How to Plan a Trip to Vietnam

This Southeast Asian country squirming like a dragon against the China Sea waves is arguably the most diverse South-East Asian destination. Vietnam has it all – ancient and recent history, spectacular landscapes, remains of old kingdoms buried in the jungle,  paradisiacal islands with tropical beaches, and colonial cities with a wide range of street food, bustling markets, and incense-filled temples. You can enjoy orange-tinted sunsets in the Mekong Delta, let yourself be carried by the wandering water puppets, revisit Vietnam’s history through museums and monuments, and explore the hilly landscapes. 

Although there are a plethora of reasons to visit Vietnam, only a few of them will be sufficient to take you there.  

Diverse landscapes 

Vietnam’s narrow, elongated form offers a compendium of geography – mountains, rice fields, metropolis, dense jungles and mangroves, waterfalls, great rivers, portentous deltas,  archipelagos with beautiful islets, and long sandy beaches. From Halong Bay to the Mekong  Delta, from the majestic mountains of Sapa to the paradisiacal beach of Phu Quoc, each landscape is unique and retains its identity with an undeniable charm. 

Cultural heritage 

Its 90 million inhabitants belong to 53 different ethnic groups, which faithfully preserve traditional customs and rites that always interest an inquisitive traveller.  Places like Hue, My Son, and the Old City of Hoi An are examples of the rich  Vietnamese heritage. Wherever you go, you’ll get to hear interesting stories from the  Vietnamese. 

Immersion in local life 

You will get ample opportunities in Vietnam to get off the beaten path and explore. You can stop by the local agencies to have unforgettable excursions or even venture yourself through the villages. The hospitality of the locals will soak you into the Vietnamese environment. 

Motorcycle adventures

If you want to relive a part of your adolescence and re-drive a scooter or a motorcycle,  Vietnam is perfect for you. Either along the central coast or through the mountains of the north, it’s a great adventure to discover Vietnam on two wheels. 

Authentic Vietnamese food 

Vietnamese food is healthy and succulent. It has a wide variety of dishes, with flavours of fresh herbs, spices, and fish oil usually accompanied by lime juice, grated carrots, garlic, and chilli. Usually, meat is much more expensive than fish, which explains a large number of traditional Vietnamese fish dishes. White rice and soup, the famous Pho (a type of hot broth) are served with all meals. Each region of Vietnam has its own culinary speciality.  

Endless smiles 

The Vietnamese have a contagious joy. The smile is part of the Vietnamese culture and it’s their way of relating to others. This sums up their natural elegance, surpasses the boundaries of words, and builds a connection stronger than words. 

Select your destinations 

What to see in Vietnam? What are the best places to visit in this country?

North or South Vietnam 

Both North and South Vietnam have their own specialities. Travellers who have sufficient time in their hands don’t usually leave the country without exploring both northern and southern regions. But if you are just passing through Vietnam, you can focus on one region according to your preferences. 

If you choose northern Vietnam, begin your journey from Hanoi where you get to see the  French colonial architecture and war museums of Hanoi. Learn about the history and culture of the various ethnic groups in the country at the Museum of Ethnology in Vietnam and get a local perspective on the Vietnam War at the B52 Victoria Museum. Tour the  Temple of Literature of 10th century dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Join local residents and practice tai chi near Hoan Kiem Lake. Trek through the hills and valleys of Sapa in the northwest and spend time with the locals. Go on a traditional cruise and enjoy the spectacular Halong Bay, with its iconic limestone peaks and emerald green waters. It is a perfect place to relax and feel the best of nature. 

South Vietnam has Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial and economic centre. Skyscrapers tower over ancient temples and historic colonial buildings. Try street-foods from the roadside stalls alongside elegant bars and upscale boutiques. Travel approximately 40  kilometres out of the city to walk through the narrow Cu Chi Tunnels, a huge underground complex used by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Visit Mekong Delta and enjoy a  traditional sampan cruise, taste fresh tropical fruits collected directly from the local 

gardens, and discover the intense morning activity in its floating markets along the tributaries of the Mekong River. 

If you extra time, you can club a few destinations in Central Vietnam like Hue, Hoi An, or  DaNang to your North or South Vietnam itinerary. Hoi An is an old fishing village and important commercial port that has remained intact for the last 400 years. Strolling through the streets of Hoi An is a journey back in time with French, Chinese, and Japanese influences. Hue is a quiet city located on the banks of the Perfume River that overflows history in all corners. 

Have a look at our detailed itinerary suggestion for your Vietnam trip. 

