Planning to Visit Vietnam for the First Time?
Tung and I have both been to Viet Nam 6 times – can you tell that we love it so? We’ve seen Viet Nam together for 3 of those 6 visits, and it seems like we grow more in love with it each time we go back. Even though we are very comfortable and familiar with getting around Viet Nam, especially in Saigon in the South, we ALWAYS get culture shock when we arrive! Now, I don’t mean culture shock in the bad way, I mean it in the “oh-my-gosh-we’re-in-Vietnam! -can-you-believe-it- its-so-busy-holy-crap-so-many-motorbikes wow-look-at-all-the-buildings- woah-theres-so-many-lights -wow-so-much-food-options-what-do-you-wanna-eat?- oh-my-god-look-we’re-in-Vietnam!” type of shock. Arriving in Viet Nam, yes, even on the 6th visit still gets our blood pumping, our eyes wide open, and our faces lit up. Its SUCH a fun place to be! Now I know there is a very widely known love/hate relationship phenomena when it comes to this country. No one will ever come back and say it was “meh”, they’ll either say it was the best country they’ve visited in South East Asia with so much culture, tradition, liveliness, development, delicious food and the warmest and friendliest people they’ve ever encountered, OR they’ll promise to never return because it was filthy, too busy, too fast-paced, too rapidly-expanding, and they just got scammed over and over and felt like locals saw them as a walking ATM.
We’ve never been scammed in Vietnam despite all other tourists’ experiences
Tung and I have never, ever experienced any sort of scamming at all in all of this country, and we’ve traveled around every part of it minus the areas between Thanh Hoa and Hue. And you can’t yell back for this and say “Well it’s because you’re both Vietnamese!!!!” While that statement is true, the locals always mistaken us for foreigners, ALWAYS. It is very obvious to Vietnamese like us who live abroad (second generation immigrants in developed nations, aka: viet kieu) who is a local Vietnamese and who is a Vietnamese living abroad. Strange enough however, the local Vietnamese can never tell that you’re a Vietnamese when you live internationally. Its hard to describe but viet kieu’s will know what I’m talking about – we have different skin, different body types, different face shapes, different stature. Even someone who was born in Viet Nam but moves abroad later in life looks different from the Vietnamese living in Viet Nam. Strange, but true! It must be something in our water… plus our processed food, lifestyles, environment… etcetcetc. It actually gets super annoying when I speak to locals in fluent and clear Vietnamese but they will respond with broken English because they think I’m Singaporean or Korean – like hello! I’m speaking Viet to you, I’m Viet!!! Anyways point being is, we never get scammed because you have to travel Asia different than how you’d travel Europe, and A LOT DIFFERENT from how you’d travel North America.
But did you know that traveling Viet Nam is also different from traveling Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia even though we’re Asian neighbors? Its an entirely different ball game! So now I will get to the main reason why you clicked on this post – 10 tips to help you survive your first trip to Viet Nam! These are pro tips that I’ve gathered through all my time traveling and visiting here and that I now incorporate as habit whenever I’m back in that amazing country. These will guarantee that your trip is a success!
Survive Vietnam with these 10 PRO tips!
1. Always have a pack of tissues on you
There are 3 types of washrooms in Viet Nam. First is the modern washroom where everything is clean and toilets are proper with toilet paper in each stall. The second is an older washroom that does not supply patrons with toilet paper. Sometimes they do have it but they won’t be on the ball to restock when it runs out. Third is the hole-in-the-ground ceramic toilets where you have to put your feet on the ceramic and pee in the hole. These places will definitely not have any toilet paper for you, and if they do then you have to pay for it. The solution? ALWAYS HAVE A PACK OF TISSUES ON YOU! You don’t have to buy this at home before you arrive, you will find foot vendors selling and street markets selling this everywhere. Its about 2,000 VND – 5,000 VND per packet (10 cents USD – 25 cents USD) You’ll thank me when you have to use the washroom and notice that there’s no TP around 🙂 I highly recommend you support the poor, homeless, and unfortunate that are selling tissues on the street. More on this later.
2. Always carry baby wipes (wet naps/facial cleansing cloths)
Most restaurants you go to will give you wet towelettes on a plate once you are seated. Rule #1: Just because it is on your table DOES NOT mean its free of charge! If you use these, you will be charged 5,000 VND – 20,000 VND per towel used once your bill comes out (25 cents USD – $1 USD). I see a lot of people writing reviews on restaurants and establishments and saying how they got scammed ???. This is a ridiculous statement. If these uneducated tourists had dined at ANY OTHER RESTAURANT they would have noticed that they are charged for wet towelettes there as well, if they had used any. That is just how it is in Viet Nam guys, sorry. A wet towelette is a commodity! Locals here just wash their hands in the sink when they are done eating. That is why you are charged when you use them. Again, you can buy these once you arrive at any market, foot vendor, or grocery store. It should cost around 10,000 VND – 30,000 VND per pack (50 cents USD – $1.50 USD). Dont go crazy, you don’t need the huge baby wipes box, just a pack of 10 or 20 cloths will do. If you run out you can easily buy more. Remember guys, nothing in Asia is free, even if its on your table. SEE THE NEXT POINT!
