Vietnam can be a country of extremes. When it’s hot, it’s really, really hot. When it rains, oceans pour from the sky. Between the months of May through October, you should be prepared for both.
From HCMC to Sapa, Hoi An to Can Tho the topography changes as do the customs, the climate and even the language. First-time travellers to Vietnam’s cities often report feeling overwhelmed by the throngs of people in the tourist zones and the seemingly unbreakable walls of traffic, yet, a trip by wooden boat along the Mekong river will transport you back to a time before modernity ruled.
Read on to discover our list of the top 20 things you should do to prepare for Vietnam’s extraordinary contrasts and experiences.
1. Don’t Underestimate the Weather
In HCMC, between the months of May to October, you should be prepared for both sweltering temperatures and soaking wet shoes. However, as a trade-off you’ll be treated to frequent, impressive lightning shows.
Unlike Saigon, Hanoi has four seasons with very hot and sticky summers and bitterly cold and humid winters. You’ll need more than your linen beach clothes to keep you warm if you travel North.
Pack layers, waterproof shoes, bug spray and plenty of sunscreen. Forget something? Don’t panic. Head to one of Vietnam’s numerous markets to stock up on almost anything you can imagine.
Have a headache? Feeling lethargic? You’re probably dehydrated. Don’t slack on your water intake.
2. Embrace the Nap
Photos of Vietnamese taking a midday snooze in random locations have become an internet phenomenon. To keep up your energy while travelling, do as the locals do and take a break in the afternoon.
Image source: asiatourism.news
Head out to see the sights early in the morning or after 5 p.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day. Attractions such as temples and churches are usually not air-conditioned, and the heat combined with the crowds can be tiring.
Not a nap person? Choose a calming coffee shop to step out of the city chaos, catch up on your emails and throw a few jealousy-inducing social media posts online for your friends back home.
3. Eat Everything but Beware
Vietnamese food is delicious and you will want to try it all. Go ahead and buy a kilo of those strange looking purple fruit, but be aware of hygiene when you’re eating street food. To be cautious, opt for vendors with a good crowd in front of their stands. Another way to be sure of what you’re eating is to book a street food tour.
Always wash or peel your fruits and vegetables and avoid drinking water out of the tap.
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4. Keep Your Phone and Wallet Out of Sight
Violent crime is rare, but like any large cities, both have their fair share of pickpockets. Be especially aware in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao, known as the backpackers’ district. Carry a purse with a strap that goes across your body and keep it in front of you.
Never put your passport in your backpack. Either put it in a special carrying case that fits under your clothes or leave it in the safe at your (reputable) hotel.
5. Get Your Hotel Details
Remember to take your hotel’s business card to make your return to the hotel much easier by handing it to your taxi, xe om, or cyclo driver.
6. Leave the Plastic at the Hotel
Vietnam, especially once you get out of the major cities, is still a cash-based economy. Most places won’t accept credit cards and ATMs can be scarce.
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7. Walk Slowly when Crossing the Street
Forget the epic colours of Halong Bay and the windy beaches of Mui Ne, the single most impressive sight in Vietnam is seeing a line of people crossing the street as a torrent of motorbikes hurtle towards them. Newcomers to Vietnam may find the practice of stepping into traffic more than a little terrifying but there is a logic to the madness.
Motorbikes are trying to anticipate your movements to avoid hitting you, so keep a slow and steady pace. It’s also advisable to hold out your arm to let the cyclists know that you are actually crossing the street. In Hanoi, people often hold hands and walk across in single file, but in HCMC where traffic lights are a bit more au courant this practice is less common. Traffic lights don’t mean traffic will stop, however. Be prepared for stragglers to still cross after the light changes and those who are turning right won’t wait for you to clear the street. Never try to test your might with the buses.
Always be aware of everything around you whether you’re crossing the street or walking on a sidewalk. Roads can be an abstract concept in Vietnam’s cities.
8. Motorbike Safety
If you’re going to brave the traffic on a bike, make sure you take proper precautions. Always wear a helmet, avoid dangly jewellery, flip flops and miniskirts and clip your bag to the bike to keep it safe from snatchers. Also, see if there is a storage area underneath the seat. If you have the app on your phone it is easy to hail a Grab motorbike from anywhere in the cities.
Image source: oivietnam.com
9. Sidewalk Parking Lots
Parking space for motorbikes in Vietnam is at a premium and some pavements have become de facto parking lots. Sometimes this means that pedestrians have no option but to share the road with traffic. In this case, be on high alert and get back to the sidewalk as soon as possible.
