Useful Things to Know Before You Visit Vietnam

Vietnam, officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a country I wanted to visit since years. This year in 2019 we spend two months (September and October) in this beautiful country. Although Vietnam remains officially committed to socialism, its economy is capitalist. The mountain area in Vietnam is colder and beautiful. A big part of the land is used for agriculture. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of cashew nuts, black pepper, the second-largest rice exporter in the world after Thailand, and the world’s second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil. Coffee farming was introduced by the French colonial rulers. The French also established the still existing train line, developed a Western-style system of modern education, had a beautiful influence on the architecture, and propagated Catholicism widely. Less than 10% are still catholic today. The majority is either practicing Vietnamese indigenous religion or is non-religious. The Vietnamese indigenous religion is not an organized religious system, but some local worship traditions devoted to the thần, a term which can be translated as spirits or gods. Also the Chinese left their influence in architecture and food (e.g. hot pot). Vietnam was a division of China for over a millennium. Modern Vietnam was born upon the Declaration of Independence from France in 1945. After the Vietnamese victory against the French in the Indochina War, which ended in 1954, the nation was divided into two rival states: communist North and anti-communist South. Conflicts intensified in the Vietnam War, which saw extensive US intervention in support of South Vietnam and ended with North Vietnamese victory in 1975. After North and South Vietnam were reunified under a unitary socialist government in 1976, the country became economically and politically isolated until 1986. I don’t want to go into detail with the war and only mention something that helped me to understand the war better. The USA was afraid if the communist North would win the war that whole Indo Asia would become communist. What happened after the Second World War with lots of countries in Eastern Europe under the communist Russia scared many Western countries. The use of herbicides as a chemical weapon by the US military during the war left long-term impacts upon the Vietnamese people that persist in the country today. It led to three million Vietnamese people suffering health problems, one million birth defects caused directly by exposure to the chemical and 24% of Vietnam’s land being defoliated.

Vietnam is a great country to find delicious vegetarian and vegan food. More about my food experience here. Circle k stores (like 7/11) always got wifi and are open 24h. Their password is circlekvietnam.

Hà Nội

The capital city has some nice lakes to walk along (e.g. Hoàn Kiếm Lake, West Lake), cute coffee places, markets (e.g. Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi Night Market), and lots of quality vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Our start in Vietnam could not have been better. Abdel Rahman, our Couchsurfing host, welcomed us at 2:30 am with a fresh coconut and even gave us his bed and slept on a mattress on the floor instead. We ended up staying with him for almost one week. Like many foreigners in Vietnam he is an English teacher. The salary is around 2’000 USD per month and the cost of living low. So lots of travellers work and live in Vietnam for some months / years to save money. During our stay in Vietnam we got a couple of job offers as an English teacher. Some people even asked us on the street or in the bus when they heard us speaking in English. We strolled around the Old Quarter, visited the Temple Of Literature and the Train Street. This street is home to some Vietnamese who live along this track. When the train comes everything crowding the tracks just disappears into the homes lining the way.

Huế

There is a nice Pagoda to visit and lots of vegetarian restaurants because of all the Buddhists living there. Our Vietnamese host was an English teacher and his students took us around the city on their motorbike for a day. I would say one day is enough for Huế.

Da Nang

Lots of people recommended us to visit Da Nang. Somehow we didn’t really feel the city. Maybe because when we were there it was raining and the beach didn’t look very nice. Our Couchsurfing host was hosting twelve other international people at the same time. It was basically an English school and felt like a hostel. Thanks to that we met an amazing couple from Mexico and a guy from the Netherlands. He started there an event to clean the beach with the students which was very inspiring. He also asked me which movies I could recommend him to watch with the students about veganism.

Hội An

Hội An is a very touristic, but definitely worth to visit small city. It is close to lots of rivers and the architecture and bridges in the Ancient Town are stunning. The An Bang beach is close by and in my opinion much nicer than the one in Da Nang. I understand why some expats chose to live there. I was happy to see that not only our Couchsurfing hosts had an electric scooter. The people in this city seem to be more conscious about the environmental impact. We had a great time with the couple from Virginia who hosted us. Amanda is vegan too and like a lot of people who studied in the USA she still has to pay back her loan. Living and working as an English teacher in Vietnam gives her the chance to do so faster than if she would do the same in the USA.

