Vietnam is a beautiful country of rice paddies, tuk-tuks, water buffaloes and good food, but when I first arrived into the country, I knew very little about it all. But in a little over a week, I learned quickly.
First, watch my Top 5 Travel Tips for Surviving Vietnam
I’ll shed my top “musts” of this entire post in 4 minutes.
Things to know before you go to Vietnam
1. Beware of counterfeit tour agencies
There are many nice Vietnamese and don’t let what I’m about to share deter you.
Of all Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam will force you to raise your guard and be more streetwise. Theft and counterfeit agency scams are a lingering problem in Vietnam. On
one hand, you counterfeit tourist agencies and there’s an abundance ranging from fake airlines shops to tourist agencies, which use the name of a well-known reputable companies. As far as I know, they don’t seem very dangerous. .. just trying to nab business from more reputable companies.
Tip: Use your best judgement when deciding upon agencies to go with. Never trust store front signs and if you’re looking for a specific store, have the address.
2. Watch your belongings
On the other side of caution, you have petty theft and purse snatching. There are many greasy fingers in Vietnam and many of them are looking for naive and distracted tourists, who don’t have their eye on their belongings. During my short time in Vietnam, I ran across four cases of travel theft. While I believe in synchronicity and odd timing, four is still an uncommon number to me. (Read some of the stories I met upon my trip here. ) In fact, the night I arrived, I was in an internet café when I heard a shriek from a tourist outside who got her purse ripped from her.The owner of a hostel I stayed at, warned me with what I’m about to tell you….
Tip: Keep your bag and camera in front of you and hold them close to your body. Practice street smarts and don’t make yourself an easy target, by being distracted with all the sights. Be aware of your surroundings and possessions. As for the counterfeit tour agencies, here’s a post I wrote on tips to finding a good budget tour. It explains the counterfeit scam a bit more.
Watch my video on 8 Safety Tips for Solo Travelers
3. Vietnamese aren’t slick hagglers.
Haggling is a friendly courting ritual to locals. But the Vietnamese aren’t Don Juans about it.
Simply ask how much something costs and you’ll see them size you up, as their brain scrambles to calculate a markup!
Good sellers might even walk you through if you’re a timid beginner to the system. When I asked the price of a garment, I had one Hmong lady tell me “60,000 dong. …You go down, I go up!”
Tip: Know haggling is expected and you’ll almost always will be given a markup for being a tourist. My biggest tip would be, don’t look rich. When I know I’m going into a haggling situation, I remove the bigger bills and load my wallet with coins. Usually, when a seller sees my purse and hears the loud jingle, they either assess me as a cheap or poor traveler. When I say, “This is all I have.” It’s arguable.
4. There are curfews.
Even big cities like Hanoi and Saigon seem to sleep around 11:00 pm (though it might be earlier). Bars and clubs stay open, but restaurants and businesses will definitely be closed. This means, hostels and guesthouses close relatively early, as well. Some have a night guard to let guests in or a doorbell outside you can ring. Otherwise, lobby lights are off, front desk person is sound asleep on their cot in the lobby. Internet… off.
Tip: Confirm with your hostel/guesthouse if there is a curfew. Ask what protocol is if you come home late. If you’ve reservations but you suspect your flight may arrive late, tell your guesthouse that you may be arriving late so they don’t give your room away (read here).
5. Vegetarians are welcome
Vietnam, has food-friendly shelters for vegetarians and some restaurants will even advertise “Vegetarian food” outside on their signs.
At a seemingly hip Hanoi café called Gecko Restaurant, I ordered a vegetarian shrimp and vegetable curry, while downloading my email on my iPod Touch via free WiFi. I mentioned being a vegetarian and what arrived was… surprising. The shrimp looked different; it didn’t taste, chew or feel like ordinary shrimp. Convinced I got a “chewy squid and vegetable curry”, I queried the waiter.
He explained, “Vegetarian shrimp! Mock shrimp, not real shrimp.”
