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.
1. Do Your Research
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.
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.
You 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.