Jeez! If you just spent the last two hour’s reading about Vietnam’s tourism (like I have), you’d begin to think travelling to Vietnam be all like…
I’m here to tell you it’s not. I’d rather propose that there appears to be a correlation between whiny shits and people with access to a laptop and wifi. Let’s forget about those doom-sayers and take heed of these Vietnam travel tips carefully thought up by your Tripmasher duo.
Travel tip 1: Vietnam is larger than you think
We should know. We spent three months slowly journeying from the south to the north of this S-shaped country. At 1650km in length, most bus/train journeys between tourism hot-spots are up from 4 hours or likely overnight. So if you have a week to two in Vietnam, and do not expect to fly, then I suggest cutting your itinerary right down to focus on either the North, Centre, South Delta and Islands. It will still be a tight schedule, but you will get a lot more out of your experience. I’ll be putting together a photo essay of our favourite spots in Vietnam to provide some inspiration on where to go. Here’s a little teaser in the meantime..
Travel tip 2: Vietnam is NOT Thailand
We have spent 7 months in Thailand and will be spending 6 months in Vietnam. I know which one is easier.
Thailand’s accommodation and tours are cheaper. There are more street food options for all taste buds. From beaches to hill districts of Thailand – the nightlife is world-renowned. Thai people smile more often.
But what we love about Vietnam is that it is a little more of an experience. In order to understand the meal staring at you with floating white things in it, you might just have to give it a go. For us, travel is about exploring. Not every road will be easy, but there are some awesome stories at the end of it, or at least the knowledge to avoid the stomach lining soup in future.
Travel tip 3: Vietnamese people ARE friendly, but don’t be naive
If you read our food blog on Vietnam, you will know that during Tet 2016 we had amazingly generous offers to eat with families, guesthouse hosts and we also had a crack at making some Chung Cake. But like anywhere in the world, would you just up and go somewhere because a smiling face told you so? Probably not right?! So the same thing applies when you travel.
Our first evening in Vietnam we found a typical eatery with blue plastic chairs on the side of the road. Sat down to a menu unfamiliar to us and have groups of people help us order, while we shared beers and smokes until the small hours of the morning. It’s where we learnt to count to three and say “Cheers”. It’s also where we learnt that enthusiasm can get carried away and before you know it you may have agreed to join the bus driver and her mate for a birthday pub crawl. Everyone wants to have a local and authentic experience, but in your bid to seek it out you may find yourself getting into something that you are not really sure about or promising something you can’t deliver. Use your noodle, travel in groups and if it’s too good to be true, then it likely is.
Travel tip 4: Vietnam scams you need to know about
I’ve written a whole new post just for this one. You’ve got to give it to the scammers around the world, they’re crafty and innovative.
Travel tip 5: Vietnamese tour operators vary WIDELY on price and quality
Do your research.
Vietnam is not a country you rock up to and hope to find the winning ticket for your journey. There is loads to see and do and the time of year can have a huge impact on what you will pay and experience. I just spent two hours reading why visitors are turning away from Vietnam in droves. How depressing! But the common theme seems to be that tours are overpriced and do not offer the value or experience visitors were seeking (plus the scams above).
I did read a comment that someone’s guide had long hair. Sheesh! I’m going to ignore that as being snobby. I had a dude called Mad Max in a singlet and shaved head show me around the Kakadu National Park in the early 2000s. Still one of the best experiences of my life.
I’m not here to apologise for Vietnam tourism and offer excuses, but this is something I implore people to be aware of.
Vietnam tours are not as cheap as you think it may be.
Tours to Ha Long Bay for a decent 2-day 1-night trip start around USD$100 pp and can go a lot higher. Caving options are pricey in Phong Nha. One day tours are around $35 around most of the country. It is not to suggest that these outfits are even eco-friendly (they are getting better).
It’s just what it is.
But there are so many other areas you can make your money go further, like transport, food and shopping. All I can recommend is 1) Research the crap out of the tour agency you plan to use. 2) Check out reviews. All the better if they have or are seeking reviews as the tour operator will be keen on ensuring expectations are met. 3) Be aware if they are fake reviews. Are all the reviewers Vietnamese? 4) Seek out pictures of accommodation, transportation, meals etc (particularly Ha Long Bay Junk Boats). 5) Ask for specifics about timings for travel, accommodation, free time, activities included and time spent (ie you don’t want a 5-minute boat ride on the Mekong Delta and 2 hours at some fruit farm). 6) Know what is included and what is optional or at your own expense.
Travel tip 6: Vietnam is NOT hot all year round
Talking about the weather is dull at parties, but when it comes to travel, then you want to be up to speed with what’s going on. Earlier this year, some northern parts of Vietnam saw snow! During Tet we met loads of travellers transiting via Hoi An onto warmer places who were still wearing their European winter gear or had to buy jackets and fleeces. Be prepared as the temperature can be all dubstep and…drop!
Travel tip 7: Vietnam is changing (and fast!)
So you might have to look left and right when crossing the road.
The context for this comes from one of the best complaints I have read yet, “there are too many scooters”.
Honestly people, what do you think travels on roads? You might be used to being in your SUVs nudging and bullying your way on the roads, but when you have to use your legs, then I suggest also engage the eyes and brain too. Novel idea right?!?
Outside of the fact that almost every one of the 90 million people in Vietnam owns a Honda motorbike, the country has also seen an appetite for cranes in the sky. Development is going at light speed. Islands like Phu Quoc have approved over 240 developments. Da Nang is gearing up to build an entertainment complex covering 31 hectares. Vietnam’s economic growth outstrips every South East Asian neighbour.
So what does this mean?
