Tips for Traveling in Vietnam

Motorbikes Ho Chi Minh City Saigon VietnamHeading off to Vietnam, I really had no idea what to expect. I had browsed a guidebook or two and spent some time reading about Sherry Ott’s experience of living in Vietnam, but like any destination, you have to really be in Vietnam to learn its idiosyncrasies.

I traveled to Vietnam in late August and early September, which is considered the monsoon season, though weather tends to vary throughout the country, so what I learned on my trip may not necessarily apply to other times of the year or in all locations. Nonetheless, during the time I traveled the country, I picked up the following tidbits:

1. Pack a poncho, not a rain jacket. It is hot and wet in Vietnam, and if you wear a rain jacket (even a well-ventilated one), you will be very warm. Sweat + humidity = not pleasant, especially when it’s contained in a rain jacket. The Vietnamese wear ponchos for a good reason—they cover the entire body but are loose enough to allow the body to breathe. Also, if you wear a poncho, you’ll just fit in with the crowd. Wearing a rain jacket marks you as a traveler.

Ben Thanh Market Ho Chi Minh City Saigon Vietnam2. Sit in the back for sanity’s sake. If you catch a cab or have a hired car, sit in the back, strap on your seatbelt and just avoid looking out of the windshield. There are no rules when it comes to driving in Vietnam, and taking a seat that allows you to watch what’s in front of you is like participating in a game of life roulette. Avoid the fear of playing chicken and just don’t watch.

3. Don’t exchange too much money. For the most part, things in Vietnam are cheap, so you may overestimate your spending at first. There are ATMs all over the place in the bigger cities, and in most of those places, some shops are perfectly fine with accepting American dollars (such as at the tailors in Hoi An). I would suggest you exchange as you go or carry some American money as well as Vietnamese dong so you aren’t left with a handful of local cash when you leave.

4. Wear shoes you can slip off. There are temples and pagodas everywhere, and it is respectful to slip your shoes off if you enter a temple. The locals wear flip-flops, so feel free to do the same. I did a lot of walking, so I wore a pair of Teva sandals that were hardy enough for the walking and easy enough to take on and off at a moment’s notice.

5. If staying in an air conditioned hotel or hostel, keep a pair of clothes specifically for inside. It is ridiculously hot and humid along the coast in Vietnam, and I was sweating anytime I had to walk any considerable distance. If I wasn’t sweating, I was wet from rain. This is all fine and dandy outside, but if I stepped inside an air conditioned building such as a hotel room, I was instantly cold. As soon as you get out of the humidity and into somewhere with cold, dry air, strip off your soggy clothes and replace them with something dry and comfortable so you don’t become chilled.

Temple in Hoi An Vietnam6. Give your camera time to adjust to humidity. I would imagine this isn’t specifically a tip for traveling in Vietnam, but it’s the first time I’ve dealt with this issue. Anytime I would spend any considerable amount of time inside an air conditioned space and then stepped outside, my camera lens would fog up from the humidity. Once I realized what was going on, I would begin each venture outside with a moment for my camera to adjust to the humidity. Basically, I let it fog up then wiped it clear with a lens cloth. Once the lens was clean and clear, I ventured forth into the humid world to take pictures. If anyone else has tips on how to deal with a foggy lens, please let me know.

7. Be polite, but don’t hesitate to say no thanks and move on. I’ve been hassled when I’ve traveled before, and I anticipated having to fend people off in Vietnam who wouldn’t leave me alone. There was definitely some pressure to buy or hop on a motorbike, but for the most part, I found that people were willing to accept “no” as an answer. (I know this is not the case for some people who have had drastically different and much more negative experiences in Vietnam.) My strategy was simply to say “no, thank you” and hold up my hand if necessary to ward off any additional pleas for money. There was one instance where I felt like I was in a seedy situation, so after I declined the services offered, I hightailed it out of there without further explanation. Your safety is the top priority. Go with your gut.

8. Negotiate and write down the price of taxi rides. I was surprised at how few people spoke English in Vietnam, so I used my little pad of paper and pen constantly to verify prices. If you get in a taxi without a meter, negotiate and agree on a written price with your driver before you leave. I was happy with the service I got from Mai Linh, which had (relatively) safe drivers and standard meters, and I’ve heard many other people agree that this is one of the most reliable taxi companies to use in Vietnam. Some people I know have gotten into taxis with rigged meters, and I honestly do not have any advice on what to do if you’re ripped off by such a meter. If this has happened to you, I would love to hear your suggestions on how to deal with the situation.