Although it is difficult to confine all the attractions of Vietnam in an exhaustive list, these  are some places that you should not miss on your trip to Vietnam: 

Hanoi 

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” seems to be something that the people of Hanoi express clearly through their culture, museums, monuments, prisons, and pagodas.  No one who steps in Hanoi leaves without knowing something about the Vietnamese War.  However, the capital has adapted to the flow of travellers and offers much to do and see apart from the museums and monuments. Old Quarter is the most popular part of the city among travellers that has the essence of Vietnam concentrated in a maze of narrow streets full of shops, hostels, hotels, restaurants, local food stalls and street vendors. 

Halong Bay 

According to local legend, when the Vietnamese fought against the Chinese who tried to invade them, the gods sent a family of dragons to help defend the land from the invaders.  This family of dragons began to spit out jewels and jade which later became the islands and islets of Halong Bay. Halong Bay may not be the actual jewel but it’s undoubtedly nature’s jewel in a metaphorical sense. Hundreds of karst hills emerge from the sea to form one of the world’s greatest geological and scenic astonishments. Taking a cruise is the best way to explore Halong Bay that allows you to enjoy panoramic views, take a good swim, enter beautiful caves inside some of these islets or sail in a sea kayak. 

Sapa 

Sapa is a village located between the green mountains and rice terraces, surrounded by towns of diverse ethnic groups like Black Hmong and Red Dao. A lot of people travel to this hill station with the plan to trek through the valley and spend a night with a Hmong family,  but it is not always possible in many months due to the thick fog that covers the village like a blanket and reducing the visibility to less than two meters. Make sure you take a look at the weather forecast before setting off to Sapa. 

Hué

Located right in the middle of Vietnam and bisected by the Perfume River, Hue was the cultural, political and religious capital of unified Vietnam of the early nineteenth century.  The architecture of the ancient capital reflects the traditional Vietnamese soul. Despite being suffered during the war, it preserves the essence of an ancient oriental city. 

Da Lat 

Da Lat and its surroundings are quite different from the rest of the country. This mountain spa is a breath of fresh air when the coastal plains of the centre register high temperatures in summer. It was an ideal retreat in colonial times and today, with crystalline lakes,  waterfalls, forests and flower gardens, it is a destination dreamed by Vietnamese honeymooners and international travellers alike. 

Hoi An 

In a country crushed by constant wars in the past, it was difficult to keep a city to its perfect old shape. Fortunately, Vietnam and the world are left with Hoi An, a wonderful World  Heritage Site where the traditional houses of the Chinese, Japanese and even European merchants survived the shelling. Unlike the hyper-populated Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City,  Hoi An is a small town that runs along the end of the river Thu Bon where the locals light candles on canoes that float every night. Red paper lanterns illuminate the streets as soon as the sun goes down. 

Mekong Delta 

Mekong River travels 4000 kilometres from the Himalayas to its mouth in the South China  Sea. At the end, it forms a delta of nine branches, which gives its name “The Dragon with nine tails”. Mekong Delta has a lush vegetation of palm, coconut and a lot of fruit trees and is home to floating villages and markets. From the islands of My Tho to the floating market of Cai Be, you can follow the life of the river and its locals on a boat, although it is true that it has become so touristy that it has lost much of its true essence. 

Best time to visit Vietnam 

Most parts of Vietnam have a warm and humid climate throughout the year. The climate of  Vietnam varies significantly between the north, centre and south. If you are looking for pleasant and cool weather, the months from November to February will be the best time to travel to Vietnam. 

In general, there are two major seasons in Vietnam – dry and rainy. The dry season lasts from November to April and has lower temperatures, especially in North Vietnam. On the other hand, May to October is the rainy season and has a hot and humid weather, and with frequent showers.

November to February – Cool, dry weather 

The north is characterised by having the lowest temperatures in Vietnam while the central and southern regions have comfortable, pleasant temperatures. During this period, the minimum temperature usually drops to 10 degrees, except for the Sapa region where it can drop to the freezing point. You can also be a part of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations in January or February. As this is the high season, expect high tourist influx and increased prices. 

March to April – Warm, dry weather 

March and April still have comfortable temperatures and low rainfall. During this time, you can see lush greenery returning to Vietnamese landscape. Prices also tend to come down from the high season. 

May-October – Hot, wet weather 

From May to October, the temperature continues to increase, with intermittent afternoon rains. Although the hot and humid weather can be unbearable during these months, this is the best time to visit for travellers looking for cheap prices. 

Find out more about the climate and the best time to visit Vietnam. 

