Vietnam (Việt Nam) , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam) is a country in Southeast Asia. Its neighboring countries are China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west.
Vietnam's history is one of war, colonisation and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonisation. Vietnam's last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884. Both the Chinese occupation and French colonisation have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French leaving a lasting imprint on Vietnamese cuisine.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War - although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and U.S. armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South's Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans were killed.
The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
Vietnam is a one party authoritarian state, with the President as the Head of State, and the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. The Vietnamese legislature is the unicameral National Assembly, from which the Prime Minister is selected. In practice, the President's position is only ceremonial, with the Prime Minister wielding the most authority in government.
Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program of đổi mới (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism. The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording near 10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during the Asian economic crisis of 1997). The economy is much stronger than those of Cambodia, Laos, and other neighboring developing countries. Like most Communist countries around the world, there is a fine balance between allowing foreign investors and opening up the market.
There are extreme restrictions on foreigners owning property or attempting to sell. It is very difficult for them to trade without negotiating 'fees'. Business can be done via local partnerships with all the attendant risks.
Power and services is another issue. There are often 'rolling blackouts' when there is not enough electricity at times. For this reason, many shops have portable generators.
According to government estimates Vietnam sees 3.3m tourist arrivals each year. Vietnam has a return rate of just 5% compared to Thailand’s whopping 50%.
Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there is a sizable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most who are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. There are also numerous other ethnic groups who occupy the mountainous parts of the country, such as the Hmong, Muong and Dao people. Theres also a minority ethnic group in the lowlands near the border with Cambodia known as the Khmer Krom.
Buddhism, mostly of the Mahayana school, is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with over 85% of Vietnamese people identifying themselves as Buddhist. Catholicism is the second largest religion, followed by the local Cao Dai religion. Other Christian denominations, Islam, and local religions also share small followings throughout the southern and central areas.
Due to its long history as a tributary state of China, as well as several periods of Chinese occupations, Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by that of Southern China, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese language also contains many loan words from Chinese, though the two languages are unrelated. Buddhism remains the single largest religion in Vietnam, though like in China but unlike in the rest of northern Southeast Asia, the dominant school of Buddhism in Vietnam is the Mahayana School.
Nevertheless, Vietnamese culture remains distinct from Chinese culture as it has also absorbed cultural elements from neighboring Hindu civilizations such as the Champa and the Khmer empires. The French colonization has also left a lasting impact on Vietnamese society, with baguettes and coffee remaining popular among locals.
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place between late January and March on the Western calendar. In the period leading up to Tết, the country is abuzz with preparations. Guys on motorbikes rush around delivering potted tangerine trees and flowering bushes, the traditional household decorations. People get a little bit stressed out and the elbows get sharper, especially in big cities, where the usual hectic level of traffic becomes almost homicidal. Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces. Finally on the first day of the new year an abrupt transformation occurs: the streets become quiet, almost deserted. Nearly all shops and restaurants close for three days, (the exception being a few that cater especially to foreign visitors; and hotels operate as usual.)
In the major cities, streets are decorated with lights and public festivities are organized which attract many thousands of residents. But for Vietnamese, Tết is mostly a private, family celebration. On the eve of the new year, families gather together and exchange good wishes (from more junior to more senior) and gifts of "lucky money" (from more senior to more junior). In the first three days of the year, the daytime hours are devoted to visiting -- houses of relatives on the first day, closest friends and important colleagues on the second day, and everyone else on the third day. Many people also visit pagodas. The evening hours are spent drinking and gambling (men) or chatting, playing, singing karaoke, and enjoying traditional snacks and candy (women and children.)
Visiting Vietnam during Tết has good points and bad points. On the minus side: modes of transport are jammed just before the holiday as many Vietnamese travel to their home towns; hotels fill up, especially in smaller towns; and your choice of shopping and dining is severely limited in the first days of the new year (with a few places closed up to two weeks). On the plus side, you can observe the preparations and enjoy the public festivities; pagodas are especially active; no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open; and the foreigner-oriented travel industry of backpacker buses and resort hotels chugs along as usual. Visitors also stand a chance of being invited to join the festivities, especially if you have some local connections or manage to make some Vietnamese friends during your stay. When visiting during Tết, it's wise to get settled somewhere at least two days before the new year, and don't try to move again until a couple of days after.
Lesser holidays include May 1, the traditional socialist labor day, September 2, Vietnam's national day, King Hung celebration on April 12th, commemorating past kings, and Liberation Day on April 30th, marking the fall of Saigon in 1975. Around those times, trains and planes tend to be sold out, and accommodations at the beach or in Dalat are hard to find. Best to book far in advance.
Visitors from the following countries do not require a visa and can stay for the following number of days.
All other nationalities will require a visa in advance to visit Vietnam. You will need to take along a passport photo.
NOTE MAY 2012: in the embassy in bangkok, there is a poster warning against vietnamvisa.com
As of June 2012, a single-entry tourist visa valid for 30 days costs US$90 at Washington DC (although exact fees vary depending on issuing country) and takes around 4-7 days to process; express visas take 2-3 days for an additional $30. Multiple entry, 1 month visa is $140 and Multiple entry, 3 month visa is $170. If purchasing your visa from the Vietnamese embassy in London , a 30-day single entry visa will cost you £44 (£59 for fast-track), while a 30 days multiple entry visa costs £70 (plus £8 postage if you need it posted back to you). A 30-day visa can also be obtained from the Vietnamese consulate in Battambang, Cambodia, at a cost of US$35, with visas taking 2-3 days to process, although exact entry and exit points have to be specified. A 30-day visa can also be picked up from the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh for US$45 and will be ready in 24 hours or less. In general, visas are now valid for all entry and exit points. The Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville offers one month visas for US$45 with delivered same day or in 10 minutes. The consulate in Vientiane, Laos, offers them for US$50 with delivery the day after (paying in local currency is more expensive).
Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok is on Thanon Witthayu (AKA Wireless Road), near the other embassies. It's a quick process (10-15 minutes) as long as there isn't a queue. May 2012 - Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok charges 1,800 baht (~$56 USD) for a 30-day single-entry visa, 4 working days. 2,300 baht for 30-day single-entry visa, next (Working) day. Bear in mind that if you go on a Friday, you still have to wait til Monday to get your visa even if you paid for next day. If you don't have a passport photo, go out of the embassy, turn left and a hundred metres up the road on the left is a big shopping centre. on the 3rd floor there is a kodak shop which will do 6 passport photos for 120 baht. If staying on Khao San road (which a lot of travellers/backpackers do), taxi /tuk tuk drivers may be unwilling to take you here on the meter, especially close to rush hour, as it is quite far and in an awkward place on the one way system. They'd rather scam a couple other people in the same time it would take. I paid 200 baht to get there. moped/motorbike taxi back was 100 baht, recommended if you can face the thrill!
The Vietnamese Consulate in Khon Kaen, Thailand also offers tourist visas. A single entry tourist visa valid for 30 days costs 2,000 baht (about 63$ USD). A single entry 3-month tourist visa costs 3,500 baht (about 110$ USD). A multiple entry, 3-month visa costs 5,000 baht (about 160$ USD). The consulate only accepts Thai baht in cash (no credit cards). Visas can be picked up the same day if submitted in the morning. If submitted in the afternoon, you can pick up your visa the next morning. The consulate is closed on weekends. Some consular staff speak English. You will need passport photos (bring 2 just in case), application form (available at the consulate), and payment.
November 2010 - the Vietnamese Mission to the UN in New York City charges US$80 for a 30-day single-entry visa. Cash or money order is accepted. Processing takes 6 business days. Expedited service (4 business days) is available for US$110.
