Are you traveling to Vietnam? This post includes the most useful Vietnam travel tips and the most important things to know before going to Vietnam.
Vietnam is a beautiful country, and that is a fact. However, there is no denying that it is not exactly the easiest country to travel to. If it is your first time in South East Asia (and even the second, as it was for me), you will be in for a real shock.
First of all, Vietnam is incredibly crowded – and I don’t mean by tourists! Just to give you some figures, the population density in Vietnam is of 311 people per Km2 (806 people per mi2); whereas in Italy it is of 206 per Km2 (532 people per mi2) and in the United States 36 per Km2 (94 people per mi2) (data available on Worldometers.info). What this means is chaos – and I mean it. Streets are packed with cars, motorbikes and scooters and people literally all the time. And with so many people in a contained place, it goes without saying that the country is dirty – think lots of garbage.
Knowing what to expect before your trip will certainly help you prevent (well, at least to a certain extent) that culture shock I mentioned. And it will help you make the most of your time. So, here is a list of the best Vietnam travel tips – all the things to know before visiting Vietnam.
The Most Useful Vietnam Travel Tips
Pick your travel dates carefully
This is one of the most important Vietnam travel tips I have for you, as it will definitely affect your time in the country!
While it is safe to say that you can visit Vietnam year round, generally speaking the best time to visit Vietnam – especially if you want to travel across the entire country – is in the spring, between March and April. That means milder temperatures (not as cold as in the winter in the North; and not as hot as in the summer in the South); and less chances of rain. It’s also the best time to visit Vietnam if you want to go hiking!
I visited Vietnam between the end of February and mid March and can attest that the weather varied a lot between the North and the South. Hanoi is generally pleasant but it can also get terribly humid and misty, and so is Ha Long Bay, where you may not get the picture-perfect clear sky (which makes the water turn of a beautiful emerald green). Sapa Valley is typically sunny at that time of year, and the temperatures during the day are nice and mild, but it can get cold at night (something you want to keep in mind in case you want to do a homestay).
Get your Vietnam Visa online
Depending on your nationality, you can easily get a Vietnamese visa on arrival. Keep in mind that if you want a Vietnam visa on arrival you can only get a 15 days visa waiver, and you will also have to show proof that you will leave the country within that period. This kind of visa is completely free.
However, if you want top spend a bit more time traveling around the country (after all, there is so much to see!), you will need to apply for a visa beforehand.
Get your Vietnam Visa online here.
Make sure to read my post How To Get The Vietnam Visa Online And The Vietnam Visa On Arrival.
Consider going on a guided tour of Vietnam
Traveling around Vietnam can be a bit of a hassle, what with the trains, buses, planes and all the travel planning you may have to do if you have limited time. So here’s one of the best Vietnam travel tips for you: join a guided tour! Just leave the planning bits to the experts: you’ll only have to pack your bags (in fact, they will even tell you what to pack!).
Know the Vietnamese currency
The official Vietnamese currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). The exchange rate is currently around 23,000 VND to $1 USD; 26,000 VND to €1 Euro and 31,000 VND to £1 GBP. Dollars are accepted in all hotels and even in some shops, but to save on the exchange rate you are better off using the local currency.
If you plan to exchange money, make sure to check the exchange rate beforehand and go with a precise idea of what you must receive in return: bank tellers pretend to “forget” about giving you the lower denomination notes (I suspect they may try to cash it themselves).
Cash is king in Vietnam – not to mention, paying by credit card means adding up to 3% in fees. So you will have to withdraw frequently. The good news is that your dollar will go a long way; but the bad news is that most ATMs in Vietnam will dispense a mere 2,000,000 VND (that’s around $85 USD), and only a few give up to 3,000,000 VNM. Furthermore, ATMs also charge a transaction fee which can be of anything between $1 and $5 USD.
Some banks won’t charge you any international ATM fee – ask yours if they do. I have had an account with N26, which is specifically designed for travelers so that they can avoid unwelcome extra fees.
Vietnam is super cheap
You don’t have to be rich to treat yourself in Vietnam – this is one of the most budget friendly countries in the world. A budget of no more than $40 USD per night will get you a nice boutique hotel; while a mere $20 will secure a room in a mid-range place – and breakfast is included in both cases.
You can expect to pay $2 USD for a full meal if you opt for street food; and $20 USD will get you a dinner at a fancy restaurant, with drinks and dessert (that’s how much my sister and I paid at the fanciest restaurant in Hoi An).
Pick your accommodation wisely
You will have all sorts of accommodation options in Vietnam, and the good news is even a small budget can go a long way and you will hardly have to sleep in dorms. Any town or city will offer a selection of budget hotels, mid-range and luxury ones; guest houses; hostels and even home-stays.
