What do I need to Know about travelling to Vietnam?
We didn't research our trip to Vietnam. In the weeks before we left, we didn't even know how long or where we were going (you can check out our original plan by clicking here - or wait to the end of this post and I'll pop in a link there too). I'd Googled 'What do I need to know about travelling to Vietnam?' hoping to pick up essential information. I found a bunch of cultural things, but lets just say, there were a few weird and wonderful things I didn't learn until we arrived.
Here's our list (which I'll keep adding to as I remember - because I tend to remember these tips at the most inconvenient times).
Here are the tips I needed to know about travelling to Vietnam
Before you go
The visa situation changed in October 2020. This actually had nothing to do with Covid and was designed to make it more difficult for people to live here illegally on tourist visas.
Currently, as of 2022, people from most countries will need a 30 day e-visa to enter. Some countries do have visa waivers, they often limit the entry to 14 days.
You need to apply for e-visas here. Be wary of sites telling you that you can apply for longer times or extend in country. Currently, you cannot. You must leave the country. However, you can re-enter same day if you decide you'd like to do a visa / border run.
I do recommend organising your visas when you have your flights booked. This is because processing can take up to 3 business days. People are often caught out with errors on the visa or problems with photos and don't have enough time to re-submit the visa. Also, take into consideration that Vietnam has holidays at various times of the year. The immigration offices will not process visas on these holidays. So it is always worthwhile organising well ahead of your arrival date.
There is some talk about a three month visa. For now, it is speculation. If anything changes, I will update. We will likely know by mid-June.
Phu Quoc Visa exemptions
People flying directly into Phu Quoc from a country outside Vietnam (not flying into another city in Vietnam) and exiting on a flight that does not connect through Vietnam, are eligible for a visa exemption. You cannot enter Vietnam with this visa, so you would need to fly to a place like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur direct from Phu Quoc before you can re-enter.
What you need to know about entering Vietnam
- Don't forget to keep your boarding pass with you to show immigration on entry.
- You probably won't need an onward ticket (we planned to exit overland via bus - but that didn't happen). But if you're nervous about it, you can get one.
- If you choose to exit over land, you need to exit at the border specified on your Visa.
Hello or Porridge
- Xin chàu or xin cháu makes all the difference... It's not in how you pronounce it, it's all in your pitch. If you're chirpy like me, people might look at you a bit confused because your cháu is going up in pitch ? This means rice porridge. And if you go down in pitch, you will get 'hello'. Try it out, click here to visit google translate and use the speaker to hear how it sounds.
Ho Chi Minh or Saigon?
- Ho Chi Minh is the official name of the largest city in Vietnam. Before the end of the American War (this is the war I always previously understood to be the Vietnam War), this city was named Saigon. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh when the north claimed victory. People in Saigon call it Saigon. Once we learned the history we called it Saigon too. I'm not sure what's actually correct. I guess it would depend on the person and which end of the country you ask.
If you're a mum like me, these are tips that I wish I found when I searched for what I needed to know about travelling to Vietnam.
- Always, always carry a few packs of tissues or wet wipes with you. Everywhere you go. Especially in the cities. There is no guarantee you'll have a toilet roll in your stall, and perhaps there will be someone out front selling by the sheet (I'm serious), but also maybe no.
- Toilets are often marked as free. This doesn't always include toilet paper. See above.
- Wear shoes that are easy to take off and put on. It's pretty common (especially in Saigon) that you'll have to remove your shoes before you enter the bathroom. They give you often mismatched plastic sandals you wear into the bathroom. I don't know how many people wear them per day or if/when they are washed. My husband had an interesting time fitting them!
- Wet floors. Probably why you wear their 'clean' plastic sandals... Don't go in bare feet, it feels gross. I think so anyway.