Đà Lạt

Đà Lạt used to be a resort center in the highlands, developed by the French and still is the country’s favourite honeymoon location. It is also a great place to escape the heat of the lower coastal areas. The year-round cool weather made us stay much longer than just three days. The city is centered around the Xuan Huong Lake and surrounded by hills and pine forests. We visited the Crazy House which is definitely worth to visit. Entrance is 60’000 VND and you can easily spend 2-3 hours there. The Đà Lạt Market is worth to visit at night. Maya and her husband, our Couchsurfing hosts, made us feel like home. They have a sweet six month old baby with which we enjoyed spending time with.

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon

Some people still call the city by its previous name Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City is located in the south which used to be anti-communist. Yet it is named after the North Vietnamese revolutionary and communist politician Ho Chi Minh. I highly recommend to visit the War Remnants Museum. You can easily spend three to four hours in it. We spend quiet a lot of time pet sitting in this city and enjoyed the variety on vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

Cần Thơ

Cần Thơ is famous for its floating markets. Unfortunately, this city doesn’t have great vegetarian restaurants (yet), but we enjoyed some of the best massages we had in South East Asia. I highly recommend Life Spa. 60 minutes cost 190’000 VND. Chợ Tân An is a big food market with probably the cheapest prices we saw in Vietnam. If you want to do some sightseeing check out the Phat Hoc Pagoda.

Transport

Motor bikes and bicycles remain the most popular forms of road transport in the country, a legacy of the French. The number of privately owned cars has been increasing in recent years. The traffic is crazy in the big cities like Hà Nội and Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic lights are ignored and if it gets green for the pedestrians it doesn’t mean that the motorbikes and cars will stop. If you are lucky they might drive around you. Around 30 people lose their lives daily in road accidents. In the big cities, most people go around with their own motorbike or by taxi (e.g. Grab). Taxis charge by distance not by time (E.g. 18’000 per km). Public buses are actually easy to take since they are shown on google maps. Inside a city the buses are between 5’000 and 10’000 VND.

Public buses operated by private companies are the main way of long-distance travel besides the train. Buses we took:

  • Minivan from Huế to Da Nang: 100’000 VND (2h).
  • Small bus from Da Nang to Hội An: 20’000 VND (1h).
  • Sleeping bus from Hội An (486 Hai Ba Trung / Kim’s Villa) to Đà Lạt: 300’000 VND (7:30 pm – 6 am).
  • Bus from Đà Lạt to Ho Chi Minh City: 210’000 VND (10 am – 5 pm).
  • Bus (FUTA bus line; luxurious) from Ho Chi Minh City to Cần Thơ: 140’000 VND (3h).

Travelling by train is very nice and can be very comfortable. There is a toilet inside and you can even buy food. You can buy the ticket online via this website if you have a Vietnamese credit card: https://dsvn.vn/#/. The North-South railway (unofficially Reunification Express) connects Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south with lots of stations in between. We took a train from Hà Nội to Huế. It was 364’000 VND and took 14 hours (8:50-22:23).

Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) of Hà Nội to the city center

  • Bus number 86: 35’000 VND (40 minutes).
  • Airport shuttle bus (outside the gates): 40,000 VND (40-60 minutes).
  • City bus number 7 that terminates at Kim Ma Bus station or number 17 that terminate at Long Bien bus station. The cost is 5,000 VND and takes about one hour.
  • Taxi (Grab) if you arrive at night: 310’000 VND (30 minutes).

Accommodation

  • Couchsurfing is popular in the touristic cities. We realised that most of our Vietnamese hosts used us as a free English teacher. This was fine for us since we like to help and it is nice to give something back. But we didn’t like that most of our hosts were not interested to get to know us personally.
  • There are some offers on www.trustedhousesitters.com. Thanks to that we stayed for two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City for free in exchange of taking care of a dog and a cat. Get 25% off when using this discount CODE: RAF259140.
  • Backpacker hostel start at 75’000 VND (around 3 Euros).
  • Hotels start at 250’000 VND per night.

