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Vietnam – Timeless Charm

Last Update: September 2020


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Vietnam


Timeless Charm

I could not have said it any better than the slogan that the Vietnam tourism bureau came up with: “Timeless Charm”. Honestly, at first the slogan seemed like just empty words to me. However, the more I thought about it the more I realized that there’s a lot of truth to it. Let me explain:

For quite some time now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has definitely entered the modern age. Fact is that Vietnam is anxiously claiming its seat at the table with the other Asian tigers. Development is skyrocketing, construction is booming, economy is soaring.

There’s no doubt that the country is changing, modernizing and especially tourism is rapidly being commercialized, and yet…..the stuff that made Vietnam into such a popular tourist destination is still there. The history, culture and nature are for the largest part cherished and preserved.

All the great things that really make it worth to venture into Vietnam remains untouched and authentic.


Hilltribe grandmother and grandchildren in Vietnam
Timeless charm: This never gets old

Nothing’s changed

Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi still have the street (food) vendors that predominantly determine the charm of the two cities. The Northern mountains still have the endless rice terraces and striking views of nature. Hill tribe minorities are roaming about in their folklore costumes as if nothing ever changed.

At Ha Long Bay, the limestone rock formations are not going anywhere and neither are the white sand beaches along the extensive coast line. In the Mekong Delta it’s still possible to observe local life as it was before the tourist influx.

Sure, you’re not the only traveler, because Vietnam will keep enticing more and more visitors, and that’s ok. Vietnam’s tourist attractions are timeless and they are charming. So, well done Vietnam tourism bureau!



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Reasons to visit Vietnam

6 Reasons to visit Vietnam

  • Visiting the North and the South is almost like visiting 2 countries into one. There’s a difference in nature, scenery, weather and to some extent also in culture, food and locals attitude;


  • The views in the North are truly fantastic. Endless slopes with rice fields in all colors green and dark misty silhouettes of jagged mountain ridges. Combined with the unique culture of the very visible ethnic hill tribe minorities you just know they have a winner here;


  • With more than 3000km of coastline it’s no surprise that Vietnam had beaches galore. Especially the Central and South beaches are real treat for sun, sand and sea fanatics;


  • The vast Nine Dragons Mekong River Delta area is a world on its own. Flat, swampy, mangroves, fisherman towns and water everywhere;


  • Vietnam is a great combination of culture, history and nature food. There is sufficient infrastructure to, from and around the highlights, beyond it gets a little more challenging. On the other hand, isn’t that perfect for an adventurous and authentic experience?


  • If you like food like I do, a visit to Vietnam will feel like you have entered foodie heaven. Nowhere does Vietnamese food taste better than in Vietnam itself, duh!


Vietnam beach
Vietnam beach, not bad at all!
Plastic on the Vietnam beach
Unfortunately, sometimes…


5 Reasons not to visit Vietnam

  • The Vietnamese are very business minded and go straight for the sale. They can be very pushy and it’s hard to stay relaxed at all times;


  • The scorching heat and high humidity can be relentless;


  • Everything that moves is seen as food, literally everything. It’s not uncommon (not at all) to see restaurant billboards advertising thịt chó and thịt meò (dog and cat meat). Scenes at the markets can likewise be very explicit. If that puts you off you’re going to have a hard time here;


  • The cities, in particular Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, are very crowded and traffic is horrendous. Outside of the cities the crowds immediately subside, but the roads are outright deadly and dangerous;


  • Like many other countries, Vietnam has a plastic waste problem. A bit more evident in the cities where large numbers of people live very closely together, but sadly also in rural and nature areas. Plastic waste is everywhere.



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Check the visa and Covid-19 health certificate requirements for Vietnam

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How to get to Vietnam


Ho Chi Minh airport and Hanoi airport are the main points of entrance to Vietnam by air. I recommend using the Skyscanner website to find the full schedule and prices of incoming and outgoing flights.

For international busses/trains into Vietnam you can use 12Go.asia transportation portal or Bookaway to book your tickets online. Skip the lines at the bus station!

Warning: Do not buy your bus ticket out of Vietnam from the shady travel operators on Pam Ngu Lao street in Ho Chi Minh City. By all means, book excursions from there or any other return ticket, as long as they know your coming back. If they know you won’t be back to complain at their desk they might sell you a bogus transfer. You wouldn’t be the first that got stranded at the border, don’t be that guy that got scammed.



