10 Things You Need to Know About Traveling in Vietnam
These travel tips are more than a list of the “best things to do in Vietnam.” Rather, here’s a summary of what I learned while on vacation in Vietnam and things I wish I’d known before I traveled from Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by many locals) up the coast to Hanoi.
My husband and I weren’t part of a Vietnam tour group, and we didn’t plan our itinerary or schedule in advance. We used The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam, and often found ourselves searching the internet for Vietnam travel tips, hotels, restaurants, and tours. WiFi was readily available for free in restaurants, hotels, and even stores. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, and spent almost three weeks traveling up the coast of Vietnam. We spent time in Nha Trang, Hoi An, Cat Ba Town, the Sa Pa Valley, and Hanoi – and most of our travel time was spent on overnight trains and buses. At the end of our trip, we flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for our long flight home to Vancouver, Canada. Here are my Top 10 Travel Tips for Vietnam…
If you have any questions about going on vacation in Vietnam, feel free to ask below! I can’t offer specific advice and I’m not a travel agent, but I might be able to answer your Vietnam travel questions.
10 Things You Need to Know About Vietnam Tours and Travel
Vietnam is a Southeast Asian nation that has more than 3,000 kilometres of coastline with 125 major beaches – and yet it has a problem attracting tourists. According to an article called Tough Sell – Marketing Vietnam to International Travelers on a Vietnamese news website, last year “only” 7.9 million international travelers visited Vietnam.
However, the same website also reported that the New York Times listed Vietnam as one of the top 10 places for people in their twenties to visit. Why? Because of Vietnam’s delicious cuisine, culture, and natural beauty – and being an inexpensive place to visit. Recommended Vietnam tourist destinations included the seaside town of Hoi An, the ancient imperial city of Hue, and a boat trip through Ha Long Bay – which is a World Natural Heritage site.
This gorgeous country’s low tourism rates aren’t because of crime, lack of infrastructure, unfriendly people, or expensive travel costs. Rather, it’s simple lack of awareness. And, I have to admit that I found Vietnam’s requirement that you buy an entry visa in advance a bit of a barrier. I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble – I would’ve gone to Japan or India instead – but my husband took on the responsibility. I’m really glad he did, because I loved traveling in Vietnam! To learn about Vietnam visa requirements for tourists, visit Go Vietnam Visa.
1. Download the Maps.Me app
I’m embarrassed to admin that even though I’m a seasoned traveler – and I lived in Africa for three years – I didn’t know about the amazing and free Maps.Me app. We spent a lot of time lost in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, using paper maps and the city map in the Lonely Planet Guidebook (which aren’t good maps at all).
In Hanoi, we were on our way to the train station when I found myself walking alongside a couple who were both navigating the streets with their phones. I asked what app they were using, and they told me about Maps.Me. I downloaded it the minute we found the train station, and couldn’t believe the detailed information it provides. The app works offline so you don’t need a WiFi connection, and it shows you exactly where you are. It has lots of other options, and not downloading it sooner was the biggest mistake I made while traveling in Vietnam.
2. Barter gently, for you are rich and Vietnam travel is inexpensive
Traveling in Vietnam is super cheap and won’t cost you much money, especially if you have US dollars.
Our most expensive hotel cost $35 US per night including breakfast (but the best 5 star hotels, such as the Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi or the Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City will cost upwards of $500 per night). Our cheapest hotel was $8 per night, without breakfast. Meals ranged from $2 for street food and $15 for two delicious dinners in various Vietnamese restaurants. We didn’t spend money on alcohol in restaurants, which saved a significant amount of money (I prefer to have my Happy Hour sitting outside, people watching and seeing more of the neighborhood, not sitting in a restaurant).
Since Vietnam travel and tours are so cheap, I found myself less and less inclined to barter with street vendors and store merchants. In the past I always tried to get the best deal and spend as little money as possible, but I’m finally learning to share the wealth! I started to barter much more gently for the souvenirs and food I bought in Vietnam, and I wish I could’ve practiced saying, “You want 50,000 Vietnamese dong for this scarf? I’ll give you 60,000!” I didn’t think of this until the end of our Vietnam vacation, when I realized how little we spent on hotels, food, and tours.
