So I just finished a whirlwind and way too short trip to Vietnam. It was an awesome experience and I really liked the place! I would like share some Vietnam Travel Tips from my experience to make your trip easier. I’ll do the work so you don’t have to!
An easy country to travel
Vietnam is in a sense an extremely easy country to visit. The country is developing quickly with close to 6% annual economic growth meaning that there are many facilities we would expect in the Western world. So you will find better-off locals yapping in the latest iPhone while waiting in the Starbucks for their driver with Range Rover to bring them to the airport to catch a domestic flight, and taking an Uber ride at the arrival airport.
Furthermore as a popular country to visit there is a whole infrastructure in place to cater for the tourism industry. There are travel agents everywhere to arrange trips, transport and such. Trips to popular tourist sites are easily available and well organised making for stress free travel if that is your thing.
A wide selection of restaurants and bars is available, from the 0,20 Euro Bia Hoi beer on the corner to swanky 15 Euro cocktails in an ultra-hip rooftop bar. Accommodation is also there to cater for every budget and can easily be arranged through Agoda, Booking or AirBnB.
Of course as you will go off the well-worn tourist trail it will be a bit more adventurous. But that is probably what you are looking for anyway…
You can visit Vietnam from a week of highlights to a cross country motorcycle journey of several months. The country has enough to offer for a multitude of itineraries. On my trip with my sadly limited time I visited some the highlights for any Vietnam first-timer:
Hanoi: spend 1-2 days here, strolling around the Old Quarter and visiting the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Sapa: half a day from Hanoi, stay at least 2 full days in the mountains here. Do a 2 day trek with a night in homestay, or a 1day trek and 1 day on a motorcycle.
Halong Bay: Very touristy but a must-see in Vietnam. A few hours from Hanoi and easily done using the very popular overnight cruises. You can also extend to stay on Cat Ba island.
Hue: visit the Imperial Citadel, and the imperial tombs in the surrounding countryside. Allow 1-2 days.
Hoi An: a beautiful albeit somewhat ‘Disneyfied’ colonial town. Stay at least 2 days to eat the great food here, stroll around town and visit the nearby beach.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): the bustling metropolis requires at least 2 days. One to wander around, and another to visit the War Remnants Museum and Chu Ci tunnels to remember the impact of the Vietnam War on the country.
Mekong Delta: An easy 1 or 2 day visit to this river area from Ho Chi Minh City.
Other popular destinations are which i didn’t visit (yet!):
Phong Nha: Home to some of the biggest caves in the world
Nha Trang: Vietnams beach resort town. Very developed and touristy.
Phu Quoc: Tropical island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand. Go quickly before the newly opened international airport brings in the masses.
Most nationalities require a visa to enter Vietnam. Exceptions are some Asian and European countries if your stay is limited to 15 or 30 days. Please check online what the current visa requirement is for your nationality.
Getting a visa is a relatively easy process. You will need an approval letter from the Vietnamese immigration department. This letter can be arranged online using one of the many Vietnamese visa agencies. I used myvietnamvisa and was very happy with the service but there are many agencies if you google ‘vietnam visa’. Myvietnamvisa has a normal and express service. My letter using the normal process took about 3 working days to arrive as scan by e-mail. The cost of getting your approval letter at Myvietnamvisa is between 14 and 45 USD depending on size of your group, normal or express processing, 1 or 3 month visa, and single or multiple entry visa.
With the approval letter, your passport valid for at least 6 months, two passport photos and a filled in entry form you go to the visa desk at one of the international airports (Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Hanoi). You will receive a visa after which you can enter the country. The fee is 25 USD for a single entry visa and 50 USD for a multiple entry visa. This can only be paid cash in USD at the visa desk so ensure you have some US cash on you!
You will ATM’s virtually everywhere in more populated areas. I could easily use my Dutch bankcard to withdraw money. Of course do check with your bank if bank card is set for international use. Credit cards were also accepted in many hostels but in general cash was more convenient.
