So you’re thinking of going to Vietnam? Looking to learn about an interesting culture, see beautiful scenery, eat incredible food and get a dose of history? Vietnam is an amazing, beautiful, and surprisingly diverse country. So why does Vietnam attract roughly half the number of tourists that Thailand does? In our opinion, there are a few factors that make it a more difficult country to travel in, including: English is not as widely spoken, road rules are literally non-existent, and overcharging tourists is pervasive. Based on our recent experience, we compiled some Vietnam travel tips to make it a bit easier for first time visitors to one of our favourite countries in Southeast Asia.
We visited Vietnam for the first time in the spring of 2017. Before we arrived, we were a bit nervous about backpacking around Vietnam. Stories of scams and tourist rip-offs are common. But with your wits about you, there are so many things to love.
More people should be making the effort to visit this incredible country! We’re going to assume that “tips” like visit Hanoi or cruise Ha Long Bay are obvious and don’t need to be repeated. Here are our Vietnam travel tips. Hopefully they will make your trip a bit smoother and even save you a little money.
Travel Tip #1: Learn Some Basic Vietnamese Phrases
In our experience, English was not as well spoken in Vietnam as it was in either Thailand or Cambodia. While we didn’t have much trouble communicating while we traveled the country, we found that it was really helpful picking up a few basic Vietnamese words. The locals really seemed to appreciate our efforts. Aside from learning the usual four words – hello, goodbye, excuse me, and thank you – we recommend picking up a few basic food terms (especially if you have any dietary restrictions) and shopping phrases. While being able to ask “How much does that cost?” is helpful, you’re still pooched if they answer in Vietnamese. By far the most helpful phrase we learned loosely translates to “OMG, too expensive!”. You’ll be amazed how often that phrase comes in handy.
Vietnamese is a really complicated language given it is tonal (six different tones). For this reason, we found the best way to learn some basic words was to listen to tutorials on Youtube. There are many free tutorials available on Youtube but we really like Lan with Tieng Viet Oi because she speaks slowly and explains the tones well so we could work on our pronunciation. Lan also gives tips on how to bargain (including the helpful OMG phrase!) and provides some good restaurant recommendations in Hanoi.
Travel Tip #2: Practice Crossing The Road
Ignore this tip at your peril! We assume that you know how to cross a road in whatever city you live in. But trust us when we tell you that crossing a road in Vietnam is a different experience. There are millions of motorbikes in the country (cars are not widely owned) and a complete lack of road rules (as far as we can tell). There were many times in Hanoi and Saigon that we felt like we were in a live version of the Frogger video game crossing a street. Thankfully there was no “splat” in our version!
This Youtube video gives you a very realistic view of the experience.
Travel Tip #3: Do your homework to avoid scams
We admit that we were a bit nervous about backpacking around Vietnam because of the numerous stories of scams and tourist rip-offs. In our experience, the accounts are pretty accurate – Vietnam was much more rife with scams and blatant overcharging of tourists than the other countries we visited in Southeast Asia. There are several things a first time visitor to Vietnam can do to avoid scams and excessive overcharging.
First, you need to be careful in Vietnam with which taxi companies you take. One of the most common rip-offs in Vietnam is overcharging taxis. Many drivers will refuse to turn on the meter or have altered their meter to overcharge tourists. Another common scam is taxi cabs that will take you to a different hotel than you asked for to collect a commission. We recommend you always have a good handle of where your hotel is located (specific address) and what it looks like if possible. It is common in Vietnam to see several hotels with similar names (e.g. Lucky Hotel, Lucky Hotel II, Hotel Lucky).
Some taxi companies that are well-known to be professional and to use an accurate meter are Mai Linh (throughout country), Vinasun (Saigon) and Hanoi Taxi (in Hanoi). If possible, have someone at your hotel call the taxi for you and explain where you are going. If you plan on returning to your hotel by taxi, take a business card of your hotel with the address in Vietnamese. Once in the taxi, you can write down the cab ID # to have in the event you are ripped off by the driver.
