Jagged green hills, limestone karsts, rolling hills, hidden beaches, and row upon row of rice paddies: Vietnam is just as good as it looks on the postcards. To make the most of this experience, I’m here to off a little know-how from my five years of living here.
Vietnam is a joy to travel around. Friendly locals and a good highway make it fairly easy, however, there are some hairy bends along the way. With 3,260 km of coastline, there’s lots to cover and almost guaranteed amazing views on the way.
Here’s some tips from my travels;
Travel on local transport
Travelling on local transport seems like a foregone conclusion when travelling around a country. However, many services offer ‘international’ standard services that are more expensive and specifically aimed at tourists that make it difficult to do as locals do.
The best and most reliable bus service is Futa bus, also known as Phuong Trang, which takes you all around the country for unbelievably reasonable prices. Bus journeys can be long, so bring anything that you may need to stay comfy, including earplugs and a travel pillow – you will be given a blanket for your journey. The buses stop food food on serval occasions.
When it comes to trains; you’ll rarely see a foreigner on one. Depending on where you are travelling to, you may find that the train stations are a little out of the way. Plan ahead by working out where the train stations are and how to get there. You may find yourself walking half-way up a train track to get on it. It’s all in the adventure!
Trains are easily bookable online, with the option of hard or soft seats and beds.
If you are travelling for a long period of time, take snacks, however, there is a food cart that will be pushed around at meal times.
Try All the Food
In Vietnam, you can forget your idea of what a restaurant should look like; eateries come in all shapes and sizes, especially in the mornings, when you will see plastic chairs and tables outside formal restaurants. Local restaurants operate on a ‘going, going, gone’-basis, so if it’s popular, you may want to find out exactly when they set up!
‘Street food’ is a way of life in Vietnam and if you want to get the good stuff, you not only have to be an early bird, but you have to be prepared to take a risk; it’s not always clean, however, there is a simple way of finding the good stuff.
You’ll often see crowds of people sitting around street corners or on roundabouts getting their fix from their favourite street food vendor. There are no dodgy dealings here, just really good food for the equivalent of 80p (in the UK). As many a seasoned traveller will tell you, if the place is packed with locals, pull up a chair.
Take Local Advice, Always
With Saigon and Hanoi now ranking as having the best English in Vietnam, many Vietnamese people take to the streets to find foreigners to practice their English.
You can expect to be stopped while walking around, accosted when having a drink in a street bar or approached while having some quiet time at the beach to be asked a few questions. During your free lesson, ask lots of questions; find out where the best places to eat are, ideal day trips and weekend getaways.
You never know what might happen, you could end up at a wedding or if you’re staying long-term, taking English classes for a company, this is how we make connections!
Break Your Big Notes in Chain-Stores
Shop vendors don’t expect you to have the correct change but if you are whipping out 200,000VND for something that is 10,000VND, then you’re going to annoy people.
In Vietnam, the smaller the shop; the smaller the change you must have.
If you’ve got 500,000VND, a chain supermarket such as Family Mart or Circle K will give you small change without the evil eye.
Depending on where you are, this can be a big deal, so be prepared with your smaller notes.
Quick Tip: Don’t be alarmed when someone walks away with your money without giving you change, they’re going to find someone with the smaller notes they don’t have – promise.
Take Shit From a Taxi Driver, Especially Outside Airports
Sorry for the language. Taxi drivers can be ruthless.
You’ve just arrived. You’re looking for a taxi outside the airport and you’re greeted by people shouting at you from all directions with what appears to be aggressive demands for dollars and ‘where you go?’. It’s not the best experience when you’re jet-lagged and don’t speak the language.
With the number of tourists coming to Vietnam, airport taxi’s rely on naive travellers who don’t know that the journey is actually half the price.
However, the development of apps such as Grab and GoViet have created fierce competition and have been ousted from airports in the big cities. However, by finding your way out of the airport ground, you can still order a taxi!
Alternatively, with the exact address, ignore anyone that tries to ‘help’ you and go straight to the nearest official looking taxi rank, these guys are normal taxi drivers; ask for a meter before you get in and make sure it works.
Important things to remember:
All taxi drivers should have their registration card clearly displayed on the dashboard, get out the car if they don’t.
Mai Linh or Vinasun tend to be the more reliable, avoid any variations of these names
There is an extra 10,000 VND charge to get out of the airport sometimes you have to pay this to them before you leave. Otherwise, you can expect this to be added to your bill when you get out.
If you’re travelling to the domestic to Saigon, go through the car park to the outside of the airport, you can get a motorbike into the city for half the price.
Say No to an Invitation
Socialising on the streets is part of everyday life in Vietnam, and when it comes to big events, it’s an all-out feast with every member of the family you can possibly imagine.
With this, Vietnamese people love to invite people to the party, especially if you are a foreigner. They want to invite you into their family and way of celebrating. If you are single, you can also expect prospective wives or husbands too.
The most important thing in all of this is if someone invites you to something and there is no reason for you to refuse; you cannot.
For example, it’s traditional for Vietnamese people to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death.
One day, I notice big preparations for lunch in the house I am living in: enough food for 30 people, crates of beer and Aunt’s and Uncle’s arriving, and the family I live with are rushing around frantically – they’re preparing to celebrate their Mother’s life. As I make my way through the house to go to my room I’m stopped and invited to sit down by the ‘father of the house’ – I cannot say no!
Instead, I sit with the family and celebrate their Mother with them, and end up drunk by 3pm. It’s part of the life. Although, most younger people will tell you it’s best to say you don’t drink.
Don’t Wave Your Expensive Possessions Around
As with any city, crime is to be expected, so you have to keep your wits about you.
No matter the time of day, if anything containing or worth money looks easy to grab, someone might just do it.
Secret wallets hidden under your t-shirt are an excessive western idea of safety when visiting a developing country; it’s unnecessary. There are, however, some tried and tested ways to avoid losing your things when out and about:
- Keep your possessions in a zipped bag, close to you.
- Try not to purchase flimsy strapped bags, there are people out there with scissors and they are not afraid to chop your straps.
- Separate your money by having big notes and small notes in separate compartments.
- Try not to flash your cash.
- If you can, don’t take your phone out when in markets or in the backpacker areas. If you do need to check it, hold it with both hands.
Do you have any advice for travellers visiting Vietnam?