Visiting Vietnam (Part 1 of 3)

In September 2012 I headed off to Asia for the first time as a tourist, visiting Vietnam with group tour company On The Go. There were nine of us on the 10-day Very Vietnam Tour, which took us from capital city Hanoi at the top of the country all the way down to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, the economic centre of Vietnam...

In 3 posts I share my vacation experiences as well as information that should be of use to would-be Vietnam visitors.

Why Choose Vietnam as your Destination?

It’s different
First and foremost, Vietnam is a great alternative to Thailand, which for many years now has been a go-to destination for Western tourists craving a mix of exoticism, adventure and luxury on a budget.

Vietnam is growing in popularity for both Western and Eastern travellers but it’s not yet as commercialised a tourist destination as its neighbour nation. Heading to this Liberal Communist nation will still earn you bragging rights for visited someplace “different.” And although this is more important for some visitors than others, it’s still easy to trek off the beaten track and feel like you are a lone explorer. Particularly up north. Locals may want to take photos with you, and we were interviewed by a group of friendly high schoolers as part of an assignment to practice their English.

It’s cheap
For South Africans, the rand still goes far in Vietnam. If you want to splash out – and there is plenty to spend money on – by all means take more, but you can survive comfortably with $25 USD (R200) spending money a day. For the record, the local currency is the Dong, which has an exchange rate of circa 20 000 VD : 1 USD. You can pay everywhere in Dong or Dollars, or a mix of both; the currencies are equally accepted. You’ll be using cash for everyday transactions. Hotels and upmarket shops typically cater for debit/credit card purchases.

It’s fascinating
Vietnam is a very interesting place to visit, offering a vast variety of historical, cultural and natural experiences. Over 50+ ethnic groups. Ancient Cham ruins. Amazing cuisine. The unique practice of Water Puppetry. Miles of emerald-green farmlands. Seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Vietnam War. Local markets and craft specialities. Six-star beach resorts. Ancient (and not so ancient) temples, tombs and palaces. National Parks. Chaotic cities feeding a surging economy. The fierce spirit of a nation that has continually fought off invaders.

Whatever your area of interest, Vietnam has something to satisfy.

You can visit all year round
Although it has its storm-prone seasons, you can visit tropical Vietnam – situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator – pretty much all year round. Up north around Hanoi it can be a bit chilly, especially in Winter, while the further south you go (towards Saigon) the hotter and more humid it becomes.

We visited Vietnam in mid-September, which is considered to be just outside high season. This said, until we reached Saigon and the Mekong Delta (Day 8), where the weather was very volatile, we had experienced just one morning of rain the entire trip.

Travel Tips for Vietnam
  • Don’t assume that you can just arrive in Vietnam and pick up a tourist visa at the airport. Legislation changes regularly and, as usual, you’ll be dealing with grouchy low-level bureaucrats. And these ones are Communist! Either apply for your visa in advance from your nearest embassy, or at least get visa preapproval.

    If you are touring with On The Go, you can arrange visa preapproval through the company, saving yourself 20 USD. You’ll then only have to present your paperwork, passport-size photos and pay a 25 USD stamping fee on arrival.
  • It’s not recommended that you drink the tap water in Vietnam. Bottled water is very cheap, however, and with On The Go, you’re given a bottle of water every day on tour. If you want to save yourself even more spending money and stock up on refreshment (It’s very hot and humid in Vietnam!), keep the bottles and refill them with tap water that you’ve boiled in your hotel room’s kettle.

  • Try not to be on foot, navigating the big cities during rush hour (8 – 9am, 5 – 6pm). Motorcycles are Vietnam’s dominant form of transport and it can be very unnerving trying to cross the street when there are dozens of bikes zipping around – frequently ignoring traffic lights and mounting curbs. Often it’s a case of simply taking a step of faith into the road and committing to forward movement no matter what.

    Speaking of road-crossing, it’s useful to shadow a local as they traverse a street. Also, it’s a bit easier if you seek out a spot with a pedestrian crossing. These are common in geometrically laid-out Saigon; less so in chaotic Hanoi.

  • Bag snatching (done off the back of a motorcycle) and pick-pocketing are your only real crime concerns as a law-abiding tourist in Vietnam. To make yourself less of a target, try not to walk too close to the road, wear your bag slung across your body, keep your camera strap wrapped around your hand and/or keep your passports and cash in a money belt under your clothes.

  • The weather is very unpredictable in Vietnam, particularly down south. In the space of an hour you can swing 360 degrees from sunshine to storm and back to sunshine. Cheap plastic rain ponchos are easy to keep in your bag, but they often take so long to put on it’s easier to just whip out a compact travel umbrella.

  • The malaria gamble? As long as you’re not heading out far into the countryside, or staying for longer than a month, your malaria risk is low as a short-term visitor to Vietnam. Instead of buying costly malaria medicine and contending with possible side-effects, I applied mosquito repellent to exposed skin a couple of times every day. And for the record, in two weeks I saw a grand total of one mosquito.
For more useful information on visiting Vietnam (e.g. what to pack, vaccinations), click here and here.


Brandon said…
I am very glad to have found this as we are considering a trip to that part of the world hopefully later this year. I would love for us to also see Cambodia while we're over there, and wouldn't mind a brief stop in Thailand, but I'd like the majority of our time to be in Vietnam. I've heard really great things. It would be my second trip to Asia (I went to China in 2007).

Obviously I had a great time with On the Go on the Road to Jordan trip so they are definitely in the running as long as they have something that combines Vietnam with Cambodia in a timeframe that works for me. Was it a good crowd/age range on your Vietnam trip?

Your advice above is great and I'd love to hear more about your trip! Did you ever post parts 2 and 3 of this?


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