Tips for Travelling Vietnam

While lumped together with Southeast Asia for geographic and tourism purposes, Vietnam stands out as a destination unique among its neighbors. Each region balances the other. The frenetic chaos in Saigon is just a stone’s throw from the sleepy colonial towns in the Mekong Delta. Hoi An’s charming, historic ancient town is a mere 40 minutes from the fast-growing and friendly Danang. History and tradition infuse every aspect of life in Vietnam — from food to religion — and the culture and people are remarkably welcoming to tourism, having built a thriving industry.

As such, modern Vietnam is a favorite hotspot for budget-loving backpackers and destination travelers from all over the world. Although I had spent years traveling other regions of Asia, Vietnam was my final country to visit on mainland Southeast Asia.What an incredible experience. I have no idea what took me so long. I spent three months traveling south to north and I discovered cities across the country highlighting various aspects of Vietnam’s long history, from the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City to the Japanese and Chinese influenced Hoi An to the French-influenced coffee and baguette culture throughout. Vibrant, unique, chaotic, traditional — no single word sums the experience of traveling Vietnam.

If you’re visiting Vietnam, this guide covers the essential travel information you should know, pre-trip reading, how to travel responsibly in Vietnam, and specific travel and accommodation recommendations to jumpstart your research.

The brief history of VietnamThings to Know about Vietnam before you goBooks about Vietnam and longreadshow to travel responsibly in vietnamHow to eat vegetarian in VietnamTravel guide to backpacking Vietnam

Before You Go, What You Should Know

Vietnam has a lengthy and complex history, with each layer still visible in modern Vietnam. From tangible evidence of French colonial rule to the aftereffects of the American War and a food culture deeply influenced by the international flavors and cultures — this country has a lot on offer from north to south.

Vietnam has a lengthy and complex history, with each layer still visible in modern Vietnam. Consider this a quick rundown on the basic backstory you’ll need to understand and enjoy your trip. Ruled by the Chinese in 111 B.C., Nam Viet (what we now know as Vietnam) was a part of the Han Dynasty. Over the next thousand years or so, Vietnam remained in the hands of the tyrannical Chinese, before regaining full control of their country in the 15th century. By the middle of the 17th century, Vietnam’s independence was being chipped away by France and in 1884 France gained full colonial control over Vietnam. France’s impact on Vietnam is a living, breathing, tangible part of modern Vietnam. The French brought a Western-style education system, European architecture and food, and also instituted political and cultural changes.

Not surprisingly, despite some good brought by the French, many Vietnamese were unhappy with colonial rule. The Viet Minh attacked French forces in 1946, which eventually ended with Geneva peace talks between the nations and the decision to split Vietnam in half: north and south. The communist insurgency began 1957 in South Vietnam; two years later, weapons and men from North Vietnam began infesting the south. In response, the United States increased aid to President Ngo Dinh Diem. By 1963, the Viet Cong, a communist group specializing in guerrilla warfare, defeated The Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In a U.S.-backed military coup, representatives from The Army of Republic of Vietnam overthrew and killed the President Diem; U.S. intervention in Vietnam would only escalate from this point forward.

In response to the threats posed by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, by 1967 the U.S. had sent roughly 500,000 troops to Vietnam. The Vietnam/American War lasted far too long, fueled by poor decisions made by U.S. politicians and resulting in horrifying escalation of violence throughout the war (this is a sad and informative visual history of the war). Many thousands of people were killed before Paris peace talks brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1973. By that point, the actions by American troops had forever changed the country as the after-effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons continue to impact the country even today.

Two years after U.S. troops left, North Vietnam invaded the south and took control of the country. As the socialists assumed control over the country, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese continued to flee, many resorting to crowding into small vessels — anything to escape life in Vietnam. This war is one key reason for the massive Vietnamese diaspora spread around the world.

It’d be great if the warfare ended there, but tired of the Khmer Rouge attacking remote villages near the border, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and removed the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot from power. Ten years later, Vietnam removed their troops from Cambodia. There is still a large ethnically Khmer population in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. Since the 90s, Vietnam has grown and the government has stabilized, with tourism a major contributing part of the country’s economy.

The Fast Facts About Vietnam Travel

Currency:  Vietnamese Dong (VND)

Electricity: 127V/60Hz (American or European plugs both work here, although only without the third prong)

Primary Airports: Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN). Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport (HAN). Da Nang International (DAD).

Water: Not safe to drink from the tap. Drink bottled, or consider the merits of a SteriPen or LifeStraw for your trip.

Internet Situation: WiFi is rampant and thoroughly spread even into the smallest of Vietnamese towns. Saigon has a bustling café culture and these coffee shops all offer fast free WiFi. It’s also a standard amenity in all hotels and guesthouses.

Local SIM: Data is very cheap in Vietnam, even the tourist bundles (locals have different rates, so ask your first guesthouse owner to buy your SIM card if you’re a data hog and really need a lot). I paid 70,000 Dong for 16 GB lasting three months, and the tourist rate is about 150,000 Dong for 8 GB lasting two months. Because I had so much data, I tethered my phone and worked from my data when I encountered slow speeds. Read a full Vietnam SIM card guide here.

