In the end of the day, I am happy to see that Vietnam has finally gained some attention as a popular destination in South East Asia. Westerners who have already been to, or lived in Thailand, seem drawn to Vietnam, for a typical reason that the country has something more authentic to offer, culturally wise. Below you will find things I found necessary to know to travel Vietnam, writing from a local perspective. And though my background is quite international, I am a complete Vietnamese one hundred percent. Hence you can count on the things I mention below, some of which could be subjective or controversial, nevertheless are honestly true from my personal experiences.
Heads up! What I am going to share below is NOT just about how beautiful and attractive Vietnam is! But also scams, weird things going on and sad facts as well.
Whilst ASEAN citizens can visit Vietnam without a visa, most of the westerners do need a visa upon arrival in order to enter Vietnam. I have helped some international friends to get their visa approval letter. Make sure you check the regulations regarding your own citizenship and stay up to date about the visa fee, which can change from time to time. For example, Vietnam visa for American citizens just changed last year to 135 USD for a minimum of 1-year visa, which they changed back. But honestly, who would be crazy enough to pay this much for a visa, and would stay that long just for a vacation?
Order a visa online – One of the most popular and convenient ways to get a Vietnam visa is to apply yourself for one online at vietnam-visa.com. After sending required documents and paying the service fee, you will receive an approval letter. Bring this one to the airport and pay the stamp fee there.
Leave the work for a travel agency – For those who are too lazy to get your ass on the website, or do not trust online visa services, ask your travel agency in Vietnam to make a letter for you. I worked in a travel agency before and they can get an approval letter for you as quick as within 1 day. Then you will bring this letter and pay the same stamp fee at the airport upon arrival.
Tip: Be skeptical when choosing a trustworthy agency and go for big names like Buffalo Tour (Thien Minh Group), Viettravel, Transviet, etc.
At the airport – the procedure could take hours, so be patient with the officer. Paperwork takes forever in Vietnam. Don’t be frustrated yet, yet prepared for the ‘slow work pace’ commonly known in Vietnam.
Currency – Vietnam use đồng currency (VND). For quick count, 1 USD equals about 20,000 VND. Dont be surprised if we all are millionaires who carry a lot of cash around in Vietnam. For first-time travelers to VN, do not exchange all of your charges in VN to dollars or euros to often. You will feel like everything is cheap here, easily be led to being overcharged. Always check the ‘Vietnamese’ price simply by asking the local next to you. Bargaining does not work, as shop owners may not just double but already tripple the price.
Credit/Debit card – though cards are not as widely used daily as cash, you can find an ATM almost anywhere in big cities. Make sure you withdraw enough money for use before moving to the more rural areas. Carry a large sum in your pocket can be quite inconvenient and unsafe.
Transportation & Traffic
Flight – compared to travelling Thailand, flying in/out/around Vietnam is more expensive, yet as cheap as South East Asia can be. Once you enter the countrC, living cost and travel cost are quite low, as long as you don’t fall for the scams and overpriced activities. I often use Baolau.com to book my itinerary as to receive my flight, train and bus vouchers all at once, to the same email.
Must-know: Priced shown on the website are yet to add tax and service fee. Airline companies do run promotion campaigns of 0 fares, which is honestly an advertising trick for me because most of the tickets cost at least couples of hundreds of thousand VND. In general, traveling by plane in Vietnam is a lot more expensive than going by trains and buses.
Tip: Go for decent airlines like Vietnam Airlines or Easy Jet (a cheap airline with ‘okay’ reputation). VietjetAir staffs do have a bad reputation for horrible customer service occasionally.
Train – I enjoy getting around by train the most. Besides viewing the landscapes surrounding railway tracks, you get your own space, get to walk around, and enjoy your meal at the canteen. Night trains have helped me save a lot. Some of the most impressive train rides I took are:
– Luxurious five-star night train from Hanoi to Sapa ran by Victoria Express
– Breath-taking track through Hai Van Pass between Da Nang and Hue
– Short train ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, running through beautiful countryside landscape and limestones
Bus – getting around Vietnam by bus is not the most convenient way to travel, as the infrastructure is quite bad here. On the bright side, buses connections between cities are everywhere. Bus companies quite often arrange connecting minibuses to tranfer passengers between their accommodation and the stations.