November 2010 - Vietnam Embassy in Canberra Australia charges AUD$75 for a 30 day single entry visa. Approx 3 days to process. Other consular services at this embassy have been reported as slow and costly (4 weeks for Ex-Vietnamese seeking 5 year Visa exceptions - and the passport must have 5 years of life left).
July 2010 - the Vietnamese Embassy in Singapore charges SGD$100 for a 30-day, single-entry visa. 7 days to process.
June 2011 - the Vietnamese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur charges RM200 for a 30 day single entry visa, takes 5 working days; RM260 2 working days.
October 2011 - the Vietnamese Consulate in Hong Kong charges HK$300 for a 30 day single entry visa, takes 2 days to process. You can also get a visa in 15 minutes, but it is only valid for 14 days, costing an extra HK$500.
November 2011 - the Vietnamese Consulate in Hong Kong charged about HK$1000 for a 3 month, multiple entry visa, and claimed that it would normally take three days to process. However, for HK$200 (only US$26!) extra, they process it in 30 minutes. This was using a USA passport.
Some Vietnamese Embassies offer a "While you wait service" (May 2008), where a single entry visa can be gained in 15 minutes. This service costs US$92, but is approved instantly. You are required to bring a valid passport, passport photo and cash payment (cards not accepted).
Embassies are recalcitrant in publishing a schedule of fees, as the relativity high visa cost is a source of embarrassment, revenue, and a tourism deterrent (EU and U.S.). A slowdown in tourist number arrivals has been disguised by the removal of visa fees for certain nationalities (but not former Vietnamese) resulting in neighboring countries numbers filling the vacuum.
Foreign citizens of Vietnamese origin can apply for visa exemption that allows multiple entry for 3 months at a time which is valid for the duration of the passport.
An increasingly popular alternative is to arrange a visa on arrival, which is not only considerably cheaper but also alleviates the need for passports to be posted to the Vietnamese Embassy in the country of origin.
Visa on arrival
The term visa on arrival (VOA) is a bit of a misnomer in the case of Vietnam as a letter of approval has to be obtained before arrival. This is handled by a growing number of on-line agencies for a charge of US$14-21 (in 2012), depending on the agency. Most agencies accept payment by credit card. Some accept payment by Western Union.
The agent - located in Vietnam - obtains from the Department of Immigration a letter of approval bearing the traveller's name, date of birth, date of arrival, nationality and passport number, and then forwards that letter to the traveller (in PDF or JPEG format) by email or fax, usually within three working days. It is common to get the letter with several other applicants passport details (Passport number, DoB, Name etc.). You might share your personal information with up to 10-30 other applicants on the same letter(s). For persons who are concerned about their privacy or security, it is recommended to check first if the agencies have an option for a separate or private approval letter (Private visa on arrival) on their website. Very few online agencies have this option. Another solution is to apply a regular visa through the embassies to keep your personal details private.
After landing at one of the three international airports (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang), the traveller goes to the "Visa upon arrival Counter and show the letter, fills in an additional arrival form (can be pre-filled before departure) and receives an official stamp (sticker) in his or her passport. A stamping fee in cash of US$25 (US$50 for a multiple entry visa) is payable at the time - only U.S. dollars are accepted (no other currency or credit card) and the notes must be in as-new condition or they will be refused. Two passport photos are also required (often 4X6 cm).
Note that visas on arrival are not valid for border crossings and the official stamp can only be obtained at the three international airports. Therefore, travellers arriving by land from Cambodia, Laos or China must be in possession of a full visa when they arrive at the border.
A third alternative, 'Visa Code' appears to be another option [More references needed] where online approval is first obtained - with a code, then you take the passport to the Embassy for the visa to be 'stamped'. However it is reported local stamping fees makes it about the same cost of a regular visa.
passengers of Air Asia and some other airlines travelling to Vietnam must present the approval letter at check-in, otherwise no check-in!
Vietnam has moved away from the arrival/departure cards.
Depending on the present level of SARS, avian flu you may be subjected to a so-called health-check. There is no examination, though, but yet another form to fill in and, of course, another fee. If you can get hold of a handful of dong it is only 2000 dong per person, but they charge US$2 for the same "service" if you only have greenbacks!
Vietnam has international airports at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. Non-stop flights are available from Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Brunei, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Macau, Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. However, most direct flights are served by flag carrier Vietnam Airlines while plenty of other long-haul flights are available with transits via Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taipei.
There are direct international train services from Nanning and Beijing in China to Hanoi. Most require a change of trains at the border at Pingxiang/Dong Dang, but the Chinese-operated daily Nanning express (T871/MR2) runs through, although it still spends about four hours at the border for immigration.
The Kunming-Hanoi line was shut down by landslides in 2002 and, as of 2011, remains closed. There are no train links to Laos or Cambodia.
Close to the coast is the Xa Xia/Prek Chak border. Cambodian visas are available on arrival. Buses run between Ha Tien in Vietnam to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville issues 30-day tourist visas on a same-day basis.
Coastal areas are also served by the Tinh Bien/Phnom Den border near Chau Doc in Vietnam
There are three border crossings between China and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners:
There are at least six border crossings between Laos and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners.
Be wary of catching local buses from Laos to Vietnam. Not only are they often crammed with cargo (coal and live chickens, often underfoot) but many buses run in the middle of the night, stopping for several hours in order to wait for the border to open at 7AM. Whilst waiting, you will be herded off the bus (for several hours) where you will be approached by pushy locals offering assistance in getting a Laos exit stamp in exchange for money (usually US$5+). If you bargain hard (tiring, at 4AM) you can get the figure down to about US$2. The men will take your passports, which can be incredibly disconcerting, but will actually provide the service they promise. It is unclear whether you can just wait for the border officials to do this. There is also a VIP bus from Savannakhet.
Flights are the fastest way to travel the distance of this long country; the trip from Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane.
There are many flights connecting the two largest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, to major towns such as Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Phu Quoc. In the past most of these flights are cheap compared to North American or European standards. However, unfortunately, it isn't as good as before, for example, a return connecting Hanoi to Da Nang will probably run around US$120-150 (including all taxes).
Domestic carriers are Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and Air Mekong. Indochina Airlines ceased operations as of November 2009. Air Mekong, a newly launched airline, has short flights between small cities.
Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometre trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, and overnight hops between major destinations are usually possible, if not entirely convenient. It's a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are travelling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.
AIr-conditioned soft or hard sleeper is recommended, and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available--they've simply been bought by another reseller). Booking at the train station itself is generally the safest way, just prepare on a piece of paper the destination, date, time, no. of pax and class. However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station--a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer. Tickets can be returned before departure for a 10% fee.
Be cautious when using a travel agent to purchase your train tickets, since there is nothing printed on the ticket saying the class you are booked in. This results in a common scam with private travel agents where you will pay them to book a soft-sleeper ticket, they then book you a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket, and you don't know you've been scammed until you board the train and your berths are in the lower class. By then with the train on the verge of departing it is too late to go back to the scamming agent to demand compensation.
In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with bus service from Lao Cai to the tourist destination of Sapa).
Always try to buy your tickets at least 3 days in advance, to avoid disappointment, especially during peak holiday season, during which you should try to book at least a week in advance.
Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains, or run overnight. It is important to note that average road speeds are typically quite slow, even when travelling between cities. For example a 276 km (172 mi) journey from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City by bus will likely take about 8 hours.
Public Buses travel between the cities' bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city center from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals.