Image source: citypassguide.com
While tipping is not always expected, especially at local restaurants, international venues have become used to the practice. Leave enough for a coffee: VND5,000-10,000.
11. Cover up
When visiting temples or pagodas, make sure to bring that extra scarf to cover your shoulders. Remember that you are visiting a piece of history so show some respect and follow the rules of the place of worship. Some locations will have loose robes that you can rent and don during your visit.
12. Don’t Trust the Taxi Meter
Ripping off unsuspecting passengers is an art form for dishonest drivers. Most taxi drivers are not frauds but to be safe, stick with reliable companies such as Hanoi Taxi, Mai Linh and Vinasun. Get out of any taxi that refuses to turn on the meter. Or for a sure thing just book a car through Grab. You can see the price on the app ahead of time.
It is now a law to buckle up in Vietnam, yet many taxis do not come complete with functional safety belts. Do your best by using your seatbelt whenever one is available.
If your trip costs VND17,000 dong and you only have VND20,000 the driver will often expect the extra as a tip. It’s a nice gesture to let them keep the change if you’re happy with their service.
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13. Be a Sensitive Photographer
Get permission before taking anyone’s photograph. Most people in Vietnam love having their picture taken and will ask to have one with you, but it’s always nice to ask. Also, there are some places like Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or military buildings where taking photos is prohibited.
If you have children don’t be surprised if people ask to take pictures with the kids. Children, especially those that look different than the local population, can be treated like superstars with the paparazzi to match.
14. Don’t lose your temper
In heated discussions, keep your cool and don’t raise your voice. Losing your temper is considered a serious loss of face for both parties and should be avoided. Try to maintain a cool demeanor and you will be reciprocated in kind.
Remember that negotiating is not rude but expected. Haggle for the best price or risk paying well over the actual price of an item. Try ‘walking away’ to get a better price. If that doesn’t work, you can always go back to the vendor later. For a few tips on how to haggle, check our guide here.
16. Be Patient
The first rule of travel is to be prepared for the unexpected. Yes, your bus might be cancelled or your hotel pool may be more like a pond, but the key to having a great trip is to not get too attached to the details. That cancelled bus may force you to have the best banh mi of your life in the cafe next door to the station. Or perhaps leave the budget hotel behind and try a home stay instead. When something doesn’t go your way just take a deep breath and get on with the adventure.
17. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Your most important memories from your childhood probably have to do more with trying something new than whatever you watched on TV.
The best way to really experience a country is to not expect it to be like home. Love eating pizza every Sunday while catching up on Netflix? Save that routine for your post-holiday recovery. While travelling in Vietnam make a point to try a new and weird food every day or to say yes to something that you normally wouldn’t. It’ll become part of your history.
Image source: citypassguide.com
18. Splurge on Some Travel Insurance
Even if you’re not planning on bungee jumping off a bridge it’s still a good idea to get some reliable travel insurance. Proper insurance should cover you if you have a bag snatched or if you contract dengue fever. This is one thing that you shouldn’t leave to chance.
19. Learn a Little Bit of Vietnamese
Vietnamese is a difficult language to perfect but that shouldn’t stop you from memorising a few key phrases to facilitate your voyage. Even if you don’t say something correctly you’ll often be rewarded with a smile from whoever you’re talking to. The Vietnamese are usually happy to help you out and the effort made can reward you with a new friend. For some useful words, check our guide here.
20. Enjoy yourself
There is so much to do and see, but don’t forget to stop every once in a while to pull up a plastic chair, order the local coffee, ca phe sua da, and take it all in. While sights and activities hold interest, sometimes you can learn more about the culture by speaking to the locals and taking your time to adjust to the country’s pace. Remember that you are on holiday!
Tips for First Time Visitors:
If you’ve never been to Vietnam before, Emily has kindly provided some helpful tips to make your trip easier. She suggests:
- Prepare your passport in advance, and make sure that your passport has at least 6 months validity, with left space for visa stamping
- Check to see whether you are citizen of a country listed in the Vietnam visa exemption list or not. If you are required to have a Vietnam visa, and want to get a visa in very urgent case, you can use Urgent Vietnam visa to get it and fly to Vietnam on short notice
- The currency in Vietnam is Vietnam Dong, but you can bring USD and exchange this to VND before getting onboard a plane or at one of the exchange counters at the airport, upon arrival
- Make sure you book your flight tickets, a tour if you would prefer one, through the reliable agency