Many prices (rooms, tourist trips) are priced in USD but can be paid in VND. Just be aware of the exchange rate although I did not have any negative experiences with this.
The Vietnamese like to do business, hustle and trade. Also Confucianism plays an important role in Vietnamese culture and society. An core element in Confucianism is social harmony, knowing ones place in society and playing that role.
Combining these elements means that there is no shame in trying to get money of a richer person. And that richer person has no issue with paying more following to their place in society. So as a ‘rich’ tourist you will be hustled for higher prices. As always in these cases, stay friendly, make a joke and negotiate. It’s part of the game and do not feel personally offended. And remember, the rich Vietnamese businessman driving up in a fancy car will also be dealing with the same.
Internet, both by fixed and mobile means, is very well available in Vietnam. The country is ranked 16th worldwide in Internet users, higher than other SE-Asian countries.
You will find Wifi available for free in most hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. Even little local homestays in the middle of nowhere often had Wifi available to my surprise! In my experience in general internet speeds were ok if not always at what we are used to in the Western world.
As in most Asian countries mobile telephony and internet is widespread. There are 4 main operators in Vietnam: Viettel, Vinaphone, Mobifone and Vietnamobile.
Of the operators Viettel has the largest market share and is considered to have the best coverage in the country. This as they are military owned and used and thus the network coverage is essential. Viettel offers up to 3G mobile internet connectivity and is supposed to roll out 4G in urban areas at some point in 2016.
In my experience traveling around Vietnam I got pretty solid 3G signal virtually everywhere only incidentally dropping to lower speeds like Edge (E). I spoke to two British guys who traveled all along the country on motor bikes and said they had 3G coverage pretty much their whole trip.
On arriving at the main international airports you can get a prepaid ‘Tourist’ SIM. You will find the little booths in the arrival area. This package offers data, local calls and international calls to selected countries. It was priced at 290.000 VND (12 Euro). As I didn’t need the call credit I requested a cheaper card with only data and a little call credit for emergencies but was told they didn’t sell these at the airport.
So next day I walked into a local shop in Hanoi and got a prepaid SIM card with 2,5 Gb of data for 100.000 VND (4 Euro). I later topped this up with another 3,5 Gb of data for 50.000 VND (2 Euro).
Although Vietnam is not a hard country to arrange travel, the actual travel itself can be harder as it is a big country and roads are not always the best.
Below you find a nice travel map with the distances between some of the main towns.
Motorbike and scooter
A popular way for many adventurous travelers is crossing the country by motorcycle. It gives you total freedom where and when to go which is in my opinion the best way to travel. It also gives you a better interaction with the Vietnamese people as you are more exposed to your surroundings, and you will probably be off the beaten tourist trail. It is easy to sell and buy motorbikes both in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as these are the main starting and finishing points. Go to any backpackers hostel and you will see many buy/sell ads. Also there are various shops that sell you a new bike at approx 600 USD and buy it back at the end of your trip at for example 65% of the price.
You should schedule something like 6-8 weeks to cross the country for a good mix of driving and rest/sightseeing.
If that is a step too far you can take baby steps by renting a scooter to explore a city and its immediate surroundings. This should cost you about 60.000-100.000 VND (2,5 – 4 Euro) per day. A good place to do this for instance would be Hue as the imperial tombs spread out in the rural countryside make for a great day trip. Another popular day trip is the drive from Hue to Hoi An (or vice versa) over the beautiful Hai Van Pass. One of the most beautiful driving roads in the world according to BBC’s Top Gear!
Be aware that driving a motorcycle or scooter as non-Vietnamese is officially not allowed. In general police will not stop you (unlike for instance in Bali). But if an accident happens you will have yourself a difficult situation…
If you do not feel comfortable to drive yourself there are many ‘Easyrider’ outfits. You will be a passenger on a motorcycle and be shown around. I have no personal experience of these but have heard many positive experiences from travelers.
Taxi and motorcycle taxi
Walking in any Vietnamese town you will be quickly offered transport by the motorcycle taxi guys (‘Xe Om’). It is a good way to get around town but make clear agreements on prices. A short ride in town should not be more than 25.000 VND (1 Euro).