3. Don’t eat that saran-wrapped plate on your table
First off – you probably guessed it by now – you’ll be charged. If you go into the popular Pho chains “Pho Ong Hung” or “Pho 24”, they give you a plate full of herbs and veggies if you order a bowl of pho. Normally elsewhere in the world like North America and Oceania its free as it comes with your order. But in Viet Nam? If you crack that open and take even as little as a LEAF out of it, you will get charged for that plate. I’ve never opened one of them but I imagine it would be $1-$2 per plate. I’ve also seen this in Hu Tieu Nam Vang restaurants (egg and rice noodle bowls). Once you’re seated you’ll notice a small bowl of soup for each person. Drink that soup and you will pay! Its definitely not a scam by any means I should mention, they are always normally priced, its just an extra. One time we were seated and on the table was some Chinese Donuts (Youtiao, normally eaten with congee) saran-wrapped on a plate. Tung reached for it so fast and I yelled “WAIT!!!! YOU HAVE TO PAY!!!” He was instantaneously sad but I said oh no no if you want to eat it, then eat it! I just thought you were eating it cause you thought it was free. I think the plate of 2 Chinese Donuts came out to be 50 cents USD when the bill came? Point is, its not a scam if you decide to eat it. Just know that you’ll have to pay for it!
4. Only take Mai Linh and Vina Sun taxis
AND NO OTHER COMPANIES! Its so funny the growing amount of scam stories I hear about tourists who get into no-name or unknown taxi companies then watch the meter jump 3 times a second. Take a Mai Linh or VinaSun and never be scammed, ever. There is no shortage of these two cab companies throughout the country, so always wait around for one to pass by before you flag a cab down. These taxis always have their rate per km posted within the vehicle. Bonus? THERE IS IN-VEHICLE WIFI!!!!!!!!! LIKE, WHAAAAAAT??? *mind blown* Flag fall is 7,000 VND in a small car (35 cents USD) and 12,000 VND in a van (60 cents USD). Distance rates are typically 16,000 VND per kilometer (80 cents USD per kilometer), meaning rides within the main areas of Saigon will never cost you more than $3 USD. What a deal!
5. Exchange your foreign currency at jewelry shops!
This is definitely not something widely known or even advertised, its just something I picked up traveling with my mom in Viet Nam as a kid. All jewelry shops have a stash of cash and will happily exchange your foreign currency for you. Most even have live rates on a screen so obviously be sure to check those rates and go rate shopping before you choose which jewelry shop to exchange your money at. Why I recommend exchanging money at jewelry shops as opposed to legit Currency Exchange locations is that the rates are always better. You could consider it “black market”, but trust me its totally legitimate. These are proper jewelry and diamond shops with tons of money, they won’t scam you nor will they give you fake currency (because it doesn’t exist here, HA!) If you’re wondering where to find jewelry shops – they are hard to miss. They don’t have lock doors or glass walls like they do in North America, they are wide open and you can see all their silver and gold sparking in the glass displays.
6. My 2-step currency conversion to USD (no calculator required!)
I am like so proud of this little method I figured out, ask any of my friends that visited in Viet Nam and they’ll know this method I taught them LOL. This 2-step conversion method is straight to USD, so if you’re from another country you’ll take one step further to convert it to your local currency. But as avid travelers, we always travel with USD in mind. The US dollar is a great basis for price comparison whether you’re in one country or traveling multiple countries. I rarely think to myself “hmmm, how much is this in Canadian Dollars?” Countries around the world don’t base their standard of living in Canadian Dollars, they base it on US Dollars. However, if I must know how much its costing me in CAD, I’ll just divide the price by whatever the current USD/CAD rate is to get my exact number. OKAY HERE IS THE MAGIC:
1) drop last 4 digits (or move the decimal 4 places to the left if that resonates better with you)
2) take the remaining number and divide by 2
Super easy and I don’t know why this isn’t taught anywhere
For example 500,000 is $25 and 20,000 is $1:
1) $500,000 with last 4 digits dropped is $50
2) $50 divided by 2 is $25
1) $20,000 moving the decimal 4 places to the left leaves you with $2
2) $2 / 2 = $1
Soo easy that you can do it in your head while shopping. Why does this work? Because the Vietnam Dong is loosely pegged to the US Dollar at 22,500 VND for every $1 USD.
