The exotic world of Vietnam is alight with a variety of interesting and fascinating things to see and do. Before you go however, make sure you're in the know on the basics like how to get around, documentation required, and other niggly details that could make or break your trip.
Passports and Visas
Make sure you have everything you need in order to enter the country. Make sure you have a passport, of course, with one blank visa page so it can be stamped. In addition, the Department of State notes your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your departure date. In addition to the passport, pay special attention to visa requirements. There are a few different ways to get a visa for travel to Vietnam.
Apply In-Person, by Mail, or via Email
Official websites suggest you apply in person to the Embassy, or mail or email your request and obtain your visa prior to travel. If you go in person, you'll need to show your passport. If you mail or email your request, you'll need to send your passport so they can verify it is good for departure. If your trip is going to last longer than 30 days, this is probably the ideal way to obtain a visa.
Single Entry Visa
You can apply for a Vietnamese single-entry e-visa at the website of Vietnam Immigration Department. This visa is ideal for tourists who are spending a limited amount of time in Vietnam. When you arrive, you'll be required to present your printed e-visa, as well as a valid passport. The catch here is not all ports of entry accept an e-visa. Before you travel, make sure to check a list of ports of entry to see if where you are entering will accept your e-visa document.
Special Note - If you plan to travel to Laos, you need to request an adhesive visa. Lao officials require proof you've left Vietnam, and that requires an adhesive visa rather than a detachable one.
Visa on Arrival
You can get a written approval letter, (called a pre-approval letter for visa on arrival). All official portals including the State Department and the Vietnam Immigration Department recommend you go through the embassy to obtain a visa. With that said, the internet is full of travel bloggers and forums that insist getting a visa on arrival is the way to go because it is much easier and cheaper. You can only get your visa this way if you enter through certain airports, so pay close attention to make sure you won't have issues. Generally, you can arrange for your pre-approval letter for your visa on arrival through your travel agency.
If Your Papers Get Lost
Something many travelers don't realize is that in order to enter or exit Vietnam, you need a valid passport and visa. Consequently, if your papers get lost while you're traveling in Vietnam, you'll need to replace them to get out of the country. You can visit either the United States Embassy in Hanoi or the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City. They will usually issue you a limited validity passport in about a day, and a replacement visa in three to five working days.
What Not to Pack
It's important to note officials restrict what foreigners can bring in. In general, some common sense means an easy entry and exit into the country. However, you should be aware Vietnamese authorities can and will seize documents, video or audio material, or personal items they consider pornographic or political. In addition, they will seize anything they believe is intended for political or religious proselytizing.
Getting sick while traveling is never fun. However, being prepared for a few minor and common illnesses or emergencies can help make an unpleasant situation a little easier to bear.
There are no vaccinations required to travel to Vietnam. However, the CDC has some suggestions to protect yourself against common illnesses you might encounter such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid. You can get both of these diseases through contaminated food or water.
Medicines to Bring
Keep up to date with health alerts so you can best prepare. Of course, you cannot always prevent yourself from getting sick. Common sense precautions such as drinking only bottled water or washing your hands do help, but you may also want to bring medications with you. Consider bringing at least:
- Travelers' diarrhea antibiotic (talk to your doctor)
- Anti-diarrheal medication such as Pepto-Bismol
- Altitude sickness medicine (depending on where you are traveling)
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Water purification tablets
- Insect repellant (helps prevent mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika and malaria)
When it comes to spending money in Vietnam, there are a few things to know to make sure that you get the most value for your dollar. The Vietnamese currency is called the dong, and as of March of 2018, there are about 22,000 dong to $1 US dollar.
Know Your Money
The 10,000 dong looks a lot like the 100,000 dong. Similarly, the 50,000 dong looks like the 500,000 dong bill. Make sure you pay close attention to the number of zeroes as street merchants will not help you with this one. It could be the difference between blowing your day's budget and having extra for a day trip.
