After spending a month in Vietnam, I can confidently say that I am not an expert on the country. But I can give you some helpful advice.
In my opinion, Vietnam is a must visit country in South East Asia. It has beautiful nature, charming towns, and an incredibly rich culture and history. Not to mention the delicious Vietnamese cuisine. It can seem a bit overwhelming at first, from the visa process to the unfamiliar language and currency. But once you get used to the chaos and get out of the city, you’ll find stunning landscapes and friendly locals.
These tips should help you be a bit better prepared than I was, with a few things you should know before you visit Vietnam:
The traffic is crazy
I was warned by several people about the crazy traffic in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Having been to South East Asia before, I thought I knew what to expect, but I was not ready for the chaos of Hanoi. The number of motorbikes and the seemingly crazy way in which they drive can be overwhelming at first. You’ll see many tourists inching their way along the roads, trying to dodge all the vehicles.
But if you look closer, you’ll notice that the traffic really isn’t that crazy and chaotic at all. It may not follow the same traffic rules as you’re used to, but there are definitely rules in place. Big is king in Vietnam, which means that smaller vehicles make space for bigger vehicles. In practice, this means never step in front of a bus. They will not stop.
You have to imagine the streets as an ocean. The motorbikes are like a school of fish that weave around the bigger fish (cars) and whales (buses and trucks). They use every bit of available space, but don’t drive that fast. Every motorbike driver keeps an eye on the people in front of them, so everyone is paying attention, and they honk loudly to signal their approach.
The trick to navigating this organised chaos as a pedestrian is by being predictable. Walk slowly but confidently and the motorbikes will swerve around you. Do stop for cars and buses. They won’t stop for you 😉
You’ll have no idea what you’re eating
The best food in South East Asia is street food. The same goes in Vietnam. You can literally spend your whole day just walking around and tasting every interesting looking dish.
Most street food vendors and restaurant owners in big cities will speak a few words of English, but don’t expect them to be able to explain much about the dish. Google Translate can help you ask about specific ingredients or allergens, but most of the time you’re better off not knowing exactly what’s in your dish. Some places, especially the ones that sell dog and cat meat will have a picture on a sign outside.
A few helpful things to know:
Ga – Chicken
Bo – Beef
Chay – vegetarian
Com – Rice
Pho – Rice noodle (soup)
Mi – Instant noodle
Bia – Beer
Always be careful when eating street food, make sure to have meat cooked to order and visit stalls with a quick turnover. You don’t want to eat something that’s been lying out in the sun for a while. The same goes for peeled fruit and uncooked vegetables. You can only drink tap water if you filter it, for instance by using a Lifestraw bottle.
Places to visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a big country with a very convenient shape. Most people start in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and make their way up or down to the other end of Vietnam.
There are several tourist destinations everyone hits along the way, such as Halong Bay, Hoi An, and Dalat. You’ll likely run into the same people again and again.
Travelling in Vietnam can be slow so give yourself enough time. I went for a month and still had to skip several places because I didn’t have enough time.
If you plan to drive a motorbike, you will need at least a month but preferably 3, unless you plan to do just a part by motorbike.
How to get a visa for Vietnam
I met a couple of girls on my trip who told me about their flight over from Thailand, which they almost miss because they didn’t have a visa or outgoing flight for Vietnam. Travel lesson to be learned: always do your research. Depending on your nationality, you might not need a visa to enter certain countries, but Vietnam likely isn’t one of them.
The Vietnamese visa process is notorious for being slow and complicated, although it has been significantly improved in recent years. Lots of nationalities can now apply for an e-visa, if you are arriving by airplane, which I highly recommend. If you are traveling to Vietnam over land, your country has not been allowed for e-visa or if you want to stay for more than 30 days you will have to pre-apply for a visa, usually through an embassy.
The visa process can be difficult as you’ll need a sponsor letter from a Vietnamese company and approval can take several days. Luckily, a lot of companies can now help you navigate the visa process for a small additional fee. Vietnam-visa.com has been helping people get a visa for Vietnam without all the hassle for over 10 years, so they know what they are doing!
How to bargain and haggle
Bargaining and haggling over prices is a big part of the Vietnamese culture. You’ll see locals discussing prices before buying anything on the market, and you can bet they’re charging tourists extra.
You can bargain over almost anything, except the price of food or in supermarkets. Regular shops and markets always quote you a higher price and you’re expected to negotiate. Spa’s, hotels, guides, and tours will sometimes also give you a better price if you ask, especially groups or multiple days stays. It is worth checking out a few places to get a sense of what a fair price would be.
Tours and tickets booked through hotels are always more expensive than if you get them at a booking office. If you need to change money, jewelry shops will give you the best exchange rates.
Have you visited Vietnam? What additional advice would you give? Let me know in the comments.
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