Taking a taxi in Vietnam can be a stressful experience. Refusal to use the meter, rigged meters, sudden surcharges, dropping you off at another hotel. The stories are countless…
The taxi companies recommended by everybody are Mai Linh and Vinasun as these tend to be honest. However as everything in Vietnam, any good operation quickly creates dodgy copycats… So check closely the brand name and logo of the taxi if it a genuine one.
The most popular and budget friendly way around Vietnam is by bus. You general have two type of buses, a ‘sitting’ bus and a ‘sleeper’ bus. The sleeper bus can be a good option for overnight travel. You might get some sleep and don’t loose to much time as you are traveling at night. On the other hand if you are a light sleeper you will have a sleepless night and arrive at your destination grumpy only wanting to go to bed… Also be aware that the double stacked reclined sleeper seat mean that you can never really sit upright. And taller western people have mentioned that it is a tight fit for them. For me? I value my sleep and took a sitting bus to Sapa and it was a nice one.
In general facilities on the bus are good. You’ll get a blanket, bottle of water and maybe even a light meal or snack and the bus usually has (slow 3G) Wifi. With the many bus lines the roadside service station in Vietnam are often pretty big and have everything from several restaurants to souvenir shops.
A very popular option with budget minded travelers are the ‘open tickets’. With these you go across Vietnam stopping and staying at all the most popular tourist destinations for as little as 30 Euro.
Domestic air travel
With the economic growth of Vietnam air travel is becoming ever more popular. The growing middle class and competitive fares make it the preferred option for many to travel. Most flights I took were almost fully booked. You can find fares for as low as 10 Euro for popular domestic routes.
Despite the grow in air traffic and busy aircraft and airports I found everything functioning quite well. Checking in, security, boarding never took much time and I usually was from street to gate in less than 15 minutes.
There are currently three main airlines serving domestic routes. Vietnam Airlines is the full service carrier. Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet are low cost carriers (LCC). Vietjet often has the best fares, especially when you can book in advance.
All airlines use modern Western aircraft. Vietnam Airlines is actually one of the first users of new types such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.
However, Vietjet has a reputation of often rescheduling flights. You might see say 10 flights from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City scheduled. But in reality depending on how much passengers there are they may cancel several flights. The booked passengers are combined on the remaining flights. I have not personally heard this from fellow travelers but there are enough stories going round. So I would only recommend using Vietjet if you can really get a good fare and have room in your travel plans for any rescheduling.
Vietjet is also known to be very strict on the weight and size of your carry-on luggage so check this in advance to avoid any hidden costs!
When I booked my domestic flights (about 2 weeks in advance) the price differences with Vietnam Airlines was minimal (less than 5 Euro per segment) so I selected Vietnam Airlines. My fares were 40 Euro for Saigon to Hanoi, 34 Euro for Hanoi to Hue and 23 Euro for Da Nang to Saigon. Regarding price development over time, I did some checking on flight prices 1-2 days in advance. These were in general twice as much as I paid earlier. For instance Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was close to 50 Euro instead of the 23 Euro I paid.
A tip when booking with Vietnam Airlines, often their website has problems with processing foreign credit cards. The way to solve this is to switch to the Australian site by clicking on the country flag on top of the website. I also encountered this issue and this solution worked for me.
Furthermore I also noticed Vietnam Airlines flights do not always show up in popular flight search engines such as Skyscanner. I searched and booked my flight directly on their website.
Do you want to know more about transport, accommodation and restaurants and bars for specific destinations in Vietnam? See my other posts about my experiences during my trip to Vietnam!
Have you been to Vietnam? Do you have any travel tips to help your fellow travellers? Leave them in the comments below!
Menno has had the travel bug ever since spending his childhood in the tropics. In 2013 he left his office career and is now diving and sailing the world.
He enjoys sharing the beautiful underwater world and exploring remote islands. He gets his kicks when he can help fellow travelers have an amazing life-changing experience.