35 Great Vietnam Travel Tips
I just wrapped up six fabulous weeks backpacking through Vietnam. Hands down it is one the best countries that I’ve visited. This is for several reasons. People are friendly and hospitable, it is seriously budget friendly, the natural beauty is phenomenal, and there are so many amazingly affordable activities to partake in. I’ve compiled a list of lessons I’ve learned along the way, favourite places, travel hacks, do’s and don’ts and other random bits of info that I hope will make your trip amazing. I’ve put them in categories to make this a little more user-friendly. I’m no expert, this is just something to get you started:
VISA ON ARRIVAL
1. You NEED a Visa Invitation Letter before entering the country. DO NOT just rock up at the border. Even though they do issue a visa on arrival, you have to have secured this letter first. Here is the company I used: vietnamvisapro.com It was $20 for an invitation letter for a 3 month visa. Once your invitation letter arrives, print it out along with some other forms they provide. Fill out the forms before you arrive and make sure you have a passport photo and cash.
2. Only bring crisp new US$ bills when you pay at the border. I explain why in point 6.
3. If you are in a neighbouring country like Cambodia there are travel agents that will help you get your visa. This may be slightly more expensive than doing it online but it saves you the hassle of waiting for the invitation and then applying for the visa at the border.
4. The majority of ATMs in big cities have higher withdrawal limits (4-8 million VND) than rural areas (2 million VND) so keep that in mind if you are planning to do any big spending outside of the major cities or are planning to stay awhile in the countryside.
5. With most ATMs it is cheaper to take out one large withdrawal than two or three small ones. In my experience BIDV lets you take out the most cash but they do charge 3%. I heard from other travellers that ANZ charges the lowest with a flat rate of 40000 VND per transaction but I did not verify this myself.
6. If you plan on exchanging USD make sure you bring clean, new bills. In Vietnam they often will not accept torn, tattered or stained bills. This is especially true if you are trying to get a Visa on Arrival. I had a $50 bill rejected. It was perfectly intact but had some slight spots on it. I later tried to exchange that bill but was told I would get a lower exchange rate because it was not in “good condition”.
7. Don’t confuse your Dong. Pay attention to those zeros. When you first start handling Dong, it is easy to accidentally give someone a 100 000 note instead of a 10 000 note.
8. Most people try to decide if they should travel the country from North to South or South to North? I travelled from the North to the South but I would suggest doing it the other way for one simple reason. Data plans for your phone are drastically cheaper in the South. I met travellers who purchased 18GB/month for $8 in the South. I paid $10 for 5GB in the North. I was told by several Vietnamese that the South offers much better data plans.
9. If you need to buy a new phone Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the pace to do it. The great thing about many Asian cities is that services are clustered in specific sectors of the city. One neighbourhood is all tailors, another is all motorcycle parts and of course there is a huge tech sector. Both new phones and secondhand are well priced. Same goes for laptops.
10. I’m only adding this one because so many travellers lose or break their phones. I’m not even going to pretend to know more than I do, but if you are looking for a good phone made in Asia I hear Xiaomi or Oppo are good options. Avoid many of the cheaper Chinese-made phones, epic malware issues. Trust me, I had one that had non-stop porn pop-ups. Got pretty awkward when strangers would look at my phone.
11. Most travellers rent scooters. No doubt scooters are awesome and get you to lots of great places but also try renting bicycles. They can take you off the roads, down paths, through rice paddies and to places that most vehicles can’t get to. Some of my best experiences in Vietnam were the places I ended up when I was just wandering the countryside on a cycle. Many hotels, homestays and hostels offer them for free. If not you shouldn’t have to pay more than $2/day to rent a basic bicycle anywhere in the country.
12. Download the app Grab. It’s like Uber and works in several countries in SE Asia, including Vietnam. Good thing is that there are also Grab bikes. This is just like a taxi but it’s a motorcycle. It’s cheap and gets you through traffic better.
13. Open bus tickets will save you money. If you have never heard of them, these are a prepaid booklet of tickets that takes you between cities. Most people book HCMC to Hanoi or vice versa. You chose your route and the cities you will visit beforehand. You are free to spend as many days as you like in each stop. You just book your bus 24 hrs in advance to reserve a seat. Your tickets are valid for 1 month but some companies allow you to extend for a second month, free of charge. My tickets expired and I still used them for another two weeks and no one seemed to notice.
