Vietnam is the perfect entry gate for first-time visitors to Southeast Asia. It isn’t (yet) as touristy as Thailand and not as chaotic as Laos or Cambodia anymore. Once you are there for the first time, you’ll certainly come up with questions you have never thought of before. Such as: How the hell are you supposed to cross a street without getting knocked down by some frantic scooterist? How does it actually feel to be a millionaire? What is pho? And how much is too much money for a ride in a motor taxi?
Vietnam first-timers will find a lot of helpful information in the following 5 Vietnam travel tips. And to the old hands: Let’s rejoice in memory!
1. How to cross the street
You probably slept all along your way from the airport, checked into your hotel and slept some more. Jetlags are mean. But now you want to go out and see the place where you just arrived. You are still a bit tired from your flight and unsteady on your feet. This is when you begin to realize: How the hell are you supposed to cross the street – at all?
Oh! You think this is a piece of cake? Well, then. Imagine the biggest and busiest crossroads that you know. Imagine the cars to be scooters, old, rattly scooters. Multiply their number by 10 and add some minivans, cars and buses. Withdraw all but two lanes and every traffic rule that you know of. This is probably close to what you’ll see in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi. The city in which you’ll most likely start your journey.
In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where the streets are narrow and traffic is heavy, crossing a street is a challenge. There are no traffic lights – at least none for pedestrians, and the occasional crossing that is painted on the street is just for decoration. Everybody takes the direct way when turning – even if that means driving into oncoming traffic.
And now it’s your turn: Because you want to cross the street. So you’ll just have to go.
Actually, yes. Head high. Walk on, slowly and self-confident. Don’t panic and don’t make any sudden movements. It is important to keep eye contact with the drivers who are crossing your way. Walk on. And you’ll notice that it isn’t as difficult as it looked at first. Still you’ll need practice.
2. Money. Millionaire at last!
If you came to your hotel with a shuttle bus and didn’t make the same mistake as I did (arriving at the airport without any Euros or Dollars to pay for my visa because apparently I am the only person in the entire world who didn’t know that this would require cash – and waiting hours for a customs officer to accompany me out of the transit zone to get to an ATM) the point at which you are crossing a road for the first time is also the point at which you’ll deal with money for the first time.
Good News! After your first ATM withdrawal, all of a sudden, you’ll be a millionaire. One Dollar buys around 21.000 VND – Vietnamese Dong. So you can feel filthy rich for the equivalent of less than 50 dollars. And you’re probably pleased as a Punch for a few moments. But at some point, you’ll notice that it isn’t easy to be a millionaire – because it is fairly easy to lose track over your finances with all those zeros. Be prepared for an arithmetic chaos!
Withdrawing money with a credit card works everywhere – but some banks limit your daily withdrawal to 4 million Dong. At the same time, it is cheaper to pay cash since in most places you have to pay the credit service charge in full (or three times that price). This can amount to a lot of money, especially when you book a tour!
3. Food. Pho, Cooking Lessons and Spagetti with Fish Sauce
Granted: Some street food vendors look a bit untrustworthy. Generally speaking though, you can eat street food without worries. Ans you should do so! The Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most manifold cuisines in the world and every place seems to have its own traditional dish, often sold at small street-side barbecues. Pho, the soup that is traditionally served for breakfast, unifies Vietnam on the culinary side – though everybody still has his own recipe. Don’t miss a pho breakfast at a food stall!
Vegetarians will feel very comfortable with the Vietnamese cuisine since there are a lot of dishes that don’t rely on meat. Cooking lessons (veggie and non-veggie) are flavor of the month – and often a disappointment. If you don’t just want to sit around and make rolls from rice paper, pre-cooked noodles and pre-cut vegetables, make sure that your course includes cooking at least five dishes and a visit to the market.
If you are craving some western food for a change, you’ll find restaurants offering Pizza, Spagetti and the like everywhere. Plus there are some fast food chains in the South. If you choose to eat in a restaurant, make sure to inquire about the ingredients. The traditional Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t know salt and takes soy and fish sauce instead. And, trust me, you don’t want to eat Spagetti Bolognese with fish sauce!!
4. Traveling in Vietnam
Traveling by bus is the cheapest way to get around Vietnam. Expect to pay less than 4 dollars per mile. However, it is more convenient to travel by train – especially if you travel overnight. Benefit: You’ll see a lot of Vietnam’s beautiful landscape. You also won’t get sick so easily as the tracks are in fairly good condition compared to the road. And there is no danger that your bus collides with another in a steep, narrow bend.
The train is a bit more expensive than the bus and there are several classes which all come with different prices. You can book it at the train station, in your hotel, or with a local travel agent.
A rental car is in no way your first choice. Driving isn’t allowed without a Vietnamese drivers’ license and you won’t get a car without a driver anyway. Still it can be cheaper than a regular taxi to rent a car and a driver if you need to get somewhere fast.
Book domestic flights on site. Saves money and leaves you much more flexible. Just ask at your hotel staff to book a flight for you instead of going to a travel agent and you may get your ticket without any service charge.
Use taxis, moto-taxis or trishaws for short distances. The prices of the latter two are open to negotiation. It’s an advantage if you roughly know the distance. A taxi costs 25.000 Dong per mile – and you should pay less for anything else. You can also rent your own scooter even without a drivers’ license. But maybe you should safe this experience for a rural area.
5. Sleeping in Vietnam
Rooms come at unbeatable rices. You’ll get a good hotel room for anything between 20 and 65 dollars per night. 65 dollars is at the high end, whereas rooms for 20 dollars are very simple (but sometimes they come with free beer). If you are traveling alone it’s cheaper to check into a hostel dorm, but if you are traveling as a couple, it’s often cheaper (and more comfortable) to take a budget hotel room.
No matter where you’ll arrive by bus or train, expect the touts to be there already, trying to get your attention and drive you to a hotel. Notice: You are in Southeast Asia! If you don’t have a booking yet, you may take their offer – they aren’t all bad. Still, you should make it very clear that you will not pay them until you have taken a look at the room and that you want to be taken to a hotel of your choice if you aren’t satisfied with what you get.
It is best to book a room on the evening before you journey on. You can either ask at your current hotel for a recommendation – every Vietnamese has relatives or friends all over the country – or you can book via the internet. That way, you won’t have to walk through half of the city to compare rooms and prices.
Do you have any other questions? Leave a comment now!