There you have it. Vietnam has mock meat! It wasn’t the tastiest mock shrimp I’ve had, but I was grateful that Vietnam recognizes my veggie needs!
6. DO the budget tours.
Vietnam is one place where taking a local budget tour might be more economical than doing it on your own. I’m serious.
Before arriving in Vietnam, I priced out online, potential tours I was interested in and it ran into steep prices, forcing me to look away. Upon arriving in Vietnam and researching prices at neighborhood tour agency shops (and my hostel), the price for an all-inclusive tour dropped to something more of a budget backpacker (and even less)! Often, those costs came to a draw in price had I done the tour on my own! Vietnamese tours are all-inclusive from transportation, English-speaking guide to food and accommodations (hotel stays were better looking than rooms I’d booked on my own!), which makes the prices feel almost scandalously cheap! Halong Bay, Mekong Delta, Trekking in Sapa,… are just three of the one to three day tours I took. What does that mean? Take the tour.
Yes, you do make the obligatory shopping stop to a rice paper factory, etc.. (a complaint for some), but those felt educational from a cultural standpoint. Those stops enhanced my awareness of Vietnamese culture … and seriously, I never knew how rice paper (aka from spring rolls) were made and it’s a fascinating process!
Tip: Shop direct through tour agencies in the city you’re at.
7. Tour Tip: Don’t get left
Vietnam has a mean wealth of tours (as I explained above) and they’re all operating at the same time. Vietnam is like one giant tour factory . Thus, tourists are a dime a dozen and often shuffled around like cattle. You could get left, if you’re not in the pack (especially if you’re a solo traveler, who doesn’t have anyone to look out for you.)
Because many tours are running at the same time, it was easy for me to lose sight of my group at times. And when I didn’t meet up with my groups in time, I almost got left and that was scary. Tour operators don’t give you an itinerary to know which hotel I’d be staying at. It’s likely, the tour operator (who’s also shifting and juggling tours) doesn’t know either, until the last-minute.
When I took my Sapa tour, I met at the agency office, jumped into a van and rushed to the train station, all in what feels like ‘one breath’. At the train station, an agency rep gave us our tickets for an overnight train and quick instructions, that when we reached the other side, someone with a sign would be waiting for us. On the train, our group was split up into different cars and when we arrived early in the morning, I forgot what my group looked like. I didn’t see anyone from my group. Twenty minutes later, I was on the verge of tears. Luckily a man from our group recognized me and called to me from the van in the parking lot.. where everyone was already sitting and waiting.
It made me realize that as a solo traveler, I’m not easy to see or remember. Couples and groups are easier to remember than singles.
Tip: Don’t get left. If you’re a solo traveler, make yourself visible, seen and heard. Keep the number of your tour agency, hotel and/or guide and keep up with your group. Also, have at least, one person from the group account for you.
8. Vietnamese carry their houses on their motorbikes
Okay, so maybe the Vietnamese can’t carry an entire house on their motorbikes but if there were a country that could, you’d bet the Vietnamese would be the first to try. The Vietnamese are crazy about their motorcycles!
In fact, the one thing that makes Vietnam very unique of all the Southeast Asian countries is that the Vietnamese transport a lot on their motorbikes, from a mountain of caged chickens to dresser bureaus and furniture… a whole gamut of things which will make your jaw drop.
This makes them very skilled motorists and … a little dangerous.
9. Accept the honking (or buy earplugs)
You’ll hear a lot of car, truck and motorbike honking in Vietnam. A lot. Returning to Hanoi from Halong Bay, my bus seemed to honk every 45 seconds. Not kidding. This is because the “honk” is a clear heads up to motorists that you are passing them on the side.
Are you a light sleeper and booked a street view room from your hotel? Think again.
10. Your hotel will ask to hold your passport
Leaving our passports with a stranger feels scary to most of us. But some hotels and guesthouses in Ho Chi Minh city may ask to hold onto your passport for time of your stay with them. This is a pretty common practice.
10. Crossing a Vietnamese Street
Crossing a Vietnamese street can feel scary as there are traffic signals for pedestrians. It will take some time before you feel comfortable with it. Read my tips here.