Cost


Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong >(VND) for currency, I swear I didn’t make that up!. Exchanging your US dollars to VND will instantly make you a Vietnamese millionaire. US$100 get’s you more than VND2.3million. Better buy a new wallet to fit all those bills before your arrival. Fortunately, wallets come cheap in the Vietnamese trinket shops.


Woman selling food at the Ha Giang market in Vietnam
Vietnam Dong (VND) is the currency in Vietnam

Similar to other countries in South East Asia, Vietnam is very affordable and that’s one important reason for many travelers to visit Vietnam. It’s so easy to travel on a budget. Especially if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort you will find that your dollar goes a long dong way in Vietnam.

Accommodation

A basic bed in a dorm starts as low as VND100,000 per night. To upgrade to a guesthouse with more privacy and a tat more luxury will raise the price to around VND350,000. Wifi and breakfast are normally included at most hostels and guesthouses, but to avoid disappointment it’s best to come with low expectations.

As one can expect, prices are significantly higher in beach towns and the holiday Islands and of course you can also opt for more a more fancy and luxurious accommodation. However, compared to Western standards the price for a 5star hotel room is still ridiculously low.



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Airbnb has found it’s way to the cities and bigger towns of Vietnam and certainly is an interesting option with prices starting at VND400,000 for a whole apartment.


Food

The food in Vietnam is among the best in South East Asia and it’s dirt cheap. I have always found it unbelievable that something so fresh and (usually) incredibly tasty can cost so little. VND20,000 will do the trick for a hearty bowl of streetside Phở. Local dishes go for VND50,000 and from about VND80,000 for a Western meal. Of course prices will go up in fancier restaurants and areas with a high tourist density.


A hearty bowl of Phở, the national dish of Vietnam
Phở, the national dish of Vietnam

If you’re traveling on the tightest of budgets, go for the street food carts. Next to Phở the Vietnamese serve everything barbecued on a stick for VND10,000.

Transportation

There are many transport options and they all come with a different cost. Therefore, one simple way to balance your costs in Vietnam is by smartly managing your transportation.

Vietnam boasts a large number of domestic airports and longs distance bus terminals, as well as a railway network from North to South. Long distance travel within Vietnam from let’s say Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang can be done by plane for as low as VND530,000 (~$23) and by bus or train for VND185,000 (~$8).

For bus/train/ferry schedules and tickets within Vietnam I always use the transport planning tool below from 12Go.asia to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s).

The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.


Powered by 12Go Asia system


Getting Around

Prices for getting around inside the cities are difficult to list since it greatly varies from town to town. This quick overview of transport options in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is the best I can do at the moment.

Public Bus

Bus tickets within Ho Chi Minh City cost between VND3,000-10,000 depending on the distance. Public buses here are known for their bad service. Also, distances between bus stops and tourist destinations are pretty far. Added with the long waiting periods between bus arrivals this transport option might not be the smartest choice.

Hanoi city buses do offer better service and bus stops are quite near to the tourist attractions. Prices vary between VND5,000 and 10,000 depending on the distance.


Public bus in Hanoi Vietnam
Public bus in Hanoi

Taxi

Taxis are cheap. Flag fall for taxis in Ho Chi Minh City is VND15,000 and then app. VND15,000 per km (depending on the size and luxury of the car). In Hanoi flag fall is VND12,000 and VND12,000 per km.

A word of advice, it’s best to use reliable taxi companies as there are some dodgy companies out there with rigged meters. Use Vinasun and Maylinh in Ho Chi Minh and CP taxi, Hanoi taxi or Maylinh taxi in Hanoi.

Xe-om

Motor bike taxis or “xe-om” are not much cheaper than regular taxis, but they sure are faster. Between VND20,000-30,000 for short rides within the city center in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi depending on traffic or weather conditions. VND40,000 or more for rides out of the city center. You will always have to bargain. Xe-om are by far the fastest door to door option and certainly the most thrilling.

Taxi app

The best and cheapest way to get around in the city is by using a taxi app. Slightly cheaper than regular taxis and they also offer two wheeled transport. Grab is the most widespread taxi app in Vietnam.