Getting to Vietnam 

Vietnam’s days of turmoil when it was cut-off from the rest of the world are long gone.  Today you can fly directly into Vietnam from more than 25 countries and cross land borders from all its three neighbours – Cambodia, China and Laos. Most travellers arrive in  Vietnam by plane or by bus, although there are train connections from China and regular boats from Cambodia via the Mekong River. 

By flight 

Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and DaNang are the major cities that service regular international flights. Vietnam Airlines is the flagship airline of Vietnam with several flights to international destinations, mostly in East Asia. In addition, there are several budget carriers like AirAsia, Jetstar, and Tiger Airways which fly from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and  Singapore. 

By land and water 

Vietnam has land borders with Cambodia, China, and Laos. 

Cambodia

The main land crossing on the Cambodia-Vietnam border is the Moc Bai/Bavet on the Phnom  Penh-Ho Chi Minh City route. There are regular buses from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh  City. The journey takes around 6 hours and costs €12-€15. 

You can also arrive in Vietnam from Cambodia on a boat through the Mekong River. The journey through the majestic Mekong River is scenic but takes as much as 6 hours just to get from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese town of Chau Doc. 

China 

There are three border controls allowing foreigners to pass between Vietnam and China – Lao Cai, Huu Nghi Quan (Passage of Friendship), and Mong Cai. 

China is connected to Vietnam also by an international railway line between Hanoi and  Nanning (which continues to Beijing). 

Laos 

There are seven border crossings between Vietnam and Laos. The Lao Bao-Dansavanh pass is the most popular crossing taken by travellers to enter Vietnam from Laos by road. 

Moving around Vietnam 

By train 

Most people prefer buses over trains to travel in Vietnam as are they are more frequent,  flexible and cheaper than the trains. The railway network, operated by Vietnam Railways is a rather dated but reliable service. It allows you to move around the country in a relaxed way – not recommended for lovers of haste and punctuality.  

Even so, the train is the best option to visit the Sapa region. In fact, the Hanoi – Lao Cai route is undoubtedly the most demanded by travellers to Vietnam. 

There are two types of seats in Vietnamese trains – soft sleeper and hard sleeper. Although hard-sleepers cost almost half of soft-sleeper seats, they are uncomfortable and are not recommended, especially for long journeys. 

By bus 

Buses in Vietnam reach practically every corner of the country. There are two types of buses operating in Vietnam – public buses and tourist buses. Usually, tourist buses are cheaper, comfortable and more practical than public buses. They also pick you from your hotel and offer more transparency in fares.

Sleeping bus: They are large buses with reclined seats where the legs go horizontal. Overall,  they are very comfortable and are a great option to travel long distances during the night. 

Open-bus ticket: “Open bus tickets” are quite popular among the travellers on the Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City route or vice versa. You buy the tourist bus tickets in advance for a  particular route between the two main cities, with the number of stops you want. The price varies according to the number of stops.  

When buying, you need to define the route in advance and mention which cities you want to stop. It’s an open ticket because you’ve the flexibility to choose your route and dates. In each city, you have to reconfirm the date of your next destination to the agency you are told. 

By Taxi 

Taxis in Vietnam are very cheap and they work with a meter. Try to make sure that the taxis belong to registered companies. 

In Vietnam, you can also use Cyclos, three-wheeled modified bicycles that work just like a taxi with space for two or three passengers. You can also use Xe om, which are motorcycles that operate in the same way as taxis but without a taximeter, of course. Don’t forget to agree to a price with the driver before the trip. 

By car 

It is mandatory to have a Vietnamese driver’s license to drive a car in Vietnam. So if you want to travel by car, you can only do so by renting a vehicle with a local driver. 

By motorcycle 

A good alternative to driving a car is to rent a motorcycle, for which no permit is required.  The motorcycle is the most common way to get around Vietnam. Renting a motorcycle in  Vietnam is both easy and cheap. 

By bicycle 

Although cycling can be an excellent way to explore some places in Vietnam, it is better to avoid main roads due to the dangers of heavy traffic. It is easy and affordable to rent bicycles (usually in the same place where they rent motorcycles). Due to Vietnam’s hot and humid climate, it is recommended to hire electric bicycles. 

By flight 

Flights are the fastest and most comfortable options to travel from the north of Vietnam to the centre and the south of the country. Major Vietnamese cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh 

City and Da Nang are well connected by regular domestic flights. If booked at the right time, the airfares are generally affordable. 

Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar are the main airlines, while Air Mekong and Vasco offer complementary services. 

