This very quick guide is a condensed introduction to Vietnam. We have listed basic information and quick tips to help you understand the costs and practicalities of travelling the country.
The Visa for Vietnam is perhaps one of the most confusing at first. There is no tourist Visa on arrival and the costs of the Visa can vary depending on where you obtain it from. Obtaining it from within a Vietnamese consulate in neighboring countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos) is probably the cheapest way. The most common visa travellers use is the 30 day single entry visa. When applying for this visa its important to know the precise dates you will plan to enter and leave Vietnam. The form requires you to set an entry date, the 30 days will start from that date and your visa will expire after that 30 days regardless of when you entered. You may enter after that date but not before. This leaves very little flexibility so we decided to get our Vietnam Visa while we were in Sihanoukville, Cambodia little less than a week before we planned to enter (you can read our article about getting our Visas here) it cost $60 each and all we needed were passports and a passport sized photo. 30 day extensions can be arranged from Saigon, Hanoi and Danang for a fee starting at $30.
The currency of Vietnam is the Dong (the childish jokes never get old). The Dong is an example of a currency in which everybody can be a millionaire as 1 million VDN converts to only $50 USD. This makes it a little tricky at first, you find yourself counting the zeros on bank notes quite often. Luckily the notes all look very different (There are no coins). When talking to foreigners many locals will quote in Dollars, this does not necessarily mean they will accept US dollars although many will. At the moment $1 is around 20,000 Dong and £1 GBP is around 30,000 Dong.
There are many atms around although these can be frustrating. They pretty much all have a service fee (1-3 Dollars) and a maximum withdrawl amount that is often as little as 2 Million VDN ($100). Credit cards are accepted in some hotels and bigger stores although less common in resturaunts and smaller shops, do not be surprised if they add a 3% charge for using a credit card and assume places will only accept cash y default to avoid needless hassle.
The language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, although many Vietnamese know how to speak at least basic English. The language barrier should not be a problem with hotels, resturaunts or places that are used to dealing with foreigners but maybe a little bit more difficult with 1 one one interactions such as taxi drivers. Most locals appreciate and will warmly receive any genuine attempts at Vietnamese although I personally find pronunciations very tricky which can lead to confusion or laughter.
Some Basic Vietnamese Words
Hello – Xin chào
Goodbye – Tạm biệt
Thank You – Cám ơn
Please – Làm ơn.
Lots More Here
The cost of travelling in Vietnam is pretty cheap although can vary very different from traveller to traveller depending on experience. Many Vietnamese have no problem trying to extort as much money out of tourists as possible so its not uncommon to be quoted a heavily (sometimes 500%) price for simple items like water or food. This can take a little getting used to but after just a couple of days you will get a feeling of what things are supposed to cost. Don’t kid yourself that you will always be able to get the “local price”, in smaller places you may have little choice other than pay a little extra or go without. You can sometimes afford to be stubborn but sometimes its really not worth it to save a dollar.
Food – Good food starts in the $1 USD region but most meals in restaurants will cost you around $3-$5. There are many street food sellers usually specialising in Baguettes which can be hit and miss, they cost around $1-$2 and are usually great but some of the sellers do not believe in waste and will carry on using bread that has been left out all day until it is hard as a rock. The simple greatest thing about Vietnam is that the cheapest food is also the best. I have had some of the best dishes I have ever tasted in Vietnam while going for the cheapo option. A lot of the cafes and resturaunts have a huge amount of choice so even if you are like me and cannot eat seafood and/or you are not a huge fan of soup (or Pho, very popluar here) you still are still spoiled for choice. Tipping is not expected but even small tips are appreciated.
Drinks – Beer and soft drinks are around the same price. In a store you will pay between 50cents and 75 cents for most beers or small cans of pop. Water is around 50 cents for a big bottle and little over half for a smaller bottle. In bars beer can go from 25 cents (local, freshly brewed beer) to 50 cents (Small patio chairs roadside) up to $1 (Bar or resturaunt) and anything above $2 is usually a much nicer place or a straight up rip off. Cocktails and wine is usually around $3-$5 and sometimes very strong.