(Motor) bike rental

Wait! I’ll give you another option and it’s up to you if you want to use it. You can always rent a bicycle or a motor bike, although a bicycle might be less of a great idea in the city, because of traffic and the lack of real bicycle infrastructure. Rent prices vary, but it’s almost always very cheap.


Woman driving a motor bike in Vietnam
Motor bike in Vietnam

Note that proper document requirements for tourists riding a motorbike are very confusing. Not having the right documents will most likely invalidate all insurance you might have. Check out this link for some explanation on regulations in Vietnam.

Tours

Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I get it, I do, where is the adventure in that? However, if you don’t have a lot of time a tour isn’t such a bad idea. It allows you see all the highlights in a condensed time frame. Also, for jungle treks and alike it’s always wise to at least hire an experienced local guide.

Prices for tours will differ greatly, depending on the area and the sort of activity. Keep in mind that often the bigger your group, the lower the price per person. In the Things to do chapter I have listed a few great tour activities.



When to go to Vietnam


Weather

Vietnam is a long stretched country and measures almost 2000km from North to South. Within the different geographical locations the Vietnam climate differs considerably.

South

The South has two seasons, rainy and dry. Rainy season starts in May and lasts until early November. The highest precipitation occurs in June, July and August and usually comes in vigorous afternoon showers. Dry season starts in November to end in late April. February to May is the hottest period with high humidity and soaring temperatures up to 35°C. Yearly average temperatures range between 25°C-35°C.


Junk boat sailing into the sunset at Ha Long in Vietnam
Sailing into the sunset in any season

Central

Rainy seasons arrives mid September to last throughout December. October and November are the wettest months and also typhoons can occur during and around this period. Dry season runs from January to early September and often see temperatures rising to the low 30’s°C.

The exception is Da Lat due to its location in the Central highlands where rain occurs from June to October. November to May marks the dry season in Da Lat with very cold temperatures possible in December and January.

North

The North sees a winter and summer season rather than a wet and dry season. Winter, from November to April is usually dry with average temperatures between 17-22°C. Summer, from May to October is hot up to 33°C and humid with most rainfall between July and September.

Northern Mountains

In the mountains the wet season starts from April to end by September. Dry season runs from October to late March. December and January can get very cold with night temperatures possible below 0°C.


Vietnam in the rain
Vietnam in the rain is still beautiful

Events

The Vietnamese government announced 11 public holidays for 2021 of which the lunar new year (Tet) occupies 6 official holidays (12-17 February 2021). Tet is by far the most important event in Vietnam with massive migrations of city workers returning to their provincial homes for the festivities. Travel within Vietnam during Tet can be a real pain and is best to be avoided.

So, when to go to Vietnam?

Weather wise December and January are the best months to visit Vietnam. However, it’s also the peak season and certainly the most expensive. Actually, there is no real best time to visit Vietnam if you plan to cross the three different climate zones. Just to let you know, I visited Vietnam at any time of year and always had a good time. Don’t let a bit of rain stop you, unless it’s torrential and causing floods. Remember that except for maybe October and November in the Central region, most precipitation usually comes in late afternoon showers.



Where to go in Vietnam


Oh my, where to start, there are so many worthwhile places in Vietnam. It’s one of the most diverse countries in South East Asia with regards to landscape. I have compiled a neat selection for you from the highlights to some real hidden gems to help you create your ultimate itinerary. 


View over Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

Highlights

  • Halong Bay

  • Hanoi

  • Ho Chi Minh City

  • Hoi An

  • Mekong Delta

  • Nha Trang

  • Sa Pa


In the know

  • Da Lat

  • Hue

  • Cat Ba

  • Con Dao

  • Trang An

  • Phu Quoc

  • Da Nang

  • Mui Ne – Phan Tiet

Mu Cang Chai rice terraces in Vietnam


To boldly go…

  • Mu Cang Chai

  • Phong Nha – Ke Bang

  • Ha Giang

  • Pu Luong

  • Bai Tu Long

  • Kon Tum

  • Mai Chau



Things to see/do in Vietnam


So much to do, so little time. Yep, life is all about choices. Down here I have listed some of my favorite activities. Maybe this helps to make up your mind on what to do when in Vietnam. Have fun!

Trek the Northern Mountains. Endless photogenic rice terraces alternated with rugged mountaintops in the mist. The most beautiful sights that Vietnam has on offer.


