Difference between revisions of "Vietnam"
Revision as of 23:55, 5 April 2010
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 a history of war, colonization and rebellion. Occupied by China no less than four times, the Vietnamese managed to beat off the invaders just as often. 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 colonize 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 ettiquette, 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 What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973.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. Over 55,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese 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.
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.
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, and September 2, Vietnam's national day. 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.
A single-entry tourist visa valid for 30 days costs US$35 (although exact fees vary depending on issuing country) and takes around 4-7 days to process; express visas take 2-3 days at twice the price. If purchasing your visa from the Vietnamese embassy in London, a 30-day single entry visa will cost you £38, 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. In general, visas are now valid for all entry and exit points.
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).
A fairly convoluted visa on arrival process has recently been introduced, but this requires a prior application to Hanoi and is generally intended mostly for groups and citizens of countries without Vietnamese embassies.
Visa upon arrival can be received if you are coming from Laos right on the border control. It takes 10 to 20 minutes and cost about $35 US for most nations (2009).
This Visa on Arrival works fine, you get it quick after you paid for it (with credit card, 1 day), costs 18 US$ then you pay still 26 US$ at the arrival for the stamp in the pass. Pre-approved letter with code for picking up visa upon arrival Vietnam at the airports of Hanoi capital city, Ho Chi Minh or Saigon city and Danang city. If you come from Bangkok to Saigon you have to present this approval letter by the check-in, otherwise no check-in in BKK (Air Asia)!
Vietnam has moved away from the old A4 carbon copy arrival forms. Recently, they have started to use arrival/departure cards which are very similar to those found in Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore. Keep the departure portion of this just as safe as your passport, as you will have to produce it when leaving the country to avoid a fine.
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. Direct flights are available from Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Brunei, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Macau, Qatar, Turkey and the United States. However, non-stop long-distance flights are limited and most visitors transit 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 2009, remains closed. There are no train links to Cambodia.
There are at least four border crossings between Cambodia and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners. These include:
The Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville issues 30 day tourist visas on a same-day basis.
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. These include:
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 quite 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. Most of these flights are cheap compared to North American or European standards. For example, a return connecting Hanoi to Da Nang will probably run around $80 US (including all taxes).
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-kilometer 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 traveling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.
AC 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.
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 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 had for as little 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.
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 hangluggage and lock everything up in there before you go to sleep.
International driving licenses 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 charter 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 eight hours (though the price changes with the cost of gas). (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 motorcycle or 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 and Hue. On the other hand, attempting to cycle in Hanoi or HCMC is virtually suicide without proper experience of traffic rules (or lack thereof.)
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 20-25,000 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 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. 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! 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 advisable just to be sure. Licenses (to operate motorbikes) are required, although many people have been known to drive without them. Helmets are also required by law as from the December 15th, 2007, if you don't have it already, ask your rental agent to provide them.Y ou should also check that your travel insurance covers you for any accidents that occur, particularly if you do not have a motorcycle license in your own country.
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, 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. 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 are 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! Seafood is about the same price as Europe in some places!
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.
Vietnamese, spoken by most of the population, is a tonal language and definitely not easy for Westerners to master. 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 to be the prestige dialect, there is no standard dialect in the education system and most schools would just teach in the local dialect. It is written in the Latin (Roman) alphabet similar to most European languages (plus the use of five diacritical or accent marks), making maps and signs relatively easy to understand. More than 20% of the modern Vietnamese vocabulary originally came from Chinese (just as many English words originate from Latin or French), so travelers fluent in other East Asian languages may find some similar words.
Ho Chi Minh City is home to a sizeable ethnic Chinese community, many of whom speak Cantonese in addition to Vietnamese. 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.
Many young people have a basic grasp of English. It is not uncommon to meet young people who learned English in school, especially in the South. In addition, all hotel and airline staff will be able to speak English. Directional signs are generally bilingual in both Vietnamese and English. French, although not widely spoken anymore, is still used by many older Vietnamese people (those 60 and over) who were educated in French. If not English (or more accurately, in addition to English), young people may study Japanese, Korean, Thai or Chinese.
Motorbike adventure tours - There are many tour operators which provide customized motorbike tours around the remote regions of Vietnam. Given that motorbikes are the main mode of transport in Vietnam, this can be a particularly authentic means of traveling through the country and visiting those off-the-beaten-track places. Most operators provide all-inclusive accommodation, petrol, helmets, drivers if necessary and entry tickets to local places of interest. They usually speak good English or French and offer customised tours if desired.
