15 Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam

If you are planning on visiting Vietnam and have never been to SE Asia before, be prepared for a bit of culture shock. The traffic is horrendous, many people don’t speak English, the food is not what you’re used to, cleanliness standards are quite different, and you may have to use the occasional squatty potty.

But if you mentally prepare yourself for the challenges and excitement that lie ahead, you’ll absolutely fall in love with this beautiful, diverse, amazing country! We’ve compiled a list of 15 things you should know before you visit to help alleviate any unpleasant surprises. Enjoy!

 

1. The Visa Process is Quite Confusing

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Confusing visa process
Picture of Nick’s passport if anyone wants to steal his identity

It’s actually easy for citizens of most countries to obtain a visa either through the new e-visa process or by being pre-approved for a visa on arrival. However, the process is made more confusing by the proliferation of travel agencies offering the pre-approval service and competing for your business online.

There are a lot of official looking websites that aren’t really official. Many of these sites have the word “government” or “govt” in their URL to be tricky. There is only one official e-visa site maintained by the Vietnamese government; https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/trang-chu-ttdt. If you want a 30-day, single-entry e-visa you should proceed directly to that URL.

However, if you want to stay longer than 30 days or want a multiple entry visa, you’ll need to select one of the official-looking but not-official tourist agencies to provide you with a pre-approval letter to enter Vietnam. For the most part they are all legit so you’re chances of getting scammed out of a few dollars is low, but it sure makes things confusing! We can personally vouch for the authenticity of http://www.vietnamvisapro.net/.

Steps for Obtaining a 30-Day Single-Entry eVisa

  1. Visit this website; https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn/trang-chu-ttdt
  2. Upload your passport data page image and a passport photo (straight looking without glasses)
  3. Pay the $25 USD fee
  4. Wait 3 working days for processing
  5. Use your registration code, registration email, and birth date to check the results via the e-visa search menu
  6. If approved, print your e-visa and bring to the airport
  7. You will not be required to pay the stamping fee at the airport

The Steps to Obtaining a 30-day or 90-day Visa on Arrival

  1. Find an online service like http://www.vietnamvisapro.net/ or one of the countless other options
  2. Complete the visa application
  3. Pay the fee
  4. Wait 2 working days (usually less) for the letter of approval
  5. Print the approval letter
  6. Get passport photos taken if you don’t have them already. If you forget this step you can get them taken at the airport for an inflated charge of ~$5 per photo (but it’s best not to rely on this option).
  7. Pack your approval letter, passport photos, and cash
  8. At the airport you’ll pay a stamping fee – either $25 or $50 depending on the length of visa you’re applying for (see below). Be sure to bring US Dollars in reasonably good condition – bills with no rips or writing.

Cost of obtaining a Vietnam visa on arrival

Visa Pre-approval Letter Fee
(Paid in advance to VietnamVisaPros.net)
Visa Stamping Fee
(Paid on Arrival in Vietnam)
1-Month Single Entry $6 $25
1-Month Mutliple Entry $6 $50
3-Month Single Entry $15 $25
3-Month Multiple Entry $20 $50

Note: If you are a US citizen there is now an option for a 6-month multi-entry visa and a 1-year multi-entry visa. The process is the same, but the visa stamping fees are higher.


2. The Country is Huge

Vietnam is a very long, thin country. From the city of Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, the distance is over 1,000 miles and would take about 30 hours by car. If you have a limited time in Vietnam and want to hit all of the highlights in the south, central, and north regions, you should definitely plan on flying.

If you take a bus or the train you may save a few dollars but you’ll waste a ton of time covering these massive distances. Plus you can find really inexpensive domestic flights, especially if you book ahead. Vietjet Air is a popular domestic carrier with inexpensive flights.

Check Flight Prices to Vietnam:
Skyscanner  |  TravelocityOrbitz


3. The Climate Varies Drastically

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Sweating in Ninh Binh
What a sweat view! (Joke credit: EMB)

Whether you visit south, central, or northern Vietnam, you can probably expect a lot of heat and humidity. The climate of the entire country is considered to be mild tropical or subtropical. So if your hair is like mine and turns into an unruly mop at the slightest hint of humidity, consider yourself screwed. Plus any make-up you apply will slide off your face within 30 seconds of stepping outside.

Overall you can expect some rain in the summer and autumn months, especially if you visit from July to November. And in the north the temperatures can get quite cold during the winter months (December – February), with occasional snow in the mountains around Sapa.

Central Vietnam is generally warm year-round and can get so unbearably hot in the summer months that simply leaving your air conditioned hotel room takes the maximum amount of effort.

Be sure to check the weather in every city that you plan on visiting prior to departing so that you can plan (and pack) accordingly.