Open Tour buses are run by a multitude of tour companies. They cater especially to tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$20-25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you're willing to cover next. Note that if you're not planning to make more than 3-4 stops, it might be cheaper to buy separate tickets as you go (ie Hanoi to Hue can be as low as US$5). Most hotels and guesthouses can book seats for any connection, although you're better to shop around at travel agents, as prices will vary on any given ticket/bus company. Going to the bus company office may net you a commission-free fare, but most major bus operators have fixed pricing policies, which can only be circumvented through a travel agent.
Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip will not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while too. Always be at least half an hour early to catch the bus. Try not to drink too much water, as rest stops, especially for overnight buses, may be just somewhere where there are a lot of bushes.
Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese people - bigger Westerners will be very uncomfortable, especially on overnight buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to riding on long-haul buses, and will sometimes get sick - not very pleasant if you are stuck on an overnight bus with several Vietnamese throwing up behind you.
Even if you are sometimes bus-sick, it is advisable to book a sit at the middle rather than at the front of the bus. First, you will avoid viewing directly the short-sighted risks the driver is taking on the way. Second, you will somewhat escape the loud noise of unceasing honkings (each time the bus passes another vehicle, that is about every 10 seconds).
Although the bus company will usually be happy to collect you at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company office will guarantee a choice of seats and you'll avoid getting stuck at the back or unable to sit next to your travelling companions. The offices are generally located in or near the tourist area of town, and a short walk might make your trip that much more pleasant.
The long haul bus lines run from North to South and back on the only main road (QL1). Be aware that if you take a bus going further than your destination, the bus will drop you off at the most convenient crossroad for it and not as you could have expected at the bus terminal of your destination. For Hué, this crossroad is 13 kilometers from city center, Nha Trang 10 kilometers. At these crossroads, you'll find taxis or mototaxis to get you to your hotel.
If you travel with bicycle, negotiate the extra fee with the driver rather than the ticket counter before buying your ticket. The bicycle fee should be no more than 10% of the ticket price.
A scam that you may encounter is that after arriving at your location, the guides will ask you whether you have booked a hotel. Even though you haven't, say that you have and prepare the name of a hotel. If you say you have not booked one, they will charter a taxi for you and probably drop you at a hotel which they can collect commission. If you decide not to stay, things may get a little ugly, as they will demand that you pay the taxi fare, which they may quote as several times the actual fare for a ten minute ride.
WARNING - Be very careful of your possessions on the overnight bus, people (including bus employees) have been known to look through passengers bag's and take expensive items such as iPods and phones and sell them on for profit. If you are travelling with an iPod DO NOT FALL ASLEEP WITH IT IN YOUR EAR, as the chances are it will be nowhere to be found in the morning. Simply get a padlock for your hand luggage and lock everything up in there before you go to sleep.
International driving licences are not accepted in Vietnam. The concept of renting a car to drive yourself is almost non-existent, and when Vietnamese speak of renting a car they always mean hiring a car with a driver. (After a short time on local roads with their crazy traffic, you will be glad you left the driving to a professional.) Since few Vietnamese own cars, they have frequent occasion to hire vehicles for family outings, special occasions, etc., and a thriving industry exists to serve that need. Vietnamese can easily hire anything from a small car to a 32-seat bus, for one day or several. Tourists can tap into that market indirectly by way of hotels and tour agents found in every tourist area. Additionally, international car brands have started to surface. Budget Car Rental, one of the largest car rental companies in the world, now offers chauffeur driven services in Vietnam. Hiring a small car for a day trip returning to the point of origin costs around US$60 for 8 hours (though the price changes with the cost of fuel.) (If you shop around and bargain hard for the lowest possible price, you will probably get an older, more beat-up car. If you are paying more than bare minimum, it's worth asking what sort of car it will be, and holding out for something comfortable.) Few drivers speak any English, so make sure you tell the hotel/agent exactly where you want to go, and have that communicated to the driver.
It's also possible to hire a car and driver for inter-city travel, at somewhat higher cost. A small car from Saigon to the beach resort of Mui Ne, a 4- or 5-hour trip depending on traffic, costs about US$70, and Dalat to Mui Ne about US$90. Long distance travel by car may be a good choice for several people traveling together, as it provides a flexible schedule and flexible access to remote sites. Keep in mind that long-distance road travel in Vietnam by whatever means (bus or car) is slow, with average speed less than 50 km/hour. Highway 1, the north-south backbone of the country, is a two-lane road with very heavy truck and bus traffic.
Generally speaking, describing Vietnamese driving habits as atrocious would be an understatement. Road courtesy is non-existent and drivers generally do not check their blind spot or wing mirrors. Vietnamese drivers also tend to use their horn very often to get motorcyclists out of their way. In addition, most roads do not have lane markings and even on those that do, drivers generally ignore the lane markings. As such, driving yourself in Vietnam is not recommended and you should leave your transportation needs in the hands of professionals.
Adventurous travelers may wish to see Vietnam by bicycle. Several adventure travel tours provide package tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it's an excellent way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.
Bicycles can be rented cheaply in many cities, and are often a great way of covering larger distances. Good spots for cycling are Dalat, Hoi An, Hue and Ninh Binh. On the other hand, attempting to cycle in Hanoi or HCMC is virtually suicide without proper experience of traffic rules (or lack thereof, 'proper experience' in this case means understanding that everyone around you could potentially change direction at any moment.)
In cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, parking bicycles on the sidewalks is not allowed, and you'll have to go to a pay parking lot. 2000 dong per bike.
By motorcycle taxi
The xe ôm (literally 'hugging vehicle') is a common mode of transport for Vietnamese as well as tourists. They are widely available and reasonably cheap -- about 10,000 dong for a 10 minute trip, which should get you anywhere within the city center. Walk the city streets, and every couple of minutes a guy will flag your attention and say "You !! MotoBike?" Longer trips to outlying areas can be negotiated for 20,000-25,000 dong. Always agree on the fare before starting your trip. As with most things, a tourist will often be quoted an above-market price initially, and you need to be firm. If quoted anything over 10,000 dong for a short trip, remind the driver that you could take an air-con taxi for 15,000 dong so forget it. Occasionally drivers will demand more than the negotiated price at the end, so it's best to have exact change handy. Then you can pay the agreed amount and walk away, end of discussion.
Taxi-motorbikes, known as xe ôm are available everywhere and they will constantly harass you offering you a ride (no matter if the drivers speak English or not). It's advisable not to pick them since they will always make you pay much more than to locals and they will surely take you around for hours before getting you to the point you requested. In some cases they will take you wherever they want (tourist attractions or shops you didn't request to go) and sometimes they will wait for you to come back (even if you don't want them to wait) and will ask you for more money for having been waiting. Even if you speak some Vietnamese, this is not useful, since they will cheat you anyway or they will act as if they don't understand even if they do.
The 110-cc motorbike is the preferred mode of transport for the Vietnamese masses, and the large cities swarm with them. It's common to see whole families of four cruising along on a single motorbike. In most places where tourists go, you can easily rent your own, with prices ranging from 100,000 to 160,000 dong per day. Before reading on, however, you should be aware that it is illegal for foreigners to ride a motorbike in Vietnam unless they are in possession of a temporary Vietnamese motorcycle licence, which in turn requires you to have a current licence issued by your home country/country of residence or an International Driving Permit.
To convert your licence or International Driving Permit into a temporary Vietnamese licence you must hold a Vietnamese residence permit of at least three months' validity or a three-month tourist visa. In Hanoi you should apply to the Centre for Automotive Training and Mechanism, 83a Ly Thuong Kiet Street; in HCMC to the Office of Transportation, 63 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1.
