Vietnam is a wonderful country with some of the kindest lovely people I've met. The people and food will keep me coming back here.
It's a big country and I feel I barely scratched the surface in four weeks. There are a handful of places on the tourist trail (all are covered below) but there are huge areas of the country that are totally untouched by tourism. Even many of the popular areas mostly resist western food unlike Thailand and other countries in S.E. Asia. Who needs burgers and pizzas when the Vietnamese food is so diverse, delicious, cheap and relatively unknown?
I spent a total of 4 months in Vietnam during 2015.
I have made a separate Vietnamese food guide as a lot of my time in Vietnam was spent researching and learning about the amazing food and finding the best places.
This guide is based on my budget and the research I've done. I'm not suggesting the hotels are the best, I only need simple guesthouses. There are much nicer hotels available and there are also cheap dorms (though not everywhere). I clearly focus on the local food lots, so if you don't care about the food then most of the guide won't be of interest. Hopefully everyone will find at least a few things useful though!
Perhaps the biggest negative of Vietnam is the stupid visa process. It's especially frustrating for a traveller like me who likes to be flexible with my plans. You have to decide your entry date at the point of applying for your visa. If you enter the country after that date then your 30 days (or whatever visa you get) will be cut short accordingly. It's also the most expensive tourist visa I've ever had.
Your options are:
- Go to an embassy: This obviously requires you to be in a city with a Vietnamese embassy. It takes anywhere between a day and five days, I think. The price usually depends on how quickly you need it. Standard price seems to be over $65 USD. Weirdly, being organised and doing this when you're in your home country seems to be a very good way of wasting a lot of money. I've heard that it costs well over $100. Note that they keep your passport during the processing time.
- Go through a tour/travel agency: If you're not in a city with an embassy, agencies can send your passport off to an embassy. I think it costs a little more but not entirely sure.
- Online visa on arrival: This is the option I went for and most people I know have done. I used myvietnamvisa.com and although these sites aren't strictly official, they are well-known and I haven't heard of any issues. You pay $20 (for a one month visa) to the website in return for a 'letter of approval' which they send you in 2-3 working days. You will have to print out the letter (along with another form - the instructions are very easy) and hand it in when you arrive at the airport (this option isn't possible over land) along with passport photos, your passport and $45. Make sure you have the US Dollars with you as it will make life much easier. You will have to wait while they process your visa. It took about an hour for me the first time and then only 10 minutes on my second visit but it totally depends how many other people there are doing the same. The whole process is backwards but in my opinion it's much better (and usually cheaper) than the other options.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Vietnamese people are some of the nicest I've met. They sometimes have a bad reputation amongst travellers but I think you'd have to be very unlucky to leave the country with any negative feelings. One example would be when I was in the north of Phú Quốc, lying in a hammock in an area with no one around. Two young Vietnamese guys arrived with a watermelon and called me over to join them. We sat for about an hour, talking (mainly with the help of Google Translate), drinking beer and eating their watermelon. They were so friendly and even paid for my beer (without me knowing). These acts of friendship and kindness were quite regular.
The younger generations are particularly generous and will go out of their way to show you around, especially in places like Saigon. Some of my best experiences in Vietnam were with locals in Saigon actually.
Something I noticed many times (too many to ignore) but never saw in any of the other neighbouring countries, was that the Vietnamese seem to be quite unaware of their surroundings at times. It's fairly hard to explain but almost daily I would see someone walk out in front of me, or more likely, back their scooter from the pavement to the road without looking and almost hit me. This is most noticeable on the roads where if a scooter is joining a main road from a side street (which happens constantly), they will never look first. It is totally down to the vehicles on the main road to avoid them and beep the horn to tell the joining traffic not to come out too far into the road. This is how it works all over Vietnam. It works because everyone adheres to it but it's the opposite of every other country I've ever driven in. It seems to go hand-in-hand with my observations. It might seem weird to mention this but it was something that I found very different about the Vietnamese people.
