I’m now nearly at the end of my 3 week adventure through Vietnam, and to put it simply, we’ve had the most incredible time! We started in Hanoi where we spent some time getting our bearings and adjusting to the time difference, before travelling to Halong Bay for a 2 day, 1 night cruise. After that we jumped on a 6 hour sleeper coach to Sapa (Northern Vietnam), where we spent 2 days trekking through the spectacular Sapa valley. Following that we headed further south to Hue and motorbiked cross country to Hoi An. After that followed a press stay at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Nha Trang, before ending in my current location of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Phew!
It has been a whirlwind to say the least, and we have already ticked off so many breathtaking and unforgettable experiences. But as with any new country, it took us a while to adjust to the culture and way of life here. I was fortunate enough to come away with some great advice from friends and fellow travel bloggers, but there are certainly plenty of other things I wish I knew before I came out here.
So if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, here are 12 essential things you need to know before visiting. Arrive armed with these tips and you’ll be the savviest traveller touching down at the airport…
1. Apply for your visa (if you’re staying longer than 15 days)
The Vietnamese don’t make it too easy for you to enter their country. In fact, if you’re exceeding 15 days here, the process is down right tedious, but it’s necessary nonetheless. Make sure you start this process a couple of weeks before you travel at the latest. Here’s what to do:
1. Apply for a letter of admission from the Vietnamese Embassy. There are various companies that you can apply through. I used vietnamvisa.govt.vn and they sent me a letter within 2-3 days of application. This costs $17 USD
2. Once received, print the letter
3. Print the visa application form online and fill it out
4. Prepare recent x2 passport photos
5. Exchange some USD before you fly as this is the currency you have to pay for your visa with at the airport (a 30 day single entry visa costs $25)
Make sure all of the above is in your hand luggage on arrival at the airport as the visa process comes before baggage collection.
2. Be prepared for Airport visa queues
And after all that, the process continues at the airport. The visa application queues in Vietnam are notoriously bad, and if you arrive at the back of the pack you could be waiting up to 3 hours on arrival in the airport. Imagine that after a long haul flight?
TRAVELISTA TIP: Ensure your seats are at the front of the plane and when you step off the plane, do not stop for the toilet. Power walk (or run!) straight to the visa application desk and try to be the first there. After a long flight, the last thing you want to do is wait around any longer.
3. Check your travel vaccinations
If possible, book an appointment with your GP 6-8 weeks before you travel to find out which travel vaccinations you are due. There are a few new vaccinations on the market now which your GP may offer you, such as Japanese Encephilitus, but it doesn’t come cheap. Decide for yourself what you feel comfortable with but I would advise ensuring you’re covered for the basics at the very least.
4. Dollars vs Dong
You will need both US Dollars and Vietnamese Dong for travelling around Vietnam. US dollars are most commonly used for anything touristy e.g. booking a tour, booking domestic transport or paying for a hotel. Vietnamese Dong is most commonly used for more local enterprises e.g. restaurants, bars, shops and market stalls. You can withdraw Dong from an ATM on arrival but make sure you’re armed with USD to pay for that visa. If you have a choice between paying in Dong or Dollars, Dong usually works out cheaper.
5. Travel Agents are your friends
Don’t worry about booking every aspect of your trip before you arrive. Every town worth visiting e.g. Hanoi, Sapa, Hoi An has a travel agency around every corner. Using these travel offices is an extremely convenient way to plan additional elements of your trip, whether it’s and internal sleeper bus, day tour or 3 night package.
6. Book accommodation for your first night
Arriving in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City can pose somewhat of a culture shock, especially if you haven’t travelled much in Asia before. The streets are hectic, the scooters are crazy and there isn’t a great deal of tourist information to guide you through. This considered, I would strongly recommend booking your first couple of nights. This way you know your final destination and can just jump in a cab as soon as you complete visa-gate.