You should also be aware that if you ride unlicensed and have an accident in which a third party is injured or killed you could be subject to a term of imprisonment of 10-20 years, as well as paying a large sum in compensation to the victim or the victim's family. Moreover, even if your travel insurance policy covers you for motorcycling (check the small print as many don't), if you are injured when riding illegally the insurance company will not recompense you for medical attention, hospitalisation, evacuation to another country for hospitalisation or repatriation, the cost of which can run into tens of thousands of dollars.
With all that firmly in mind, please read on.
Desk clerks at small hotels often run a side business renting motorbikes to guests, or have a friend or relative who does. Tour booths can usually do the same. In small towns and beach resorts where traffic is light, e.g Pho Quoc, it's a delightful way to get around and see the sights, and much cheaper than taxis if you make several stops or travel any distance. Roads are usually decent, though it's advisable not to ride too fast and always keep an eye on the road for the occasional pothole.
Riding in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, is a very different matter, and not advisable unless you are an experienced rider with a very cool head. Traffic is intense and chaotic, with a long list of unwritten rules that don't resemble traffic laws anywhere else. "Right of way" is a nearly unknown concept. Riding in HCMC is like finding yourself in the middle of a 3-D video game where anything can come at you from any direction, and you only have one life. Expats who brave the traffic at all typically have an apprenticeship of a few weeks or months riding on the back of others' motorbikes to learn the ways of the traffic, before attempting to ride themselves. Extreme caution is advised for short-term visitors.
Riding long distance in the countryside can also be harrowing depending on the route you take. Major roads between cities tend to be narrow despite being major, and full of tour buses hell-bent on speed, passing slow trucks where maybe they shouldn't have tried, and leaving not much room at the edge for motorbikes.
Two main categories of motorbike are available to rent: scooters (automatic transmission); and four-speed motorbikes, the gears of which you shift with your left foot. The ubiquitous Honda Super Cub is a common 4-speed bike that has a semi-automatic gearbox i.e. no clutch so is relatively easy to ride. Other models may be fully manual and therefore you must also operate the clutch using your left hand - this takes a lot of skill and it's all too easy to over-rev and pull a wheelie or stall the engine - if you end up with such a bike then practice releasing the clutch gently before hitting the roads! Dirt bikes are becoming popular for rent in Hanoi, other cities are not yet ready for these beasts. Rental agents tend to steer foreigners toward scooters if available, on the (plausible) assumption that they don't know how to ride motorbikes that require shifting gears. Motorcycles of 175cc and above are only legal to ride if you make a connection with a Vietnamese motorcycle club.
Most places you would want to stop have parking attendants who will issue you a numbered tag and watch over your bike. Sometimes these parking operations are overseen by the establishment you are visiting, and sometimes they are free-lance operations set up in places where a lot of people go. You will usually see rows of bikes lined up parked. Depending on circumstance, you might park the bike yourself, or just put it in neutral and let the staff position it. In all but rare cases you keep the key. Parking is sometimes free at restaurants and cafes (look for "giu xe mien phi"). Elsewhere, fees range from 2,000 to 5,000 dong.
Traffic police in the cities pull over lots of locals (often for reasons that are hard to discern), but conventional wisdom has it that they rarely bother foreigners due to the language barrier. Obeying the traffic laws is nevertheless advisable, especially if you have failed to obtain a Vietnamese licence. Cities like Ho Chi Minh have several one way street, and it is too easy to just steer into them unknowingly as there are limited signs warning you. BE SURE that if you break law, the police who are sneaking just at the right spot, will ask you to pull over and will fine you. They will also threaten confiscating your bike. The quoted price for fine is negotiable, and being apologetic and friendly can get you back on road quickly, with a few dollars less in your pockets. It is less likely that they will bully or harasses you.
Helmets have also been required by law since December 2007, so if you don't have one already ask your rental agent to provide you with one.
While slowly being supplanted by motorbikes, cyclo pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam's cities and towns. They are especially common in scenic smaller, less busy cities like Hue, where it's pleasant to cruise slowly along taking in the sights. Though the ride will be slow, hot and sometimes dangerous, you'll generally need to pay more than for a motorbike for the equivalent distance. On the plus side, some drivers (particularly in the South) are very friendly and happy to give you a running commentary on the sights. Cyclo drivers are notoriously mercenary and will always ask for a high price to start with. Sometimes they will also demand more than the agreed price at the end. (Japanese tourists, especially women, are most often targeted with this scam since they are more responsive to the threat that the driver will call the police and make trouble for them if they don't pay as demanded.) A reasonable price is about 20,000 dong for up to 2 km (1.2 mi), and if the driver disagrees, simply walk away. (You won't get far before that driver or another takes your offer.) Prices for a sight-seeing circuit with intermediate stops are more complex to negotiate and more subject to conflict at the end. If you plan to stop somewhere for any length of time, it's best to settle up with the driver, make no promises, and start fresh later. Some drivers start with a very low rate to get you into their cycle and then if required to wait for you or otherwise vary the agreed price, bring out a typed up price list of their "standard rates" which are inflated beyond belief. If even slightly unsure ask the driver show you his list of charges. Then negotiate from that point or walk away. To avoid trouble, it's also best to have exact change for the amount you agreed to pay, so if the driver tries to revise the deal, you can just lay your cash on the seat and leave.
You will be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat. Do be careful though because many boats, although seaworthy, are not designed to first world standards. An example is the ferry from Phu Quoc to the mainland. This ferry has one tiny entrance for all passengers to board. When full, which it usually is there are approximatly 200 people on board. In the event of an accident, the chance of everyone getting out of the boat fast enough would be very small. The idea of an emergency exit also does not exist there.
Tour boats can be chartered for around US$20 for a day's tour; but beware of safety issues if you charter a boat, make sure the boat is registered for carrying Tourists and has enough lifejackets and other safety equipment on board. Or you can book a tour through a tour company; but be aware that in Vietnam most Tour Agents charge whatever markup they want and therefore the tourist is often paying margins of 30-40%! and the boat owner and operator (of anything from a van to a boat etc.) are paid very little of the total amount!
Ha Long Bay is a famous destination for one- to three-day boat trips among its scenic limestone islands. Problem is that all the boats seem to visit the same places - and with high prices and poor quality boats and service real value is hard to come by! Many boats have a US$10 corkage fee, and forbid BYO alcohol, with on board alcohol and seafood is about the same price as Europe in some places! If there is rain, mist or low cloud, you may not see much. Try to pick a clear day.
Dozens of small family-operated boats ply the river in Hue taking visitors to the imperial tombs southwest of the city. This journey is long because the boats are slow taking about 4 hours or so to make the journey in one direction.
Snorkel - fishing - lunch trips are available from Nha Trang, Hoi An, and Phu Quoc to nearby islands. In Central Vietnam North East monsoon season limits many sea boat tours during the months September - February; other parts of Vietnam seem less affected.
A 90-minute hydrofoil boat operates from Saigon to the seaside resort of Vung Tau for about 120,000 dong each way -- the fastest way to reach the beach from the city.
Rivers tours are perhaps the most interesting. A day-long boat trip forms the core of almost any tour of the Mekong region.
The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. Like Thai and Mandarin, Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses a change in pitch to inflect different meanings, and this can make it difficult for Westerners to master. While it is very different from Western languages, a traveler may be surprised to learn that the basic grammar is pretty simple. Verbs are static regardless of the past or future and parts of speech are pretty straightforward. The major difficulties lay on tones and certain sounds.
Vietnamese consists of 4 main dialects: the northern dialect spoken around Hanoi, the north-central dialect spoken around Vinh, the central dialect spoken around Hue, and the southern dialect spoken around Ho Chi Minh City.
