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15 Things to know before you go to Vietnam

Vietnamese woman, vietnamese woman with cone hat, Things to Know Before you Go To Vietnam

Things to Know Before you Go To Vietnam

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

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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.

Read How to Deal with Tourist Scams

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.

Read : Top 5 Travel Tips on How to Haggle

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!

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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.

READ How to Find a Good Budget tour in Vietnam (and not get ripped off!) 

Sapa Trekking Guides Vietnamese Tour Guide.

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.

vietnam motorbikes

motorbikes in vietnam

Okay but maybe that’s not such of a new concept.

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…

Things to know before you go to Vietnam, street food in Vietnam

Street food in Vietnam. Sidewalk cafes

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.

Tip:  Plan on staying in Vietnam for a while? Get a water purification device like a SteriPen.  Read my review and watch my video here.

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.

READ 5 Top 5 Risky Things to Do in Vietnam if you’re a Solo Traveler

Pho, making pho

Do you know how rice paper an pho is made?

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

Shared Vans

 

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29 Comments

  1. Therie says:

    Saving this for later! I’ve been researching about scams in Vietnam as I heard there are many. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi all.
    Welcome everybody to my country, I believe Viet Name is a beautyful country.
    I love my country and now I’m working at Ho Chi Minh city, whenever you go to here, the people can to call me by number phone 0168.867.6914. I director you to visit around HCM city. Because I want to all people having a look nice about my hometower.
    Note: My job is Tester for a company of France, not a tour guide. I LOVE VIET NAM and want to help to all when you visit Viet Nam.

    Thanks for all
    Well come to Viet Nam

  3. phie says:

    thanks for this tip. I’ll be traveling to Vietnam in a weeks time, and straight to Phnom Penh, May I know if there is a place where we can leave our luggae in Phnom while we stroll, as we are not going to stay there overnight. we’ll arrive from Vietnam and we’ll take the sleeper bus going to Siem Reap. basically we only have a few hours stay in Phnom Penh. Your suggestion will be highly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Phie: You could always rent a cheap room for a day. It might cost the same as leaving your bag at the airport’s left luggage department.

  4. Hi Christine, I am just beginning to check out your website and blogs! I am actually beginning to write my own blog about all my trips, and one of the things I am going to remind people about Vietnam, is that when they fly into the country, before they even board the plane, they typically will need a Vietnam Visa Approval letter to even get their boarding pass. I didn’t know this on my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City last October of 2014, and only learned about it two days before I left the US! I was lucky enough to be staying in Hong Kong for five days, and so I did what I am sure everyone else does, and got hold of one of the online agencies, and they sent me a PDF I could print out at my hostel before I left HK on my way to Vietnam.

    Maybe most travelers know about the Visa Approval letter, but I sure didn’t, and it could have really been a problem for me. I know when I was at the Visa counter at HCMC airport, there was a fellow from another country that had somehow boarded our pland and didn’t have his letter, and he was having some major issues at the counter. Maybe he was able to pay someone off at the counter (I watched something like this happened on another trip there several months later where someone paid off the people at the Visa counter to get their paperwork expedited), or maybe he was just out of luck. I was really surprised the airline let him on the plane, I was asked to show my letter when I got my boarding pass! I just thought I would bring this up, not sure if you think it is important enough to add to your list of things traveler should know about Vietnam or not! Safe travels to you!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Thanks for sharing, Jay! I’m not sure if I remember having to get a Visa Approval letter. I went through a Korean travel agency to get my Vietnam visa before arriving. Is the Visa Approval for cases of Visa Upon Arrival?

      • Hi, Christine, thank you for replying to my comment! Yes, on my two trips to Vietnam, one last October, and then most recently in May, I did the Visa Upon Arrival. I just did the 30 day, single entry visa on both occasions.

        The agency I used for the Vietnam Visa Approval letters charge $10.00 USD, and they have been very helpful. They charge an extra $5.00 if the letter needs to be expedited so you can receive it the same day of your request (But people need to be aware of Vietnamese Holidays when requesting the letter!).

        I am going to be writing a post on my blog about the Vietnam Visa Approval letter, from my experiences, since I fell into the category of requesting a letter during a holiday on my last trip in May! I would write about those experiences here, but I would take up too much space! I am also going to include a link to the agency in my blog.

        I just want to add, I just love your videos, they are awesome!

        Best wishes and safe travels!

        • Christine Kaaloa says:

          Thanks for sharing! I’m sure if will be helpful to other travelers to know! And thank you for the compliment on my videos!

  5. I couldn’t agree more! There are SO many counterfeit tour agencies there that you really have to dig and do your research to see which one is the real one. I noticed some areas in Vietnam are more lenient about haggling and bargaining than others. For example, in Ho Chi Minh City, the sellers are willing to negotiate around the price that YOU want.Where as the sellers near Halong Bay will say no to you right away if you ask for a cheaper price.

  6. Wayne Seto says:

    A great list of tips. I’ll book mark this. I hope to visit Vietnam at some point this year. So helpful. Thanks for the post. Cheers and happy travels!

  7. Laura says:

    Great tips! I wish I’d read these before my trip! I’m almost finished and leave in a few days, doh!

  8. Alan Tan says:

    Surprisingly when we stay at hostel in Danang, they just scan our passports & return to us for safe keeping

  9. Megan Indoe says:

    This list is great, we leave for Vietnam tomorrow! Feels like you wrote this just for us. 😉 It’s good to know ahead about the counterfeit travel agencies and people getting robbed. After being in SE Asia the past few months I have noticed we have let our guard down a little as we get more and more comfortable traveling in these countries. It’s good to read these types of posts to help remind us we need to be alert to prevent any mishaps. Also, found #13 to be really interesting. Did you do a motorbike tour? We want to do one, but we are thinking we are just going to buy a motorbike and do the whole country ourselves starting North and making our way South. Anyways, thanks for the great information!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Hi Megan! Great to hear from you. Good luck motorbiking the country. Sounds like fun. I haven’t tried the motorbike tours in Vietnam. But I feel like if you’re decent in driving a motorbike, they’d be a great way to see the countryside and off the beaten track areas. =)

  10. Lisa says:

    Hey, thanks for your advice! Just a little note, in point 10 you talk about hotels in Bangkok asking to keep your passport. Did you mean a different city?

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Lisa: Thanks for bringing that to my attention! I have no idea why I wrote Bangkok. That happened to me in Ho Chi Minh.

  11. Megan Indoe says:

    Perfect timing! We arrive in a few days!

  12. Thanks for the advice. We’ve haven’t been to Vietnam yet and are very much looking forward to it. We’re also vegan so we’ll keep a look out for the “vegetarian” signs you referred to in this post. 🙂

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