1. LEARN SOME VIETNAMESE
For the most part, it’s fairly easy to travel Vietnam knowing only English. However, I do think it’s always good to know some Vietnamese, even if it’s as simple as “hello” and “thank you.”
Here are some phrases to help you out:
xin chao: hello
cam on: thank you
oi: used to get attention – combine with “em (younger), anh (older male), or chi (older female)” – “anh oi!”
troi oi: omg, Vietnam-style
dung lai o day: stop here
mot, hai, ba: 1, 2, 3
– o dau?: where is -?
I actually wound up taking Vietnamese lessons and loved it. If you’re living in Saigon, I can’t recommend Co Kim enough! Check her Facebook page for upcoming sessions.
2. LEARN A BIT OF VIETNAMESE HISTORY
Vietnam has a very long and complex history that explains a lot of what you’ll see today! Like why are there so many French colonial buildings? What actually happened during the Vietnamese War? Who exactly was Ho Chi Minh? What are ethnic minority tribes. Is there royalty in Vietnam?
It’s actually such an interesting history, and the more you see, the more you’ll be curious about! I’d start with a few Youtube videos to get an overview and then find some cool movies to watch and books to read!
3. KNOW WHERE YOU’RE FLYING IN
There are two main airports for international visitors: Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi and Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCMC. If you’re living in Asia, you could also probably fly into Da Nang International Airport as well.
Since Hanoi and HCMC are at opposite ends of Vietnam wherever you fly in pretty much just depends on your itinerary! When I came for 2 weeks, I flew in to HCMC from Seoul and then out of Hanoi back to Seoul. I don’t remember the prices being that different.
In case you were wondering:
Noi Bai – 40-50 minutes from Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Tan Son Nhat – 15-20 mins from D1 in HCMC, 40ish minutes from Thao Dien
Da Nang – 10 mins or less into town
4. MAKE SURE TO PICK UP A SIM CARD
The wifi and data in Vietnam are pretty good all things considered! I distinctly remember having a SIM card and watching the entirety of Brooklyn on my train ride from HCMC to Da Nang with no issues.
You can get them easily at any airport if you have an unlocked phone or dual SIM card holders, or you can order ahead of time here. Make sure you get a phone with calling capabilities because a lot of places will ask you to list your phone number and Grab drivers will always try to call.
Pro Tip: To top off on the go, use Ding.com! Works really well and is good about returning your money if it doesn’t work for whatever reason. You can also pay via Paypal.
5. UNDERSTAND VIETNAM’S VERY VAST GEOGRAPHY
Of all my initial Vietnam travel tips, the biggest one is this — realize just how long this country is. Like longer than you’d think when planning your trip. If you want to travel efficiently, you’re going to want to fly in between places or be prepared to be on a train or bus for hours. Even when distances seem fairly short, you have to factor in the roads and mountains, and often it’s much slower getting to and fro than you’d think (RIP my mental stability during the 8 hours to Mu Cang Chai).
I would very much plan out where you want to go and check the map AND check airplane or train routes before you book anything. One mistake my friend and I made was thinking we could fly from Quy Nhon to Hue before realizing there were no flights even to Da Nang! We wound up booking private transport and it took us all day to get there.
6. KNOW THE SEASONS OF VIETNAM (AND HOW THE REGIONS VARY!)
I know you think southeast Asia, must mean it’s hot, humid, and sunny for most of the year. WRONG. It definitely gets cold up north and in the Central Highlands during the winter and early spring. While it does stay quite humid and hot along the central coast and southern regions, you do want to be wary of monsoon season. It can start in April or May and last until October. I didn’t find it too terrible to plan around, and it made the weather so slightly cooler. Just be sure to buy some waterproof sandals (I liked having the Birkenstock Gizeh sandals).
7. TIPS FOR CLOTHING AND WHAT TO WEAR IN VIETNAM
Overall, Vietnam isn’t a super conservative. There are just some things to keep in mind. Like you want to cover up slightly more in Hanoi than in Saigon, and it’s always good to have shoulders and knees covered in at temples and when meeting minority tribes! Otherwise you want to dress to be as comfortable as possible in the tropical climate (unless you’re somewhere colder in the winter). I cannot emphasize how much nicer cotton and linen in lighter colors or black will feel! Avoid colors that show sweat because you will most likely sweat a lot. I pretty much lived in linen dresses!
8. EXCHANGE + MONEY MATTERS
Since I have Citibank, I mainly used the Citi ATMS around HCMC to take out cash. Here are the main locations:
In Vincom Center near the Zara entrance
The Citi building on Nguyen Hue
At the airport near the exit
At AIS Sports Centre in Thao Dien
Otherwise you can use just about any ATM to take out cash, though most have smaller limits and will charge a certain fee.
Note: Vietnam is NOT credit card friendly. While most luxury hotels and foreign food restaurants and cafes take card, you can almost guarantee that smaller restaurants, local guesthouses, and tours will not. I even know friends who have issues using Grab with their cards, and I personally used cash the whole time.
9. HOW MUCH A VIETNAM TRIP CAN COST…
It’s no secret that Vietnam is probably one of the cheapest countries to visit if you’re coming from a Western country. You could very easily travel for $25 or less a day if you were on a strict budget. That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that you are probably coming from an economically stronger country, and it’s honestly in poor taste to nitpick over a few 100,000 VND. Obviously, don’t let some restaurant take you for a fool and charge you 10x what they’d charge someone else, but don’t sit there and bargain over a few dong that you know you can afford and would probably pay way more for in your home country.
10. TIPPING IN VIETNAM
Tipping is Vietnam is weird! Overall, no you don’t tip nearly as much as you do in the US. I’d say the main places to tip are with salon services. Otherwise, I just rounded up when I pay for food and delivery.