29 Responses to “Tips for Traveling in Vietnam”

  1. Edna

    For dealing with the foggy lens- carry a plastic bag and leave your camera in that when you change temperatures. The condensation will gather on the outside of the bag and not the lens!

    Thanks for the tips- I plan on visiting in December and will keep these in mind!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thanks for the tip regarding the foggy camera lens. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I travel to other humid places.

      Reply
  2. Sherry Ott

    Great advice JoAnna! I had totally forgot about my camera fogging up all the time – but it’s so true. When you live there you do get used to the heat and you simply get used to be sweaty and gross the majority of the time! Excellent advice on the poncho – it’s a must and you do fit in much better.

    It sounds like you didn’t like the traffic too much – but did you ever get on the back of a motorbike and take a motorbike taxi? That was always my favorite thing to do (until I learned how to drive one myself). The traffic is really hectic and crazy looking – but when you are a part of it (not sitting in a car), it actually kind of makes sense. Plus – you also realize that no one is really going very fast. I’m not saying that it’s not dangerous, but many things are dangerous that we do – especially when we travel!
    Did you have a favorite place? Favorite food?
    Sherry

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hey Sherry! I have to admit that I didn’t care for the traffic much, and my fear of it actually got worse as my trip progressed. I never rode on a motorbike, and I’m not sure I would. I saw several accidents, and one of the cars I was in even hit one.

      Besides that, though, the trip was great. I really like Hoi An, where the spring rolls and white roses were to die for!

      Reply
  3. Gray

    Sounds like good advice to me. #2 is true in so many places….even right here at home!

    Reply
  4. Candice

    Definititely revisiting this post if I ever head to Vietnam!

    Reply
  5. Dave and Deb

    These are great tips. the poncho is excellent advice. It can also go over you and your backpack if you are stuck walking in the rain. We had an experience like you, we found the people to be very friendly and with a smile and a stern no, they normally gave in. We always carry a small calculator with us, we just put in the number whenever negotiating a price. It seemed to work well. Plus, we could always figure out exchange easily when we were in a high energy bartering situation:)

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You’re absolutely right. I saw several people sharing ponchos when they rode on motorbikes together.

      And great suggestion about the calculator. I’ll have to consider that for my next trip.

      Reply
  6. Kim

    Great tips! My husband and I will be heading there in January/February, so I hope we won’t have the same rainy problems as you. Did you encounter lots of mosquito. That is one of my biggest worries at this point.

    Kim

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’m excited that you’ll be heading to Vietnam to check it out yourself. I actually did not encounter any mosquitoes at all, which, now that you mention it, is a bit surprising. I was primarily on the standard tourist trail, and I imagine if you get into the more remote villages, you might come across a few, but I didn’t encounter any, and I was in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City.

      Reply
  7. Nancy Lewis

    I got caught in a taxi with a doctored meter. I wound up paying 150,000 VND for a ride from the bus station in Hanoi to the center of town, a ride that shouldn’t have cost more than 50,000 VND. I saw the numbers increasing too fast as we were driving, but I didn’t know what I could do about it. When you think about it, though, it amounted to being overcharged just about five dollars. Sometimes you just have to pay the “tourist tax” & go on with your trip.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve heard from others who said they, too, were caught in a taxi with an incorrect meter. You bring up a good point … what can you do? The girl I know managed to talk her way down a few VND, but she ended up paying more than what she should have too.

      You’re right, it’s only a couple bucks, but I really hate to be ripped off. It is hard to accept that, as travelers, we will have to pay a little extra sometimes, then move on and forget about it.

      Reply
  8. Adam

    Great tips for visiting Vietnam, one of my favorite countries. Just reading “white rose” in your comment above has my mouth watering. YUM. Loved the food in Vietnam.

    As far as getting ripped off by rigged meters or shady taxi drivers, just stand your ground. We had an interesting experience with a Bangkok taxi driver when heading to the Grand Palace from our hostel in Sukhumvit. Luckily we had been to that area before by taxi, so we knew how much it should cost, and we knew the general directions. When he hopped on the highway, we questioned him (we didn’t take the highway last time), and he assured us that we were going the right way.

    I whipped a map out and quickly found out where we were and that we were going the opposite way, so we said, “We know how much it costs, and it should be 150 Bhat. The meter was climbing towards that already, and we weren’t even close.

