How to Enjoy Vietnam as a First-Time Traveller


Vietnam isn’t the easiest destination to visit at first blush. But my friend Barbara Adam, who’s just released her guide to Vietnam, Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips, volunteered these ten tips to help you not only survive but actively enjoy Nam. Barbara has lived in Vietnam for the big end of a decade, and is based in Ho Chi Minh City with her Vietnamese husband and two kids.

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1. Do Your Research

This advice is slightly hypocritical coming from me, someone who likes to travel without a guidebook and just see what happens. But for a first-timer to Vietnam, forewarned is forearmed. Work out what you want to do before you arrive, even if it’s only a vague idea. Check the public holidays — not much is open over Tet so it’s not really a good time to be traveling through Vietnam.

Also, make sure you check the distance from the airport to the town you’re flying into. Some airports, like Nha Trang’s Cam Ranh International Airport and Dalat’s Lien Khuong Airport, are about 30 km from the towns they serve. If you’ve booked a budget airline, getting to and from the airport by taxi might cost more than the flight!

2. Be Aware That Vietnam Doesn’t Do Mid-Range.

It’s a case of choose your poison. Choose the budget option and get a backpacker-ish cheap experience. Choose fancy, and pay for the privilege. There’s very little in between. This goes for hotels and tours, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

3. Take Trains over Buses

Vietnam’s main train line, which links Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, was built in the 1880s during French colonial rule. The train line hugs the coast, making for some spectacular views, especially through Central Vietnam.

The trains are old and a bit grotty and most carriages have a squat toilet at one end and a sit-down toilet at the other. But the beauty of taking the train is that you can get up and move around. Overnight train trips are also quite comfortable in a four-berth soft sleeper, much MUCH more comfortable than an overnight bus journey.

Vietnam has an extensive system of sleeper buses. However, the buses are designed for Vietnamese-sized bodies and have no toilets. So if you’re 1.5 metres tall and slender, you will probably feel comfortable sleeping on the narrow top bunk with your hand luggage under your knees and your shoes in a plastic bag under your head. If you’re not, you may well find them cramped and claustrophobic.

4. Don’t Sweat the Little Things

There are some travellers who seem to be a state of perpetual agitation over the possibility of being ripped off. Their anxious faces stare at the taxi meter, not what’s outside the window. They think every taxi driver is taking the scenic route (when in fact there are a lot of one-way streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). They quibble about paying airport tolls, which don’t appear on the meter, and VND3,000 (13 US cents) for a wet napkin at a restaurant. They are, in short, a pain to be around.

Sure, it’s a bit confusing when you don’t know how things work. But you can’t assume everyone is out to rip you off. Some people are. But they’re usually professionals, smiling assassins, who’ll get you in a way you least expect. And they won’t ping you for 13 cents, either. So loosen up a little. Have fun. Find your sense of wonder and ditch your sense of paranoia.

5. Don’t Buy Banh Mi in Hanoi

It’s terrible. Wait til you get to Central Vietnam. Hoi An does great banh mi, so does Ho Chi Minh City.

6. Ignore Cyclo Drivers

While the cyclos (pedal-powered rickshaws) plying the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City look like a romantic relic of times gone past, the reality is that the cyclo drivers of today are usually con artists. They’ll take their gran to the market and back again, and charge next to nothing. But the ones who speak enough English to engage a foreigner are usually on the make.

I had visiting friends who were royally scammed by a cyclo driver in Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago. Outside the War Remnants Museum downtown, a friendly cyclo driver offered them a city tour. He pulled out a book of written recommendations. He flirted and chatted to them in excellent English. He said it was VND100,00 for a one-hour tour. So my friends agreed. They settled back in their cyclo and listened to the commentary. When the driver asked if they’d like to see something interesting here, they agreed. When he asked if they’d like to see something interesting there, they agreed.

Several hours later, the cyclo driver stopped and announced the tour was over. There just happened to be a crowd of cyclo drivers at the stopping point. The driver said my friends needed to pay US$80 EACH. (That’s nearly 1.8 million, compared to the original quote of VND100,000.) He proceeded to tell them that his initial quote of VND100,000 was per person. And that when their 100,000 was used up, he then took them here and there, so things added up. To US$80, a few dollars short of the average monthly income in Vietnam.