- Kiwis and Aussies, we are so far behind with our toilet installations. Over here, they use a bidet (most of Europe does too). If Australia and NZ had these installed in most bathrooms like here, maybe there wouldn't have been the Covid toilet paper crisis. When we travelled to Europe in 2013, I wasn't really a fan, but Rimaha loved them.
- You cannot flush toilet paper here. If you don't want your toilet paper basket filled with a bad smell, you have to get used to using the bidet.
Road (un)safety (maybe you don't really need to know this about travelling to Vietnam, but it is entertaining)
One thing I definitely wasn't prepared for when we arrived was the traffic. I'd never seen so many bikes and motorbikes swarm streets carrying everything you can imagine... It made me laugh hysterically as we pulled out of the airport in Saigon. Some of this you need to to know if you're travelling to Vietnam, most of it you will figure it out when you get there.
- Watch and learn before you cross. If you have tweens or teens like I do, you might find they are better (or at least more confident) at crossing the road than the parents. Ask my kids what their favourite thing to do in the city is and they usually say, 'crossing the street'.
- Crossings don't mean anything. The motorbikes are not going to stop. Ever (perhaps if the light is red).
- Get good at gaining eye contact and using your hands to show you are going to cross. They will go around you.
- Watch and learn before you ride anything. When you ride, maybe adopt the locals rules. There don't seem to be too many.
- You can turn right at a red light (no idea of the legality, but this is how it is done here), just watch out for cars coming straight through from the left.
- When you turn left, you might like to cross to the left hand side of the road before the intersection and go around on the wrong side of the road (I did this on the bicycle for ages because it was too scary turning left from the centre).
- When you turn left from the centre, you kinda have to just be brave and find a gap and go, they are going slow enough, they won't hit you as long as they know what you're doing and you don't hesitate. PS, if you're turning left after a red light, go before the timer gets to 0, you will usually dart out before the oncoming cars and they expect this.
- Watch out for people flying out of intersections. This is really common because you are expected to watch everything in front of you.
- Avoid going around trucks. We saw a really awful accident with a motorbike under a truck. The trucks are the most scary things on the road here.
- This all sounds insane, but it's ok. You can relax. Vehicles here travel slowly. Most of the vehicles are bikes. They don't want to hit you. It's different and has made me rethink about cars being a necessity.
What you need to know about getting around
Can you hire rental cars?
Foreigner driver licenses, and even International Driving Permits with translations are not recognised here. Basically, any time you make a choice to drive any vehicle here, you are taking a risk. Your insurance will not cover you because you cannot legally drive here.
Many people do rent motorbikes, bicycles and e-bikes that are available in most places. If you do this, I would suggest getting the feel for the way they drive first, because I know many people experience accidents here (the driving is extremely different from Western driving - expect people to come around corners on the wrong side of the road as that is just normal here).
Occasionally, you may find offers of rental cars. Usually, these will come with a driver and be very expensive. If you do find a rental car you can drive yourself, beware the rates will be quite high and if you damage the car, you'll be up for all the repairs/replacement as there is no insurance for a foreigner to drive.
Personally, I wouldn't rent a car. There is no where for you to park in most places, and it will end up being more of a hassle than it is worth most of the time.
The Vietnam Alternative to Uber
It's not Uber here, it's most often Grab. You can get a Grab bike (where someone will take you on the back of their bike) or a Grab car (most of these are regular five seat cars). We used the Grab locally and squished four of us in the back when we were going for lunch or into town.
However, if your family can't fit in a regular car, get the FastGo app (I'd recommend getting this one if your family plus luggage needs more than a regular car). This lets you select a seven seater vehicle.
- I'm not sure if it's a regular thing, or a Covid related thing, but we didn't have a lot of success obtaining FastGo seven seaters on the spot. If you know you need to go somewhere, I'd recommend booking in advance (which you can do via the app).
- If you decide to load your bank card into the app, don't forget. I didn't use the Grab app often, I'd put my card details in and forgotten. Then when I started using it in Hanoi, I was paying the drivers cash for a couple of days opps, they were getting double.