The national currency is the dong (đồng, VND), which has stabilized in the past few years but is difficult to find or exchange outside Vietnam. Bills are available in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000, 100000, 200000 and 500000 dong. In 2003, coins were also introduced in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted, the standard exchange rate for small quantities being 18000 dong to US$1; this is some 5% below the bank rate, so it's usually better to pay in dong. Inflation in Vietnam has been skyrocketing as a result of the world financial crisis, so expect the rate of dong-dollar as well as other currencies to go up in 2009/2010. Also note that dollar bills in less than perfect condition may be rejected. US $2 bills (especially those printed in the 1970's) are considered lucky in Vietnam and are worth more than $2. They make a good tip/gift, and many Vietnamese will keep them in their wallet for luck. US$50 and US$100 notes get a higher exchange rate than notes of lower denominations. Note that all gold shops will exchange the majority of hard currencies (Sterling, Yen, Swiss Francs, Euro etc.) at reasonable rates. Be advised that travel agencies (like StaTravel in Saigon) will rip you off offering you a very low rate.
In addition to US dollars many vietnamese informal shops(which is pretty much all of them) will accept almost any kind of currency in order to make a sale, so it won't hurt to keep some of your home currency handy as well.
When it comes to foreign tourists, you might opt for US$ cash as the basic staple of your money belt, but bear in mind that it is always wise not to rely on just one leg when walking.
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 getting 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. Not every machine will like your particular card, but "Vietcombank-ATMs" are known for the broadest variety. The amount of your withdrawal may not exceed 2,000,000 dong in one transaction. ANZ bank allows withdrawals of 15,000,000 dong per day. You will usually incur a charge of 20,000 dong for each transaction, in addition to any charges your bank will make.
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.
Prices such as hotel and bus fares are, by government mandate, significantly higher (typically three times) for "foreign guests" than for locals.
The pressure on Westerners to pay ridiculously inflated prices or invented charges can border on the aggressive - regardless of whether you're American, British, Australian etc. Vietnamese "always" consider foreigners much richer than they are, so they will always (and sometimes without even trying to hide it) make you pay more (especially if you're not Asian). The rule of thumb in Vietnam is to pre-negotiate the price of any service before it is rendered, especially bus, taxi, or motorcycle rides. One of the best investments you can make is in a cheap, durable, battery (solar powered are obviously useless at night) operated calculator, as this makes negotiations much easier, and avoids misunderstandings.
You can bargain on practically anything in Vietnam. Most merchants will start off charging foreigner prices, which you can easily bring down by a minimum of 10%, or more if you like bargaining.
Costs for a month's stay can start from a backpacking US$250-500 Using basic rooms, local food and open bus transportation can keep it very close to the US$250 per month
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.
Food sits at the very epicentre 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 specialities. 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, a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles (a form of rice linguini or fettuccini). Phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs(usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilis 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.
Streetside 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. Though they may look filthy, streetside 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 inlcude 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.
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 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.
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 "gas 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.
The most popular beer (draft, bottle or can) among the Vietnamese is Tiger. 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.
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 $2-3US, 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 comparitively 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.
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.
Another popular drink among locals and tourists alike is the coffee (cà phê). Be sure to ask for the local Vietnamese coffee instead of those imported from France or Italy, as it has a unique taste and is often of higher quality than the imported varieties despite the lower prices.
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. As milk is hard to come by outside of the tourist hotels, it is also often served black or with sweetened condensed milk. Definitely an aquired taste.
Lodging is not an issue in Vietnam, even if you're traveling on a pretty tight budget. Hotels in Vietnam range from scruffy US$4-a-night (Per couple) backpacking hostels to world-class resorts, both in the city and in popular rural destinations. Even backpacking hostels and hotels are by far cleaner and nicer than in neighbouring countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos), and even cheap US$4-6 per couple hotels often supply very clean rooms with towels, clean white sheets, disposable toothbrush and so on. Service in a lot of the more inexpensive hotels is actually quite good (since the fares that a person pays per night could equal a Vietnamese national's monthly pay), although modern amenities like television and room service in some cases are hard to come by. Like many hotels, there are often drinks and snacks in the mini-refrigerators in Vietnamese hotels; but these are horribly overpriced and you would be much better off buying these items on the street. Adequate plumbing is a problem in some hotels.
It is a legal requirement for all hotels to register any forigners that stay the night with the local police. For this reason they will always ask for you passport when you check in. The process will usually only take a few minutes after which they will return your passport. If the 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 much of an routine across the country.
Many hotels in the larger cities, mostly Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have very good high-speed Internet access; but there is a fee (3000-15000 dong/hour) to use the computers in some cases.
The more high-end hotels have a multitude of free/low cost amenities; such as elaborate buffets with local cuisine, spa treatments, local sightseeing packages, etc.
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.
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.
You can volunteer as an English teacher through Travel to Teach or other volunteering organizations.
Vietnam is very keen on bolstering foreign tourism: with severe punishments for crimes against tourists, violent crime against foreigners is rare. Nevertheless be alert in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, where teams on motorbikes drive by their victims to snatch bags, cameras, mobile phones, jewelry, etc. Carry bags on the side away from the street, use money belts, and let the hotel reception keep your valuables. As is often said by the locals they won't kill you but they will take all your money.
Also infamously common are thefts on popular beaches, like in the case of Nha Trang, where tourists get into the water for a swim to find out their day bag is gone when they're back to the beach. Never leave your bag unguarded on beaches, and keep your eyes on it.