Math class is dismissed 🙂
7. Hotels in Vietnamese: Khach San or Nha Nghi
I’m adding this point mainly because we met an Aussie when we were in the north mountain region of Vietnam in 2016 who was riding all around the north on a bike by himself!! The issue is once you get to the more remote areas, its hard to find any English signage at all. And if you’re really up in the mountains, the mountain people speak their own native mountain dialect and don’t know a word of Vietnamese! He said he couldn’t find any sign of a hotel or place to stay for the night, so he had to ask a bunch of locals who then taught him the words “Khach San” which means hotel and “Nha Nghi” which means homestay. I also think this would be useful to those who are planning to venture off the beaten path where the hotels and homestays aren’t listed on Booking.com, Agoda, or TripAdvisor so instead of booking accommodations ahead of time, you’ll have to book it when you arrive. Remember these 2 words and you’ll have no problem finding shelter for the night!
8. Ditch the domestic flights, hop on a sleeper bus!
Tung and I do not fly domestically within Viet Nam at all unless we are traveling from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. The reason is because you can travel on coach buses with beds and wifi for soo cheap!
On our most recent trip 2 months ago, we went from Saigon to Da Lat which cost 210,000 VND per person ($10.50 USD) for an 8 hour bus ride.
We then went from Da Lat to Nha Trang for 125,000 VND per person ($6.25 USD) for a 4 hour bus ride.
Next was Nha Trang to Da Nang (there is no stop in Hoi An FYI) costing 225,000 VND per person ($11.25 USD) for a 12 hour overnight ride.
If we had flown to each of these places instead of taking the sleeper bus, it would have costed about $200 USD per person. The sleeper buses cost us $28.25! And we got to lay down comfortably, sleep, and be connected to wifi! I highly recommended these buses for your domestic travel. Our last week in the country we took the bus again from Saigon to Mui Ne costing 130,000 VND ($6.50 USD) for a 6 hour ride. Its so easy to get around in this country. For sleeper buses there is a monopoly here… so you’ll be looking for “Phuong Trang” or you can book online at www.futabus.vn/en-US.
9. Buy lottery tickets
Yes this is a weird one. While I don’t encourage gambling or waiting to hit the jackpot to do what you want to do in life, I strongly suggest you buy lottery tickets when in Viet Nam. People in need are usually the ones soliciting lottery tickets on the street. The government supports them and pays them for every ticket they sell.
You may find it confusing that you’re constantly being asked to buy colorful pieces of paper. These are lottery tickets and are typically solicited by the needy, unfortunate, poor, and disabled. They cost 10,000 (50 cents USD) and for every ticket sold, they get to keep 2,000 VND (10 cents USD). Grand prize is usually $90,000 USD but differs by province. Each province has a different ticket design and each province has winner every single day at 5pm. You may find it annoying but I for one am always buying lottery tickets. Its heartbreaking to see poor old grandparents walking around doing the best they can. As much as I am against the Fall of Saigon resulting in the Communists of North Vietnam introducing gambling throughout the country, I think this is much better than straight up begging for money – they are actually working and giving you something in exchange. I never give money to beggars in Viet Nam, you HAVE to be selling something for me to help you, be it tissues, pens, pencils…whatever. I just wanna see you’re making an effort. I usually support the grandparents, war veterans with lost limbs, the blind, and the disabled when it comes to lottery tickets. It would be great if you could help them too!
10. Support the Locals
Viet Nam’s economy is rapidly expanding, foreign investments are pouring in, and developments are on every block. Before the Vietnam War, South Viet Nam was today’s Singapore – the richest, wealthiest, and most modern ASEAN country. The war not only destroyed everything the Saigonese created, but it also halted any form of redemption or growth for 30 years. Fast forward to current day – things are getting back to how they were. This means grocery chains are setting up shop, malls are abundant, markets have moved indoors and are owned by wealthy companies. This hurts the local Viet people and it also takes away from the country’s culture. The more you support the big guys, the more locals there are that have to stop making their homemade yogurt, bread, soups, fresh produce and fruit baskets in order to work for the big guys. We definitely don’t want to see Viet Nam become another Singapore. With so much culture and tradition still rampant in everyday life, its best we preserve the most we can. My first visit was in 1997… gosh that was 20 years ago! Things are so much different today and there are so many locals that have been affected.
Rickshaws for one – which were the only method of transportation to get around 20 years ago (if you didn’t have a bike) – and the #1 thing you had to do when you landed are now not even allowed to operate in most cities. The rickshaw ride days are gone. Street vendors selling taffy peanut candy? No such thing. Taffy peanut candy is now prepackaged and wrapped and hard as a rock. They used to make the sugar coating fresh in front of your eyes and drop the peanuts in, and it was so fresh it was wrapped with newspaper to protect you from the oil and heat. Sugar cane vendors used to be every few feet apart, now you have to walk a few blocks until you find one hidden in some alley! So my advice is to buy whatever you need off the streets and in the older markets. Buy your 1L La Vie water bottles from the lady next door. Don’t let the big corporations take over!
This was a monster post full of useful and valuable information. I hope you’ve learned a lot from it and will use all my tips to make your Viet Nam trip an amazing success!
Have you visited Viet Nam and followed my 10 pro tips? How did it go?
Have you come back from Viet Nam recently and wished you had read this before you went?
Let me know in the comments!