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4. Most People Don’t Speak English

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Hug at H'mong wedding in Sapa
With friends like these who needs English?

English is taught in schools in many countries in SE Asia so locals tend to be multilingual. This is especially true of anyone working in shops, restaurants, hotels, or places that tourists frequent. And many people want to learn English as tourism is seen as a very lucrative profession. So getting around without a phrase book or any basic conversational dialect is no problem.

But in Vietnam many people do not speak any English at all. Or if they do it is incredibly basic. Even at restaurants, shops, and some hotels you may have a challenging time communicating to place an order or ask how much something costs.

Plan on learning a few phrases to get around. “Xin chào” (pronounced “sin jow”) means “hello” and “cảm ơn” (pronounced “kam on”) is “thank you”. And the one you’ll  probably use most frequently – “bia” (pronounced “bee-ah”) means “beer”. Use Google Translate and pick up a Vietnamese phrase book to help you get around.


5. Crossing the Street is Terrifying

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Street crossings are crazy
Just kidding, crossing the street isn’t all that bad…

The traffic in Vietnam is world renowned for being insane. But not as much because of cars, more because of the thousands of motorbikes that dominate the roadways, weaving through traffic. Walk signals and the white lines that generally indicate pedestrian crossing zones don’t hold much weight here. Motorbikes and cars will not stop for pedestrians unless they absolutely have to.

And since motorbike drivers don’t follow classic traffic rules – such as staying off of the sidewalks, going the right way down a one-way street, or stopping for red lights – you’ll have to be on high alert every time you attempt to cross the street.

As a general rule you should begin walking confidently once you see a break in traffic and have faith that the cars and motorbikes will weave around you. They probably won’t stop, but they won’t actually hit you. Drivers seem to be better about this in Ho Chi Minh City and not as effective in Hanoi. Regardless, use caution and don’t expect your normal pedestrian rights from home to apply here.


6. Wifi Works Great

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Baby photo shoot in Sapa
Val made me post this…

You’ll find that even in remote areas of the country such as Sapa, Halong Bay, and Ninh Binh, the wifi signal is strong. And if you have a phone that is unlocked you can pick up a local sim card and get 60 gigs of data for 150,000 VND (~$6.50 USD). Even 4G works great pretty much everywhere.

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During our 3 months in the country we used MobiFone for the first half of our time and Vinaphone for the second half. We recommend MobiFone as we found the service to be more reliable.
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7. It’s Really, Really Cheap

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Haircut in Hanoi
People rave about the cheap massages in SE Asia, but never the haircuts???

The caveat is you can certainly spend a lot and find luxury tours and accommodation in Vietnam if you choose. But if you are on a moderate budget like us (we generally spend $80-100/day between the two of us), it’s really easy to do here.

You can find lovely boutique hotels in the $30-40 USD/night range and really comfy Airbnbs for around $20-25 USD/night. If you’re living in Vietnam long-term you can rent an apartment or house for around $200-500/month. Trains and buses are quite affordable. And if you use Grab instead of taxis, you’ll rarely pay more than a few dollars to get anywhere in the city.

Food is quite cheap as well. If you don’t mind eating on tiny plastic stools you can get a filling meal for around $2 USD. Even fancy meals rarely cost more than $10 USD per person. Domestic beer is generally less than $1 USD per can. And if you plan on shopping for souvenirs you’ll be expected to haggle a bit on prices. Start by offering 50% of their asking price and you’ll end up meeting somewhere in the middle.


8. Never Trust a Toilet Seat

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Wet Toilet Seats
Wet Vietnamese toilet seats got me like…

The toilet situation in SE Asia takes some getting used to. Most bathrooms in Vietnam have adopted Western-style toilets over squatty potties (although you may encounter one every now and again). But often you’ll need to pay to use them (generally 2,000 VND). And they don’t always have toilet paper. Most Vietnamese people prefer to use the sprayers to clean their bums.

And that spray water gets all over the toilet seat. No one seems to have an interest in cleaning up after themselves. If I had $1 for every time I’ve accidentally sat on a wet toilet seat in SE Asia I’d be able to travel forever. Carry some tissues in your pocket and give the seat a good wipe before you sit down.


9. Wear a Helmet, it’s the Law

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Always wear your helmet
Nick’s dad was too cool to wear his helmet…

In December of 2007 Vietnam enacted a comprehensive mandatory helmet law to help to lessen the country’s traffic fatalities. Vietnam is the second highest country in SE Asia for traffic fatalities with 24.5 per 100,000. And motorbikes are much more common than cars here, accounting for 95% of registered vehicles in the country.

The law is strictly enforced and today you’ll see most people wearing them around cities. And it’s helped, a lot. The AIP Foundation estimates that 15,000 fatalities and 500,000 injuries have been prevented in the 10 years since the law was enacted.