The only taxis we recommend are Mai Linh or VinaSun taxis. We had an incident with DaNang taxis where they gave us a set price and on arrival pulled a language card that had us paying a lot more than we expected (but it was still cheap, so we let it go).
Mai Linh is common around Vietnam and safe to use
VinaSun is more common in the bigger towns (we didn't see these in the smaller areas)
From airports it is usually best to get your accommodation to organise a private vehicle. There were massive hold ups getting through immigration. when we arrived into Saigon and our driver waited over an hour for us. If you're travelling to/from Hoi An, you Can try Same, Same but Better Transport (see the blog below).
What you need to know about Riding Bicycles in Vietnam
Bicycles are usually a great way to get around. Some home stays provide free bikes. If not, ask them to help you hire one.
If you have children, please ONLY use bicycles with the seats on the back. Our son, and many other children suffered injuries getting their feet caught in the wheels. Our son was lucky as he did it when we had paused and we weren't going quickly, which meant only bruising. However, other people have had very serious injuries, broken bones and needed hospital treatment. This is very common, so be VERY careful.
Getting Around: Location Specific Information
- If you try Cyclos in Hanoi, make sure you get a price BEFORE you get in.
- For Hoi An, read our post on Hoi An below, because there are a few extras for this special place.
Kite flying - Maybe not a need to know tip, but still interesting
- Kite flying is a family activity (at least it is in Hoi An), many families fly their kites in the afternoon breeze, it's how they spend some quality time together.
- It's a gorgeous view with the sun going down surrounded by so many kites.
- We loved our time flying kites in the rice fields and on the beach.
Bug spray/Fly Spray - I really needed this Vietnam travel tip
One thing I really needed to know about travelling to Vietnam (and I didn't find this on any blog anywhere), was where to find mosquito repellant. We thought we were visiting for a month. This meant we brought along a few small bottles of mosquito lotion, just enough to last a month. When that ran out, I was stuck. Fortunately, I made friends with another kiwi family when we moved to Hoi An, and she kindly sent a photo of the spray they use here (that doesn't cost a fortune).
- Remos is the most common one. The larger 150ml bottle usually cost us around 70-90,000 vnd, the smaller one around 60,000 vnd. It also comes in a cream tube which I like so much more.
- The Quablue was 100ml and was only 60,000 vnd but you have to apply this one more frequently.
- Most mini marts or pharmacies will have these - save this photo and show them, it's much easier than trying to explain what you are after.
- Both of these you can find cheaper on Lazada. If you're staying in one place for a while, you could order a couple of days before your arrival date. Simply email or message your hotel/guesthouse/homestay and get the correct address and let them know you'd like to get something delivered because most places are happy to do this for you.
- Look for information about the beds in reviews you read. Over here it is very common to have very hard (and for some of us, uncomfortable) beds. However, they are usually much bigger than the beds in Spain.
- Watch out for nearby loud karaoke, roosters and construction. These can be really awful to be next to if you're a light sleeper like me.
- If you're planning on staying a week or more, only book one or two nights in advance. When you arrive, go for a walk, see some rooms and barter with the reception staff. This way you can check for hard beds, construction and karaoke, plus pick a location you'll actually like.
- If you want to know our recommended stays in Hoi An and An Bang Beach see our posts below.
Drinking Water - Is it Safe?
- If you drink a lot of water (I do), check if they have a water filter or water station to fill your bottles from. A lot of places do have these.
- If no filter is at the accommodation, you can usually get a 20L reusable water bottle. You pay a little more for the first purchase, and after that to swap is usually about 20,000 vnd.
- You could also look at purchasing a Grayl (we are using it out in Sa Pa, because there isn't any water filter where we are staying and we are far from everywhere). I like to try my best to be environmentally friendly. Plastic waste here is a huge problem and I feel guilty every time I have to buy a big bottle of water cased in plastic.
