It’s not easy to introduce the whole country, especially if you only had a month to travel through it. Still, thanks to some minor mishaps and a couple of fortunate coincidences, we got a tiny grasp of how diverse this country can be – and here we’re attempting to put all our tips and advice together. Enjoy! (And, if possible, try to avoid banana ladies.)
The atmosphere throughout Vietnam differs a lot, depending on the place you’re in. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, the pace is fast, the people seem quite unfriendly (like in most fast-paced cities) and you should really look out for scammers. For us, even though there was a lot going on, it seemed also quite gloomy and uninviting. Cat Ba, on the other hand, felt very welcoming, a bit resort-ish, but full of calm that’s characteristic for small islands (but it might change a lot in the high season). Hoi An is more of a romantic, charming little town filled with handmade lanterns, but from time to time you can be hassled by the merchants following you through the market or bar advertisers, who shout the happy hour prices at you. Still – in our opinion – the most pleasant city in Vietnam, with lots of nice restaurants and awesome beaches. Da Lat, on the other hand, is somewhere in between – not as full of charm as Hoi An, but also much slower and pleasant than big cities. It’s lies in the middle of a stunning landscape and offers a lot to the thrill- and adventure-seekers.
As for tourists – there’s a lot of them, in different ages, but that also means that it’s easier to find a tour operator or a nice place to sleep and lots of people speak at least basic English.
It’s not difficult to find a decent, reasonably priced room in Vietnam. Depending on the city and your requirements (for example: we always needed a good wifi connection to be able to work), you can find accommodation for as little as $12-23 per night for a double room with a bathroom.
When moving in, you should always check if the AC works properly and if there are no ants around (you might find it out the painful way, especially if you forget to take out the leftovers). You should also be prepared to leave your passport at the reception for the duration of your stay and expect some unexpected guests to visit you (geckos are pretty much unavoidable, but also horribly cute). If you like your bathroom clean and dry – there’s bad news, in lots of hotels you’ll find the shower head simply attached to the wall next to the toilet and sink, with no special area designated for washing yourself (not to mention a curtain). You might also be asked to wear public slippers in all the common areas of your hotel.
As for the places we stayed in, we’d recommend:
Icon 36, Hanoi: hotel, around $25 for a double room with en suite bathroom + breakfast; not much of a view, but great location, helpful staff and clean rooms with working AC and pretty good wifi
Tropical Garden, Hoi An: beautiful homestay villa, around $20 for a huge double room with a garden view and an en suite bathroom + breakfast; great location – between the city and the beach, next to a nice restaurant and away from the old town’s hustle; extremely clean, comfortable and spacious, with great wifi connection and very hospitable hosts
Downtown Hotel, Hanoi: cheap hotel, $14 for a double room with en suite bathroom + breakfast; a bit dirty and old, but in a perfect location and with a working wifi
(The prices might be different depending on the season – we were there in October/November, 2015.)
Rule number one is to never drink tap water, unless you want to spend the next days hugging the bowl – even locals don’t do that, since it can carry some nasty bacteria. Your best choice will be bottled water, preferably the one that’s sealed with plastic. Some of the most widespread brands are: Aquafina, LaVie and Dasani, but smaller brands are also good. You just need to watch out for the fake ones, like the infamous Aquafuma that has a logo and design identical to the original. Since tap water is considered undrinkable, you also don’t have to worry about ice – most restaurants and eateries go to a bigger supplier and never make it by themselves.
If you’re hungry, don’t hesitate to visit one of the street diners or just buy something from a vendor with a food cart. There’s plenty of street food, but if you want to minimize the risk of food poisoning, go to a place frequented by lots of locals – where there’s many customers, the food has to be good (or at least cheap). This can also be a great way to save money, since the restaurants can have delicious menus, but they also tend to be quite expensive compared to the other places. And, most importantly, don’ forget to try the local beer and the strong, aromatic Vietnamese coffee.
- Staying safe: as in any other place with some petty theft, never leave your wallet or phone on the table. It’s also smart to keep your valuables on you and watch out for your bag/backpack, so no one can snatch it from you. If you keep some gear/tech/money in the room, lock it in the safe or give it to the receptionist if you go out.
- Getting around: if you want to take a cab, use one of the reputable companies, like Mai Linh; their prices vary from 10.000 to 17.000 vnd/km. Watch out for the imitations and taxi-scammers – if you don’t know the company, set a price that you think is acceptable and pay before you get in. Also, always carry your hotel’s business card with you in case of getting lost – it will be much easier than struggling with the pronunciation or trying to dig the address up from memory. If you want to rent a bike, try it out at first. Check how much fuel is left, since many places will give you an almost empty bike that you’ll need to fill up at the gas station (additional cost). You’ll need no licence for that, also, your documents are probably invalid here anyway.
When it comes to long-distance travel, the opinions vary – some say traveling by a night bus is suicidal, some say it’s not that bad (first ones are in a huge majority). After seeing the crazy bus drivers in action and reading some horrifying stories about the sleeper coaches, we decided to resort to planes whenever the ride would be more than 6-8 hours, and it turned out to be pretty cheap. You can find last-minute domestic flights with Vietnam Airlines (most trustworthy company here) for as little as $40-50.
- Shopping: you need to haggle. Except for some more expensive tailors and places with prices already written on the products, you should always be able to bring the price down to at least 50-70%. Be polite and smile, but if the price is too high – say thank you and walk away. There’s a good chance that you’re going to get it much cheaper thanks to this.
- Scams: even though you can get around it, you should still expect that lots of people will try to scam you. From the banana selling ladies, who unexpectedly hand you their whole merchandise in the middle of a street and than demand money, through the officials selling ferry tickets in Tuan Chau, to ordinary vendors. Don’t argue with them and stay friendly, but be alert, count your money and ask the right questions. If you’re attentive enough, you should be able to avoid most of the unpleasant situations. If you’re not, you’re going to spend your money on taking an angry-smiling picture just like the one below.
- Health: if you happen to have a more serious injury, or you simply want to get vaccinated (like we did), one of your best options is to go to one of the big cities, as they have a lot of international hospitals. We can definitely recommend the Franco-Vietnamese Hospital in Ho Chi Minh – it was easy to set up a meeting there (once phone call), everyone spoke good English/French, the doctors and nurses were professional and all in all, it was probably the nicest medical center we’ve ever been to. Also, the prices were surprisingly low – we pain about 500.000 vnd for a person, including the Japanese Encephalitis vaccination, nurses fee and doctor’s consultation.
Resources & Tour Operators
Urban Adventures: if you’re looking for a tour without the touristic feel to it, check out their website and find the option that suits you best. They operate various tours throughout Vietnam and their guides are local people with good knowledge of English.
Our Best Memories & Adventures
kayaking through the caves in Lan Ha Bay, jumping from the ship at a deserted beach, climbing one of the Cat Ba peaks, driving a motorcycle on the coast for the first time, diving into the street food of Hanoi and ending up with food and beer spilled all over ourselves, getting some sharp outfits tailored, jumping waves at An Bang beach, having our first sip of pho bo and painfully misjudging the spiciness of chili, watching crazy traffic from the narrow balcony of Com Ga, night walks among the handmade lanterns of Hoi An, hiking down to the waterfall base and stopping in a cave underneath, crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh & balancing on the narrow rooftoops of the Crazy House
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