While the Hanoi dialect is taken as the 'standard' and widely used in broadcasting, there is no de facto standard in the education system. Northerners naturally think that southern accent is for 'hai lua' (countrymen) and will always recommend you to be stick to the northern accent, but the choice of accents should depend on where you plan to live. If you are working in Saigon, the main economic centre of Vietnam, the southern accent is what you will hear every day.
For learners, the written latin alphabet is a relief. Unlike English, Vietnamese phonetics are accurate at reflecting true pronunciations, although their sounds on certain alphabets are different or even don't exist in English.
Vietnamese lexicons are heavily influenced by the Chinese languages. Some words are loanwords from China like hotel (khach San), children (nhi dồng), communist party (dang cong san), some are formed based on Chinese characters (roots), like representative (dai dien) or bird flu (cum ga). The knowledge on the Chinese language will make it much easier to learn Vietnamese. Vietnamese is also full of loanwords from French and English from more recent times.
Although the Vietnamese people do appreciate any effort to learn their language, most seldom experience foreign accents. Learners may find it frustrating that no one can understand what they try to say. Staff in hotel and kids tend to have a more tolerant ear to foreign accents and it is not unheard of for a kid to effectively help translate your 'Vietnamese' into authentic Vietnamese for adults.
Besides Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh City is home to a sizeable ethnic Chinese community, many of whom speak Cantonese. The more remote parts of the country are also home to many ethnic minorities who speak various languages belonging to the Mon-Khmer, Tai-Kadai and Austronesian language families.
Most Vietnamese youths learn English in school, so many young people have a basic grasp of English, but proficiency is generally poor. However, most hotel and airline staff will know enough English to communicate. Directional signs are generally bilingual in both Vietnamese and English.
Despite Indochina's colonial history in which French was the medium of education, French is no longer widely taught in Vietnamese schools and aside from a few educated elite among the elderly, is much less useful than English when trying to communicate with locals. However in recent years, there has been a revival of the language in both the government and educated elite. In the big cities, some of the big international luxury hotel chains will have staff who are able to speak French and other foreign languages such as Mandarin, Japanese or Korean.
Simply walking to the nearest intersection and merely watching the driving antics is amazing. Keep watching and you may see TV's and Fridges and other unlikely objects impossibly balanced and secured with string on the back of a motorcycle. Watch how other people and local cross the road.
You will need to observe the traffic etiquette, if you want to cross the road. Some suggest avoid crossing when trucks and lorry's are close by, as they are less agile than motorbikes.
If your timing coincides with the to/from school hours, this is the best time to observe a glimpse of pushbikes, traditional clothing and ao dai mixing it with 'normal' traffic, even in the heaviest of torrential downpours. Such motivated schoolchildren!
As you travel about, you will find there are clusters of shops all selling like goods - like 20 sewing machine shops together, then 30 hardware shops all together, 200 motorcycle repair shops in the same block. Prices are competitive!
Be wary of watch shops selling original authentic fakes. Other fake watches are available but not as cheap as other surrounding countries. Pirated software is oddly, very hard to find and not sold openly. However Movie DVD's of indifferent quality are widely available from US$1, although not all may have English on them. The local post office will strictly not allow them to be posted abroad.
Vietnam claims Health tourism is on the rise. Hygiene, infection control and proper sterilization is very important, as drug resistant 'bugs' are always a concern, anywhere.
Motorbiking is popular with locals and tourists alike. Given that motorbikes are the main mode of transport in Vietnam, they can give a particularly authentic view of traveling through the country.
Renting or buying a bike is possible in many cities. Also consider Motorbike adventure tours, which involve being guided on multi-day drives to remote regions of the country. Most tours include accommodation, petrol, helmets, drivers and entry tickets to local places of interest. Guides usually speak good English or French and offer customised tours if desired. Motorbike Sightseeing Tours are similar but have a more local range specific to one city or area and can focus on food, shopping or sightseeing.
The national currency is the dong (đồng, VND), which is difficult to find or exchange outside Vietnam; change money on arrival and try to get rid of any leftovers before leaving the country. Continuing inflation and a series of devaluations continues to steadily push down the value of the dong, with US$1 dollar fetching over 21,000 dong in February 2012. Bills are available in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000 dong. In 2003, coins were also introduced in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong, although these are rarely seen.
Most visitors opt to keep the bulk of their cash in U.S. dollars and exchange or withdraw dong as needed. There is often a considerable spread in dong buy/sell rates, and sometimes the same hotel has different rates for different services! In addition to banks and official exchange counters, you can exchange most hard currencies (Sterling, Yen, Swiss Francs, Euro etc.) at gold shops, often at slightly better than official rates. This is technically illegal, but enforcement is minimal. Hotels and travel agencies can also exchange money with differing exchange rates so look for the best rate.
For credit card payments, there is usually a 3% surcharge, so cash may be advantageous for large transactions.
Traveller cheques of well known companies are widely accepted, but usually a small fee is charged. Fees might also be the only thing that would keep you from getting cash advances on Visa- or Mastercard at most banks. Through both ways you can also get hold of U.S. dollars, though there will be even higher fees. There are mentions in some popular travel books about Vietcombank not charging any commission fees to cash AMEX travelers cheques. However, this is not true anymore.
ATMs are becoming more and more common and can be found in most bigger cities and every tourist destination. They will accept a selection of credit and bank-cards, including Visa, Mastercard, Maestro or Cirrus and several other systems. Typically withdrawals are limited to 2,000,000 dong per transaction, and will incur a 20,000 dong service fee.
There are branches of money transfer companies like Western Union, but this is always one of the more expensive ways to get money.
On most land borders connecting to Cambodia, China, and Laos there are freelance moneychangers to take care of your financial leftovers, but be assured they'll get the better of you if you don't know the going rate. Note for travellers departing from Hanoi airport: There are no money exchange establishments once you finish your immigration, so exchange your dong before you enter the departure hall unless you plan to shop.
Overcharging has long been an issue in Vietnam tourism. It can happen anywhere on anything from an hotel room, a ride on taxi, coffee, meal, clothing, basic grocery stuff. Your coffee suddenly becomes 100% more expensive and a restaurant may present you an English menu with inflated prices. A friendly local who spent 30 minutes talking with you may also feel like overcharging you on anything.
Vietnamese hold a diverse view on this issue but in general it is more common in Vietnam than other neighbouring countries to see it socially acceptable to overcharge foreigners. They may argue inflated prices are still cheap and they may blame on the cheap cost of living which attracts a lot of backpackers with barebone budgets. According to this school of thought, if tourists complain about it, it's because they're stingy. Rich tourists should not have a problem being overcharged.
The good news is that standard price is much more common than early 90s. You will absolutely spoil your travel if you assume that everyone is cheating you, just try to be smart. In a restaurant, learn some common dish names in Vietnamese, insist that you need to read Vietnamese menu, and compare it. If owners argue that the portion of dishes in the English menu is different, it's definitely a scam and move to other places. Learn some Vietnamese numbers and try to see how much a local pays a vendor. Also try basic bargaining tactics: Think how much it is back home, ask for big discount and walk away, pretending that the price isn't right. Many products tend to be standardized and compare more.
Try to be as clear as possible on the agreed price. You may agree 20,000 dong with a "Xe Om" driver for a specific trip, but at the end he may claim you are due 40,000 dong. Then you pay 20,000 dong, smile and say goodbye, because you have a good memory.
Vietnam is still cheap by most standards: a month's stay can start from US$250 using basic rooms, local food and open bus transportation.
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam, with the exception of bellhops in high end hotels. In any case, the price quoted to you is often many times what locals will pay, so tipping can be considered unnecessary in most circumstances. To avoid paying a tip when a taxi driver, for example, claims they don't have small change, always try to have various denominations available.
