“But how in the world are we supposed to get across the street?” I say as I gawk at the thousands of motorbikes whizzing past us at speeds I didn’t even think were legal.
“You just walk. Here, just hold my hand and we will walk across,” Sam says confidently, trying to get me to walk through the street without any break in motorbikes in sight.
“There’s no way that’s normal though. Just walking through motorbikes without even looking and expecting them to go around me?”
Alas, this is the truth. No matter how much it goes against the very first basic rule your parents taught you as a child, you have to walk across the street without looking, don’t hesitate and hope for the best that the Vietnamese drivers won’t hit.
This is a common theme for most aspects of life while traveling through Vietnam. Just walk blind and hope for the best. But luckily for you, I have come up with a list of things that are important to remember before visiting Vietnam. Things like visas, transport, hotels, food, and more. Things that seem like the basics, but I’ve watched so many people mess up. And after a month traveling up the coast of Vietnam, I’ve seen a lot of mess ups, which may or may not have included myself.
1.) Prepare For Your Visa Before Arrival – Depending on what country you’re from, you need to apply for the visa on arrival prior to arriving in the country. This is just a formality online that basically tells the Vietnamese government that you are arriving on a specific day. From there, you’ll be able to print out your visa application and fill out before arriving. These are very important documents to have printed out because many countries will ask to see them before you even leave on your flight to make sure. I’ve seen 3 German girls in tears at the Check In Desk because they had not known this. Also, be sure to check how much the visa costs for you to enter Vietnam (it varies for every country), and bring US cash with you pay. In our case, it was $45 USD each for the visa. If you have all of your paperwork, 2 passport photos and the money ready, it will be a breeze.
2.) Use Vinasun Taxis – If you have the budget to use taxis, go with Vinasun. They are the least likely to rip you off and have taxis across all of the cities. Don’t get on the back of a motortaxi, if not for anything but safety reasons. We’ve heard of so many people getting robbed and hurt on the back of the “easy riders.” Do yourself a favor and spring for the Vinsaun Taxi.
3.) Book Your Train Tickets At The Train Station – It’s a bit of a scam how when you search online for train tickets the “Vietnam Railway” page shows up with all of the times and connections of each train. It seems too good to be true. Vietnam Railway is actually an agency that charges a lot more if you book online. Even booking through a travel agency or your hotel will be cheaper, but the cheapest option is to go to the train station yourself and book a seat there. We usually opted for the soft seats, even on longer journeys, but no matter what “class” you’re in, just prepare yourself to be uncomfortable.
4.) Don’t take the first price offered – Unless it’s food or drinks, almost everything can be negotiated, and they’re just waiting for a sucker like you to bite at the first price offered. Even things like massages, day tours and postcards can be bargained. We once were told a knock off purse would cost 1.2 million VND, and we ended up buying it for 200,000 VND. Just keep haggling or walk away, and they will eventually lower their price. Also keep in mind that while the Vietnamese culture is used to haggling prices, don’t haggle for the sake of it and not have any intention to buy the item. This is their livelihood.
5.) Just Keep Walking – While it may be counterintuitive to walk head on into miles and miles long of traffic, in order to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time, you have to put your head down and walk across the street with reckless abandon. It’s a scary feeling looking left and seeing hundreds of helmets just bobbing along. You inevitably will feel like you’re playing a game of Frogger, but in this case you’re the frog. If you hesitate, it’s the end of the game. So just keep walking, and they’ll (hopefully) swerve around you.
6.) Say Hello & Thank You – Learning the basics of any country’s language is an easy way to get on the locals’ good side, but it’s something that many people forget to do. In Vietnam, if you smile, say hello and thank you, majority of the locals will be very impressed and very appreciative. Hello is Vietnamese is Xin Chao (Zin Chow), and Thank You is Ca Man (Ga-Man).
7.) Exchange Money At The Banks – This is may be a universal rule, but for the most part in Vietnam, you’ll get the best rates at the banks. Be sure to exchange a decent amount of money to get the best rate, as well. Also, many places accept US Cash. So if you’re of the lucky few who have US cash in your bank account, then bring a handful of that as well. Although I’m American, I have ZERO money in my US bank accounts, so that was a buzz kill.
8.) Count Your Change – I can’t tell how many times we almost got ripped off after eating dinner or buying snacks at a convenient store. Be sure to take note of how much your meals, drinks, etc cost before getting the bill. Often times, they will overcharge you hoping you won’t notice. Also, count your change to make sure you weren’t short-changed either. I know this sounds super mistrusting, but had we not done this we would have lost a lot of money to some very smart Vietnamese shop owners.
But most of all, HAVE FUN! There are a million and one ways things can (and probably will) go wrong, so just embrace the chaos, stay aware of your belongings and surroundings and try to make as many friends with travelers and locals that you can. It’s a beautiful and diverse country with a rather sad history, but it’s pretty incredible to see how Vietnam is rebuilding and advancing so much.
What are your top tips for traveling through Vietnam?