Traveling to another country with a completely different culture is a difficult but very rewarding experience. This kind of adventure allows you to learn some valuable life lessons and broaden your horizon. However, this can also be a traumatic experience, especially if you run into scammers or another kind of trouble. Vietnam isn’t like the other countries in Southeast Asia. It’s not so touristy, there aren’t many fancy beaches and most people don’t speak English. Hence, you should mentally prepare yourself before visiting in order to fully embrace Vietnamese culture and make most out of your trip. Here are some things I wish I knew before travelling to Vietnam.
Everyone’s a millionaire: Things I wish I knew before travelling to Vietnam
I’m sure there are many lost souls visiting Vietnam trying to figure out the ridiculously high conversion rates here. At the moment, 1 EUR = 26,716 dong and 1 USD = 22,714 dong. This means 100 USD is worth more than 2.2 million Dong and it’s safe to assume that all people in Vietnam have more than 1 million Dong.
The good part: coins have been abolished back in 2011. The bad part: you can easily mix up the 500,000 Dong bill and the 50,000 Dong bill. It’s the same with the 100,000 Dong bill and the 10,000 Dong bill. The rule of thumb is to try and memorize bills according to color, but again the 500,000 bill and the 20,000 bill have a similar shade of blue. Well, good luck with that.
The price for everything is… whatever you agree to pay for it
In Vietnam, it’s normal to increase prices when they think they can get more money out of you. If you’re coming from the Western hemisphere, the truth is, a lot of people will try to take as much money out of you. You might even start feeling like a walking ATM! I know it’s hard to grasp this, but they’re not necessarily trying to rip you off. Vietnamese are taught that the Western countries are the ones to blame for all of their problems and that we “owe” them. So they will try to pretend you agreed to a higher price, give you back less change etc. And they expect from us to spend money when visiting, and when you try to bargain, they get upset and treat you poorly.
Don’t Book anything Online
Don’t book any tourist arrangements and be careful about visa agents. There are a lot of frauds out there. And there are a lot of agencies using the names of big brands because there doesn’t seem to be any rules on trademark rights in Vietnam. To get back to the topic, if you book a tour online, you might end up paying a much higher price than the price you would pay if you arranged everything on the spot.
Be prepared for the weather
The South and North of Vietnam have a different climate, which can make travelling to Vietnam complicated. In Northern Vietnam, the dry season is on from April to October, while in South and Central Vietnam, the dry season occurs between December and April. So you should be prepared for both seasons when visiting. Additionally, Hanoi has four seasons, including cold and humid starting in November and ending at January and hot and sticky summers. Ho Chi Minh, on the other hand, has only two seasons: a hot and dry season and a monsoon season with high humidity throughout the year.
Shop outside tourist districts
Avoid restaurants, bars and souvenir shops around the French Quarter in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Get out of the area surrounding the main tourist attractions and you’ll find the best restaurants with authentic food and most importantly, local prices. You can also get all the colorful traditional clothes and the most memorable souvenirs, again at lower prices. The locals in these areas aren’t so used to tourists and you might get a few weird looks, but you can save a lot of money and have a far more authentic experience.
Crossing the street is an art
Motorbikes are pretty common in Asia but Vietnam still takes motorbike traffic to a whole other level. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City the traffic is so chaotic that crossing the street can literally be the hardest part of your day. A general rule of thumb is to wait at a place that looks like there is supposed to be a crosswalk. The next step is to pray to God, gather your courage and go for it. If you still can’t do it, just wait for some of the locals to cross the street and follow them. They’ll know what they’re doing.
Travel outside of the big cities
I love Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and I met many fellow travellers there. And the sad truth is, most travellers focus on these two cities and missing out on many amazing authentic Vietnamese cities. Like Hoi An, Sapa, Danat etc. My best memories (and some of my best Instagram posts) from my Vietnam trips were from these small towns. If you have the choice, spend more time in Northern Vietnam, as this part is less developed and hence has a much more authentic charm. There are a lot of mountains, canyons, caves and isolated villages. Every corner here reveals another breathtaking view and another amazing story to tell.
Motorbikes are the way to go
In the big cities, where there are more sellers you will be able to buy a motorbike for as low as $200 USD. I’m sorry to break it up to you, but if you’re paying more than that, you’re most likely being ripped off. Let’s say you buy your bike in Hanoi and want to take it for a ride across the country. Unless you completely trash the bike, you will be able to sell it for more or less the same price in Ho Chi Minh. This actually means that you’ve rented a bike for free. It will be a bit difficult to drive it in the beginning because of the congested traffic and just the Vietnamese driving culture in general. Also, get used to honking. A lot of it! In Vietnamese that normally means ‘I’m about to pass by you’, or ‘Hurry up, you old lady’.
Tips for bus/train rides
After a few days in Vietnam, you will realize that Vietnamese are quite laid-back and appear to never be in a rush. This concept is also integrated into the public transport system. Bus rides can be really long. The dense traffic and poor roads turn 6-hour trips into 10-12-hour trips. Anyway, there are some things you need to consider when travelling by bus. Here are a few useful tips.
- You can easily get bus tickets for your journey on the same day.
- Consider booking your ticket through your hostel/hotel. Sure, the ticket is a bit more expensive, but they will arrange a pick up from the hotel and you won’t have to go through the hustle of reaching the station, which in the end might even save you money if you’re in a big city.
- It’s not uncommon at all for a bus to be a few hours late.
- You probably won’t get dropped at a bus station. Most of the bus rides in Vietnam I took just dropped me in the middle of the road. So be prepared for that.
- In the sleeper bus, you should take off your shoes before entering and keep them in a plastic bag that the driver provides for the passengers.
- Most buses don’t have washrooms and a 10-hour bus ride usually includes not more than two stops. The chances of finding a pre-packaged food in the places where the bus will stop are really slim and the stops are filled with questionable restaurants. Make sure you pack enough food before going on a long journey.
Food and Drink tips
- The food portions are really small. I always used to order two dishes every time I had a meal because I knew one won’t be enough.
- Fruit is on the dessert menu. I’m a big fan of fruits and they come really cheap in Vietnam. However, I was struggling in the beginning because I couldn’t find them on the menu. Apparently, in Vietnam, fruits are considered to be a desert.
- I’ve never found a cheaper beer. You can get a beer in Vietnam for 13 cents! Which means you can get wasted for $2-3.
- Soup-like dishes are typical in Vietnam. Most of them are really tasty but are also a number 1 reason for a stomach virus among tourists. Make sure the soup you ordered isn’t undercooked and is piping hot.
- Avoid the ‘Cheap restaurant scam. It includes a friendly local eager to hang out. He leads you to a restaurant outside of the tourist area to try authentic Vietnamese food. You either end up being drugged with all of your belongings missing or getting ripped off when the bill comes.
Beaches aren’t that good
If you previously visited Thailand, Indonesia or The Philippines, Vietnam’s beaches might disappoint you. Vietnam’s coastline is rocky and pretty rough during the winter. There are some beaches with expansive white sand, but they still can’t compare to the best of Thailand and Indonesia. Vietnam has a lot of other things to offer, like canyons, mountains, caves and amazing nature, but beaches aren’t among the highlights, even though there are some really beautiful cities like Nha Trang.