14. Not all open bus companies are the same. Most busses consist of 3 rows of bunk beds stretching down the length of the bus. Most companies advertise free WiFi, a bottle of water, and bathrooms on the bus. Almost any hotel or travel agent can sell you tickets but beware. Each place is affiliated with a different bus company and they are not all the same. I made the mistake of booking with Hung Thanh (Hahn Cafe). They are TERRIBLE. Long story short they double booked busses making passengers who paid for a bed, lay on the floor of the bus, even for trips longer than 8 hrs. I saw one of the workers actually kick a young female tourist who was trying to clarify her sleeping arrangement. WiFi never worked. Often the toilets didn’t work. Once the bus only gave the option for the travellers to go to the toilet in a big group on the side of the road instead of stopping at a rest-stop. It was seriously a row of bare asses facing the bus. Often water was not provided and often the drivers smoked inside the bus. The numbers to call in each city, to reserve the next leg of our trip, most-often were no longer working with this company. I could go on and one about how messed up this company is. In the end I got to all my destinations, but I suggest not booking with them. Do your research. Read reviews. I spoke to many other travellers who had much better experiences with other companies.
15. Tips for the open bus. Limit your fluid intake, stops can be very far apart and you never know if the bathroom will be out of order. Bring your own snacks. Rest-stop prices are always jacked up. Try get a top bunk. This is important. Any long bus ride you go on, there is always one puker. Especially if there are people who have been partying a bit too hard. If you are on the bottom and the person above you happens to be the puker….
16. People are going to argue with me here but I found it cheaper to book online. Firstly, I’m great at finding deals online. I’ve stayed in 4 star hotels for $5/night. Every time I found a deal I wrote directly to the hotel/homestay and asked if they could offer a lower price if I paid in person. It doesn’t make sense to me but not one place could even match the online price. They all told me to just go ahead and book online. I did arrive in cities a few times with nothing booked. Only once did I get a price cheaper than offered online. Also when I pay with cash I have to factor in the ATM fees. When I use my credit card on booking sites I pay no fees and I get rewards.
17. If you book your accommodation online, call or email one or two days before to remind them of your booking. This is really IMPORTANT! I have experienced this and have seen it so often with other travellers, more than any other country I have visited, bookings get totally forgotten and so many places double book themselves. I found when I gave a heads up a day or two before it totally resolved this issue, but when I forgot...
18. Many places offer free breakfast so keep this in mind when looking for a place. If you are booking in person don’t be afraid to ask for it.
19. Hostel, homestay, or hotel? It is really up to you and what you like to get out of a place. For us, our wallet was the deciding factor. We stayed in all 3, but I will say that the homestays and small family operated hotels were my favourite. We met the most wonderful families who really took care of us and went above and beyond to help us with any of our needs.
20. Like many tropical countries, rats and ants are abundant in Vietnam. Best way to avoid them is to stay away from places with thatched roofs (we had a nightmare episode in a bungalow infested with rats) and try not to stay on the ground floor, even in fancy hotels (we stayed on the ground floor of a very upscale hotel and got chewed up by ants). Don’t leave food unsealed in your rooms, and don’t sleep in a bed full of your snack crumbs!
21. There are so many great cheap-eats in Vietnam. If you are a budget traveller you really never need to pay more than $2-$3/meal. Look online, read reviews or just go out and follow your nose. Use your common sense. Don’t eat at places that are empty. Don’t eat food that has been sitting out for a while. It’s good if you can find somewhere that has a steady stream of food coming out of the kitchen. Even better, if you find a place where you can actually see them cooking your food.
22. If you are really broke eat Banh Mi. These are baguette, subway-style, sandwiches filled with fresh veggies and meat or tofu or egg. They are super yummy and only cost a few cents. I found the best places to buy these are directly from bakeries. These tend to be the freshest and were often cheaper than the street stalls.
23. If you are vegan or vegetarian look for the word CHAY. Often you will order something vegetarian and it will come with what looks like meat. Go ahead and double-check, but it will most likely be one of many vegan meat-substitutes they use here. When you order things like spring rolls, what looks like soy sauce, is often fish sauce. When you place your order ask for soy sauce instead.
24. Never pay more than 10 000 VND for a large (1.5liter) bottle of water. You can get them for as cheap as 5000 VND. Prices are often inflated for tourists. I saw many travelers paying 4 or 5 times the regular price for generic water.