The Price Is Negotiable
One thing that is sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand is the price you are first given is not at all the final price. You should expect to negotiate and understand that when you first ask how much something is, the seller is inflating the price in anticipation of bargaining. Hone your haggling skills before you go shopping in the markets.
To Tip or Not to Tip
Generally, tipping is not expected at all in Vietnam. With that said, tipping is a more common practice in larger cities that see more tourists. How much varies widely, but in general, if you get great service, you can tip five percent of your bill. Remember though, tipping is not expected and really is dependent on what kind of service you get.
Most travelers bring traveler's checks and cash a few hundred dollars at a time. Sacombank is one of Vietnam's leading banks, and you can always cash traveler's checks there for a two percent fee.
In addition, most ATMs in the country accept Visa or Master Card. You can exchange money in the airports as well, but in general, you will find better rates at banks in major cities. You should note, however, that local banks limit you to withdrawing about $100 USD at a time.
Once you're in the country, there are a variety of ways to get around to see the great sights of Vietnam. Keep in mind the country is large. For example, it's about a 34-hour train ride to go between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Open Bus Tours
Open bus tours, such as Sinh Cafe, can be a great way to see Vietnam. You buy your ticket between two cities, and then you can get on and off wherever you want. If your goal is to see as much as the country as possible, many agree the open bus tour is the way to go. The downside, however, is if you're wanting adventure off the beaten path and have a real desire to mingle with the locals, you're unlikely to find them here.
Many a traveler touts the train as the best way to cover long distances. The difference between the train and an open bus tour, of course, is that by train you can see two cities - the one you are in and the one you are going to - whereas with an open bus tour, you can see several cities.
The biggest thing to know about traveling by train is that you should always buy directly from the train station and buy in advance. Trains can be sold out well in advance.
For Local Travel
If you're staying in just one spot, there are a few ways to get around your city or area.
- Xe Om - This is the traditional motorbike taxi. They are available almost anywhere and are a cheap way to get around. However, frequent visitors suggest not taking them at night. It's not unheard of for a tourist to be robbed or thrown off the motorbike, being taken advantage of by a dishonest xe om driver.
- Uber or similar - This remains a great way to get around major cities and is a popular options even among locals. Be aware that when it rains, the price surges, and you will need the app and an internet connection to find one (just like anywhere else.) One huge disadvantage to a tourist is that they often expect you to know where to go.
- Taxi - If you opt for a taxi for local travel, go with a Mai Linh or Vinasun taxi as they scam you less often.
Other Handy Travel Tips
If this is your first experience traveling to Vietnam, you may want to keep these things in mind.
It's generally better to negotiate your rate in person rather than having a hotel stay pre-planned. As with anything else, note the rate is negotiable. In addition, you should know hotels in Vietnam require you to present your passport and visas. All out-of-town guests have to be registered with the local police.
There is generally internet access in big cities, and it is notably fast. However, if you are concerned about being connected at all times, you can buy a SIM card from the large yellow phone shops around the city. Ask the hotel staff to register your SIM card.
Avoid Food-Borne Illness
Diarrhea has to be one of the least pleasant travel experiences, and it can ruin a trip quickly. To have the best shot at not getting sick in Vietnam, avoid tap water and always brush your teeth with bottled water. In addition, try to eat in restaurants that are really crowded. This generally means the kitchen will go through ingredients more quickly and the likelihood of you getting something that has been sitting out for a long time is limited. If possible, make sure the soup is at a low boil too.
Take Pictures Cautiously
Be careful about where and what you take pictures of. The government can seize your camera if they feel like you are taking images of anything of security importance. In addition, they can keep you for questioning.
Don't Buy Antiques
It is illegal to bring home antiques from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the term 'antique' can be incredibly vague. Therefore, if you purchase something of value, keep receipts and a confirmation for the shop owner or the Ministry of Culture that states specifically your item is not an antique. Otherwise, it can be seized before you leave and they will not compensate you for the item.
Vietnam is a great destination that is somewhat off the beaten path of Asian tourism. It's relatively inexpensive, offers a variety of sights and sounds, and with a little planning is an incredibly enjoyable experience.