3. Create a currency exchange “cheat sheet”
When I travel I usually do a rough calculation of how much something costs in my head. However, I found the exchange between the US dollar and the Vietnamese dong extremely confusing! For example, 500,000 Vietnamese dong is $22.34 US dollars. When something cost 20,000 dong I kept thinking it was expensive – but it was only .89 cents US! So I finally gave up on doing mental calisthenics every time I wanted to buy a bottle of water or an airplane ticket, and simply wrote a list of currency conversions. This made it super easy when I was in a crowded market and couldn’t decide how much I should spend on a hat or bag.
4. Plan your Vietnam travel and tours as you go (instead of before you leave home)
The only pre-booked thing we did was our first hotel when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. About halfway through our trip and halfway up the coast of Vietnam, we booked our flight from Hanoi back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Planning my tours and travels as I go is my favorite way to travel anywhere in the world because it lets me go where the wind blows and where my fellow travelers recommend. I like being flexible and open to different tours and options. We actually spent much more time in Vietnam than we intended – before we left Canada, we purchased visa entries to the Kingdom of Cambodia because we thought we’d have time to see Angkor Wat. But no, there was no time for Cambodia. Three weeks wasn’t enough time to travel through Vietnam, much less another country. We missed lots of Vietnamese sights, attractions, and tours.
5. Visit the Vietnam tour company Asia Outdoors in Cat Ba Town
Instead of the more touristy and popular Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, we went to Cat Ba Town and Cat Ba Bay. From there, we did a day-long tour of Lan Ha Bay through Asia Outdoors – and it was my favorite part of our Vietnam vacation. Asia Outdoors is all about adventure tours, and actually interacting with Vietnam’s natural beauty by rock climbing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and other outdoorsy activities. My husband and I almost perfected our shaky stand up paddle boarding skills as we paddled through the karsts and fishing villages one morning. We ate lunch on Asia Outdoors’ boat (the Tofu in Tomato Sauce cooked by the locals was especially delicious), and then kayaked through a different part of Lan Ha Bay in the afternoon. It was so amazing, I could’ve floated through the karsts and boats forever.
Asia Outdoors is a Vietnam-based tour company that offers everything from rock climbing to beach yoga. The staff was awesome – we were helped and guided by Rich, Vera, Monty, and Arjan. They gave us all sorts of information about different aspects of traveling in Ha Long Bay and environs, and were so friendly and encouraging.
6. Talk to other tourists
My fellow travelers in Vietnam were friendly when I spoke to them, but they rarely initiated a conversation with me. Don’t be a shy quiet tourist! Talking to other Westerners is a fun and fascinating part of the adventure, and you may form friendships that outlast your trip to Vietnam.
Talk to your fellow travelers, ask them for travel tips in Vietnam, advice about where to eat, suggestions about where to stay or tour next. If you’re trying to decide whether to eat at a certain restaurant, ask someone who is already eating there. When we were eating at restaurants and I saw people looking at the menu by the door, I often wanted to encourage them to try the restaurant because the food was excellent. I could’ve given them an honest and current review of the food and service (which were both excellent 94% of the time).
Are you shy about talking to strangers? Read How to Meet People When You’re Traveling Alone.
I’d suggest you talk to the locals, but few Vietnamese speak English. Even the restaurant servers, shop keepers, and market venders don’t speak much English – but the majority of the receptionists at the hotels and the Vietnam tour agents do speak good English.
7. Stay emotionally grounded and centered
I’m an introverted writer, and I love getting up at 4:30 am to write, spend time with God, and go for a run! Today I actually woke up at 4 am because I couldn’t stop thinking about writing this article on Vietnam travel and tours. We just got back to Vancouver three days ago, and I’m still dealing with jet lag (the time difference between North America and Southeast Asia is brutal).
In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and every other town we visited, I went for an hour-long walk/jog by myself at 5:30 am. I’ve never felt safer, especially while running around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Taking time alone so you stay emotionally and spiritually grounded has always been one of my most important travel tips. Vietnam isn’t especially difficult for tourists, but traveling is often stressful and confusing. The more grounded and centered you are, the better you’ll cope with the usual – and the unanticipated – problems and inconveniences of travel.