Motorbike – A South East Asia adventure cannot be completed without a trip on the motorbike. But if you are inexperienced with driving in SEA, tag along with a local or pay for a motorbike taxi driver (xe ôm).
Traffic: I must mention that traffic is a little too crazy in Vietnam. It took me months to get used to the traffic in Hanoi. And I am not completely comfortable with riding the scooter around, still, after 5 years of living abroad and moving back for over a year already. Honestly, just go with the flow. Don’t drive too slow or go too crazy. Vietnamese drivers can be, honestly, retarded and short-tempered, more often than not. Be patient. Dont get yourself into violent situations. Getting in a Vietnamese hospital during your vacation is NOT FUN AT ALL! So stay bold, stay adventurous, but wise!
Accommodation – where to stay?
Booking – one of the most popular platforms to book accommodation in SEA is Agoda. I personally use Booking.com more often. Traveloka is also a reliable website/application to book your flight+accommodation in VN, with lots of promotion from time to time.
Hotel, hostels or homestay? – depending on your travel style, whether you like fancy resorts, authentic places or just a bed to crash, book your accommodation just a few days in advance is fine enough.
Couchsurfing – the Couchsurfing community in big cities like Hanoi and HCM is pretty massive. I found that most locals like to hang out to learn English. If you travel long term, it’s fine to stay in their homes (most likely with the parents too) for a few nights. Local hosts tend to live outside the old quarter, so think twice about the location first before considering saving that money for the bed.
What’s the weather like?
North – there are 4 seasons in almost every cities/towns in the North, equivalent to every quarter of the year. Whilst the summer (between May and August) may get super hot and humid, Autumn (from late August to October) is the best time to travel Northern Vietnam. Winter can get quite cold and breezy, though the minimum temperature in Hanoi, for example, can get only down to about 5 to 10 Celcius degrees. In mountainous areas like Sapa or Ha Giang, it definitely gets colder and drier during the night.
Tip: Don’t travel Vietnam with a bag full of shorts and t-shirt. Locals and expats do sometimes make fun of backpackers in shorts and flipflops in the middle of the winter here. Whilst it may look quite ridiculous that locals are in huge coats and jackets under the weather of 15 degrees, Vietnamese people just simply can’t tolerate the cold.
Centre – the rainy and stormy season in central Vietnam lasts from July to October (Northern Central Coast) and from October to December (Southern Central Coast). It’s best to avoid traveling VN within this time of the year. Every year, flooding has caused hundreds of deaths and houses to crash down.
South – there are only 2 seasons in Southern Vietnam: the dry season and rainy season (October to March). The temperature is stable throughout the year.
Western Highlands/Central Highlands – the weather in famous regions like Da Lat (Lam Dong) can be highly unpredictable. The locals like to claim that you will experiences 4 seasons in Da Lat within a day. It can get pretty cold and humid in the early morning and late night in Da Lat, whilst warm and sunny during the day.
Culture & lifestyle – what are the must-knows?
Language – Vietnamese language is not an easy language to learn, keeping in mind that we have 5 different tones. However, the latin alphabet and frequent use of English words do make it easy to get around without much vocabs. Some basic words you need to know are: Xin Chào (Hello), Cám Ơn (Thanks, which sounds like come on), Xin Lỗi (Sorry), Bao Nhiêu (How much), Tôi tên là (My Name Is), etc. By the way, we dont really say phrases like how are you or could you please. That does not sound very polite but we do have different ways of expression. And to be honest, I dont find Vietnamese people polite in many situations 🙂
Lifestyle – you will be surprised to find out the diversity in lifestyles across Vietnam. In one corner you may bump into cocky rich old man in the city, stepping out of a Mercedes or Porsche, yet in another witnessing the genuinely sad and poor life of local villagers. Though the typical image of VN can be associated with third world, developing country or low life standard, it is undeniable that VN is growing drastically. The booming of technology use, tourism and F&B industry is indeed impressive! You will be amazed by the density of high-end hotels, Michelin-star restaurants, contemporary cafes and modern co-working spaces. There are also plenty of art hubs around the country.