Food sits at the very centre of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions - food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
Vietnamese cuisine varies slightly from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being bland while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being spicy.
At the same time, the Vietnamese are surprisingly modest about their cuisine. (And old proverb/joke says that a fortunate man has a Western (French) house, Japanese wife, and Chinese chef.) High-end restaurants tend to serve "Asian-fusion" cuisine, with elements of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese mixed in. The most authentic Vietnamese food is found at street side "restaurants" (A collection of plastic outdoor furniture placed on the footpath), with most walk-in restaurants being mainly for tourists. Definite regional styles exist -- northern, central, and southern, each with unique dishes. Central style is perhaps the most celebrated, with dishes such as mi quang (wheat noodles with herbs, pork, and shrimp), banh canh cua (crab soup with thick rice noodles) and bun bo Hue (beef soup with herbs and noodles).
Many Vietnamese dishes are flavored with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. (Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savory dish -- you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.) Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau mgò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighboring countries, especially China.
Vietnam's national dish is phở (pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone), a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles (a form of rice linguini or fettuccine). Phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs(usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chiles and and scalded bean sprouts which you can add in according to your taste, along with chili paste, chili sauce, and sweet soybean sauce. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal. Most phở places specialize in phở and can serve you a bowls as fast as you could get a Big Mac. It's available at any time of the day, but locals eat it most often for breakfast. Famous phở restaurants can be found in Hanoi. Generally speaking, the phở served at roadside stalls tends to be cheaper and taste better than those served in fancier restaurants.
Street side eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phở and cơm. Though cơm literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables. Cơm is used to indicate eating in general...even when rice is not served (ie: An cơm chua?- Have you eaten yet) Though they may look filthy, street side eateries are generally safe so long as you avoid undercooked food.
In rural and regional areas it is usually safest to eat the locally grown types of food as these are usually bought each day from the market. It is not uncommon, that after you have ordered your meal a young child of the family will be seen running out the back towards the nearest market to purchase the items.
Most restaurants/cafes in Vietnam will have a bewildering variety of food available. It is very common for menus to be up to 10-15 pages. These will include all types of Vietnamese food, plus some token western food, possibly some Chinese and maybe a pad thai as well. It is generally best to stick with the specialty of the area as this food will be the freshest and also the best prepared.
Be advised that when dining in a restaurant, it is common practice for the wait staff to place a plastic packet (stamped with the restaurant's name) containing a moist towelette on your table. They are not free; they cost between 2,000 - 4,000 VND. If you open it, you will be charged for it. Also, peanuts or other nuts will be offered to you while you are browsing the menu. Those are not free, either. If you eat any, you will be charged.
Vegetarian food is quite easy to find anywhere in Vietnam due in large part to the Buddhist influence. These restaurants will run from upscale to street stall. Basically any Vietnamese dish with meat can be made vegetarian with the abundance of fake meats. Besides the Buddhist influence of two vegetarian days a month, Cao Dai people eat vegetarian 16 days, and followers of the bizarre Quan Yin method eat vegan daily. Look for any sign that says Com Chay or simply remember the phrase An Chay.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost every village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.
All Vietnamese restaurants are controlled by government, and some are fully owned by government. Most restaurants' opening times are 10:00 to 22:00, some opens at 7:00 and some at 6:00 or 8:00. In 24-hour restaurants, there will be two prices, the price is normal from 6:00 to 22:00, and doubled from 22:00 to 6:00. For example, rice (com) usually costs 10,000 dong, but if you order after 22:00, the price will be 20,000 dong. This project is made by government to discourage people from eating late. Some dishes are not served after 22:00.
In restaurants fully owned by government, you will usually got "errored cuisine" such as fried fish with lemon sauce instead of fish sauce, or rice with tea instead of chili, and some dishes are not available for one month long without any announcement.
Watch out for ice in drinks. Factory-made ice is generally safe, but anything else can be suspect.
Drinking in a Vietnamese bar is a great experience. One of the interesting things is that during the day, it is almost impossible to see a bar anywhere. Once the sun goes down though, dozens seem to appear out of nowhere on the streets.
Don't miss out on bia hơi, (literally "air beer"), or draught beer made daily. It's available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars will give you the opportunity to relax drinking in a typical Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveler can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying.
The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It's a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency. Though fun for the novelty factor, this beer may produce awful hangovers for some. For those people, sticking with bia chai (bottled beer) might be more advisable.
The most popular beer (draft, bottle or can) among the Southern Vietnamese is Saigon Do (Red Saigon). For the Northern Vietnamese Bia Hanoi (Hanoi beer) is the most popular brand, whereas Central Vietnamese prefer Festival beer or Bia Huda. 333, pronounced "ba-ba-ba" is a local brand, but it's somewhat bland; for a bit more flavor, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bia Saigon is also available as little stronger export version. Bière Larue is also good, and you can find local brands in every larger city.
It's regular practise for beer in Vietnam to be drunk over ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink. It is also considered necessary to drink when a toast is proposed...mot, hai, ba, do (one, two, three, cheers). Mot tram, mot tram implies you will drink 100%.
Wine and liquor
Vietnamese "ruou de" or rice alcohol (ruou means alcohol) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It's commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don't drink much alcohol, well at least in public. It's not recommended for tourists.
Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viticulture. Dalat is the center of the winelands, and you can get extremely good red and white wine for about US$2-3, however this is very hard to find. Most wine is Australian that is served in restaurants and you will be charged Australian prices as well making wine comparatively quite expensive compared to drinking beer or spirits.
Coconut wine - Rượu dừa - ruou dua : This is special VietNam wine. This wine is made by traditional material and coconut form natural. Copra of coconut can purify Aldhyt in rice wine which cause your headache and tied. You feel free to drink a health to somebody.
Rice spirt and local Vodka is incredibly cheap in Vietnam by western standards. Russian Champagne is also quite available. When at Nha Trang, look for the 'all you can drink' boat trips for around US$10-15 for an all day trip and party with on board band.
Coconut water is a favorite in the hot southern part of the country. nước mía, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst-quencher is the fabulous sinh tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also have it blended in a mixer. You could place any fruit-type after the word sinh tố - e.g. sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie) or sinh tố dừa(pineapple smoothie). If you prefer to have orange juice, you won't use the word sinh tố but nước (literally: water) or nước cam if you would like to have an orange juice. Juices are usually without condensed milk or coconut milk.
Another popular drink among locals and tourists alike is the coffee (cà phê). Do be careful when drinking locally prepared coffee as the locals tend to drink it incredibly strong with about 4 teaspoons of sugar per cup. It is usually served black or with sweetened condensed milk. Definitely an acquired taste.
Vietnamese coffee beans are fried, not roasted. If you are picky, bring your own coffee.
Lodging is not an issue in Vietnam, even if you're traveling on a pretty tight budget. Accommodation in Vietnam ranges from scruffy US$6-a-night dorm accommodation in backpacking hostels to world-class resorts, both in large cities and in popular coastal and rural destinations. Even backpacking hostels and budget hotels are far cleaner and nicer than in neighbouring countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos), and cheap hotels that charge US$8-10 for a double room are often very clean and equipped with towels, clean white sheets, soap, disposable toothbrushes and so on. Service in a lot of the very inexpensive hotels is actually quite good (since the rate that a person pays per night could equal a Vietnamese national's weekly pay), although daily cleaning and modern amenities like television may not be provided. In hotels costing a few dollars more (US$12 per room upwards, more in Hanoi) you can expect an en suite bathroom, telephone, air conditioning and television. As with hotels elsewhere in the world, mini-refrigerators in Vietnamese hotels are often stocked with drinks and snacks, but these can be horribly overpriced and you would be much better off buying such items on the street. Adequate plumbing can be a problem in some hotels but the standard is constantly improving.