Vietnamese Dong (VND) is the main currency. US Dollars are accepted in lots of places but only do this as a last resort. Lots of tourist prices (such as hotel rooms and activities but not really for food) are listed in USD, which can be very annoying as the exchange rates will vary when you then go to pay in Dong. So when negotiating a price for a room, it's probably best to do it in Dong.
Outside of the big cities, it can be difficult getting large sum of cash from an ATM and each time you will be charged a hefty fee. So if you find a good ATM (I think there are some in Saigon with free withdrawals), make the most of them and gets as much out as you're comfortable with.
$1 is approximately 20,000 dong. Actually it's just over that but 20,000 is the standard rate used by most people.
When I stayed for a month in Saigon I spent less than 400,000d per day for everything. This includes a private room with A/C (200,000d), scooter rental (35,000d if renting for a while), fuel (10,000d), meals (100,000d), coffee (30,000d), snacks (20,000d) and bottled water (10,000d).
One of the many reasons I love Vietnam is that their use of the Latin alphabetic script (the dominant writing system for about 100 years) means you can at least attempt to learn some words. My food-based vocabulary was pretty high by the end, which was very useful for the many many places without an English menu and no English-speaking staff.
Although the language is based on the same alphabet as our, they have lots of accents on the letters and the language is very tonal. This makes speaking the language pretty difficult. The most commonly mispronounced word by foreigners is Phở. It's said a bit like "fur" but prolonged and definitely not "foe". Whilst expanding my Vietnamese vocabulary, I opted to ignore the accents on the letters and just memorise the plain letters. This made it easier to learn but then there is the possibility of mixing up words. For example I walked passed a restaurant with "Phô" in the name and I said to my Vietnamese friend "Fuur!" and he said "That is foe, not fuur!" which totally confused me as I knew my pronunciation of the noodle soup dish was fine. It turns out "Phô" means city and the restaurant was called something like "Noodle City". The difference between Phô (city) and Phở (noodle soup) is very subtle for us stupid foreigners. So most tourists are actually asking for "city" for lunch.
The standard of food is so high in Vietnam that you'll probably have a great meal anywhere but it's definitely worth doing research. Foody.vn is a great site/app used by Vietnamese people a bit like how we use Yelp and TripAdvisor but it's more focused on the food (use Google Translate).
More so than neighbouring countries, I found that almost all of the best food was from food stalls or road-side simple 'restaurants' with tiny plastic chairs. Like in Malaysia, I loved that the locals (especially the younger generations) are extremely passionate about food. Most people are foodies!
I've put together a list of food-based words (coming soon) to help you translate when you're in one of the many places without an English menu.
Be sure to check out my custom map at the bottom of the guide for my favourite food locations along with short descriptions.
Local draught beer (Bia Saigon and Bia Hơi) tends to be 4,000 - 10,000 dong when available. That's damn cheap!
The drinking culture amongst the locals varied across the country but it was actually quite rare to see young people out drinking alcohol. There are areas where it's popular to go out late to drink coffee and tea with friends. You will find pockets of older men drinking lots of cheap beer and getting a bit rowdy, especially in Hanoi.
"Bia Hơi" refers to the type of cheap beer but also the type of street bar where it is served (mostly around Hanoi). It's usually served in a particular type of beer glass made in one town.
Tourist areas cater to the drinking needs of their clientele. In Saigon's District 1, the streets are lined with rows of tiny seats all facing the road, all meant for beer-drinking tourists.
There is Vietnamese wine. I tried some from Da Lat and didn't like it but you might find some that's nice! It was ridiculously cheap.
Iced green tea ("trà đá") is regularly served for either very cheap (a few thousand dong) or free (especially in coffee shops). It's a good option to help you cool down and rehydrate.
Vietnam is famous for its coffee ("cà phê"), due to the influence of the former French colonists. I drank it almost every day. As the weather got colder towards the north, I loved having a hot coffee but in the south I usually needed it to be iced. The coffee is very strong and the standard way is to be given a cup with a small metal pot sitting on top, filtering into the cup. Usually sweetened condensed milk is put in the cup beforehand in place of fresh milk (which isn't readily available) and sugar, however I prefer my coffee back with no sugar. In Hanoi there is a famous "egg coffee" which is very sweet and delicious!