My friends were so intimidated by the other drivers lurking around that they paid up, jumped in a taxi and came back to my house. The girl was in tears, the guy furious with himself for being so gullible. The thing that stung the most — they thought they’d made a new friend in the cyclo driver. They’d had such a great time hanging out with him and listening to his jokes.

Pho shop's neon sign

6. Hanoi Pho Is Not What You Expect

Pho originated from Hanoi and worked its way down the country, evolving along the way. Hanoians believe the Hanoi-style of pho is the purest and the best. It’s quite an austere dish, served with only a wedge of lime and some chopped chillis. In the South, pho is served with a dizzying array of sauces and sides and huge baskets of fresh herbs. This is the style of pho that travelled all around the world because it was the Southern Vietnamese who fled Vietnam in the 70s and 80s. I much prefer the Southern style of pho, even though I’ve had some great bowls of pho in Hanoi.

7. Don’t Fear the Squat Toilet

Provided you bring tissues and keep your clothes out of reach of the floor, you’ll survive. Just don’t look down to check your aim if your sunglasses are on top of your head.

8. Consider Taxis for More Than Just Getting Around Town

For journeys up to two hours or so, considering getting a taxi rather than the bus – or train, or plane. This is most cost-effective when you’re in a group, but it’s not outrageously expensive even if you’re alone. It’s a lot less hassle going door-to-door than navigating your way through a city to the bus or train terminal.

Mai Linh and Vinasun taxi companies operate in most towns in Vietnam (more details here). There are set fares for common destinations, so you can call up and get a quote. For example, a taxi from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau costs about VND1 million, which is about US$45. The ferry costs VND150,000 per person on weekdays, VND200,000 on weekends. Once you add in the time and effort it takes to get to the ferry terminal in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 4, then from the ferry terminal in Vung Tau to your hotel, the taxi option is quite appealing.

9. Don’t Get Upset by the Local Style of Queuing

The Vietnamese don’t queue. They also have a very different idea of personal space. This can make buying tickets, shopping at the supermarket and going through airport security very uncomfortable. Try and relax.

10. Don’t Go to Girlie Bars

If you don’t go, you won’t get scammed, so won’t regale anyone with terrible tales of being ripped off in Vietnam.

Thanks to MM for Vietnam and rsseattle for Pho: both are creative commons on Flickr.com.


urlYou can buy Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There on BookDepository.com for $18.82. They ship free to almost anywhere in the world.

10 Responses

  1. Carissa says:

    Don’t sweat the little things is the BEST advice practically anywhere!

    Same thing happens in India where newcomers paranoia and frankly prejudice has them seeing scams everywhere rather than realising pennies differences isn’t much in the grand scheme of things and their fixation and attitude is completely getting in the way of enjoying the moment!

  2. Rosita says:

    My dear Thea,
    I loved the post. It removed some doubts I had about traveling to Vietnam for first time. It’s a dream, and I hope I’ll realize it one day 🙂 Ha Long Bay sounds to be an unique place in world, but Vietnam is not just about Ha Long Bay. It’s as diverse as Brazil 😉 and I hope I’ll visit Vietnam one day. I really hope. To say true, not just Vietnam, but all Asian Southwest 😀 I laugh and learn a lot (really A LOT!) about travel with you. Thank you, Thea! I’ll, I decide, travel around the Caribbean, with Winnie – my canine partner -, and, as you may know, I crave the adventure of island hopping. I’ll be a doctor – although I don’t pretend to be a famous one -, and I plan to have my own family, when I reach my 26/27 yrs, so I’ll choose an island for stay, at least for an awhile. And so our adventure will continue. We’ll probably start it here on Brazil, perhaps in my hometown, who’s closely to the Caribbean. at the moment, IDK where will be my base between island-hopping, I’ll decide it later. Wherever I choose, the place will be our base when we wouldn’t be island-hopping 🙂 and what’re your recommendations to me, if I want to do this? PS: when I’d start it, I’ll be a tropical medicine doctor – a licensed one! – and I’ll bring a dog. So…what are your recommendations to conciliate being an expat, even though it’ll temporarily, with working and living as a temporary belonger, not an eternal tourist type?