It is a legal requirement for all hotels to register the details of foreign guests with the local police. For this reason they will always ask for your passport when you check in. The process usually only takes a few minutes, after which they will return your passport. However, because non-payment by guests is by no means unknown, some hotels retain passports until check-out. If a place looks dodgy then ask that they register you while you wait and take your passport with you afterwards. However very few people have had a problem with this as it is routine across the country.
It is advisable to put your foot down and refuse to leave passport with the reception - it is helpful to carry some photocopies of your passport which you can hand over to the hotel. You can extend an advance payment in case the hotel insists on keeping your passport.
Most hotels throughout Vietnam now have very good high-speed Internet access and the use of computers is generally free, although some hotels levy a small charge.
The more high-end hotels offer a multitude of amenities; such as elaborate buffets with local cuisine, spa treatments, local sightseeing packages, etc.
Hanoi now have some hostels for family called Hanoi Family Hostel. Rooms here are large and with more beds for children. Room rate are good price.
Homestay accommodation is easily booked through travel agents. However, some tourists are disappointed to learn that the "homestay" they booked is really a commercial hotel or the accommodation is situated in a separate building from the family home.
With the recent surge in property prices and inflation, basic room prices in District 1 HCMC are now $USD 12 and up, similar for Hanoi. Upmarket hotels in these areas are considerably more expensive than neighboring countries, ie Thailand. However many equivalent sub $8 rooms can still be found in one of the many coastal resorts.
If you want to meet local people, stop by a school. In Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), visit the American Language School, where you'll be welcomed enthusiastically and invited to go into a class and say hi. You'll feel like a rock star.
The Vietnamese love to meet new people, and teachers welcome the opportunity for their students to meet foreigners.
An excellent novel set in modern-day Vietnam is "Dragon House" by John Shors. Dragon House is the story of two Americans who travel to Vietnam to open a center to house and educate Vietnamese street children.
Former BBC reporter in Hanoi, Bill Hayton, has written a good introduction to most aspects of life in Vietnam - the economy, politics, social life etc. It's called Vietnam: rising dragon and was published in May 2010.
You can volunteer as an English teacher through many volunteer organisations. However, if you have a TEFL/TESOL qualification and a degree then it's very easy to find paid teaching work. Without qualifications it's also possible to find work, but it takes more patience to find a job, and often there are concessions to make with payment, school location and working hours(weekends). Most teaching jobs will pay $15 to $20 an hour. There are also many paid volunteering organisations which allow you to help local communities, such as: Love Volunteers, i-to-i and Global Volunteers.
While many safety warnings in travel guide books are no more than scaremongering, touristy areas in Vietnam are really worth more precaution. Violent crime towards foreigners remains low, pickpockets and motorbike snatching have found their home especially in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Nha Trang. Thieves on motorbikes are ready to snatch bags, mobile phones, cameras, and jewelery off pedestrians and other motorbike drivers. Avoid dangling your bags along traffic roads. Talking on your mobile phone next to cars on the road and putting your bag on the front basket of a motorbike will tempt a robber. Pham Ngu Lao is the buffet place for all first witness accounts and all veterans seem to have certain experience of it. It could happen day or night, in a crowded road with hundreds of drivers. Locals suggest that they won't kill you but they will take all your money. This is true as long as you don't hold your belongings too tight. Reports that a foreign tourist got crashed to death when she tried to drag back what was robbed have been heard.
Also infamously common are thefts on popular beaches. Never leave your bag unattended on beaches.
In hotel rooms, including five star ones, reports that belongings are stolen have been heard occasionally. There is no need to be overly paranoid because most tourists do not get hurt, though basic precautions are definitely needed.
Avoid fights and arguments with locals. Caucasians may be taller then Vietnamese, but if you're dealing with 5 or more Vietnamese guys, you're still screwed. Keep in mind that yelling at people is a 100% insult to Vietnamese, so the reactions of a Vietnamese might be unpredictable to you, if you're not asian. In general Vietnamese people are as peaceful as any other southeast asians, but if you offend them harsh, some of them may happen to be violent. Though they may not do the same in your country, as a foreigner, Vietnamese expect you to act a certain way in theirs. That being said, it is not your country, and you should respect the general law of the land. Most of these arguments can be avoided easily by showing general courtesy, and tolerating cultural differences that may seem rude to you. Show special caution when drinking with Vietnamese men.
Corruption is a big problem in Vietnam and locals are convinced that the police are not to be trusted. For motorcycle driver, police officer may stop you for any reasons including missing insurance papers or driving license, fine you around US$20 for each offense (the average traffic fine should only be about US$5-10). Remember to stand your ground and all officers are required to write all traffic violations in their notebook and give your a receipt and pay to the station (not the officer). If you have a cell phone, threaten to call your embassy and he may back down. You might though just find it easier to pay the fine and get on your way.
Immigration officers are known to take bribes. During the early Doi Moi (the reform in 90s), bribes could be a few U.S. dollars, a few packs of 555 cigarettes. Today although officers still seem to feel okay at taking it, it is absolutely risk-free and acceptable if you don't bribe.
The international monitoring group Transparency International has rated Vietnam as one of the most corrupt nations in Asia.
Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam and the age of consent is 18. Vietnam has laws on the books with penalties up to 20-40 years in prison for sexually exploiting women and children, and several other countries have laws that allow them to prosecute their own citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex with children.
Most scams in Vietnam are in transportation, hotel prices and two-menus system practiced by some restaurants.
Hotel owners may tell you that the room price is 200,000 dong. However, when checking out, they may insist that the price is US$20, charging you almost a double. Another trick is to tell customers that a "room" is a few dollars, but following day they'll say that price was for a fan room only and it's another price for an air-con room. These days, legitimate hotel owners seem to be aware of these scams and are usually willing to help by writing down how much the room is per persons per day (in U.S. dollars or dong), if it has air con or not. Staff of legitimate hotels also never ask for payment from a guest when they check in. Watch out if they insist that you should pay when you check out but refuse to write down the price on paper.
Some restaurants are known to have two menus, one for local people and another one for foreigners. The only way to deal with it is to learn a few Vietnamese phrases and insist that you should be shown only the Vietnamese menu. If they hesitate to show you the local menu, you better walk away.
Many taxi drivers in Saigon and Hanoi install rigged meters, charging up to 2 to 8 times more. The best way to reduce your chances is by taking a taxi from reputable companies such as Mai Linh (+84 38 38 38 38) and Vinasun in Saigon and Mai Linh and Hanoi Tourist for Hanoi (but note that taking these companies is not a guarantee). If you don't know what a reasonable fair is, it is generally a bad idea to agree on a price in advance. Spoken for Saigon, the two recommended companies have quite reliable meters. The former suggested Saigon tourist taxi cannot be recommended at all.
Taxis are abundant in Saigon - and you can get a taxi at any time of the day or (night). You can also call a Taxi, and usually people at call center will be able to either converse in English, or will pass on the phone to someone who can. Rule of thumb to detect scammers - If the taxi doesn't have the fare charges written, or drivers name and photo on the dashboard. Immediately ask the taxi to stop and get out. It is a definite scam.
When leaving the airport, the taxi driver may insist that you pay the airport toll. He might not be very forthcoming with the price, and if you give him cash, he will pay the toll and pocket the rest.