- Out in the mountains of Sa Pa, the water is fine to drink after boiling. Cooling it seems to be my greatest issue at the moment so we are using our Grayl all the time now.
- In DaNang we found the water had a funny smell to it. Even the Grayl couldn't get rid of the smell. We could even smell it in some of the food we ate. I'm not sure what it was, but in this place we filled our bottles with the water cooler station in the reception of our accommodation. I'd recommend you check your accommodation has good water (when they say they supply bottles, they usually mean one 350ml per person).
Supermarkets - Markets
In almost every village we've been to, there is always a market. Usually it will be within walking distance of wherever you stay. If not, it is going to be within a 5-10 minute bicycle ride most times.
- Shopping for food is not like home in Aussie or New Zealand. There's no Aldi, no Pak'n'Save or Woolworths. There are some things like oversized supermarkets in the cities, but the best way to go shopping for most things is in the markets. We had so much fun in these places. The food, the variety, the smiles, it really is closer to how locals live. Keep in mind, there are often two kinds of markets, tourist markets and local markets. I didn't particularly enjoy the tourist markets, but the local ones were awesome.
- There are Vietnamese prices and tourist prices. They know you're a tourist so get bartering. I am not a spur of the moment buyer, I like to shop around first. It's a good idea to research your price (check out Lazada to see what you can get it delivered for. Know what you're willing to pay, offer lower. Be prepared to walk away, they usually will come down more when you start walking off.
- Fruit is different here. Don't go by the colour (I usually did back at home). Green bananas here are ripe and sweet. Yellow is past it. Same with Avocados. Go for the feel of it, ignore the colour.
- Try all the weird and wonderful fruits. I have tried some delicious varieties that I had never seen before (and some I can't even tell you what they are).
- If you are staying a while as we did you may want to cook meat. Fresh meat and fish can be purchased at the markets, but go early - before 8am (you don't want to get meat that has been out all day long). Once you've had same day kill meat, the meat at home won't be the same again!
- Have fun with it. I didn't mind paying tourist prices at the local markets, I didn't really barter unless I felt they were being rude with the prices. For me, it was never too much (we were purchasing fruit most days) and it was always a lot cheaper than we had in Australia. I was happy to pay knowing I was helping someone out, especially during Covid!
- You can see some of the tourist and local markets in our Instagram stories of Hoi An, click here.
Currency, Money and ATMs - Tips you DO Need to know about travelling to Vietnam
- The currency is the Vietnamese Dong. When we travelled, 100,000 VND was about $6.70 AUD.
- Most ATM's only let you withdraw a maximum of 3,000,000 (about $190-$200 AUD in May 2020).
- Some ATM's have a really horrible conversion rate, ACB gave us one of the worst conversion rates.
- The MB Bank ATM's let you withdraw up to 5,000,000 VND and also give you the best ATM conversion rate (you'll always get way more bang for your buck with this machine) ✅
- If you're in Australia, open up an ING account before you go. If you're depositing over $1,000 per month into the account and make five transactions online or in store, they waive ATM withdrawal fees (both domestic and international) saving you HEAPS.
Here's a handy currency converter, you can download the XE App on your phone for useful conversions before you head off on your trip.
Restaurant Tips You Need to Know for Vietnam Travel
- Your average tourist restaurant dish can range from 90,000 to 300,000 VND (or even higher).
- If you visit a cheap eats restaurant or eat on the street, you can find a dish for 20-60,000 VND.
- Beer is around 25,000 vnd at most places, you can usually pick it up at a mini mart for around 15,000 vnd. A box of 24 cans was around 240,000 VND. My husband was very happy.
- For budget travel, it would be wise to avoid touristy restaurants. In our experience, the tourist spots were more expensive and not as nice. The local spots are usually very basic with much nicer meals for a better price-tag.
If you're planning to eat in Hoi An, check out our guide below!