  3. Jennifer says:

    Great tips. I agree, try and take the train instead of the bus. The first time I visited Vietnam (and in fact my first backpacking trip – 9 years ago!) we tried to get our hostel to book us train tickets but they told us it was full and booked us bus tickets instead. Now I am a more seasoned traveller, I think our hostel was perhaps pulling the wool over our eyes as they’ll get a commission from the bus tickets. It doesn’t bother me that they get paid commission – but I would have actually preferred the train, I think some of the scenery on the trainline up through Vietnam is stunning. The second time I was in Vietnam, we took an overnight sleeper bus from Hoi An to Hanoi, which was a horrendous 17 hours (I think they told us 12 hours when we booked). I can get over the length of the bus ride, however we were dropped on the outskirts of Hanoi near their friends taxi rank and told us we had to pay for a taxi into the centre as ‘the bus was too big for the narrow streets’ which is not true as I had visited Hanoi before. All the locals remained on the bus, and they only told the tourists to get off – they wouldn’t carry on driving until all tourists left the bus. We were then charged the equivilent to £15GBP by the taxi driver for a 10 minute ride into the centre. Its really sad because I love Ho Chi Minh and Hoi An, but I have had many bad experiences of being ‘ripped off’ in Hanoi (not just those I mention above) which mean I doubt I will return. There are incidences of people trying to ‘rip you off’ all over the world, however I find Hanoi particularly bad.

  4. Yes, don’t sweat the small stuff is great travel advice anytime! Thanks for posting this. We have just come off three months in Vietnam, 1 month in Hanoi alone, the rest in central and south Vietnam, and we love this culturally rich country. We found the people to be assertive, open, friendly and generous. We made a lot of new friends here, as well, and heard so many fascinating stories, too, esp. re: affects of war. We experienced the breath-taking Halong Bay, Hanoi (we fell in love with that city!), as well as Hoi An, Hue, Danang in the center, and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and Vung Tau in the south.

    It does take time to get to know the place and its people and adjust, though! We ran into most of our street-level scams and cons in our first few weeks, in HCMC and Vung Tau, and that was very disheartening. The scams are so sneaky and so hidden, even us well-seasoned travelers don’t see them coming. Although by our last month in Hanoi, we must have adjusted really well, because we didn’t have a run in with a single scam there. We did by then know most of the tricks, and learned to smile and walk away or whatever was required.

    I’ve written 4 blog posts on Vietnam so far and have 3 more in my head to get out and I struggle with what to say about the scams. Why? Because on the one hand, they’re an awful thing to have to deal with while traveling and people should know to expect them, but on the other hand, they are a part of life here and certainly not the most significant aspect of a trip to Vietnam. For every 1 scam we got caught in, I counted five or so acts of pure kindness and generosity that we received, from street vendors insisting we take our change or keep our tip money, to street restaurants giving our kids free treats, to new friends treating us to lunch or dinner, to a guide who wanted to pay us back out of her own meager earnings for the taxi that scammed us (so our day with her would be perfect). In the end I put in a warning about the scams, but stressed that there is much to see, do and enjoy in Vietnam! Vietnam does take a little work, though, to get to know.

    Also like the note about personal space. At the grocery store, a man stood so close behind me I could feel him breath on my neck. This can be uncomfortable for an American like me! I just stepped aside to put in a little more space. And smiled.

  5. Barbara says:

    Thanks so much for letting me post on your fabulous site, Theodora. I hope it inspires you and many other people to visit Vietnam. I just love it here! And it’s been far too long since I’ve seen you and Z IRL.

  6. Melissa says:

    Ah this brought back memories. Vietnam was indeed mine and my husbands first trip overseas and with two young kids in tow. Travelled independently too. It would be fare to say we spent our first 48hrs off the plane in Hoi Chi Minh slack jawed with amazement but buzzing with excitement. After nearly 4 weeks travelling from South to North and into the central highlands we left “old hands” and itching to return. Yes we got got scammed by the damn cyclos ( despite reading all the warnings before we left), we did the trains (kids still haven’t forgiven my but really, they weren’t that bad!) and we quickly learnt how to deal with the hawkers (5 years and much of SE Asia later I still maintain they are in a class of their own). But we still loved Vietnam and would go back in a heartbeat time and money permitting.

    Agree with all points above bar #2 about the lack if mid range accommodation. We found plenty of good mid-range accom but it did take some effort. But then again, finding family rooms anywhere always does!

  7. Albert says:

    Nice article and thanks for the valuable information sharing

  8. Giane says:

    ditch your sense of paranoia. I so agree. pack your stuffs and find your sense of wonder. enjoy your travel. great blog Thea. thanks for the advice.

  9. Loved the post! I still haven’t been to Asia and would love to go there. Cultural shock is part of the learning right?

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