Many taxi drivers in Sai Gon and Ha Noi try to overcharge thin faced, just arrived, and gullible travelers. You should consult some guidebooks and travel forums to prepare yourself for those petty scams and to learn more about how to avoid them. The airport toll fees is Saigon is 10,000 Dong (as of July 2012) - this is also quoted along with the fare written on the dashboard of the taxi. You can confidently say "airport toll only 10,000" and refuse to pay anything else such as parking etc. (unless there were more toll roads in between). Usually, the driver will not argue it out. In Saigon, a trip to Backpackers street should not cost more than 250,000 Dong from the airport in any case.
In several other cities of Vietnam, such as Dalat, Hoi An, Nha Trang etc. - DO NOT travel by meter. The airports are as far as 30-40KM from these places and meter will cost you from 500,000 to 650,000 Dong. However, you can either take a bus from the Airport to city center, or pre-negotiate rates with taxi from 200,000 - 300,000 Dong. Refer to individual sections for details. Pay attention to sides of taxi - usually a rate for Airport drop is written on the door itself.
Taxi and cyclo drivers may claim that they don't have change when accepting payment for an agreed-upon fare. The best way to handle this is to either carry smaller bills or be ready to stand your ground. Generally the driver is only trying to get an extra dollar or so by rounding the fare up, but to prevent this scam from becoming more popular it is advised to stay calm and firm about the price.
When you meet an over friendly cyclo driver who says, "never mind how much you would pay" or "you can pay whatever you like at the end of the trip". He even tries to show you his book of comments from international tourists. This kind of driver has to be a scammer. If you still want to use his service you should make it clear about the agreed price and don't pay more than that. Just be clear what you are willing to pay; the cyclo drivers are just trying to make a living.
The first discovery for many tourists who just arrive in Vietnam is that they need to learn how to cross a road all over again. You may see a tourist standing on the road for 5 minutes without knowing how to cross it. Traffic in Vietnam is a nightmare. Back home, you may never witness the moment of crash, seeing injured victims lying on the road, or hearing the BANG sound. Staying in Vietnam for more than a month, you will have fair chance of experiencing all these.
Roads are packed. Some intersections in main cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City) have traffic lights patrolled by police, most are either non-functional or ignored.
To cross the road, don't try to avoid the cars, let them avoid you. Step a little forward, a little more, and you will see motorcycle drivers to slow down a bit, or go to another way. Make your pace and path predictable to other drivers. Don't change your speed or direction suddenly. Then move forward until you hit your destination.
The simplest way, if available, is to follow a local, stand next to them in the opposite side of the traffic (if you get hit, he will get it first) and he will give you the best chance of crossing a road.
If you are injured, don't expect that local people are willing to help for even calling an ambulance because it is not free. Make sure you tell local clearly that you will pay the ambulance fee. Hospitals will also not accept your admission unless you prove that you can pay the bill.
Highways are also risky with an average of 30 deaths a day and some locals will not even venture on them if not in a big vehicle (car or bus). Taking a bicycle or motocycle on highways is an adventure for risk takers, definitely not for a family with children.
Petty crime in night clubs can happen. Avoid quarreling with local people because drunken Vietnamese can be violent to foreigners, especially when there are girls around him. Don't leave your belongings unattended. Clubs are full of prostitutes looking for their admirers but be aware that they may also take your wallet and mobile phones away. Walking very late by yourself on the streets in the tourist area is safe, but you shouldn't let any local girls getting into conversation with you. Otherwise, they will touch you, sweet talk you, and then steal something from you without you knowing it at that moment.
Avoid asking the cab drivers for recommended nightspot. Most cab drivers are paid by KTVs and lounges to bring in foreign tourist. Usually when you walked in they will tell you a set of pricing which seems reasonable. But when you check out on the bill, they will includes a number of extravagant charges. Do you homework beforehand and tell the cab drivers where you want to go. Insist on going to where you want to go despite their persuasion. There are a number of reputable pubs and disco around. Try going to those which have more foreigners.
Much of Vietnam's ecology has been severely damaged and very little wildlife remains, let alone anything dangerous to humans. Venomous snakes (such as Cobras) may still be common in rural areas but virtually everything else has either gone extinct or exist in such small numbers that the chances of even seeing them are remote. Tigers may exist in very small numbers in remote areas, but this is yet to be proven. Saltwater crocodiles once thrived in southern Vietnam but have been locally extinct for at least 20 years.
Tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are endemic in rural Vietnam. Malaria isn't as much a concern in the bigger cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, but always remember to take mosquito liquid repellent with you. It may be very useful, especially in the countryside and crowded neighborhoods.
Thanks to much improved hygiene conditions in recent years, cooked food sold by street vendors and in restaurants, including blended ice drinks, are mostly safe. Just use your common sense and follow the tips under the Traveller's diarrhea article and you'll most likely be fine.
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell lots of T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of "Uncle Ho." Many overseas Vietnamese are highly critical of the government of Vietnam you may want to consider this before wearing communist paraphernalia in their communities back home! A less controversial purchase would be a nón lá (straw hat) instead.
It's common to be stared at by locals in some regions, especially in the central and northern side of the country, and in rural areas. Southerners are usually more open.
Asian women traveling with non-Asian men could attract attention, being considered lovers, escorts or prostitutes by some people and may even be harassed or insulted. These attitudes and behaviors have lessened but have not yet disappeared.
The most surprising thing about the topic of the Vietnam War (the American or Reunification War, as it is called in Vietnam) is that the Vietnamese do not bear any animosity against visitors from the countries that participated, and in the South many Vietnamese (especially older Vietnamese involved in the conflict or with relatives in the war) appreciate or at least respect the previous Western military efforts against the North. Two-thirds of the population were born after the war and are quite fond of the west. That said, there are some attractions which present a very anti-American viewpoint on the war's legacy, which may make some feel uncomfortable.
Be sensitive if you must discuss past conflicts. Well over 3 million Vietnamese died, and it is best to avoid any conversations that could be taken as an insult to the sacrifices made by both sides during the wars. Do not assume that all Vietnamese think alike as many Vietnamese in the South are still bitter about having lost against the North.
Police 113, Fire Brigade 114, Hospital 115, Time 117, General Information 1080
Landline numbers in Hanoi and HCMC have a sequence of eight numbers, others have seven.
Telephone bills are 30% to 40% cheaper if dialed with 171 or 178 services.
Since hotels and guesthouses often charge higher for telephone calls, try to find a post office or any reliable public service.
There are many mobile networks with different codes:
You can buy a SIM card in every shop selling mobile phones, or showing their network's brands. The standard price is no higher than 75,000 dong, but foreigners are often charged 100,000 dong.
Prepaid account charges vary from 1,700-2,500 dong per minute. Recharge cards are available in denominations of 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000 dong.
Roaming onto Vietnam's GSM networks are possible with foreign mobile phones, subject to agreements between operators.
Internet access is available in all but the most remote towns. Internet cafes are available in most tourist spots and rates are fairly cheap, ranging from 2,000-10,000 dong per hour. Connection speeds are high, especially in the big cities.
Many hotels and restaurants provide free Wi-Fi or terminals for their guests. If you bring your own phone and/or laptop, several providers offer mobile internet services (EDGE/3G) services as well.
Internet censorship is applied to small number of internet services. As of August 2010, Facebook has still been blocked but Facebook Mobile is still accessible. By September 2010 it is accessible to Facebook as normal internet connection. A quick Google search for the relevant programs should help you bypass the ban quite easily. There was also a report that telecom companies block the use of Skype, although the ban has apparently been lifted. Other sites such as Gmail, YouTube, and Wikipedia seem to be unaffected. If at any time web censorship is a problem, we recommend you use the free software created by the Tor Project at