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.
On the road
Be careful! When traveling within the confines of the city it is fine, as speed is pretty tame. However, getting on the freeway is dangerous, there are a lot of traffic fatalities (average is 30 deaths a day) on the freeways in Vietnam, and some locals will not even venture on them, if not in a big vehicle (car or bus).
Taking a bicycle or motobike on the freeway is not advised. There are transport buses and tour buses that go about 80 km/hour that pay very little attention to what is going on around them (as is usually the way people adhere to traffic in Vietnam). This often leads to accidents, where frequently you will see many bodies lying on the road with a blanket over them and incense burning around them.
If you are in an accident you have to get yourself to the hospital. You have to call yourself or, if lucky, get someone to call for you. Local hospitals will not accept you unless they think you can pay the bill.
Crossing the road
The stakes are high: if you are to die in Vietnam, more than likely it will happen on the road -- be it in a car or under one. Vietnamese cities are crowded, and the roads are absolutely packed. You will take your life into your own hands every time that you cross a busy street in any of Vietnam's major cities.
Although some intersections in the main cities (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City) have traffic lights and many are patrolled by a police officer, most lights are either non-functional or ignored, and you are more likely to see a traffic officer sitting in the shade than directing traffic. Also note that many intersections have no give way signs at all, and instead have 4 sets of traffic that all try to get through as they can.
In most of the Western world, the trick is to avoid the cars. That's simply not possible in Vietnam, as there are far too many cars, trucks (lorries or utes), motorbikes, cyclos and bicycles in far too little space. No, the trick in Vietnam is to enable the vehicles to avoid you.
This is managed by first picking a reasonable gap in the traffic (probably a smaller gap than you'd choose when crossing in, say London or Manhattan or Sydney), then walking slowly and predictably across the street while looking directly at the on-coming cars, motorcycles, cyclos and bicycles.
The predictability of your pace and path is the critical factor between life and death. Do not change direction or speed.
If you stop, retreat or try to dodge the vehicles, you are risking injury, and your possible misfortune will merely annoy a lot of commuters by snarling traffic even further. But if you step confidently and carefully, the drivers will see and smoothly avoid you -- often with grace and a casual aplomb that's initially bewildering to many panic-stricken Westerners. But remember, they do this all the time, every day...or they wouldn't be alive themselves.
The simplest way to cross a busy street is to find a local and walk close to him or her, mirroring their path and pace. They know what they're doing! And once you get the hang of it, it's actually great fun to find yourself walking unafraid through a deadly sea of swarming vehicles and people, suddenly feeling like part of the normal flow in this otherwise foreign land - many visitors find waiting at traffic lights quite boring upon return to their home countries.
Vietnam has a great night life and is reasonably safe compared to many countries. However, Vietnam is like any country, so beware of petty crimes. As in most unfamiliar places, beware of punk looking teenagers and triads. Basically don't go looking for trouble. Remember Vietnam is a partying country and though they are lenient towards foreigners you shouldn't try your luck. Also, things tend to get a little bit empty at night, since there is a curfew for shops to close, which is usually around 10ish. Alleyways, which there are a lot of in Vietnam, are usually safe. Use common sense.
Unfortunately, much of Vietnam's dangerous wildlife is severely endangered and very rarely seen. Tigers are so rare that the odds of seeing one are extremely low, even for people living in rural parts of the country. Crocodiles are virtually extinct in Vietnam- Saltwater crocodiles were once present in the Mekong Delta (up until 20 years ago) and in much of South Vietnam, but due to war, discrimination and habitat destruction they are rare and most likely extinct as a breeding species in Vietnam. Leopards, though more common than Tigers, are still very rare. Snakes are pretty much the only common animal that represents any substantial threat to humans. The Siamese crocodile is also very rare and is the only confirmed surviving crocodile species in Vietnam, but is not a big threat to humans.
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.
Although food sold on pavements looks delicious and is generally safe, it may sometimes be unhygenic. Always check whether the environment around is clean and reliable enough. Generally, if many locals patronise the stall, it is safe to eat. However, raw or undercooked food should always be avoided. Do not pay more than 15,000 dong for a bowl of Pho from a street-side stall!
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, but this concept is disappearing. In some cases Asian women traveling with non-Asian men could even receive some unwanted comments.
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. 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.
Differences of character among Northerners and Southerners are still very palpable, with most of them disliking each other. In general, Northerners are more closed and less friendly to foreigners, particularly Americans, and sometimes even rude.
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. Rates are fairly cheap but range wildly depending on the area and clientele (2000-10,000 dong). Connection speeds are high, especially in the big cities, but any tasks more complex than email and basic surfing may prove tedious, or even impossible. Most of these internet shops have ADSL, especially ones charging higher rates. Many hotels provide free access (terminals as well as wireless) for their guests, although free internet is always a mixed bag. If you bring your own phone and/or laptop, several providers offer mobile internet services (EDGE/3G) services as well.