25. Unless you are in a mall, department store or a restaurant with a printed menu, always bargain. In most places you can easily cut the asking-price in half.
26. Hit the local markets. Prices are much cheaper and produce is often fresher. Many markets also have a great selection of nuts and dried fruits, packaged snack foods, and drinks.There are also many amazing non-food items, like clothing and handicrafts, to check out.
27. C Mart is a decent sized department store found in most cities. It is a cheap place to stock up on toiletries or grab some grocery items. Clothing is a bit overpriced compared to what you can find in the markets but, if you are not keen on buying your undergarments on the street, you can pick some up here.
28. Whether you like kayaking, cycling, rock climbing, hiking, caving, ziplining….prices in Vietnam are going to be way cheaper than what you would pay in most other countries. Many places you stay at can book these trips for you. You can also do it through travel agents. If tour groups are your thing then there are many to choose from, depending on your level of expertise. Whether you are a senior or a family with young children you will be able to find a group that meets your needs.
29. I found in several places, if you skip the touristy beaches where you have to pay, and head down the coast, you can find a beautiful place all to yourself. In Hoi An we took a small path, about a 20 minutes bike ride down the highway from the main beach, and found a little beach resort that was closed down and abandoned. We pulled out the beach chairs and had the whole place to ourselves.
30. Remember dress code for Temples. Legs covered, shoulders covered for men and women. It happened to us a few times that we were cycling around the countryside, wearing tank tops, and came upon a beautiful Temple tucked away somewhere. We didn’t enter because we didn’t have our shoulders covered. Sorry to rant but I need to get this off my chest: They will never ask you to leave or kick you out of a Temple, but it is rude and disrespectful to ignore these requests. I was at a Temple in Dalat that had a huge billboard showing the dress code and imploring visitors to kindly respect their beliefs. Both men and women stopped, read the sign, laughed and went into the temple with bare legs and bare shoulders. It happened over and over again. Don’t be a douchebag. If it is hot out, just carry a shawl or a light change of clothes in your bag.
MY VIETNAM FAVOURITES
31. Cat Ba Island: Ha Long Bay has to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I managed to get a tour for only $16. It’s crazy that so people are paying hundreds of dollars for tours because they think that’s the only option. I wrote an entire blog about this so I won’t rehash how I did it and why it’s so amazing. Just check it out: Ha-Long-Bay-Cheapskate-Travel-Hacks
32. Tam Coc: This sleepy town, near the city of Ninh Binh, is set in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Try stay right in Tam Coc and not the city. It is so picturesque and is known as the inland Ha Long Bay because of the limestone cliffs rising out of the fields just like the limestone islands in the sea. You can take the river tours that go through caves. There is one in Tam Coc and one in nearby Trang An. You can visit Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam. Cycling there is an option. The way is very flat but a bit far. I also highly recommend Bai Dihn Pagoda. It is part of a phenomenal complex that will blow your mind. Give yourself at least 3 hours to see it all. There is also the famous park Thung Nham - Bird Valley. In the evenings you can watch hundreds of birds retreat to their nesting grounds.
33. Dalat: This beautiful city built around a small lake, is unlike anything else in Vietnam. Nestled admit pine forests, and tucked away high up in the mountains, Dalat is a great place to cool down and relax. The markets are huge and exciting, food is great, and the people are outgoing. I recommend taking the cable car out to the Pagoda. It takes you on a 4 km ride through the forest canopy. The view is seriously breathtaking. We actually walked the 8 km, through lovely countryside, out to the Pagoda, took the cable cars one-way, and walked the 4 km back down the hill into Dalat. There are also some waterfalls out of town. We didn’t make it there but they are supposed to be wonderful.
34. War Remnants Museum in HCMC: This place is a must-see, but I do not recommend it for the faint of heart or stomach. Some of the images and displays here are very graphic and emotionally intense. It is important to learn how America’s war with Vietnam is viewed by the Vietnamese and how it has affected generations of people. The social, health, and environmental consequences of this war are profound. I couldn’t get through without tearing up. There is a children’s playroom on the top floor. I’m not sure if there is a fee to use it but that is an option people travelling with kids.
35. My last tip is to make friends and have fun. Vietnam is extremely hospitable. If you are invited to share a meal, which you most likely will be, I encourage you to accept. There is no better way to get to know a country than at its dinner tables.