No doubt about it, Southeast Asia is one of the top choices for travellers. Beautiful scenery, friendly people, and cheap food and accommodations make it a popular destination not just with backpackers, but with anyone who wants an affordable trip to paradise. As one of the less traditional stops on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail, Vietnam is quickly growing in popularity. Less touristy than Thailand, but still easy to navigate, it offers up the best of everything—great beaches, incredible food, fascinating history and the feeling that you’re in a place that’s not quite like anywhere else on earth.
However, Vietnam can also be a challenging destination, especially if it’s your first time to that corner of the globe. The language is difficult to speak and understand, and the traffic can leave even the most seasoned traveller fretting over something as simple as crossing the street. There’s a vibe you have to find, a rhythm you have to fall into—and once you have it, you’ll realize why people keep falling in love with Vietnam.
Here are a few tips for your first trip to Vietnam:
Don’t hesitate in the streets. Vietnam’s traffic is notoriously intense, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The key? Once you’ve started crossing, just keep going. Trust that motorbikes will weave behind you—if you hesitate, you’re more likely to cause an accident.
Realize that everything is further than you think. Geographically, Vietnam is a very narrow and very, very long country. If you’re travelling the length of the country, be prepared for a few overnight trains and long bus rides. And some major tourist attractions are quite far from the city—for example, a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels will take at least two hours from downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Carry cash and don’t rely on ATMs. Credit cards are often not accepted, especially in markets, and ATMs not only charge exorbitant fees for tourists, but also limit how much money you can take out to about 3 million dong, or US $150, at a time.
Pack less clothing. You can easily get your clothes laundered at most hotels for a few dollars. (Tip: There are often independent vendors set up outside hotels, offering laundry service—they’ll usually do it for a cheaper rate than at the hotel desk.) It’s worth it to get your clothes professionally cleaned every few days rather than lugging around several pounds of luggage.
Take more money. Yes, Vietnam is cheap. But it’s also easy to spend and spend and spend. When beers are only $1, keeping track seems less important—until you get your bill. In Hoi An, you’ll probably want to have a dress or suit made, which will cost you anywhere from $50 to $100 or more. You’ll want to take tours or splurge on a martini in Saigon. Don’t feel like you have to scrimp on your vacation simply because you didn’t bring enough cash.
Be prepared for all seasons. In the south, be prepared to sweat and burn under the sun. Places like Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City are extremely warm, especially in the summer months. However, north of the Hải Vân Pass, it can be remarkably chilly and rainy. Hanoi is very cold in the winter and spring—so, if you’re travelling the entire country, bring more than just your beach attire.
Eat, eat, eat! Vietnam is famous for its street food scene, and for good reason. The produce is fresh and every dish is seasoned with fragrant herbs. And don’t be afraid to venture away from the tourist restaurants. There are delectable finds on almost every city street—just be sure to avoid any place that doesn’t have running water or its own refrigeration system.
So what are you waiting for – get out there and enjoy!