What to know before your first trip to Vietnam

Before you visit any country, it’s best to have an idea of what to expect, from preparations before your trip to what you should know and do once you land.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Take the time to get to know Vietnamese people, explore the rural areas, and spend your nights on the floors of people’s houses. If you strike up a conversation with someone, it is very likely that you will get invited over for a meal. Vietnam may seem like a far off destination, but getting to and through this beautiful country, whether you are exploring the lush countryside or some of the world’s best beaches, is easier and more comfortable today than it ever has been.

Welcome to Vietnam

Ha Long Bay

Vietnam is a truly spectacular country with vast beautiful landscapes, delicious and flavorful food, and even more beautiful people. But as with any country, it’s great to have an idea of what to expect. 

To apply or not to apply…

The last thing you want happening to you is having to turn around at the airport and board a flight back home because you weren’t aware you had to get a visa to enter Vietnam. While some lucky nationalities are visa exempt (some even for three months!), others have to either apply for a Visa on Arrival, e-Visa, or get it pre-arranged by a Vietnamese Embassy. To find out whether you are visa exempt or have to apply, visit the Vietnam Immigration website. Information, however, may be outdated on the occasion, so it is best to call up the Vietnamese Embassy nearest you, present your travel details, and ask for the most up to date information.

Be prepared – pack properly and get your vaccines and insurance!

Once you’re sure you’re headed to Vietnam, it’s best to take some necessary precautions. Start with your vaccines. It is recommended that you get your standard set of vaccines such as Tetanus, Hepatitis A, and Typhoid. If your travel plans include going off-the-beaten-track, then you may want to consider taking Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, and rabies. The Tropical Medical Bureau has some good advice regarding Vietnam and vaccinations, so make sure you give the page a read.

Having a good travel insurance plan is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, road safety is not the best in Vietnam, and having a good travel insurance plan will ensure you’re taken care of in the unlikely event of something happening. This is especially important if you decide to use a motorbike as your main method of transportation, and also if you plan to partake in the irresistible activities Vietnam’s vast and various natural landscapes offer. Make sure your insurance plan is thorough and covers these points. Some good global plans to look into are offered by IM Global, AIA, World Nomads, AXA, and Liberty Travel Insurance

On that note, it’s better to limit your chances of getting sick as well. Having insurance will greatly reduce the price tag on hospital visits, although it’s obviously better to just not have to visit the hospital at all. No matter the time of year you’re visiting Vietnam, we recommend that you pack for all seasons. Vietnam spans multiple climate zones, so when it’s hot and sticky in one region, it could be rainy and cold in another. Having an extra sweater or two and a pair of long trousers in addition to your summer clothes is a great idea. These come in handy especially when you take overnight intercity buses that often get really cold thanks to the overuse of AC. Plus, visiting religious sites often require that you wear conservative clothes. You can purchase raincoats at convenience stores for just about a dollar.

A smartphone and some cash is all you need

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Once you arrive in Vietnam, there are some things you should get done on your first day. 

You will need some local currency because cards are often not accepted in the smaller establishments. If you don’t have any Vietnamese Dong before you arrive in Vietnam, then it’s best to only exchange a small amount at the airport as the exchange rates are quite unfavorable. Exchange enough for a meal and your taxi ride to the city – about $20 USD. When in the city center, you can exchange the rest. There are also ATMs around every corner in the bigger cities. 

Tip: If you have a lot of cash on you, it is best to separate the lot into multiple stacks and hide them within your belongings. Don’t leave your belongings lying around! 

Getting a local SIM card for your smartphone is one of the best things you can do to help your travels in Vietnam. This is especially necessary if you plan to stay a while and venture off the popular tourist path. With a SIM you can apply for a data package so you can be online when you need. This way you can figure out how to navigate and also allows for emergency calls. A SIM will not cost you much – only about $10 USD, and another $10 for a good data package. We recommend either Viettel, Mobiphone, or Vinaphone. 