Dodgy Tour Companies
Second, if you plan on using a tour company in Vietnam, choose wisely. Similar to taxis, there are many dodgy tour companies that have been known to scam unsuspecting tourists. Don’t book any tours until you have done your research – read online reviews, read travel blog accounts, or ask friends that have traveled to Vietnam for their recommendations.
Know the Currency Conversion
Finally, we advise that you understand the local currency well and know the conversion rate with your local currency. Look closely at your bills before you hand them over to pay for anything and always count the change you are given before you leave a store. Short changing tourists is very common!
Travel Tip #4: See Ha Long Bay from Cat Ba island
One of the highlights of Vietnam is taking a 2 day/1 night cruise of Halong Bay from Hanoi. However, we found staying on Cat Ba, the biggest island in the region, was a much better option and gave us easy access to Lan Ha Bay. Lan Ha Bay, next to Halong Bay, is just as beautiful and much less touristy. The day cruise we chose to take from Cat Ba took us through both bays, with amazing scenery the entire way. And because we left from Cat Ba early in the morning, our boat was able to go to less trafficked areas of the bays.
Spending a couple of days on Cat Ba had several benefits. First, it allowed us to look at the weather forecast and book a cruise for the best day. Weather can really make a difference in your overall cruise experience – plus your pictures of the karst limestone cliffs will be so much better on a sunny, clear day. Second, we actually had time to explore on land as well. We toured the beautiful island by scooter, finding hiking trails in the National Park, historical sights, and hidden water views. Third, there are many affordable hotels and hostels on Cat Ba, and numerous good restaurants. It was a great place to spend a few relaxing days.
The winner of the debate for Halong Bay vs. Cat Ba is slowly tipping towards Cat Ba. Halong Bay is getting more and more crowded with tour groups and questionable cruise companies.
Travel Tip #5: Do a Street Food Tour in Hanoi
Hanoi’s food is really incredible. On our trip, we had some amazing pho, were blown away by Vietnam’s take on seafood spring rolls (!), and fell in love with a good banh mi sandwich. And don’t even get us started on egg coffee, a distinctly Hanoian drink. Basically, it’s a heavenly mix of thick eggnog and espresso.
Anyone visiting Hanoi who isn’t one of those “I only eat salad because my body is a temple” type of people should get themselves on a food walking tour to discover some of the food secrets of this city. It’s the best way to explore the food and try some food stalls and restaurants you might not have the guts to go into otherwise.
We did a private tour with Ngat from Food Tours Hanoi. Since Christine doesn’t eat pork or red meat, Ngat customized our tour to be entirely seafood and poultry dishes. We tried dishes we’d never had before, and ate in restaurants surrounded by locals rather than other tourists. We highly recommend Ngat.
Travel Tip #6: Meet Local University Students
We’ve saved our best tip for last. Throughout Vietnam, student groups offer free walking tours. And this isn’t like the European “Free Walking Tour” movement, where guides are paid through tips. These tours are actually free, often with the student guide not even being allowed to accept tips. As the client, you are responsible for paying for any transport required to get around during your tour (including your guide), any food if you request a meal stop, and any entrance fees to museums. To us, that seems more than reasonable. The students participate in order to promote tourism to their country and to practice their English, so expect a lot of conversation!
While the guides are not professional tour guides, without exception we found them to be extremely knowledgeable about the local history. Their English was also excellent, so that was never an issue. The tours we did were private, allowing us to request specific parts of the city to be covered. We also used our time with the guides to learn more about their country and culture, to practice our Vietnamese, and to get some helpful tips on restaurants to try and places to visit.
If possible, you should book a tour online a couple of weeks before you will be in the city. We didn’t do this and were still lucky enough to get some guides, but they do appreciate the notice. Here are the links to the student organizations we booked with:
That’s it, our top tips for first time visitors to Vietnam! We loved our time there, and can’t wait to go back. Please check out our other posts on Vietnam here. For trip reports, tips, and suggestions on many of the 60+ countries we have visited, check out our full blog at grabbinglifebytheballs.com.