I could not have said it any better than the new tourism slogan for Vietnam, “Timeless Charm”. At first the slogan seemed like just empty words to me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that there’s a lot of truth to it. Let me explain:
The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam has definitely entered the modern age for quite some time now. Vietnam is anxiously claiming a seat at the table with the Asian tigers. Development is skyrocketing, construction is booming, economy is soaring. The country is changing, and yet….. All the stuff that made Vietnam into such a popular tourist destination is still there. The things that really make it worth to venture into Vietnam are still untouched and authentic.
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 Karst 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 witness 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. Vietnam’s tourist attractions are timeless and they’re charming. Well done Vietnam tourism bureau!
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 it’s best to use 12Go.com to book your tickets online. Skip the lines at the bus station!
Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong (really!) for currency. 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.
Similar to other countries in South East Asia, Vietnam is very affordable. One important reason for many travelers to visit Vietnam is because it’s so easy to travel on a budget. The other reasons being of course the natural beauty and unique culture. Especially if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort you will find that your dollar goes a long, long way in Vietnam.
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. To compare prices and read reviews check out Agoda.com.
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.
The food in Vietnam is amongst 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 hearthy bowl of streetside Pho. Vietnamese main dishes go for VND50,000 in local eateries 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.
If you’re traveling on the tightest of budgets, go for the street food carts. Besides Pho the Vietnamese serve everything barbecued on a stick for VND10,000.
There are so 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 from VND530,000 (~$23) and by bus or train for VND185,000 VND (~$8).
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets for most routes within Vietnam I always use the transport planning tool below from 12Go.com 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.
Prices for getting around in 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.
Bus tickets within Ho Chi Minh City cost between VND3,000-10,000 depending on the distance. Public busses here are known for their bad service. Also, distances between bus stops and tourist destinations are pretty far. Added with the long waiting times between bus arrivals this transport option might not be the smartest choice. Hanoi city busses do offer better service and bus stops are near to the tourist attractions. Prices vary from VND5,000 to 10,000 depending on the distance.
Taxi’s are cheap. Flag fall for taxi’s in Ho Chi Minh City is VND15,000 and ~15,000 per km (depending on the size and luxury of the car). In Hanoi flag fall is VND12,000 and ~12,000 per km. 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.
Motor bike taxis or “xe-om” are not much cheaper than taxi’s. They are faster though. Between VND20,000-30,000 for short rides within 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 the fastest door to door option and also the most thrilling.
The best and cheapest way to get around in the city is by using a taxi app. Slightly cheaper than regular taxi’s 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. 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.
Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I understand, 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 some great activities, many of them with prices mentioned.
When to go to Vietnam
Vietnam is a long stretched country and measures almost 2000km from North to South. Within the different geographical locations the Vietnam climate differs considerably.
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 begins November to end in late April. February to May sees the hottest months with with high humidity and temperatures rising up to 35°C. Yearly average temperatures range between 25°C-35°C.
Rainy seasons arrives mid September to last throughout December. October and November are the wettest months and also typhoons can occur during 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.
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.
In the montains the wet season starts from April to September. Dry season runs from October to late March. December and January can get very cold with night temperatures possible below 0°C.
The Vietnamese government announced 21 public holidays for 2019 of which the lunar new year (Tet) occupies a staggering 9 official holidays. Tet is also 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 is so much to see and do 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.
Ho Chi Minh City
In the know
Mui Ne – Phan Tiet
To boldly go…
My Cang Chai
Phong Nha – Ke Bang
Bai Tu Long
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!
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 Vietnam emperors. Not quite like the forbidden city in Beijing, nevertheless impressive.
Experience “Ha Long on rice”.
Spectacular karst 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.
Trek the Northern Mountains.
Endless photogenic rice terraces alternated with rugged mountaintops in the mist. The most beautiful sights that Vietnam has on offer.
Visit the floating market of Can Tho.
In the very wet Mekong delta there’s an every day market on the water with sellers boasting their products on a pole.
Chinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and even French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is 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.
Health in Vietnam
Health care facilities in Vietnam are amongst 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.
Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. I use World Nomads, because they are the true specialist in travel insurance and their price for the service is unbeatable. They cover a range of adventure sports and activities like scuba diving and your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of traveling.
Knowing they had my back has always given me great piece of mind. Fortunately I never had to claim anything, but fellow travelers I met on the road told me that the online claims process went very smooth.
Safety in Vietnam
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 snatchings are 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 pre-occupied with making that cool snapshot.
Violence against tourists and/or expats is very rare, 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.
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.
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.
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.