    He quickly whipped off the highway and took us to the Grand Palace, but buy the time we were there, it was double the cost of what it should be. So we pulled out 150 Bhat and gave it to him. He pointed emphatically at the meter and said, “NO, NO, meter!!” We offered to get the police to settle the matter, and he was incensed, refused to take any money, kicked us out, and sped off.

    It was interesting to say the least, and I feel bad that he didn’t get paid at all (we were more than willing to pay the fair price, just not double), but hey, we were sick of shady people trying to rip us off. The key was we remained very, very calm during the whole thing, which is the way to go in Asia. They don’t typically take well to raising your voice and getting really mad.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      “The key was we remained very, very calm during the whole thing, which is the way to go in Asia.” – This is a really good point. There’s really no reason to get super worked up and make a scene over most things. Yes, stand your ground, but throwing a fit doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

      As for the white roses … so good! I miss them all the time!

      Reply
  9. Michael Hodson

    Great tips. Wish I would have had them before I went. One I will add – be prepared for LOTS of honking. When you are on a bus (even in the middle of the night) it is constant. Make sure to bring ear plugs or a good iPod.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thanks for the additional, Michael. Yes, it is very loud. I didn’t ride on any over night buses, but I did hear that from other travelers who had.

      Reply
  10. nyonyamandor

    Advice no #8 actually for all transaction in Vietnam. It make easier for us to bargain the price. Hehe …

    No #7, actually I found that it was hard to Apply to Hmong people in the SAPA. I kept saying no, but they kept following and asking whether I want to buy their stuffs. They change their tactics by asking about from where I came from, why I was traveling alone, etc. To deceive me, so they will keep ask whether I wanna buy their goods. Haha …

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You’re absolutely right about #8, nyonyamandor. I think it’s especially important in a taxi ride, though, where the price might be non-negotiable after arriving at your destination.

      Reply
  11. Christy @ Ordinary Traveler

    The traffic was the hardest part for me to get used to in Vietnam. When we took bus rides, we tried the middle, the front and the back. I tend to get car sick, so the back wasn’t always the best option for me, and when we sat upfront the honking was unbearable coming from our bus driver, so middle is where we found our sanity. 🙂

    On our bus ride from from Mui Ne to Saigon, we had assigned seats, and were told to sit in the very back. One thing I would add to the list is if you are in the very back, try to sit where there is a seat in front of you, not in the isle seat. Our bus driver hit someone on a motorbike, which caused him to slam on the brakes, and our bus went skidding. Everyone on our bus was slammed forward into the seat in front of them. So if we had been sitting in the isle seat, it wouldn’t have been good.

    Great tips. I loved Vietnam!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      The traffic was definitely tough for me too, but luckily I don’t get car sick. I imagine that the driving situation would be absolutely horrendous if you do get car sick. It’s scary enough as it is!

      Reply
  12. virgo itinerary

    “There are no rules when it comes to driving in Vietnam.” Scary but I will still try to cross the street and see how the vehicles especially the gazillion motorbikes will avoid me.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      My best advice is simply to walk at a consistent pace. Don’t hesitate and you should be fine!

      Reply
  13. cambui

    When in viet nam you want to use a taxi, you should use famous taxi company as: Mai linh, Morning taxi…and bargain when you want to buy any thing is necessary” if the seller say the good is: 10.000 VND you should pay 5000VND, you should not buy goods from vendors, Ha noi is a famous destination for delicious food, some famous food as: pho( the price now: 25.000VND), spring roll…

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Bargaining is always a good idea, though I’m not sure why you’d suggest not buying goods from vendors. What do you mean by that?

      Reply
  14. Victoria

    This is a really good blog full of tips for anyone heading on a Vietnam holiday!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’m glad you find it helpful Victoria.

      Reply
  15. Gemma

    I’m heading to Vietnam at the beginning of Nov for a few weeks and just wanted to check is it best to purchase a poncho before I go or is it better to buy one over there for my trip? I’m starting of in Hanoi.

    Also what sunscreen do you recommend? I’ve very pale skin and I know I will need a high factor.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hi Gemma ~ You can buy a poncho either in Vietnam or before you go – it’s really up to you. They’re likely cheaper than in a Western country. But, whatever you do, don’t pack a rain jacket.

      I wore SPF 35 and still got a bit of sun. I always do. But I reapplied frequently as I seemed to spend even more time sweating it off!

      Reply
  16. Phong Dalat

    It’s significant advise JoAnna. I’m living in Vietnam, Please add more “do not bring your hang bag when walking in the evening”.

    Reply

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