Roads & Travel
Taxis, GrabTaxi and Uber
Unless you're staying for a long time, the cheapest way to get around the cities is GrabTaxi and Uber (using promo code uberFreeRidePG), or more specifically GrabBike and Uber Moto. Use the respective apps to send for a scooter - it's much cheaper and faster than a car. Rides will typically cost between 10,000d and 20,000d. Renting your own scooter will probably cost 70,000 - 150,000d per day, so that's a lot of journeys to make it worth renting one! It's safer than it looks too.
Buying a motorbike
It's extremely common for travellers to buy a motorbike in Vietnam and sell it before leaving. Bikes tend to cost between $150 and $300. Most either go from Hanoi to Saigon or vice-versa so those are the best places to buy and sell. Allow enough time to sell without desperately selling for a loss.
Renting a scooter
Scooter rental can be very cheap especially if you're staying in one place for a while. I got an automatic scooter for 1,000,000d ($45) for 4 weeks in Saigon. Renting between two towns is possible in some places but the cost increases significantly. I usually recommend having a scooter while you're in one of the cities as it allows you to explore freely, but if you're visiting for less than a month and there's a cheap taxi service (see above) then renting doesn't really make sense.
In Saigon, there is always motorbike parking for restaurants, cafes and bars. There is usually an attendant waiting outside to direct you and you will most likely be given a little ticket. It will either be free ("giữ xe miễn phí") or 5,000d.
Amazingly, helmets are a legal requirement and it's actually enforced so almost everyone wears one (which is very rare for Asia).
There's a train line that connects the north and south. It's safe, easy and I highly recommend it as a way of getting around the country. Even my worst experience on the train was better than a bus journey. I've been on multiple trains up and down the country, including a few overnight sleeper trains and had a good night's sleep (although it can get cold with the A/C). You can book directly at the train station or online. The official website is DSVN.vn but it's all in Vietnamese and you can't use international credit cards, so I used Baolau which is really easy to use and only charge a small fee. Seat61 has some useful info.
I had good experiences with the local buses. Very cheap and seemed perfectly safe. Also more fun than a boring taxi. It helps if you have Google Maps (either pre-loaded or even better if you have 3G) for making sure you get off at the right stop.
Crossing the road
Please look at the separate Surviving Saigon guide. Basically just walk out slowly and the scooters will flow around you.
Joining from side roads
As I said in the People section, there is a (probably unwritten) rule that it is up to the drivers on the main road to watch out for vehicles (usually scooters) joining from a side road. The joining traffic pulls out and doesn't look first. Vehicles on the main road are meant to beep their horn to let the joining traffic know that they're there and then, if possible move over to give them space. In every other country I've driven in, it's the responsibility of the joining vehicle to check.
I generally hate night buses and sometimes you just have to do it. In Vietnam the 'bed' is so small that it's impossible for me to get comfortable. Winding roads and beeping also make it difficult to sleep. I highly recommend having some pills on you to help you sleep. I've done many night buses with and many without the aid of sleeping pills and I know which I prefer!
These can be extremely cheap, especially if you plan ahead and book early with Jetstar. I got a night bus down to Phu Quoc from Saigon and then flew back which was a hundred times better. Sorry, environment.
It should be easy enough to get your laundry done at your guesthouse or hostel. Expect to pay around 15,000d per kg.
Tết (Vietnamese new year)
Usually around the end of January or early February (it's 8th February in 2016), the country somewhat shuts down for a few days. It's not generally a party festival which you can join in, instead the Vietnamese tend to celebrate at home for a few days (which is why businesses shut down). Beware that getting a visa from an embassy during this time might not be possible. Friends of mine had to wait over a week while in Laos before they were able to get a visa for Vietnam.
National Day / Independence Day
Held on 2nd September to commemorate the Declaration of Independence from France in 1945. It's a national holiday and some people will return to their home town but apparently it's not a big celebration and you might not even notice anything different.