11. DO the Street Food
“Avoid the street food! ” some say; yet many travelers continue to eat it and live to tell its tale.
Street food is a big part of local culture and the fast food preference of hungry Vietnamese. Cooked on the spot, you can cop a squat on a plastic foot stool and look through menus, ranging from a cardboard sign to a grease splattered one page carte du jour. While I can’t guarantee the food being better than restaurants (albeit what I’ve tried is tasty) or that practices are always sanitary, it offers front row ground-level seating to the popular local spectator sport of street watching!
Food Safety Tips: Always eat from stalls where the food is prepared on the spot and cooked hot. Never eat raw, uncooked meats or cut/peeled fruits. Avoid salads, as you don’t know if it’s been washed with tap water. Pho is a good dish to try at a stall, if it’s made hot. Always go to stalls that you see many Vietnamese at. Observe how they clean their utensils. For tips on water, keep reading…
12. Avoid the tap water
Avoid tap water at all costs (only drink bottled water!). In Vietnam, the tap water is undrinkable and even the Vietnamese avoid using it for food. In restaurants and cafes, ice is often bought from a vendor, but it’s always best to be cautious. When I was in Vietnam, I used bottled water to brush my teeth.
13. Thin Vietnamese buildings
In some places of Vietnam, you’ll notice that buildings are built long vs. wide. It’s certainly strange and irregular architecture. This is because, rent and real estate is not charge so much by square footage but by storefront width. The wider your building is on the street, the more you pay. Thus, Vietnamese build their apartments to be long instead.
14. Eat the Pho
Vietnam is a huge rice loving country! As such, you’ll find a lot of rice based dishes from meals with rice, rice paper spring rolls and pho. Pho is a highly popular noodle dish in Vietnam. They are thin rice noodles cooked in a meat broth, occasionally served with some vegetable garnishes on the side. You add the veggies in your bowl when your broth is still steaming and that’s how the veggies are cooked. Vegetarians will be hard pressed to find a pho broth that is not meat based when hitting food stalls on the streets, but some international cafes directed more towards European tastes, may have vegetarian options.
15. Getting around in Vietnam
There are many ways to get around Vietnam and I’ll quickly run through them.
First, Vietnma is the home of Motorbike madness. are like Vietnamese couches.
• Motorbikes : You can rent a motorcycle to get around. Vietnamese can do everything on their bike- eat sleep, cuddle, lounge, hangout, text, AND are very distinct in that they’re versed in the fine are of balancing things on it. What does that mean? Unless you’re an experienced motorcyclist, Vietnam is not the place for a newbie to learn, unless you went to the countryside.
- Motorbike taxis (xe om) : You can taxi around the city on a motorbike taxi. Generally they’ll let you pack two people (maybe more).
- Motorbike tours are for the adventurous.
- Cylo (aka slow rickshaws mostly for tourist sightseeing. The government is trying to shut them out of the cities, so if they’re still around when you get there, give it a try. Generally they charge by the hour),
- Hop on- Hop on Buses. Open tour or Open Tickets: Air-con buses run between HCMC and Hanoi and passengers can hop on and hop off the bus at any major city along the route. They have deluxe sleeper buses. Prices are reasonable. A through ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi costs between US$25 and US$45, depending on the operator and exact route. Try to book the next leg of your trip at least a day ahead.
- Shared vans— Vans don’t lèave until they’re full. In order to squeeze more people in, the tour operator or bus driver might pull out plastic stools for aisle seating.
- Rail , taxis,.. sleeper buses and flights
What are some tips you’d offer for people traveling Vietnam?
How to Find Great Budget Tours in Vietnam
5 Risky Things to Do if you’re Solo in Vietnam .
Notes on Ho Chi Minh City- Things I love about Saigon
Trekking tips for Sapa on a muddy and crazy hot day (Sapa tour: Day 3) .
Video: How crazy is Motorcycle Mayhem in Vietnam?
Watch my video on How to Haggle