Vietnam travel tips: The little things I wish I knew in advance

Streets of Saigon, Vietnam

Streets of Saigon, Vietnam

As I travel home from a two-week jaunt around Vietnam, I've been thinking about all of the little things I wish I would have known ahead of time. Live and learn! I've compiled a list of some of those things here and, although they are reflective of my visit to Vietnam, I would think that a large majority are applicable to travel in most of Southeast Asia.


The Vietnamese are very kind.

They'll help you if they can, especially with directions. You just have to ask. I should have asked for help more often instead of insisting on being independent (and skeptical).

The Vietnamese language is a definite barrier.

Learning even basic phrases is difficult.

  • Vietnamese that speak English are largely limited to those in the tourism industry and even then the language grasp is minimal.
  • Plan on doing a combination of pointing and charades in many cases.
  • Numbers are a universal language. Open up the calculator app on your phone and punch them in when you are trying to verify or negotiate a price.

American standards of cleanliness do not apply.

Hair in your food? Stains on your sheets? Bugs in your room? Half-used bottle of shampoo and broken bar of soap in the bathroom? Gross, but it's just part of the experience.

Eco-friendliness is not top-of-mind. 

Pollution is dense. Most Vietnamese wear surgical-mask-like accessories over their noses and mouths for protection.

Asians spit in public. A lot.

Like the gross hawk-a-loogie kind of spit. 

Safety isn't just an afterthought; it's not a thought at all.

It is acceptable to ride 3-5 people (including toddlers) on a scooter or motorcycle while wearing shorts, flip flops, and no helmets. It is also acceptable to carry such items as large cabinets, fish tanks full of fish, and panes of glass on the back of your motorcycle or scooter.

The Vietnam War: it happened.

A United States Air Force plane on display in Saigon, Vietnam

A United States Air Force plane on display in Saigon, Vietnam

As individuals, no one seemed to judge us for being from the United States (always referred to as "America"). As a society, however, the decades-old hostilities are barely forgiven and certainly not forgotten. Captured U.S. military equipment is on display throughout the country and there is an entire museum dedicated to showcasing "American war crimes." 

Amenities and Conveniences

Bathrooms are a mixed bag.

Most establishments that cater to tourists have Western-style toilets but anywhere "authentic" has squatting toilets (aka a stinky hole in the ground).

  • Always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer on your person (I knew this one already but it's worth mentioning).
  • A lot of times accessing the restroom requires you to walk through someone's kitchen or living area as many businesses double as the owners' home.
  • Tubs/showers are virtually non-existent. A shower head will stick out of a random wall and the entire bathroom will become the shower once the water is turned on. Hide the toilet paper!
  • Most places have hot water, but not all. For those that don't, I recommend the get-wet, turn-off-water, lather-up, turn-on-water, rinse-quickly method.
  • Some of our hotels offered shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and towels, but not all. Bring your own unless you plan to stay at high-end hotels.

WiFi is relatively ubiquitous.

 You can connect at hotels/hostels, restaurants, and coffee shops but don't expect reliable internet at airports.

Keep your cell phone in airplane mode.

I know this one from hiking; I don't know why it took me a couple of days to apply the same logic to my trip abroad. 

  • Leaving cellular data on unnecessarily drains your battery. To conserve even more battery, turn WiFi off unless you're actively using it.
  • If you need to make an actual phone call, I recommend using the Google Hangouts app over WiFi. I used it very reliably to make a 40-minute phone call to Delta, and it was free!
  • In addition to WiFi, Bluetooth also works in airplane mode, which I didn't know. Great for syncing your fitness tracker, a small speaker, or wireless headphones.

Electrical outlets are fairly scarce. 

On top of that, in my experience only about 50% of the outlets in any given room even worked!

  • A lot of rooms have a "master power switch" — make sure this is on before telling staff that there is no electricity in your room. (And, if you're planning to charge electronics overnight, remember not to turn the master power switch off when you turn off the lights to go to bed).
  • For the most part all of the outlets worked with a European-to-American adapter.
  • Consider investing in a converter that contains multiple outlets or USB ports. When you charge multiple items from a single outlet, they charge slower than normal, but it's not really an issue if you charge your electronics overnight.

Be prepared for the power in an entire city to go out unexpectedly.

It happened to us on this trip in Sapa (northwestern Vietnam) and has also happened to me previously in Varanasi, India and Panajachel, Guatemala. 

  • Bring an alternate light source in case of a power outage — flashlight, headlamp, or even the flashlight app on your phone (just realize you won't be able to charge your phone if it dies). 
  • When the power is out (or has recently been out), eat vegetarian meals to avoid getting sick contaminated meat. 

Travel, Transport, and Wayfinding

Negotiate taxi prices before you start moving.

You'll get swindled if you don't. Alternatively, use a reliable taxi company and have your driver run the meter.

Don't depend exclusively on the maps from the Lonely Planet guidebook.

  • Lonely Planet tends to divide the city in districts/neighborhoods and it can be difficult to get the appropriate context when you're between maps. It's also tricky to flip back and forth between maps since they are in different areas of the guidebook, especially if you're using the digital version to save space and weight like I did. (I find bookmarking within the Kindle app to be unreliable).
  • The top of a Lonely Planet map doesn't always point north. Double check the legend to get the right bearings.
  • Ask the front desk of your hotel/hostel for a city map. They are generally much easier to use and can be combined with Lonely Planet maps to gain additional context for things like restaurants, bars, and hotels/hostels. An alternative would be to download a digital city map before leaving. 
  • If you get turned around, use the compass on your phone to help you understand what direction you're facing and what general direction you'll need to head next.

Don't trust the cyclo drivers.

I'm convinced that every single one is a scam artist. 