If you opt for a home stay in a more rural area, keep in mind that the conditions may be beyond basic – sometimes guests are placed literally under the (unfinished) roof where there is no glass on the windows, so it can get very cold at night.
Is Vietnam safe?
Vietnam is a safe country, even for solo female travelers. You will need to keep your eyes open for pickpockets and thieves that may try to steal your backpack – so make sure to keep your important items safe and to never leave your backpack or suitcase unattended.
Beware of scams in Vietnam
Scams in Vietnam are actually quite common, so one of my best Vietnam travel tips is to beware of them.
The most typical scams are taxi scams. Drivers will ask you to agree to a price that is actually much higher than the fee you’d likely pay if you went by the meter; so ask to do that to be on the safe side (more about taxis and cabs in a bit).
Other scams happen at hotels – which is rather unfortunate. You will see that hotel owners / receptionists / managers will be asking about your travel plans in a rather pushy way, usually even before they check you in (and in fact, they do it even if they are overbooked and you need to go to another place!).
They want to sell tours so that they can get a percentage, and those tours are usually more expensive than what you’d pay at an agency. If that happens, you can either be very elusive in your responses or (my preferred method) say that you are not interested in tours and be prepared to stand your ground as they can be quite persistent.
Decide how to move around the country
Vietnam is connected to the rest of South East Asia by various budget airlines, so you are probably better off flying to Bangkok (to where you can get a cheap flights from most countries) and from there to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Once you get to Vietnam, you have to decide how to cover long distances. Words can’t describe the kind of absurd modes of transportation you may see. Anyways, back to the useful stuff for you.
Given the crazy traffic, one of my top Vietnam travel tips is to move across the country by plane, rather than by bus. I know this will make many environmentalists shriek, but frankly the traffic is so bad, the driving so mad (and dangerous), the honking so constant, the buses and minivans so uncomfortable (no leg room, bags and suitcases all over, falling off at every turn) and everything so slow (5 hours to cover 150 km – 93 miles – just to give an example) that you are infinitely better off hopping on a budget flight. Just make sure to check for hidden fees and to weight your luggage as baggage restrictions are often applied to the letter.
In some cases, you may want to move around by train – in fact, the night train is the best way of getting from Hanoi to the Sapa Valley. You will actually travel to Lao Cai, from where typically minivans pick up travelers to reach Sapa and other places in the region.
You can book your night train to Lao Cai here.
And how to move around Vietnamese cities
Moving around Vietnamese cities is super easy and you have several options available. Let me highlight the best ones.
By taxi / cab
Taxis in Vietnam are easily available everywhere, within cities and from airports to cities, and they are inexpensive. Drivers generally try to set a price, yet you should ask to pay by the meter.
However, you may want to download Grab – that’s the Southeast Asia version of Uber, which makes moving around cities super convenient. You may have to wait a bit longer than when hailing a taxi from the street, but it’s so easy and smooth that it’s definitely better.
Moto-taxi are found in all Vietnamese cities and they are a fast and cheap way to dodge local traffic. You can easily recognize them as the driver is usually waiting with his motorbike by the side of the road, and has two helmets. Agree on the price before hopping on.
By scooter or bike
I don’t actually recommend renting a scooter or a bike everywhere in Vietnam – only do it in smaller cities where there’s less traffic, for example in Hoi An. Remember that by local law you will have to wear a helmet.
Don’t panic when crossing the street
Crossing the street in Vietnam is no piece of cake – at least until you get used to it. Traffic is absolutely insane, with cars, trucks and especially scooters and motorbikes zipping everywhere and seemingly never stopping. In fact, they actually never stop – at least not for pedestrians.
Forget about looking for zebra lines or pedestrian crossing as drivers don’t seem to care about them. The only way to cross the street it to look for a (minor) break in traffic and move along confidently. You will find that scooters will slow down to let you cross, or just drive around you. By all means stay well alert as some drivers are even worse than their reputation would suggest.
You should also use caution walking along the street in any Vietnamese city. You will see that there are pavements, except they are not for pedestrians to walk on. Pavements are used as parking spots for scooters, motorbikes and bikes; they are used by shop owners to hang their merchandise; they are packed with tiny tables and stools for customers of the many street food stalls. In other words: anyone can use a sidewalk, but an actual pedestrian. You will just have to walk on the street and dodge the scooters as best you can.
Get a local SIM card
Literally all hotels and restaurants in Vietnam have decent working Wi-Fi, but if you want to navigate all the time (ie to use apps to call taxis etc) you are better off getting a local SIM card. Even places like Sapa and Ha Long Bay will have 4G reception.
