Vietnam for beginners
Vietnam’s currency is called the Vietnamese dong (VND). It’s around 20,000 dong to US$1. International access ATMs can be found in most tourist centres across the country. You will be expected to use dong for cash purchases is rural area, but in larger centres US dollars are accepted. Credit cards are accepted, though small businesses, especially restaurants may not accept them.
Vietnam is a safe country to travel in. Petty theft is a problem in tourist centres — especially Saigon and Nha Trang where snatch and grab robberies are a major issue. Violent crime against foreigners remains rare, but use your common sense when out in the evening and stay in control. If you feel threatened, especially in a bar or club environment, swallow your pride and leave. Scamming especially by travel agents is at plague levels in Vietnam and remains the number one source of complaints from Travelfish readers. Do your research, ask for personal recommendations and shop around. The Ha Long Bay tours out of Hanoi remain an absolute snake pit of dishonest wheelers and dealers — there is little one can do other than ask around for recommendations from other travellers.
While visible, local police generally don’t speak English. Police are not paid much, so corruption remains a problem. Police are most commonly contacted with complaints about dodgy travel agents — in practice there is little they can do, but if it makes you feel better, why not.
Vietnam’s health care, while better than that of neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, remains rudimentary by Western standards. For serious injuries, you want to get evacuated to Singapore or Thailand. You have travel insurance right?
Vietnam has a comprehensive public transport system. Planes, trains and buses cover the entire country comprehensively. The going is slow though and don’t make the mistake of trying to fit too much of Vietnam into a short trip — otherwise you’ll spend the bulk of your time travelling. Both bus and train fares are very affordable. If you’re travelling over Tet, you need to book as far in advance as humanly possible.
Most nationalities require a visa for Vietnam — most organise their visa in advance, but it is possible to organise a visa- on arrival if you are flying in. For more information see our Vietnam visa page.
The Vietnamese language is difficult. It uses a modified Roman script and is tonal. The script can be confusing to foreigners as some of the roman letters have very differnet sounds to what they do in English. Getting the baisc (counting, hi and thakyou etc.,) are easy, but you’ll need a bit of time to get a good grounding in the language. In tourist centres many Vietnamese will speak some English, but a lot will speak none. In more remote areas, English speakers can be very rare. Some older Vietnamese will speak more French than English.
There are two seasons — the hot dry season and the hot wet season. Chances are if you’re from anywhere outside the tropics, you’ll find Vietnam to be very hot — and sweaty. Vietnam is affected by three main weather patterns, meaning different parts of the country can have wildly different weather at the same time of the year. For detailed weather info, see our Vietnam weather page.
Vietnam can be challenging to travel in
Vietnam sees a lower return rate than it’s neighbours and it is beleived that the root of this problem are the scammers. One needs to understand that not every Vietnamese person you meet is out to scam you, but unfortunately many in the tourist industry are. The further you get off the tourist trail you get, the more scam free the experience is likely to be, though it will be a trade off as the remote areas are logistically more difficult to travel in.
Vietnam is worth it
It truly is a magnificent country, but it’s more work to travel here than in neighbouring Cambodia, laos and Thailand. Have your wits about you, always, always, always ask for personal recommendations from other travellers, and don’t obsess about being ripped off. You Will Be Ripped Off at some stage or another — that’s just a part of the Vietnamese experience unfortunately. On the upside, the vast majority of people are honest, hard working Vietnamese who have no interest whatsoever in ripping you off but will more than likely enjoy a few fresh beers with you on the street corner. Relax, don’t let the scammers get to you, and you’ll enjoy it.