Hotels – Hotel prices vary greatly and sometimes have little corrolation to the quality of accomodation. Private rooms can start around the $6 mark but maybe significantly more in high season or around big holidays like Tet (Chinese New Year). Dorm beds can cost under $5. There is not really any reason to pay over $20 if you are on a budget even during the busy times. $30 can get you a very nice hotel but we often find ourselves in the $10-$15 range depending on location, quality and overall value.
Be careful when dealing with hotels, some of the staff can be shameless in the art of extortion. A common trick is to quote a rate on check-in only to present you with a much higher number when you check out. If you book online and pay in advance be careful to get everything right because if you wish to make any adjustments they have you by the balls. In one of our experiences I accidently booked a double room for single occupancy, we noticed on check in and the price for the same room for 2 people was only $1 more. The staff insisted we paid $6 more without giving any good reason. As we had already paid there really was not much we could do.
5 good practices to protect yourself from scammy hotels - Click to Expand
5 good practices to protect yourself from scammy hotels - Click to Expand
Transport – Vietnam is big and you have all the usual options for getting around. For those on tight deadlines and bigger budgets flying might be the best option as a lot of time can be spent on 10 hour bus rides from one place to the next. The bus i s usually the cheapest option and there are many hop on-hop off services. We wanted more flexibility so booked each journey induvidually. This undoubtedly has cost us a little more but meant we could take a bus when we wanted to take a bus or a train when we felt like it.
My rough estimate for bus travel is Vietnam is around $2 for every hour of travel and $2.5-5 depending on comfort level for the same on the train. The bus prices can vary greatly depending on which agent you ask so it is worth shopping around. The train prices stay the same but are usually the more expensive option and always worth booking a day or 2 in advance.
The Man in Seat 61 has a great guide to getting around Vietnam (admittedly focusing more on train travel).
Depending on where you enter Vietnam you will probbably start off in either Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south or Hanoi in the North and work your way towards the other.
Ho Chi Minh City – The old capital of the south and largest city in Vietnam, referred to locally as its former name Saigon.
Hanoi – Second largest city and the countries capital. Located in the north it is a popular spot with travellers to start of end their journey.
Hoi An – Small riverside city in the central area. Famous for its clothing makers and small town charm. A very relaxing place to hang for a few days while somebody makes you a cheap suit. (Read our post on buying a suit in Hoi An)
Ha Long Bay – Famous for its gorgeous scenery and often included in lists of the natural wonders of the world. Very pretty bay in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Nha Trang – Beachside hang popular with tourists and expats. Lots of bars but still a good size city with a good mix of locals and foreigners.
Hue – The Imperial city, a riverside setting with the old walled city and the nearby tombs of the kings attracting lots of visitors.
Sapa – Popular trip from Hanoi on the Chinese border nested away in the peaceful mountains.
Good To Know When Travelling Vietnam
Data and calls within Vietnam are very cheap and coverage is good in most of the country. After reading online I decided to buy a Viettel sim card (Cost $3) and paid $2 for unlimited high speed internet for the month. Although the deal said 500mb at 3G and the rest slower it never slowed down or expired in the full 30 days. I met many friends who were happy with other networks so the overall system in Vietnam seems to be well run, competetive and cheap. You may want to get a local to help you with the set up as I still get daily texts in Vietnamese which I have no clue how to read.
Like most in the west I grew up knowing about Vietnam in only one context, the war. What surprised me was how little I actually knew about the war and that I had never even really known anything about Vietnams wider history. Not to worry, they love to show it off. Most of the museums in Vietnam are cheap and insightful, many of the cities have wonderful old buildings open to explore. Shops selling the old propaganda posters are common in every city and there is no end to the books you can buy here detailing the war and wider Vietnamese history.
Travelling During Tet
Carefully decide if it is the right choice for you to travel during Tet (Chinese New Year). On one hand, there are lots of shows, parades fireworks and events and it is the most important event on the Vietnamese calendar.It is a great cultural insight. On the other hand its expensive, hotel prices shoot up and transport is either full booked or significantly more expensive than usual. Many places are closed and many locals leave the city to go back to visit family.It can be a wonderful experience but it is a double edged sword.