 2011. The bad news is that banknotes are enough of a headache. It’s easy for a 500,000 Dong note to “pass by” a 50,000 one. Same for the 10,000 and 100,000 Dong ones. The last 0 makes all the difference! Plus the 20,000 and 500,000 have an awfully similar tone of blue. Don’t be fooled!
Read more about The ultimate guide to Vietnamese currency
15. The traffic is really hectic
Are you familiar with videos of Westerners struggling to cross the street because of crazy traffic and loud honking? That’s a pretty accurate description of urban Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City is the city with the highest concentration of motorbikes in the world. Traffic in Hanoi is not better either. Crossroads are not often and I can’t remember seeing any pedestrian lights. It will take some time before you feel comfortable, but it is important not to panic.
The best method to cross a road in Vietnam is to always keep a slow pace all the way. Make yourself predictable on your route and walking speed.
This will give the driver time to recognize you and calculate their next action to get around you. Don’t underestimate them, Vietnamese are well-skilled drivers and do it every day.
16. Learn how to get around efficiently
There are many ways to get around in Vietnam, but here’s a brief overview.
– Renting a bike is inexpensive, starting at 100k dong/day. But if you’re a newbie like me, leave the urban areas for driving experts.
– Motorbike taxis or hug the driver (Vietnamese: xe om), these drivers will drive you anywhere you want.
– Taxis: although becoming increasingly better, taxis are often a source of scams for travelers.
– Grab: these ride-sharing apps are seamless options to move around. No scams, fair prices, and without issues in the navigation. There are 2 kinds of Grap: Grap Bike and Grap Car.
– Buses: avoid because these are hot, slow, and extremely uncomfortable.
– Buses: is the most popular way to get around Vietnam for both locals and tourists. Companies have some comfortable night bus-operated routes with beds and free WiFi.
– Trains: The trains have not been updated since the Vietnam War, so they will likely be cramped and not always clean. That said, it’s a great option to slow down your speed and enjoy the journey. Some routes – like between Hanoi and Sapa – are very beautiful and very popular with tourists.
– Flights: not the most authentic way to enjoy your time in Vietnam, but they can be very handy and cut down on travel time drastically. Domestic flights are affordable, especially if you choose low-cost companies like Jetstar, Lion Air, Tiger, and of course, AirAsia.
Read more about Top 9 Means of Transportation in Vietnam
17. Avoid tap water!
Rather self-explanatory isn’t it? It’s the number 1 rule of travelers in Asia and even local people in Vietnam know it. In addition, it’s advisable to implement level 2 of alert and avoid ice and salads – you don’t know if and how they’ve been washed – and only brush your teeth with bottled water. If you do this and usually wash your hands, you’re on track to avoid over 80% of all food poisonings and stomachache there.
In order to keep yourself hydrated, you will have to carry bottled water or use a water filtering system at all times. Take your pick. You can buy GRAYL Ultralight Water Purifier Bottle. This bottle makes clean drinking water from any freshwater source in seconds, removing chemicals and 99.999% of most viruses and bacteria.
18. Take care of your belongings
Is Vietnam safe to visit?
Contrary to popular belief, Vietnam is generally a very safe country. There are hardly any crimes because the locals are extremely quiet, kind, and non-violent people. In addition to the possibility of being tricked by travel agents a few thousand dongs, the only crime you are likely to encounter is petty theft. Pickpockets can work in some areas having a lot of tourists.
In my opinion, the most worrying thing in Vietnam is the snatching problem while running a motorcycle across the street. Thieves can snatch everything from bags to backpacks and phones. It is commonplace in urban areas.
– Spread your most valuable items across different pockets/bags.
– Don’t show off any expensive items carelessly.
– Carry your camera with the strip around your body.
– Avoid using your phone on busy streets.
Read more about 40+ Tips to keep money safe when traveling in Vietnam
19. Dress appropriately
Vietnam is not a conservative country in what it comes to clothing. You don’t have to dress like a woman in Afghanistan, and hot weather has even forced the locals to show off their skin. If you want to wear shorts, a shirt, and flip-flops, that’s absolutely fine. The line is drawn when girls wear bikinis and guys walk around with no shirt. When visiting temples and other religious sites, it’s advisable to cover-up as a sign of respect and restrictions may be applied regarding shorts and vest tops. If you’re not sure what to wear, do it like a local. And if you visit the North during winter, don’t forget to bring some warmer clothes!