Visas: The visa situation for North Americans changes often and is entirely unpredictable. That said, in early 2017, the government implemented an online e-visa program that is fast, safe, and affordable. For more information, check the visa requirements here. While most visitors had to arrange a visa through a third-party company, that is no longer the case, so use the government site directly to avoid fees.

Festivals of Note: Tết is the country’s New Year’s celebration and is huge throughout Vietnam (late January or early February).

Safety: Vietnam is safe for travelers on the physical level — you don’t have to worry about bodily harm from the Vietnamese people. That said, theft is an issue and the scams center around money. Travelers should never walk the streets with cameras and bags draped on their shoulder or a motorbike might speed by and grab it from you. Wear your purses cross-body and cameras secured to your wrist or neck. For the same reason, don’t walk with your cell phone held away from your body (consider investing in a Kenu leash, they are fantastic and give peace of mind when wandering). In touristy areas especially, count your change. Confirm your taxi fare before the ride (or just use Uber, which is what I did — it’s explained more in the transportation section). Use TravelFish to research possible scams in places like Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon. Since anything can happen on the road, I am a firm advocate of travel insurance and I always carry World Nomads; and this page shares my tips to pick a good travel insurance.

Budget: Vietnam may well be the most budget-friendly location in Southeast Asia, and that is saying a lot, because nearby Thailand, Laos, Cambodia are quite affordable. Budget backpackers sleeping at hostels and eating street-food will easily stay under $20 a day. The only activity requiring you to splash out on cash is a Halong Bay Tour — and often you will get better value for a bit more if you choose your tour company wisely. Mid-range travelers will spend $25 a night on nice accommodation (with A/C and spacious rooms), and another $10-20 on food. High-end travelers get a lot bang for their buck as even nice hotels and food are affordable — scale up from the mid-range budget of $45 a day depending on if you choose to splurge on food, accommodation, or both.

Food Considerations: Vietnam is one of the best food destinations in Southeast Asia. The country has a vibrant street food culture and a range of different dishes from north to south. If you are vegetarian, it’s possible to find food, but not always street food. And you have to be diligent. On my Vegetarian in Vietnam guide (coming soon!), I outline the considerations and obstacles. If you’re celiac, this is a fantastic and thorough post, complete with a free downloadable GF translation card. This post shares the most common street food dishes you will find, and this book chronicles a beautiful food journey through Hanoi. And if you decide to eat street food (which you will!), follow these food safety principles.

Accommodation: While the links in city guides below go to a hotel booking site, many are also found on AirBnB if you are member. (A Little Adrift readers get a $20 AirBnB credit here to give it a go.) For backpackers, Hostelworld is perfect for pre-booking hostels; in high season the bigger towns book up fast. Families should consider Agoda. And if you buy a local SIM (which you should), you can easily call ahead and directly reserve spots en route. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.

Transportation: Most backpackers take an overland route starting in one of the two primary cities, either Hanoi in the north or Saigon in the south. Vietnam offers train travel in many areas and buses in others. It’s a very long country, so keep that in mind when you consider timing your trip. The distances are longer than you expect and if you’re cramming the entire country into a short week or two-week trip, you will need some long overnight trains and buses to navigate it all. Air travel is another option. VietJetAir is the country’s privately run low-cost carrier and you can find fares as low as $25 to hop around the country. This is mega convenient and I recommend using SkyScanner to search for fares since it includes all the regional low-cost airlines.

Locally, when you are within a city you will likely use mototaxis and taxis to navigate. Uber operates in this area and you can even catch a mototaxi with it! Instead of haggling with xe om drivers, I used Uber exclusively in the cities. And because of the taxi scams in Saigon and Hanoi, I stuck with Uber getting to and from the airports and such, but if you need to hail a cab, stick to either Vinasun or Mailinh. If you have a local SIM, Grab is the regional version of Uber and offers slightly better rates. Either option works, I used Uber because I already have an account that I’ve used in dozens of cities around the world; I highly recommend that travelers at least sign up for Uber and have it in your phone because you never know when it will come in handy to summon a ride and get out of a sticky situation (happened to me in South Africa!).

Weather: Vietnam is long, with a varied topography, meaning at least one region has poor weather at all times of year. This chart is by far the best visual to use in planning your trip weather-wise (although note that Jan/Feb is noted as clear for Sapa, when in reality it’s bitterly cold and often very foggy).

Possible Issues: In addition to the safety concerns listed above, many travelers rent motorbikes and scooters in Vietnam. This is a dangerous place to learn to ride. In the months I visited, I saw dozens of travelers with serious road-rash marring their bodies. If you rent a motorbike, please make sure it’s covered by your travel insurance (usually only if you are licensed to drive in your home country) and that you wear the proper gear to protect you if you fall (pants and good shoes). If you have respiratory issues, pollution is a problem in both Hanoi and Saigon, so bring a surgical mask.

Source: alittleadriff.com 

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