Money

  • Official currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND).
  • ATM fee: 22’000-55’000 VND.
  • Maximum withdrawal: 2 or 3 Million Dong (about 85-130 USD).

I recommend taking money with you if you have the possibility and exchange it Vietnam (not at the airport).

Safety

Vietnam is a pretty safe country. But petty theft is happening, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Fortunately, we only had one bad experience during our two months. We ordered a Grab taxi at night. Before entering the taxi I took out money at the ATM. Chris put his backpack in the car and came to me to pick up my backpack. He wanted to help me. While Chris is near to me he notices that our taxi is slowly driving away. Immediately, Chris runs after the taxi. The taxi accelerates. Chris manages to open the door just in time to hop in. Chris asks him outraged in English what that was supposed to mean. Of course, the taxi driver doesn’t understand what Chris says, but notices that Chris is very upset. So he apologises.

Weather

Vietnam is one of the world’s countries most vulnerable to climate change and is also affected by tropical storms and typhoons. We were in Vietnam from September to November. The north was pretty cloudy and rainy so we didn’t go more northern than Hà Nội. Sapa and the surrounding are supposed to be very beautiful. Lots of travellers do a 2-4 day loop by motorbike in this area and sleep in homestays.

Due to differences in latitude Vietnam’s climate tends to vary considerably for each region. Temperatures vary less in the southern plains around Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, ranging from between 21 and 35 °C over the year. Seasonal variations in the mountains and the northernmost areas are much more dramatic, with temperatures varying from 3 °C in December and January to 37 °C in July and August. Vietnam receives a lot of rain during the monsoon seasons. The southwest monsoon is from April to September and the northeast monsoon is from October to early April. This often causes flooding, especially in the cities with poor drainage systems.

Visa

Important: Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond your planned stay in Vietnam.

The Visa situation in Vietnam is a bit confusing since it keeps changing. For the first time I spend hours browsing the internet trying to figure out how we can obtain our visa. Fact is that you CAN’T get a Visa on arrival directly at the Vietnam airport. If you will enter Vietnam by land or sea and want to stay longer than a month, you are required to obtain a full visa through a Vietnam Embassy before you arrive. If you will enter Vietnam by flight you can apply online for an E-visa or pre-approved visa letter through a private travel agency. There is NO OFFICIAL website which doesn’t make it easier.

Since we thought we would stay less than 30 days we could buy our visa online via this website (25 USD): https://immigration.gov.vn/en_US/web/guest/khai-thi-thuc-dien-tu/cap-thi-thuc-dien-tu. We used it when we entered Vietnam by flight and once when we entered Vietnam by land. They did try to charge us 1 USD at the land border. But we did not have to pay the stamping fee.

On other websites it is also possible to apply for a pre-approved visa letter for either one or three months. Plus you can choose between single and multiple entries. If I am informed correctly for all of them you will have to pay a stamping fee at the airport (25 for single entry or 50 USD for multiple entries, cash only!) additional to the service fee you already payed online for the approval letter. Two passport photos seem to be required to take with you. This one seems to be a reliable website: https://vietnamvisacenter.org/.

You are able to renew your visa once you are in Vietnam for another 30 days but that would have cost us over 150 USD. Somehow if you entered in Hanoi and you would like to extend your visa in HCMC they either refuse to do so or have to send it back to Hanoi. So we decided to do a visa run to Cambodia and simply payed another E-visa for 30 days for 25 USD.

Visa run from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We took the overnight bus (Vica Thai, TNK travel) starting from 303 Pham Ngu Lao in Ho Chi Min City at 11:45 pm (280’000 VND). We gave the guy our passport and 35 USD for our visa to Cambodia. The bus arrived two hours later at the border Moc Bai and was waiting there until the border opened at 6 am. At noon we arrived in Phnom Penh.

During the day there are buses from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City leaving every hour. It takes 7 hours and costs 10 USD. I am pretty sure the other way around works the same.

Other bus options: http://backpackingvietnamtravelguide.com/how-to-travel-from-ho-chi-minh-city-to-cambodia-by-bus/.

I hope with this post I have been able to give you some valuable tips for Vietnam. If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m happy to read from you 🙂

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