Obviously, your phone has to be unlocked to accommodate a new SIM card. There are shops in every town that sell them for more than reasonable prices – especially if you only need data. You can pick among various companies including Viettel, MobiFone and Vinaphone. Viettel has by far the best service.
Avoid drinking tap water
One of the most important things to know before going to Vietnam is that tap water is not safe to drink. You can either buy bottled water – but plastic pollution is really an issue; or bring along a water bottle with a filter. I recommend LifeStraw.
Talk to local people
People in Vietnam hardly speak any English – in fact, even guides at times struggle to put together a sentence. That makes communication difficult.
But if you manage to master a few sentences in Vietnamese (here are my tips for learning a new language), a while world will open up for you, and you’ll soon realize that locals are actually way friendlier than you’d imagine. In fact, they are not nearly as conservative as you’d think. When my sister and I visited, we found this to be especially true in the south, where the heat was such that it was not uncommon to see girls dressed in tiny dresses, shorts and tank-tops.
Modest attire is required when visiting temples so make sure to always carry a light jacket or shawl you can throw on your shoulders.
Do a bit of shopping
With such convenient prices, you will want to shop in Vietnam. You will mainly have two kinds of items to look for:
SOUVENIRS – You can find them at any shop or market, and typically the asked price is much higher than the actual price and you are expected to haggle.
BRAND ITEMS – Many brands have their factories in Vietnam so you will commonly find items on sale in outlets. Keep in mind that the price won’t be too different from what you’d pay in North America or Europe – not unless the item is faulty or counterfeited (in which case, you really should avoid it).
Read reviews before booking local guided tours
This is one of my most heartfelt Vietnam travel tips!
Do a lot of research before booking any tour locally – read reviews carefully, and keep in mind that some reviews (especially on Trip Advisor) can be fake to the point that the tour you will be on won’t even remotely resemble the one you may have read about in reviews.
Let me tell you a bit more about my experience, for example.
My sister and I took 3 multi-day guided tours during our Vietnam trip. One of Ha Long Bay and one of Sapa Valley – which we bought from one of the most reputable company in Hanoi according to reviews; and one of the Mekong Delta which we bought in Saigon. We thought we had done a lot of careful research for the best options, considering the prices but also the itineraries, the attractions seen, the online reviews.
The tour of Ha Long Bay turned out to be quite good (though a bit repetitive with kayak being the main activity on offer); the one in Sapa Valley included a home stay in a place that was by no means suitable to accommodate tourists, and the local guide spoke almost no English; and the one of the Mekong Delta was plain bad, with a bus that didn’t have enough space to fit all travelers in the group (I am not kidding!), activities that were ethically questionable (ie petting a large python), and an attempt at a scam carried out by the captain of the boat.
Take this with a grain of salt, but when booking guided tours in Vietnam it may be actually better to go via a third party retailer site such as GetYourGuide or Viator. Prices tend to be more expensive than buying the tours locally, but you can trust the reviews as they can only be done by people who have taken the tour.
Garbage, pollution and responsible travel in Vietnam
I took the photo above myself in the Mekong Delta region as I wanted to have a reminder of what humans are capable of.
One of the best things to know before going to Vietnam is that the country is beyond dirty. Garbage is everywhere. Even places that are UNESCO protected like Ha Long Bay are covered in garbage (in this case, you can literally see it floating). Locals seem rather oblivious to the dirt and pollution that surrounds them, and many are adamant that it is every individual’s duty to contribute to keeping the world clean.
Similarly, Vietnam is still not implementing policies of animal welfare, and you will come across animals kept in dire conditions – ie pigs transported in a tight container perched on top of a motorbike dodging the crazy traffic.
The only thing that remains to do as a traveler is to leave as little footprint as possible – try to avoid single use plastic; don’t throw anything in the street; don’t get involved in any activity that involves the use of animals.
Here are some final, useful Vietnam travel tips.
Pack for any weather, especially if you are traveling in the spring, and be prepared for all sorts of conditions, from cold and wet to hot and sunny. Bring a warmer jacket, best if wind and water proof; a pair of hiking boots and hiking pants; a good thick sweater for when the temperatures drop at night in the North; and plenty of comfortable long cotton pants and t-shirts.
You will also be infinitely better off traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase: many places don’t have an elevator, and you will find yourself dodging your luggage up and down the boat when cruising on Ha Long Bay. It’s much easier to do that if you have a backpack.
Finally, don’t forget travel insurance
As for any other trip, I wholeheartedly recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Vietnam.
You can get yours here.
These posts may be useful when planning your trip to Vietnam:
- The Best Things To Do In Vietnam
- The Best Things To Do In Saigon
- The Best Things To Do In Hanoi
- The Best Day Trips From Hanoi