If you’re flying in to Hanoi, I can highly recommend Nexy Hostel. It’s a boutique ‘luxury’ hostel in the heart of the Old Quarter with quirky decor, great Wi-Fi, comfy beds, free breakfast and incredibly helpful staff. It’s a little safe haven away from the busy streets. Scott and I stayed here for 3 nights at the start of our trip. Dorms cost $10 per night, private rooms cost $35 per night. It’s a great first hostel to ease you into your trip.
7. Get ready to haggle
Haggling / bartering is very much a part of Vietnamese culture, especially when tourists are involved. You can try out your negotiation skills in markets, independent shops and even beauty and massage salons. You can either ask for a “better price” or tell them what you’re willing to pay. If they let you walk out of their shop without discounting the price further, you know you’ve gone too low. In restaurants and bars, prices area fixed, unless it’s happy hour!
8. Taxi Knowhow
There are official taxi companies in all major cities, all of which are dirt cheap and use a fair meter system. However, you’ll notice that many taxi drivers park up around tourist points of interest and try to give you a ride. Do not get in these taxis. We did this in Hanoi and the driver had rigged the meter to go up so ridiculously fast. If we hadn’t have taken a few rides prior to this we wouldn’t have noticed, but as soon as we noticed we jumped out straight away. It was only a minor scam but it’s not worth the risk. As a rule of thumb, always try to flag down an official city taxi. You won’t have to wait too long.
9. The Sleeper Buses are awesome
If you’re planning to travel from city to city and are on a budget, the sleeper buses are your answer. Before arriving in Vietnam I had never seen anything like it. The individual seats are more like beds, allowing you the extend your legs fully and recline til you’re lying down. We travelled from Hanoi to Sapa, Hoi An to Nha Trang and Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City by these buses and paid about $12 each per journey. Most sleeper buses are very clean and have a toilet on board. It’s not going to be the best night’s sleep you’ll ever have, but it saves you spending money on a hotel for the night and ensures you don’t loose days in transit. You can book the buses from any booking office / travel agent you stumble across, and only need to allow 1 day’s notice. If budget isn’t an issue or you’re very tight for time, flying is the best option.
10. What to wear
The general dress code is pretty laid back in Vietnam. Shorts / skirts and light weight T-shirts and vest tops will be your daily staples. The only time you need to think more carefully about what you’re wearing is if you visit any temples or mosques. Girls, pack a pashmina so you can wrap it around your shoulders, and guys and girls should both bring a pair of light weight long trousers. These also come in handy on buses and planes where the air conditioning gets icy cold.
11. Wi-Fi is everywhere
If you want to stay connected on your travels, have no fear! In my experience here, the Wi-Fi is fantastic here and all cafés, restaurants, hostels and hotels have it for free. Even the most budget hostels will have it in the rooms.
12. Hostels vs Hotels
Ok so I know I’m a luxury travel blogger, but this has been a personal trip where I have wanted to push myself beyond my comfort zones. So far we’ve stayed in a mix of accommodation types from the luxurious Six Senses Ninh Vanh Bay to the most basic of hostels. Don’t be put off by the term ‘hostel’. All the ones we have stayed in have been clean, friendly, extremely well located and incredibly cheap. Many of them offer private rooms with air con, which we have opted for each time. They also offer shared dorms for an even cheaper rate.
Vietnam Packing list
Rucksack / day bag
Light weight trousers
Mosquito repellent (50% deet and above)
Dry bag (for water sports activities)
Mini first aid kit
Comfortable sandals / trainers
A Vietnam travel guide
This is an honest post packed with facts to make your travel experience easier. Whilst I’ve been pretty direct about some aspects of travelling in Vietnam, don’t be put off. Vietnam is a fascinating, diverse and surprisingly easy country to travel through. From beaches and waterfalls to mountains and jungle, Vietnam has it all. If you choose to discover it, you’ll be rewarded endlessly.
What did you think of these 12 Things you need to know before visiting Vietnam? If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please do leave me a comment and let me know! Also, if you have travelled to Vietnam and have some additional tips, I’d love you to share them in a comment! Jess x