By boat 

Whether it’s a Halong Bay cruise, a boat on the Perfume River, a fishing boat down the Hoi  An River, a small boat along the Mekong Delta or a ferry from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau,  even in the presence of faster alternatives, taking a leisurely boat ride is an indispensable part of your journey to Vietnam. 

Documents 

Before leaving 

To visit Vietnam, most nationals must have a passport with a validity of at least six months from the date of expiration of the visa. You can apply for a visa at the embassy or consulate of Vietnam of your country by filling out an application form, accompanied by two photos of the passport, and the original passport. Visa approval usually takes less than five working days and the cost depends on each country. Visas to Vietnam are NOT available at any land border crossing so any visitor wishing to enter Vietnam by land must apply in advance in their country of origin if they have bilateral agreements with Vietnam. For travellers arriving in Vietnam by plane, obtaining visas is available at Noi Bai Airport in  Hanoi and Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. 

No vaccine is required to go to Vietnam. However, it is highly recommended to get vaccinated for hepatitis A, typhoid fever and Japanese encephalitis. 

If you plan to drive or rent a car, go to any provincial traffic headquarters to apply for an international driving permit. 

After arrival 

Another option is to apply for the visa is upon arrival, directly at the airport. Visa on arrival is not applicable for all nationalities, so check the entry requirements before leaving. To apply, you have to make an online request beforehand and be in possession of an invitation letter from a travel agency at the time of entering the country. 

If you are already in Vietnam and want to stay longer, you just have to go to any travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, or introduce yourself directly to the immigration office. Extending the visa costs around €20 and takes three to five days. 

Pack the essentials

What to pack for a trip to Vietnam depends on the places you want to visit and what you intend to do there. 

First of all, what clothes should you take with you on a trip to Vietnam? It must be known that the same day can be scorching heat in the south, the Mekong Delta, and very cold or even snow in the northern mountains. If you plan to tour the whole country, you will need light clothes for the south and something warm for the north. You will also need a swimsuit to take a dip in the mythical Halong Bay. For access to temples and places of worship, it is  mandatory to wear clothing that covers the arms and legs. A good mountain boots will be  indispensable for the heap of excursions that await you. 

Prepare a small medicine kit with the basic medicines to treat and alleviate the most common discomforts. Also throw something for typical tourist diarrhoea, sunscreen and mosquito repellent. 

Do not let time wear the unforgettable memory of those incredible landscapes; take a  camera with enough memory cards and an electric adapter, if necessary. You will also need a credit or debit card to get cash, a photocopy of the passport, just in case you lose the original, and an international driving license if you plan to rent a vehicle there. 

Learn basic Vietnamese words 

Vietnamese is a complex language and pronunciation varies from one region to another – from north to south of Vietnam. Interestingly, it is one of the few languages in Southeast  Asia that uses the Latin alphabet. Pronunciation and accentuation are a real headache for any Westerner who dares to learn the language. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic and tonal language. That means that if the tone changes, the sense changes as well. There are fifty-three ethnic minorities in Vietnam, each with its own dialect.  

Focus on the most basic vocabulary and try to memorise it. Talking with children is a good exercise in learning the most basic grammar and simple words. 

Here are some basic Vietnamese words, their meanings, and pronunciation:

English  Vietnamese  Pronunciation
Hello  Xin chào  sin chow
Hi  Chào  chow
Hello(on the phone)  A-lô  AH-loh
How are you?  Khỏe không?  kweh kohng?)
Fine, thank you  Khoẻ, cảm ơn  kweh, gauhm uhhn
Please  Làm ơn  lam uhhn
Thank you  Cảm ơn  gauhm uhhn
You’re welcome  Không sao đâu  kohng sao dwoh

 

Yes(affirmative)  Vâng  vuhng
No  Không  kaumng
I’m sorry  Xin lỗi  sin loy
Goodbye  Tạm biệt  tam byet
I can’t speak Vietnamese  [well] Tôi không biết nói tiếng Việt  [giỏi lắm]. thoy kohng byet noy tyeng  vyet [zoy luhm])
Do you speak English?  Biết nói tiếng Anh không?  byet noy tyeng ang  

kaumng

I don’t understand.  Tôi không hiểu  toy kohng hugh

 

Cost 

The official currency of Vietnam is the Dong (VND). Cash can be exchanged upon arrival at the airport, at banks, agencies and jewellery stores in Vietnam. 