There are some apps you should download that will aid your travels: Google Maps or maps.me for navigation, and Grab or Go Viet for transportation. With Google Maps, you can easily find ATMs, convenience stores, restaurants, cafes, other recommendations near you so you do not miss out the best of the cities you are visiting. Grab and Go Viet are the Asian equivalents to Uber, and offer motorbike taxis. Vntrip is great for hotel booking and getting travel-related information in one place. Plus you get a lot of awesome promotions and deals. Remember to always have your phone charged and a power bank for when you decide to head out into nature. 

Once that’s done, go for a pho

Bowl of pho

It’s time to dig in! One of the best ways to introduce yourself to Vietnamese culture is to try their de-facto national dish, pho. Pronounced “fuh,” this is a noodle soup with a world of flavors and textures. Different types of pho is available, and whether you love chicken, beef, pork, seafood or vegetarian, you will find a bowl to suit your tastes. What’s interesting is that the dish changes from region to region, so if you plan to travel the whole country, remember to try pho in all the regions and see if you can tell the difference! 

After your pho, try a cup of world-class Vietnamese coffee. Variations of your traditional cup of coffee has sprung about, that uses yogurt, eggs, condensed milk, and even fruit. Find a stall on the sidewalk, ask for a “ca phe sua da” (coffee with milk), and watch the sea of motorbikes pass you by. 

Get to know the Vietnamese spirit

Vietnamese people are a mixture of cultures, languages, and historical backgrounds. The one thing that ties them all together is that they love to smile. Despite the hardships they’ve faced throughout their history, the Vietnamese are some of the kindest, most resilient, and resourceful people you’ll ever meet. Take the time to get to know them, explore the rural areas, and spend your nights on the floors of people’s houses. Many locals, especially in the rural areas, love to offer their rooms or beds for tired tourists to spend the night in return for a small amount of money. This is a really lovely experience, especially when you get a nice home-cooked meal as well. If you strike up a conversation with someone, it is very likely that you will get invited over for a meal.

At the same time, there will be a few things that will frustrate you, but remember that you can not expect every country in the world to behave the same as yours. Things like slurping while eating, a lack of queuing, and talking out loud may frustrate you, but ultimately, at the end of the day, it only adds to the beauty of your experience. Be patient, let go of all your expectations, and only then will you really truly enjoy Vietnam for what it is. 

It will really help if you master some basic Vietnamese vocabulary before your travels. The locals absolutely love it when foreigners try to speak Vietnamese and you will undoubtedly make a lot more friends on the way. Here are some useful words and phrases:

Hello: Xin chao
Thank you: Cam on
Excuse me/Sorry: Xin loi
What’s your name: Ban ten gi
My name is: Toi la…
Where is: O dau…
I’m hungry: Toi doi
I’m thirsty: Toi khat nuoc
I’m vegetarian: Toi an chay
Restaurant: Nha hang

Knowing some basic vietnamese can also help you if something goes wrong. For example, scams and thefts can happen – just like in every other country. Just be a little wary during your transactions: convert the amount you’re being charged into a currency you’re familiar with and see if it makes sense, count your change, and choose popular bus and taxi brands such as Futa Bus, and Vinasun or Mai Linh. When walking in public, hold your bag close, and try not to display everything you have openly. 

Look both ways when you cross the street

HCMC, Vietnam
Busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City

One of the first things you’ll notice when you land in Vietnam is how the motorbikes clog up the streets. Literally everyone here owns a motorbike as car tax is incredibly high. Don’t feel scared when you have to cross the streets – the drivers are experts are maneuvering around you. Just wait till the road clears up a bit, raise your hand to indicate you’re about to cross, count to three, and go for it. 

If you want to be incredibly local, do try driving but only if you are experienced and have your license. Vietnam is definitely not the place to learn how to drive, but at the same time, to really experience what it means to be local, a motorbike is the way to go. 

Remember – Just leave your expectations at the airport. Vietnam is a beautiful country, with lots of stunning landscapes, delicious food, and even more beautiful people. It will be the adventure of a lifetime.

Posted July 23, 2019
image of blog writer Piumi
Piumi Rajapaksha
Third-culture kid, hailing from Sri Lanka. Currently residing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and refuses to leave because of the good food. You'll probably find her wandering aimlessly through the city with a coffee in hand looking lost, but she never is.
image of blog writer Piumi