As a foreigner, you’ll be expected to wear one as well. And not just if/when you rent a motorbike, you’ll also need one if you take one of the many Grab bikes that dominate the roadways. But don’t worry, they’ll have an extra one for you to use.


10. Use Grab, not Taxis

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Mekong River Delta
A typical Grab boat

Speaking of Grab, you should plan on using this service rather than taxis. Grab is the Uber of SE Asia. Simply download the app and find a driver anytime you need a ride. Keep in mind it often takes longer than hailing a taxi, and the drivers occasionally cancel the ride, but it’s far easier than having to negotiate your taxi fare prior to departing. And it’s much cheaper!

You can load your credit card info or opt to pay cash for each ride. You’ll rarely pay more than $2 USD to get around the city.


11. Sidewalks are Reserved for Motorbike Parking

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Typical sidewalk in Hanoi

There are plenty of wide sidewalks in the cities of Vietnam so you might think you can escape the crazy traffic right? Wrong. You’ll find that most of the time you have to walk in the street anyway because the sidewalks are filled with dozens of parked motorbikes or plastic restaurant tables. Why Vietnam has decided that motorbike parking is more important than having a place for pedestrians to walk is beyond me. And frankly, it’s really annoying in the touristy areas of Hanoi and Saigon.

You’ll appreciate towns like Hoi An that have designated pedestrian areas so you don’t have to worry about getting sideswiped by a motorbike while wandering down the side of the road.

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12. Vietnamese ATMs are Stingy

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: ATMs don't dispense much cash
$5 in Vietnam… no, not that first bill, the whole stack!

It’s pretty rare to find ATMs that will dispense more than 3,000,000 VND (~$130 USD), and many will only give you 2,000,000 VND (~$85 USD) at a time. Plus you’ll be charged a transaction fee each time you use one that will range from $1 – $5 USD. And it’s pretty rare to find restaurants, bars, or shops that take visa (if they do, they generally charge an additional 3% as well).

We’ve also found ourselves needing to visit up to 5 ATMs before finally finding one that will actually work. So don’t wait until the last minute to withdraw cash or give yourself a small window of time. Surprisingly we had the most difficult time finding ATMs that would take foreign cards in downtown Hanoi.

Be sure to check with your bank prior to departing to ensure that they refund international ATM charges. Also check to make sure they don’t charge international fees. We love the Charles Schwab debit card that offers zero international fees and refunds all of your ATM fees. And the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card is best for earning points while traveling. We use the Chase card for booking hotels and tours and our Charles Schwab card for getting money out of the ATM.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card


13. It’s not as Conservative as you Think

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Smiling in Sapa
Don’t feel like you have to leave your grillz at home

Prior to visiting Vietnam I was under the impression that I’d need to dress very conservatively. And while many people do tend to have their shoulders and knees covered, regardless of the blazing temperatures, many younger locals show far more skin than I was anticipating.

And the rules are more relaxed when visiting temples in Vietnam than some of its neighbors. There are signs requesting that visitors cover up but they are rarely followed or enforced.

You may feel a bit uncomfortable wandering around town in a half-shirt but don’t be afraid to pack shorts or dresses for your Vietnamese vacation.


14. It’s also not as Communist as you Think

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: Communist Propaganda Posters
Ironic how many privately owned shops are selling Communist Propaganda Posters

Vietnam is one of only 5 communist countries that still remain in the world today. However, you won’t encounter much evidence of Communism as you go about your day as a tourist. Most businesses are privately owned and there is a strong sense of capitalism in the country.

Ho Chi Minh city is a bustling metropolis full of highrise buildings and even has its own stock exchange. And a new generation of young Vietnamese entrepreneurs are hard at work on cool new startups in industries ranging from tech to craft beer.

Ho Chi Minh is still revered as the liberator of Vietnam from both the French and the Americans, but the tides seem to be rapidly and decidedly turning towards capitalism.

In case you’re wondering… The other 4 communist countries are China, Cuba, Laos, and North Korea. 

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15. Here it’s Called The American War

Things to Know Before Visiting Vietnam: It's called the American War
Souvenir from the war

It’s not the Vietnam War. We were invading their country after all.

But don’t worry, relations were normalized between the US and Vietnam in the mid-1990’s thanks to efforts by then-President Bill Clinton and Senator John McCain, who spent 5 years as a POW in Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi during the war.

These days the American war is a distant memory and you’ll find the Vietnamese hold no ill will against Americans. In fact, if someone finds out that you’re American they will probably start telling you all about their extended family that now lives in America. Many Vietnamese in the south worked for the US military during the war and they were offered asylum in the US when the American troops finally pulled out of Saigon.

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