Upon arrival at any of Vietnam’s international airports, you will find ATMs where you can use your credit card. ATMs will issue the money in Vietnamese Dongs. It is also advisable to change or withdraw money from ATMs along the journey in small parts to avoid losing all your money in an accident and also to keep a check on your daily spending. There are ATMs in every city in Vietnam. 

In Vietnam, dollars can also be used, especially in the most touristy establishments and hotels, but it is much easier and more practical to use Vietnamese Dongs, especially if it is lurking, for taxis, sheriffs, cafes and small expenses. 

You can also use dollars instead of Dongs in certain areas, especially in the touristy establishments like hotels, but it is much easier and more practical to use Vietnamese  Dongs, especially if it is for small payments for taxis, shopping, and cafes. 

In high-end establishments of Hanoi, DaNang, and Ho Chi Minh City, you can pay by credit card with a surcharge between 3% and 5%. 

Although prices in Vietnam are much lower than the western standards, they are higher than the prices in neighbouring countries like Thailand, Laos or Cambodia.  

Markets in Vietnam offer a wide range of products at great prices. As in whole South Asia,  haggling is an indispensable part of shopping in Vietnam, too.  

There was no tipping culture in Vietnam before the vast influx of tourists began. Even today, tipping is mostly prevalent in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Tipping is appreciated but no one would frown if you don’t. If you are tipping, the approximate amount could be 5 to 10 percent.  

Know about safety and health measures

In general, Vietnam is a safe country that does not present any particular security problem.  As everywhere, there are dishonest people but with minimal prudence, your trip to  Vietnam will most likely be a positive one. 

Potential hazards 

One of the most common crimes in Vietnam is pickpocketing. It is especially possible in transportation during your travels or while walking through certain neighbourhoods of Ho  Chi Minh City. 

The massive arrival of tourists has led to the emergence of petty crimes. Cases of violent crimes are totally exceptional. You have little to fear in that regard. 

However, watch out for the scam attempts you’ll encounter frequently. A shopkeeper may try to charge you more, a taxi driver may take the longer route, and a local travel agency may not provide a tour as agreed upon. 

Although Vietnam is quite safe, you may find yourself in complicated situations if you put a foot in the drug market. You risk facing real criminals, far more dangerous than the petty thieves of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Since 1975, thousands of Vietnamese have died or been harmed by the detonation of bombs, mortars, mines and other unexploded artillery. It is advised to follow the marked paths and never touch anything suspicious related to war. 

How to avoid problems 

A minimum carefulness is sufficient to ensure an uncomplicated journey. In the means of transport, watch your luggage and be careful to put a lock. 

On the street, do not go dressed like the typical tourist. While walking through unsafe neighbourhoods don’t carry the camera hanging around your neck and don’t make ostentatious signs of wealth. In short, do nothing that can make you the ideal target. 

In the exceptional case of an attack, don’t try to play a hero. Stay calm and cooperate without hesitation. Always be alert and do not keep all your money in the same bag. Keep a  certain amount of money in your wallet for easy access. 

To avoid paying more than the bill, try to find out in advance the prices and always negotiate. Do the same with taxis. Ask the driver to start the meter or agree on the rate before getting into the car. 

Health safety

Hospitals in Vietnam 

In Vietnam, as in most Asian countries, there are two main types of hospitals: 

Public hospitals 

Although treatments in public hospitals in Vietnam are usually much cheaper, these hospitals pose several problems. Public hospitals in Vietnam generally have very poor facilities, hygienic conditions, and equipment, far from any Western standard. In addition,  another major problem is that most doctors and nurses are unable to speak even basic  English. 

International Hospitals 

Most, but not all, international hospitals in Vietnam meet international quality standards by offering a service comparable to what you would find in the West. In these hospitals,  doctors and nurses speak English either because they are foreigners or because they have studied outside Vietnam. 

The other advantage of international hospitals is that you will not have to fight or queue long enough to be treated. 

Considering that the majority of expatriates living in Vietnam (their main customers) who usually have medical insurance with wide coverage, these hospitals usually inflate bills that can sometimes be disproportionate. 

Some useful health safety measures while travelling in Vietnam: 

  • Drink bottled water when you are unsure about the quality of water. Avoid shady and deserted restaurants and food stalls. Watch out for the places where locals buy their food and drinks. 
  • Include some insect repellent in the luggage and try not to keep your arms and legs exposed at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.  

Emergency numbers in Vietnam 

Police: 113 

Firefighters: 114 

Ambulances: 115

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How to Plan a Trip to Vietnam

This Southeast Asian country squirming like a dragon against the China Sea waves is arguably the most diverse South-East Asian destination. Vietnam has it all