Ricefields and mountains in the North of Vietnam
Beautiful Northern Vietnam

Drive your motorbike across Vietnam. Buy a cheap bike in the North. Drive it all the way to the South while experiencing the ultimate freedom of traveling. Sell the bike to the next traveler when you leave.

Behold the imperial city in Hue. See the lost city of the Vietnam emperors. Not quite like the forbidden city in Beijing, nevertheless impressive.

Experience “Ha Long on rice”. Spectacular limestone rock formations surrounded by rice paddies instead of water at Tam Coc.

Go on a bicycle tour in and around Hanoi. Feel what it’s like to pedal in the chaotic traffic and the peaceful countryside all in one tour.

Visit the Cai Rang floating market in the Mekong Delta . In the very wet Mekong delta there’s an every day market on the water with sellers boasting their products by hanging them from on a pole.






Vietnamese Food


Chinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and even French influence on Vietnamese cuisine are evident. Combined with its own culinary heritage and an “everything is edible” attitude, Vietnam has since long become a favorite in the international gourmet realm.

Read up on Vietnamese food in the articles below and order your meal with confidence next time you visit Vietnam.


Best food in South East Asia - Vietnam



Health in Vietnam


Health care facilities in Vietnam are among the worst in Asia. In general this is due to a lack of funding by the government. Rural areas often have no facilities at all. In cities the main hospitals all suffer from serious overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, insufficient staff, knowledge, equipment and space.

Expats and tourists are somewhat better off. In the major cities there are a few private hospitals that cater to expats with international staff and better than average facilities. They accept international health insurance or else it’s payment upfront.

Pharmacies are abundant in the cities and also in provincial towns. In many cases a prescription is not needed. Watch out for Chinese counterfeit and expired drugs though.


No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. If you do get sick or involved in an accident, let’s hope you didn’t skimp on travel insurance.

Make sure that medical care abroad, evacuation and repatriation are included since any serious ailment or injury will almost certainly involve medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Trust me, it’s expensive and payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.

Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote right now!



Safety in Vietnam


Crime

Except for the traffic Vietnam is a very safe country. That doesn’t mean however that crime is non-existent. The ever so general advice to “be aware” of your surroundings applies like in any other county. The same goes for not showing off your valuables and don’t wander into dark alleys late at night when you’re alone and drunk.

Next to pick pocketing, bag snatching is the common crime in the major cities. More so in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi I would say. Within a split second they grab your purse, backpack, camera, phone or whatever valuable item that you did not secure. Always wear your bag across your chest in front of you and be aware that someone could snatch your phone while you are completely preoccupied with making that cool snapshot.


Warning!: Explicit images


Violence against tourists and/or expats is not common, but does exceptionally occur in the form of muggings. Women and intoxicated persons seem to be especially targeted. Also, don’t get into an argument with the locals, their courage and strength often comes from numbers and they always seem to have a lot of cousins around.


Read: “The ultimate Vietnam scam, and how to avoid it!”


Police

Police in Vietnam are much like police in other South East Asian countries. It’s the same old story. The police, and especially the traffic police make very little salaries. For this reason you will often see the “end of month traffic controls” as a way to supplement their income. Like elsewhere in South East Asia the people seem to have accepted it as just another fact of life. Such a pity though.

When you need the police to provide you with a report for insurance purposes be ready to pass a small “donation” for getting the right documents. The amount will depend on the mood and need of the officer helping you, but somewhere between VND200,000-500,000 should do the trick.

Traffic

When I arrived in Hanoi for the first time I was absolutely shocked with the traffic only to find out later that traffic in Ho Chi Minh City was even worse. Vietnam might have the worst traffic I have experienced so far.

There are many cars, but the number of motor bikes easily outnumbers the cars threefold if not more. Crossing the street may seem close to impossible, but surprisingly it’s not. If you cross carefully yet steadfast you are going to be ok. Somehow the motorized traffic finds its way around you.


Busy traffic in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam
10 million motor bikes in Ho Chi Minh City

In the cities not many (fatal) accidents happen during the day, because traffic is usually slow moving. Night time is a different story with drunk drivers and speeding cars ignoring red lights and right of way. Also out in the province the traffic can be very dangerous. Bus and truck drivers often work long hours and have been known to take amfetamines to stay awake so they can keep driving. Needless to say that their responsiveness and judgement can be somewhat clouded at the least.



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