8. Expect reliable, fast, and free internet access in Vietnam
WiFi is everywhere! I could’ve been tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, Instagramming, and Googling online almost constantly if I chose. Their strong online availability makes finding the best Vietnam tours, hotels, restaurants and travel tips easy peasy for tourists.
Don’t forget to bring your grounded universal travel adapter if your mobile phone doesn’t have an Asian plug in. This is super important – but you can buy one in Vietnam when you get there.
The only thing I had a difficult time locating was a supermarket in almost every city I visited. There were lots of little minimart convenience stores, but those are more expensive than an actual supermarket. When I did find the bigger supermarkets, I was both pleased and dismayed to discover that the prices of water, soda pop, coffee, wine, and snacks were half of the same items in minimarts (pleased because I saved a bit of money, dismayed because I only found two large supermarkets! I think it’s because most locals can’t afford the stuff at supermarkets. Locals shop at the small market stalls and shops, not the large supermarkets).
9. Keep your body physically healthy
I already had my Hep A shots from my trip to Haiti last year, and I didn’t take any other medications for my trip to Vietnam. But, I did take a variety of over-the-counter medicines.
Medicines that I always take on my vacations:
- ColdFX (available in Canada) or Instant Immunity Support Formula to boost my immune system
- Natural Sleep Aids to ease the pain of sleeping on overnight buses and trains, especially at the beginning of the trip
- Caffeine Pills to help me get through the first three days and overcome jet lag
- Imodium for diarrhea (which I never experienced once in Vietnam, even though I brushed my teeth with tap water and ate lots of fresh fruit and veggies)
- Multivitamins and iron pills (I tend towards anemia, and want to stay healthy!)
- Extra Strength Tylenol for travel-related headaches and stomachaches
- Prescription medications to keep my ulcerative colitis from flaring
If you’re considering a Vietnam vacation, talk to your doctor or a travel clinic about immunizations or vaccinations. I didn’t take any health-related precautions, but I know different countries and health organizations recommend different things. We always drank bottled water, but I did drink fruit smoothies made with ice.
Do you have asthma or another lung-related health issue? Take your inhaler or medication, and wear a face mask in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and other big cities in Vietnam! The pollution is terrible. There are billions of scooters, motorcycles, Vespas, and other two and three-wheeled vehicles in Vietnamese cities and towns. This was the worst part of Vietnam travel for me – I could feel the smog and pollution burning my eyes and filling my lungs.
Read What to Pack for a Beach Resort Vacation for travel and packing tips, especially if you’re visiting the beaches in Nha Trang or other coastal cities in Vietnam.
10. See everything as an adventure – even the night bus pods
Our worst experience was the overnight bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang. We were on a sleeper bus; the “pods” we slept in were small and narrow. It wasn’t too bad for me because I’m short and little (like most Vietnamese), but my husband is tall. He and his backpack didn’t fit well into the bus pod, which made for an uncomfortable and difficult night. Plus, the buses don’t have toilets. Not the most fun way to travel in Vietnam, but practical and efficient.
If you approach everything about your vacation – the Vietnamese street food, sleeping accommodations, crowded markets, crazy traffic, weaving through dozens of scooters while crossing packed streets, attempting to communicate, and all parts of your Vietnam tours and travels – as an adventure to be experienced, you will love your vacation! But if you see unfamiliar or inconvenient things as stressful and negative, you will ruin your own trip.
Vietnam travel isn’t better or worse than traveling anywhere else in the world. It’s your attitude and expectations that make the difference – and that can make or break your trip.
And thus ends my travel tips for Vietnam…I’d love to hear what you think, and welcome your questions. I’m not a Vietnam tourist agent or travel guide, but I might be able to give you some tips and guidance.
Hungry for more? Read 55 Practical Travel Tips for Women. If you’re interested in an up-close-and-personal look at Vietnam travel and tours – including Cambodia and Laos – visit Mark Bowyer’s Rusty Compass blog.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain.