Vietnam – Things to know before you go

Halong Bay Vietnam

I’m going to the Nam! That was the thought in my mind when I finally booked my very first trip to Vietnam, that same place that I have heard so many times in movies and series, always about war. At the end, I was happy I went there to get my own opinion. Vietnam is a country full of marvelous landmarks, UNESCO heritage sites, and history (lots of it). Before going there, I do recommend to work on your own itinerary according to your preferences and available time. At the end of the post there are some city guides for the places I have visited, do check them and comment! Overall, There are some basic things that you may want to take into account:

Visa to Vietnam

In order to get into Vietnam as a visitor, a visa is required, so check your local embassy for your requirements. Overall, the cost of the visa will depend on the following factors: length of stay and number of entries. For most of the countries the available options are:

  • Apply for a visa in a local Vietnamese embassy: Processing times apply and depending on where the embassy is located, passport shipping times apply as well.
  • Apply for a visa online: This is probably the easiest option, although a visa won’t be obtained until arriving in Vietnam, some online companies offer the service of gathering your bio data and issue a letter to notify customs of your arrival. Once you have arrived at a port, go to the visa stamping area to get it into your passport. There is a fee for the online application and another one for the visa stamp. In my case, I paid 21 USD for the initial application, and 45 USD for the stamp on arrival for a month validity visa.

Transport

DSC_1032Getting around Vietnam is easy and quite cheap compared to other countries. Several domestic airlines fly between main and medium cities, some of them are Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet airlines, and Jetstar, with the last two being the cheapest, where it is possible to find kickass fares, but there is a catch: the unreliability of their schedules. Often, Flight times can change or even get canceled, so it is important to always check the flight status before going to the airport. Vietnam airlines’ fares tend to be more expensive but they usually stick to their schedules.
The train is one of the most common and in my opinion the most enjoyable way to go around the country. Train stations are located in central areas so commuting to hotels is much cheaper. The railway, also known as the reunification rail is a symbol of the unity of the country, it connects Hanoi and Saigon and although it was cut during the war, after 1976 the line was finally resumed and it is still in use these days. Depending on the length of the train adventure you can either choose to go on a seat or a berth (which is better for an overnight trip). In saying how nice it is going by train, I should also mention that it is not running on a tight schedule, so it wouldn’t be rare to see trains arriving a few hours later at their destination. This is not a fast train, and good thing it isn’t because there is only one railway for both directions, so at some point one train stops (or reverse) in the double railway zones to allow another train to pass. By the way, accidents do happen but don’t let it panic you to hop on.
In regards to getting a cab, they are usually cheap, but you have to make sure it is either one of this companies: Mailihn or Vinasun, they would be the safest approach to taxis, other companies are not very reliable and with many reports of scams that can make your holiday, ahem, interesting.

Safety and Scams

IMG_20130902_123835Safety in Vietnam is pretty good. I always carried my camera, mobile, and other belongings with me and I never had any issue, although I tend not to flash anything, so as long as you are safety smart you should be ok. Scams, on the other hand, are very common, unfortunately. I do understand that the tourists mean cash and they are the best chance for many to make a living. So as long as I get what I pay for (even if it is a bit more expensive) it’s ok, that’s how life is. But I really hate when I pay premium prices and I obtain a bad service or product, or a taxi/motorbike trying to heavily overcharge me for being a tourist. So it is important to be very clear about the negotiated price, this applies mostly to transport (like with the motorbikes or private tours). And again, make sure the price is extremely clear, no extras charges, not price per hour, no price per person, just the total price. If it can be done in written it would be even better, it could sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m coming from a personal experience where a fun 10 USD tour ended up being a 40 USD adventure. As a final note, I also will mention that although these things happen there is plenty of honest people, like the lovely old lady in the local souvenir store that called me silly (and hit my head gently) when I gave her 100.000 VND more than I should have. Or the lady at the market who chased me while I was on my bike to give me back the wallet that I just have dropped. She didn’t even take a gratuity from me!

Naming Scams

There is something particular about the Vietnamese businesses. I’m not quite sure how copyright works there, but when there is a brand that is either known, reliable, or popular with tourists, it will get copied over and over to confuse visitors and hijack its reliability to make money. Like copying the name of the cabs from Vinasun to Vinasum, use the same name of a known hostel but adding a number, or the most famous with the tour agencies: You will notice that many of them are called “The Sinh Cafe”, after the success of the original one, many smaller tour agencies started to use it and suddenly everywhere! It got so out of control that the company had to change the name in order not to be linked to so many dodgy offices. Today it is The Sinh Tourist and it runs very good and well-priced tours and other services.

Food and Accommodation

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

There is plenty of options for food and accommodation around the country. Vietnam is a popular destination for Backpackers, so there will usually be a backpacker area in every city with lots of hostels that could range from as low as 7 USD (including free beer happy hour) and a light breakfast. The meals can be quite cheap too, with 4 USD you can get a good lunch including a beer. The most popular dish is the Pho soup which is a spicy noodle soup with either beef or chicken (Pho bo or Pho ga), which could be your everyday option if you are on a tight budget. Vietnam can be done in ~30 USD a day as a budget traveler, but don’t let a number stop you from things you want to do.

Not only the country is popular with budget travelers, it is a paradise for high-end tourists. Starting with the 5 stars hotels and resorts, historical hotels such as the Continental, the Caravelle, and the rex, up to amazing and well priced boutique hotels, Vietnam will offer luxury at incredible rates. One example of it is The Vinpearl in Nha Trang, it is a known spot for lavish resorts and beaches and golf courts (because there are never enough golf courses).

A smile goes a long way

DSC_0330Something I read from a blog and I found to be true, was that a smile goes a long way. Many times I found rough serious faces, but a genuine smile can break that seriousness and quite often getting a very happy smile in return, which could be helpful if you needed help for directions, a photo or just for being nice. I found Vietnamese people to be very hospitable (even more when you get outside of the touristic areas). I was greeted by people in the countryside who seemed to be genuinely happy to see a foreigner riding a bike around.

Culture

DSC_0218Haggling is a skill that needs to be developed to make your hard earned money last longer, most of the times the price given to you is not meant to be the final price, it is a negotiation starting point. But this does not mean that you have to negotiate everything, if the price of an article or service seems about right, just pay for it, I have found myself trying to get a 0.50 USD discount (I can get carried out with all the haggle culture), and sales people also need to make a living.
Tipping in the hospitality sector is expected and it is highly regarded. Restaurants and hotels would expect you as a tourist to tip, tour operators will encourage it too, but it is not necessary to tip everyone, like taxis and salesmen. Tipping is not compulsory and it is given as a recognition of good service, so certainly do not feel obliged to give it if you are not happy with the service provided (contrary to the US).
The perception of personal space is different from the western world where we prefer to keep our bubble and a safe distance to others. Vietnamese don’t take it the same way, getting too close, pushy sales people (and even grabby), people won’t hide what they are thinking, like if they see a tall woman they won’t be shy to tell they have noticed it, it is a bit of an “in your face” approach. In some cases when I was going to pay for something and I checked my wallet to see wich bills to hand out, suddenly the seller put his/her hands in my wallet, not to take my money, but to help me find the bill amount faster. This really got me by surprise at the beginning, It’s the differences ;).

Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND)

Language Spoken: Vietnamese 

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