A few tips for the westerner traveling to Vietnam.
I started this list during a several hour stay at the DaNang Airport awaiting a flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. I thought it would be nice to put together some tips after traveling in this country for two weeks.
1. Modern – Vietnam is more modern than you may think. Ho Chi Minh City is a melting pot of people from all over the world. You can still find a lot of remnants of days gone by still being used today, but there are many things have been westernized and modern. All over the country we found good air conditioning, flushable toilets (Please note there are plenty of squat toilets also if you want to try), skyscrapers, world-class shopping, hot showers, and comfortable beds. The airports in Vietnam are so much nicer than some major ones in the US (e.g. LAX, LaGuardia!). Vietnamese domestic airlines far better a lot cheaper than the US (Why yes, I would love a chilled towel for my face). Wi-fi is everywhere, even on the beach in little Phu Quoc!
2. Taxi – Taxis are cheap in Vietnam and will get you where you need to go without worrying about how to navigate, especially in Saigon. Utilize only reputable companies to get you from place to place such as Vinason & MaiLinh. Most of their cabs have room for 4 to 6 people. Be aware of scammers! Fake cabs will basically rob you and blame it on traffic. The meters are rigged, they might try to switch money stating you paid 10,000 Dong instead of 100,000, or bring you to the middle of nowhere. Ensure the cab has the company name and shows the cab drivers picture by the meter. They will take credit, but Dong is easiest. Tipping is not required, but that is all up to you as most things in Vietnam you don’t tip. If you are going from downtown to District 6 it should not cost you more than $140,000.00 Dong (Roughly $6-8USD). I would not recommend riding on a motorbike unless you know the driver or have hired from a reputable company. I believe it is illegal in Vietnam for tourists to drive a motorbike.
- Quick Tip – Take the business card of your hotel to show the driver the address. Vietnamese is a tonal language and they appreciate if you try to speak it. However, you can easily confuse the driver of your destination just by enunciating a tone incorrectly.
3. Money – USD will get you anything in Vietnam. Ensure crispy new bills, but you will need Vietnamese Dong (VND). Central Post Office and out hotel he gave us a fair rate. Be aware of places that advertise no fee, that usually indicates a bad rate. Vietnamese Dong is all in thousands. At the time of this posting, one US Dollar equated to 21,500.00 VND. So, $100 USD will get you 2.15 million VND. Ensure to get smaller bills, but be aware you might have a lot of Dong to carry.
4. Street Food – Overall, street food Vietnam safe and is some of the best food in each city. Obviously, you need to use your own judgement, gut instincts, and know your personal medical background. Look for hustle and bustle of locals or scope out the operations before committing. The Vietnamese are great sales people and every restaurant or vendor one has the best for you “sir” or “madam.” They will literally argue for your business at the market, at the beach, or on the street. Just be calm, confident, and know what you want. Blogs & trip review sites are great at giving you the specifics on places to eat and places to avoid. There is a lot of turnover of the food and for the most part, you are safe.
- Quick Tip: Please ensure to a small amount pack Tums, Pepto, and Immodium just in case.
￼5. Garbage – Be prepared for a lot of rubbish all over, especially in the big cities. There are beautiful places right next to open spaces which have basically been turned into landfills. Garbage in the street, garbage in the sewer, stinky puddles of some kind of water that you might not want to step in… There is beauty and culture amongst the garbage, but as a Westerner it is definitely a change. Beaches and water can have garbage (plastic bags) in them sometimes, especially after a storm. If you are staying in a high-end resort, someone is probably cleaning the beach several times a day. However, most of the beaches are not pristine like you would find in Hawai’i. My advice is to expect it, don’t dwell on it, and just be open to the difference in the cultures.
6. Ice – Water – Beer Culture – The Vietnamese do not utilize ice as much, drink as much water, or make cocktails like you find in the United States. Unless you go to a Westernized cocktail bar, you may find disappointment in the selection and availability of cocktails. We dreamt of pina coladas on the beach, but we found it to be a huge disappointment and an expensive one. Budweiser is considered fancy beer and not readily available. You will most likely see Tiger, 333 (BaBaBa), Heineken, or the very cheap, but good Saigon. I love a big bottle of beer for 50 cents! Restaurants (not all street vendors to my knowledge) are required to use filtered ice. You should only drink, canned, bottled, or boiled water/beverages when in Vietnam. It is common and custom to drink the beer from a glass with ice. Just don’t expect full glasses of ice and waters to be full at every meal like in the US.
7. Fan – Hand fans are cheap and all over. They will cool you quickly and be your best friend by the end of the trip. They also can be very nice and a great souvenir.
8. Passports – If you stay at a hotel in Vietnam, they will ask for and keep your passport at least overnight. Sometimes it is only the person who booked the room and sometimes it is the entire party. They will give it back the next day or before you check out. So when you have a panic moment wondering where your passport is, remember the front desk has it. If they don’t keep it, ensure to utilize your safe as you don’t need to carry it around with you everywhere you go.
- Quick Tip: Make multiple photocopies of your passports and visa. Take one with you and leave one at home in case the real one was ever lost.
9. Visas – If you are an American, you will need a visa to enter Vietnam. There are some services when you arrive at the airport, but I would not recommend it. Instead, apply for your visa’s from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington D.C. well in advance of your trip. Follow the instructions provided and determine what type of visa you will need, single entry, multiple entry, or other. Prices vary, but our single entry visa at the end of 2014 was $100US per person. The multiple entry was $150US per person. You will need to include a money order or cashiers check, your passports (yes, your actual passport), and a certified pre-paid return envelope. The embassy will process and if approved, will apply a visa directly into your passport. I think there is a loose-leaf option, but I prefer this route as it makes it very convenient.
10. Walking Shoes – Ensure you bring well broken in shoes for your trip. Sandals are a must as you may take off your shoes a lot upon entering a home. My advice is bring a few well-worn pairs that can be dressed up or down. Moleskin and corn pads for blisters are a must do. You can pick these up at your local drugstore. They are invaluable when you have a pinky toe blister or worn the ball of your foot raw due to all the walking.