  • Don't be fooled if a cyclo driver offers you what seems like a great price or shows you a book full of positive reviews. In the end they will threaten and harass you for more money. AVOID, AVOID, AVOID. 
  • If you do get caught in this type of situation, don't engage. Keep your money close to your body, pay only what you believe you agreed to, and walk away. They'll be belligerent and may even threaten to get the police. It's all for show. Keep walking.

There are no rules to the road.

It's chaos all the time — a never-ending sea of buses, cars, bicycles, street carts, and motorbikes. SO MANY MOTORBIKES.

  • Traffic lights are merely suggestions whether to stop or go.
  • People both drive and park on the sidewalks.
  • Prepare to be an aggressive driver if you rent a motorbike.
  • Traffic isn't going to stop for you to cross the street. You just have to go for it and trust traffic will swerve around you. If you're feeling anxious, find a local crossing the street and follow directly behind him or her.

Honking your horn in Vietnam translates to "I'm going to pass you." 

Note: people are passing each other all the time.

  • It's loud, especially if you're on an overnight bus ride. I recommend ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones.
  • If you're brave enough to rent a motorbike, try to get to the right of the road if you hear honking behind you. You probably don't want to get hit by a bus.

Open-tour buses aren't so bad.

Open tour bus from Hue to Nha Trang, Vietnam

Open tour bus from Hue to Nha Trang, Vietnam

They are the least expensive way to do long-haul travel throughout the country, with fares generally ranging from $5 to $15 (approximately 100.000VND to 300.000VND), but there are a number of things I wish I knew before my trip.

  • Bus rides are long. Traffic and poor roads turn trips that would be 6 hours in the United States to 10-12 hours in Vietnam.
  • It's a little more expensive, but book your travel through your hotel/hostel or a local travel agency (they are EVERYWHERE). They speak English, cater to tourists, and usually pick you up. Trying to get to the public bus station and purchase a ticket isn't worth the hassle in my opinion.
  • Generally you can purchase tickets the same day as your departure.
  • Backpacks go under the bus. If you want something for the ride (book, iPad, etc.) hold it in your hands, in a purse, or in a very small backpack (there is little to no storage space in the passenger area of the bus).
  • It's not uncommon for buses to arrive a few hours late.
  • Don't expect to be dropped off at the bus station. Of the half-dozen or so bus rides we took, only one dropped us off at the bus station. The rest just dropped us off on the side of the road somewhere in the destination city. This was probably my least favorite learning experience (especially after being dropped off on the side of the road at 1am).
  • On "sleeper" buses, you are expected to take off your shoes before entering the bus and place them in a provided plastic bags. Untie your sneakers in advance — you don't want to be the one holding up the line.
  • In general, buses aren't equipped with bathrooms. They'll generally hit rest stops 1-2 times in a 9-12 hour ride. "Rest stops" are inherently Vietnamese. Be prepared for squatting toilets! There is almost no pre-packaged food available; most everything is restaurant-style, even in the middle of the night.
  • Sleeper buses are cold! Dress in layers. Bus lines generally provide blankets but I was pretty skeptical of their cleanliness so I opted to wear a coat and use my travel liner instead.
  • Purchase snacks and/or water before you leave. Many hotels/hostels offer free bananas with breakfast -- grab a few on your way out the door.

Airline tickets can be purchased through most travel agencies and are usually cheaper that way.

If you book online, you'll find you're charged a number of "convenience fees." 

  • You can purchase same-day international tickets on Asian carriers for less than $100.
  • Check your passport expiration. If it's less than six months away you will not be admitted into a number of countries, even if you've already purchased a ticket. Your connection options will be quite limited. (We learned this one the hard way.)

Sites and Experiences

Look at a map and plan your sightseeing routes in advance.

The Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam

The Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam

I like being efficient and I wasn't on this trip. Referencing the guidebook over and over is a pain. Instead, use Evernote or a similar note-taking app to record the sites in each city you want to see, the order in which it makes sense to see them based on where you are staying, and what Lonely Planet area map and attraction number correspond with each stop. I usually pulled this information together the night before or while riding the bus.

If you just want to catch popular tourist attractions, most (but not all) cities/towns can be explored in a day or less.

If you're feeling ambitious you could literally create a routine out of exploring cities during the day and riding sleeper buses overnight to the next destination.

Dress modestly on any days you plan to visit temples and other historic sites.

Shoulders and knees should be covered. Many also require you to remove shoes before entering, so decide whether you want to wear socks or walk barefoot through an unknown place (I opt for socks).

Haggle when shopping.

I have to admit, I love this part. If you show even the slightest discomfort with a price, the store owner will knock it down without even blinking. Pull out your calculator app and negotiate from there.

Massages are cheap.

We did seven in 10 days.

  • Massage parlors are everywhere. Look for neon-lighted feet hanging from buildings.
  • Outside of Saigon, you can usually snag 60 minutes for 200.000VND after a little haggling (approximately $9). In Saigon you can get it even cheaper.
  • Full body massages include a rundown of your butt cheeks and side boobs! Also expect for you masseuse to sit on you.

Food and Drink

Portions are small.

We ordered two entrees each for almost every meal, especially breakfast.

Fruit is on the dessert menu.

I love fresh fruit for breakfast. It took me a few days to realize that I could order it pretty much anywhere, I just had to look at the desert menu. 

Cafes only serve beverages.

If you're looking for food, walk right by any storefront that contains "cafe" or "ca phe."

You never know what you're going to get when you order a pancake.

Sometimes they look like crepes, sometimes they look like cornbread. They never look like American pancakes. "Chocolate pancakes" are just regular pancakes with chocolate syrup on top.

Beer is cheap.

Like 13 cents cheap. You can literally get drunk for a dollar.



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Posted on February 10, 2015 and filed under Travel.