20. WiFi is great!
Except for the time that the government informs sharks have eaten underwater fiber-optic cables, Internet connection in Vietnam is extremely quick.
WiFi networks are reliable and can be found rather much everywhere. I mean, even some street vendors have it. Coffeeshops in HCMC offer speeds up to 100Mbps.
If you want to keep connected at all times you will have to buy a local SIM card. Good news: there are many options available at very affordable prices. Remember: prefer data over text/voice as you can communicate solely using data through Whatsapp, Skype, or Apple’s Facetime.
We bought our SIM card from Viettel right at Saigon‘s airport and it was an incredible deal: less than $20 for 20GB (!) of data. We then put it into our mobile WiFi router and done deal: we had data abroad for 2 people for an entire month for under $20.
Read more about A Guide to Wifi in Ho Chi Minh City
21. It’s freaking cheap
In general, everything that you buy in Vietnam will be a bargain. Food is the best example. You can easily have sit-down meals for less than $5 and street food snacks for 0.25$. In order to give you an idea of travel costs, it’s quite common to find backpackers on a budget of $50 per day – including meals, transportation, and accommodation. However, package tours can quickly make your stay more expensive.
The markets and shopping centers are also full of amazing deals at haggling distance. Here the discount will largely rely on your negotiating skills… My favorite place for shopping was Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a true consumerist mecca with hundreds of stalls for every kind of handicraft, clothing, textiles, and gadgets.
Bargains to buy in Vietnam
– Clothing: many international companies have their manufacturing facilities in Vietnam so you can find great quality replicas here. Prices are at least a third of the price of the US/Europe.
– Sportswear: especially popular for some reason. I bought good quality Nike and Under Armour sportswear clothes (and I don’t really care if they’re genuine or not).
– Belts: genuine leather belts are common, as well as faux leather ones. Either should be below $10.
– Souvenirs: coffee, tea, and handicrafts that make cool pieces of home decoration can be found in streets and markets at competitive prices.
– Electronics and cell phones: you might get lucky with a great deal but I personally don’t think is worth the risk.
– Gadget accessories: phone covers, protectors, and other accessories are widely available starting at $1.
22. People are lovely…
Most people who travel to Vietnam have the impression that the Vietnamese are greedy and shady people trying to get an advantage of you at all times. I find this being right if you stick to the touristy route exclusively. Sadly, these travelers just get to know the business side of locals who are simply trying to make a living.
Once you break that local-tourist paradigm and make an effort to communicate with the person in front of you, trust me, you’ll see it differently.
During my trip, I met kind and friendly people from many different places, especially in Asia. Vietnam takes it to a whole another level of kindness.
We have everything from free food, inspirational life stories, and school kids happily waving to us. These people may not have much, but they can still happily share what they have with you.
23. Go for street food!
You would miss out on a very big part of Vietnamese culture if you were afraid to try street food. Cooked on the spot, served on plastic bowls or plates it’s better enjoyed in one of the pocket-sized tables and chairs on the site. I am able to say my best Spring roll and the pho was from a street food stall. I can not sure the food will always be better than restaurants nor that they always comply to basic sanitary rules. But for the love of pho, you need to at least try. Eating on the street is a fantastic way to travel on a budget. Full indulging meals can be found for $1. Pay attention to how they wash the utensils and whether the meat is well cooked. If you are not sure, begin with small snacks before eating full meals.
Pro Tip: Prioritize stalls where locals go the most.
24. Some basic words of Vietnamese can go a long way
As a high-timbre language, Vietnamese has complex sounds that are difficult to reproduce with your throat and mouth. I tried to say some words out loud and for some reason, it never sounded like the way it was written. In every case, it’s always good if you master some words and fast wording. Not only does it make it easy for you to communicate with locals – very few of them speak fluent English – but you’re sure to get a smile in return.
Basic Vietnamese words and expressions for tourists
– Hello – Xin chào (sin chow)
– My name is… – Tôi là… (thoy la…)
– What’s your name – Bạn tên gì (ban thane zee)
– Excuse me/Sorry – Xin lỗi (seen loy)
– Thank you – Cám ơn (gauhm uhhn)
As a result of periods of European occupation, some words are extremely similar to French. For instance cà phê (from café), pho mát (from fromage, cheese) and ba gác (from bagage).