Vietnam is stunning, so much so I couldn’t come up with a description without sounding cliché.
Rice paddies blanket rolling mountains, white sand beaches stretch for miles and goliath limestone cliffs jut out of the sea. Traditional Vietnamese life entwines with the modern while the food options are vast and underrated. These words don’t even make it sound real. Actually, I feel like I’m speaking from a guidebook.
The good news: it really is like that. The bad news: it’s not perfect.
This is not the place to completely let your hair down. Sadly, almost everyone I know who has visited has a story about either being ripped-off, having something stolen or being flat-out scammed. Still, I would never advise someone not to go. Most times, travelers are ripped-off or scammed when they have let their guard down or are uneducated about how things are supposed to be. Taking extra precautions, and having the following in mind can ensure that you have a trouble-free time.
Other people also have high expectations upon visiting Vietnam. In terms of scenery and cuisine, you should have high expectations– they will most likely be met. In terms of the people, there are a few things I’d advise. To me, Vietnam was more similar to East Asia than Southeast Asia. The people won’t go out of their way to make you welcome. Most Vietnamese people will just go about their day and pay you little attention. This can be a good thing. The lack of interest in foreign travelers is what makes Vietnam feel so authentic while visiting. If you have these expectations, you will probably end up being pleasantly surprised. Also, if you happen to find that someone is paying you extra attention, take it as hint, that person probably wants something from you.
Remember, I loved Vietnam. This still happened even though I was extra cautious in my day-to-day travels, got ripped-off on a bus ticket and didn’t find the people especially friendly. It’s beautiful, delicious, exciting and interesting.
Now go visit, but keep these in mind.
Be educated: Though it seems obvious, once on the road, crossing borders becomes a very casual thing. Time goes by quick and it’s easy to cross a land border in SE Asia without doing much research. Before you enter Vietnam it’s very important to know exchange rates and a rough estimate of how much things should cost. Double check how much money you’ve had exchanged and don’t just pay for things without already knowing about how much it should be. Plain and simple: don’t trust anyone when it comes to money.
Keep your possessions locked up while out: Of course things should be locked up in hostels, but in private rooms this can be easily forgotten. In Vietnam, make it a habit to lock up your valuables regardless of where you are staying. This way you never have to worry if the housekeeping or staff comes in and goes through your things.
Be in control of your possessions in the street: There are so many stories of people getting their purses or bags taken from people on zippy motorbikes. Make it a habit to keep a hand on your purse and carry it on the inside of the street to make it almost impossible for someone riding by to grab it. Try not to have your phone out in the midst of busy traffic and keep camera straps around your wrist while taking pictures. If your possessions look difficult to grab, it is likely the thief will just pass you by. If you make it easy for them, you could be a target.
1. Shop around: The amount of tours and trips available in Vietnam, or even just within the Old Quarter of Hanoi, can be overwhelming. The price ranges can also be drastic. Furthermore the saying, “you get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply. Don’t take the first tour offered to you and walk around just to ask questions first in order to educate yourself. This also includes the hotel tour desk. Though some hotels will kick up a fit if you don’t book with them, it doesn’t mean you have to. Often times these tours are overpriced. If you don’t want to cause trouble, don’t even ask your hotel front desk. Or you can always go with the excuse, “Our friends at another guesthouse already booked something for us” like we did.
2. Ask a lot of questions: If you show the tour operator that you truly care about the quality of what you want to purchase, it is more likely they will do what they are promising. When you are shown pictures of a Ha Long Bay cruise or a sleeper bus, inquire how you can know for sure the quality will be consistent. Going over details of meals, what’s included and transportation is also important. Be firm in what you expect for the price you are paying.
3. Check the reviews online: The most reliable way to see what you tour will actually entail, is to read about people’s previous experiences. If the reviews are more negative than positive, you know to start back at #1. If you can’t find any reviews, like what happened to me with a Sinh Cafe location, then you are taking a gamble. If you still want to go ahead with that tour, make sure you do #2 and follow with #4.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can pay for half now, half at the end of the tour: When we were booking our tour, the tour guide came to realize our insecurities about booking with her. She let us pay for half of the Ha Long Bay tour then and half with the tour guide after the cruise. This was great and made us feel more confident, along with gaining us more attention on the boat.
Book train tickets directly from the train station: If you know exactly where you want to go and it is not more beneficial to book as part of a tour, just book directly at the station. This way you know exactly what you are getting and don’t need to go through a tour operator. For tons of useful information on trains in Vietnam, check out this page from Seat61.
Research “Open Bus” companies, then haggle hard: One of the most popular ways to travel the country is to buy one bus ticket which is good for traveling the entire length of Vietnam. Either from top to bottom, or bottom to top, you can get off and get on where you choose and as many times as you want. Since Vietnam is so long, this usually requires a few overnight journeys. All you have to do is reserve your ticket 24 hours in advance with the Open Tour company you originally booked with.
There are many companies that run these buses. We didn’t know this at the time, and ended up with one of the worst. On a few occasions I thought our bus was going to fly off the road while trying to get us to make the 7am arrival time. Research reviews online, and then make sure you end up purchasing a ticket for that company. Don’t be afraid to haggle hard as you can get these tickets for as little as $30 for 1, 070 miles of travel. Many travelers get sold overpriced tickets, like myself, because $50-60 actually seems like a decent price for the distance you are traveling.
Know around how much that taxi trip should cost: Before you get in a taxi (an actual taxi, avoid the motos!) make sure you know an estimate of how much the meter should be. Ask your hotel, or better yet, ask them to call the taxi for you. There are a few fake taxis in Hanoi and if you didn’t know or aren’t paying attention to the meter you could be left with a hefty price for your 10 minute journey.
Extra tip! Vietnamese Dong cannot be converted outside of Vietnam! It is a closed currency, and for this reason, make sure you either spend all you have or exchange it before exiting the country. If you don’t, just hope you have a friend heading to Vietnam soon and will take it off your hands!
Now that you are completely terrified of being in Vietnam and considering cancelling altogether– take a deep breath. It seems like a lot to be afraid of, but these will just ensure you enjoy the country to the fullest. In my opinion, traveling the entire length of Vietnam will remain as one of my most memorable trips. I’m sure yours will be too!
Have you been to Vietnam? Do you have any extra tips for others?