Daily manner – Vietnamese people are NOT generally friendly and kind as you imagine, only to foreigners yes! At least most of the time they are. Only because there’s a so-called western obsession here. People who have never been outside the country probably consider all western people to be rich and beautiful for being tall, white and exotic. And I mean blond hair and blue eyes. Yea! Vietnamese people are just in love with the Westerners here. This does not mean all Vietnamese people are nice and kind to each other. After all, traveling in SEA can be quite intensive. I mean one day you get treated like royalty, the next you end up at an ethnic village lost in the middle of nowhere.
Is it safe to travel alone?
I traveled alone in Vietnam several times and did not encounter any danger. Simply keep in mind the basic safety rule and you will get around the main touristy areas (listed below) just fine. However, despite being a local, I personally experienced a few times being discriminated or bullied here. To avoid these situations, go around with a decent local. Or act like a local, as much as you can. Pay extreme attention to your dress code too!
Best places in Vietnam – where to go?
Northern Vietnam – the best mountains and rice paddies of the country
Hanoi – capital city known for well-preserved cultural heritage, excellent and delicate cuisine, an important gateway to other cities in the Noth
Ha Long (UNESCO Heritage) – a must-visit because of breath-taking limestone mountains above water but too touristy and over advertised
Cat Ba – the archipelago is absolutely dazzling, ideal for a relaxed getaway from the touristy Ha Long nearby
Ninh Binh – famous filming location of Kong movie, known for gorgeous limestone mountains on land and rice paddies along beautiful rivers
Sapa – touristy area famed for the ethnic villages, gigantic rice terraces and the Fansipan mount
Ha Giang – another mountainous area famed for rice terraces and amazing tracks through the mountain passes, less touristy than Sapa
Other – Mai Chau, Moc Chau, Tam Dao, etc. are nice countryside areas to explore around Hanoi
Central Vietnam – historical, art and cultural center
Hue (UNESCO Heritage) – prior royal capital of Vietnam, an important historical and culinary center of VN
Da Nang – third largest city in VN, an important gateway to centre Vietnam, a fast growing city of beautiful landscapes
Hoi An (UNESCO Heritage) – my favourite town in VN so far, famed for its beautiful old town filled with colourful lanterns, lots of art and cultural influences from both the East and West, slow pace of life and excellent cuisine.
Quang Binh (UNESCO Heritage)- home to some of the most impressive caves in VN and the largest cave in the world (Son Doong)
Southern Vietnam – stunning coastlines and modern cities
Ho Chi Minh – biggest city in VN with impressive skyline and dynamic vibrant lifestyle strongly influenced by the West
Phan Thiet – bustling port city known for beautiful fishing village filled with vivid boats and massive sand dunes
Nha Trang – touristy coastal town filled with resorts, attractive a huge number of Russian and Chinese not only to travel but also settle
Phu Yen – famous for the interesting topography of Da Dia Reef
Quy Nhon – home to some of the best beaches in VN
Best times to visit Vietnam – when to go?
January to February: Lunar New Year’s Eve (or Tết) is the biggest holiday season in Vietnam, meant for family celebration and gathering. For me this is like Christmas in the West. During Tết here, we take weeks even a month for planning ceremonies, organizing events and worshiping ancestors. Though many people recommend avoiding traveling this time in Vietnam, many must-see cultural festivals take place in February (January according to Vietnamese calendar)
March – May: personally my favourite time to travel Vietnam because of the low season
June to August: the summer and also peak season in Vietnam, avoid if you dont like tourist crowds
September: Harvest season, best for visiting Sapa and Ha Giang
October: Full moon festival is the time for children to celebrate with their families
December – Vietnamese people also celebrate Christmas in big cities