Well, after many years of isolation from global markets due to sanctions and conflict; Vietnam is ready and raring to go. The energy of a predominantly young population is infectious. Major reforms have reduced poverty from 60% to 10% in a period less than 20 years. The cities are buzzing, but the fields are still plentiful and verdant in their rice paddy field way.
Travel tip 8: Vietnam’s visa rules and prices can read like a great fictional novel
In a World Economic Forum tourism competitiveness report, Vietnam ranks 119th out of 141 countries for visa requirements. That should tell you everything.
But do not despair.
Things are changing and for the better. Currently, travellers from ASEAN are granted 30-day stays. In the last couple of years France, Norway, Finland, Germany, UK, Holland, Spain, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Denmark passport holders can travel visa-free for 15 days. There are even talks of extending this to 30 days on par with neighbouring countries. The tourism sector is lobbying hard for additional waivers including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
In the meantime…We apply for a letter of arrival via Vietnam Visa Provider. CAUTION: there are loads of fake websites online! We have now entered the country twice and successfully received a 3-month stay at $25US pp.
Note the process works entering an international airport like Hanoi, Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh. It’s not the most fun waiting around at immigration for about an hour for your visa, but it does work eventually. Note to bring the correct amount of $US dollars and check your embassy website frequently for any rules changes, because like any good book, there’s probably another twist!
Travel tip 9: Vietnam is Dong all the way
Vietnam’s currency is the Dong and in denominations of a thousand. The smallest note is a 1,000 bill and it can go up to 500,000. Generally speaking, prices will be quoted without the thousand zeros as simply 80 or sometimes as 80K.
When it comes to ATM’s, most accept international cards for cash withdrawal.
What should you carry?
Keep a variety of denomination bills on hand for purchases such as souvenirs, street food, transportation, and attractions. Try to then pay with your card (if you have a good international travel card) for accommodation and tours. Note that not all outfits will accept credit cards and like many places in South East Asia cash is king and places you in a better position to bargain.
Travel tip 10: What to budget for Vietnam
A typical budget in Vietnam will set you back about $35-40 US per person. This is more of a flashpacker budget, but still thrifty when it comes to nights out and other expenses like shopping.
Expect to pay about $20 for a double room (two people) and budget about $2-4 per meal, depending on what and where you eat. If you are craving western food, you can expect to pay $10 for a pizza or burger. Most bus journeys to your next destination average around 200,000VND ($10). If you walk everywhere or hire a scooter for the day you can keep you daily costs down even further. Even if you do have a couple of Larue’s at 50c a beer.
Depending on the length of stay in Vietnam, be prepared to amp up your daily budget to include big ticket tours like Ha Long Bay (av $100pp), Trekking in Sapa or Easy Rider Northwest Bike tours ($100pp/per day). Most other tours to Ninh Binh, Mekong Delta and around Hue, can be negotiated to around $25-30 US. Others are best done by yourself with a scooter or bicycle like My Son Sanctuary, around Hoi An and Phong Nha.
Travel tip 11: Vietnamese food is delicious – try it all!
A note for vegetarians, I don’t think many street food stalls will be your friend. Papaya salads, fresh spring rolls (sans prawn), Ban Xeos (sans pork and prawn), tofu-based Banh Mis and delicious fruit smoothies will be your go-to dishes, but thankfully most major cities have fantastic vegetarian outfits. We loved the offerings in Hoi An.
Travel tip 12: Vietnam’s WiFis and GeeBees is excellent
The WiFi network in Vietnam often beats download speeds of Australia and from our experience the best in South East Asia. It’s good, fast and reliable in the major cities and can be found in almost all accommodation, cafes, franchise restaurants and other eateries. It truly is a digital nomad’s favourite asset.
Travel tip 13: Vietnam during Tet can be great
Just know what to expect.
Now we can’t pretend to tell you what all of Vietnam is like during Tet, but we do know that in places like Da Nang and Hoi An we suggest: 1) Booking accommodation in advance. Guesthouses and hotels are open for business, but not all will trade during the New Year, so in order to get the best accommodation for you budget, book it in advance. 2) Not all attractions are open. We found a couple of ancient houses in Hoi An closed during Tet, but then again a number of other attractions were open and free! 3) It is not uncommon to be invited into people’s home to share a meal. Just don’t expect it. 4) There are often great firework displays to check out, so ask your accommodation when and where they may be happening. 5) Things do move slower during the festive period. Just go with the flow and offer your wishes to people “Chuc Mung Nam Moi”. 6) If you plan to purchase anything during Tet, know that your will likely be paying a higher price as Vietnamese believe that the money they make influences their fortune for the year ahead. 7) Wear red, it’s auspicious.
Travel tip 14: Vietnam’s recent history is something to be aware of but does not define them
For many Vietnamese people, ‘history’ is a living memory and it will be worth remembering as you walk around museums and interact with people. The beaches we enjoy today in Da Nang, only 51 years ago saw the arrival of the first American ground troops to Vietnam.
Vietnam’s story since the US embargo lifted is almost two stark tales. Major economic reforms have lifted the wealth, prosperity and freedom for people, but underlying there is still a conservativeness and connection to the traditional way.
The beauty of Vietnam and the people is their attitude. Looking forward towards a better life. Crafting opportunities for themselves and their family. Reminds me of the first person we met in Da Nang all those months ago. A young lady named Mini who worked the customer service desk at a major hotel in Da Nang, now proudly owns her own cafe, complete with eclectic chairs, weathered wooden boards with funny sayings, and the best eggs benedict around. She’s giving it a go and probably the best sentiment to leave you with is.
Vietnam. Give it a go. (Oh and follow Tripmasher’s Vietnam travel tips) 🙂