Heading 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.
2. 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.
6. 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.