Southeast Asia is quickly becoming an extremely popular tourist destination, especially among backpackers. Vietnam is no exception: with around 10,000,000 international visitors in 2016, the number of tourists visiting the country consistently increases every year. Having spent two and a half weeks traveling around the country myself, I can understand why it’s so popular. While I loved my time in Vietnam, there are a few things I wish I’d known before visiting. I hope this go-to guide will help you to prepare for your vacation, and to make the most of your time there.
I never felt particularly unsafe in Vietnam, despite the fact that I was out after dark, and sometimes wandered around big cities by myself. As a female tourist, however, I occasionally felt uncomfortable with the way local men looked at me, especially if I was wearing shorts, or a strappy top. Whether you’re a solo female traveler, or you’re traveling with friends or a partner, I’d recommend wearing a fake wedding ring to discourage any “funny business”.
In big cities (especially Ho Chi Minh City), pick-pocketing is very common. Be sure to carry your rucksack on your front while walking through crowds, and try to avoid displaying your phone or wallet. You should also beware of scams, as plenty of people will try to sell you tours, which never actually materialize. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
As an avid walker, I was quite disappointed by Vietnam’s sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. Traffic lights and stop signs mean very little to local drivers, especially those on motorbikes. When crossing roads, you simply have to walk with confidence, and trust that vehicles will move around you.
Hiring motorbikes and bicycles is extremely cheap in Vietnam. While you technically need an international driving license to rent a motorbike, most tourists manage to do so with their usual driving license. I wouldn’t recommend riding a motorbike for the first time in Vietnam. With busy roads, and non-law-abiding drivers, it would be a pretty dangerous setting for a beginner. If you’re experienced on a bike, however, this is a cheap, quick, and easy way to get around.
Getting from place to place is best done by bus; however, be sure to use a reputable company, such as Sinh Tourist, to avoid being scammed. Taxis can also be cheap way to get to your hotel from the airport or bus station. I’d recommend downloading the Grab app before you go, which is like Uber, only much cheaper!
Where to Stay
Like every country, Vietnam has a great mix of accommodation options. While in Hanoi, I’d suggest staying in a boutique hotel in the Old Quarter. Although hostels are usually cheaper, those in the capital tend to be in very rowdy locations, with poor-quality facilities (though this is, of course, a generalization). Boutique hotels feel quirky, are reasonably priced, and many offer free breakfast, too. Although you could rent an apartment in the city, I’d suggest a hotel or hostel, as they often offer tours and airport transfers, which will be invaluable if Hanoi is your starting point, as it was for me.
Popular backpacker destinations like Ho Chi Minh City and Hue also have great hostels; however, they tend to be in very noisy spots! For a fancier experience, try out one of Ho Chi Minh City’s huge hotels with rooftop pools and bars. If you’re heading to Hoi An, I’d suggest staying in a guest house. While the city has many hostels and hotels located in the Old Town, and beautiful resorts right by the beach, many guest houses are conveniently located between the two! These aren’t only peaceful and affordable, but also a great way to meet locals, who can give you top tips for restaurants and shops in the area.
I hadn’t appreciated how diverse and delicious the Vietnamese cuisine was until I arrived in the country. While Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast seemed quite unappealing at first, I quickly adjusted to the local food. One of my favorite dishes was spring rolls: unlike the greasy, fried spring rolls I was used to from my local Chinese takeaway, the ones you’ll find in Vietnam are wrapped in thin, fresh rice paper, and are usually filled with an array of delicious vegetables, and sometimes meat or fish, too. If you’re looking for a lunchtime snack, try out Banh Mi: Vietnamese baguettes, filled with a delicious filling of your choice (usually pork and vegetables). While there are entire cafés and restaurants dedicated to Banh Mi, the best ones can be purchased from street food vendors.
If you’re after something a bit sweeter, try banana pancakes, which come from Thailand, but are also very popular in Vietnam. The best version I tried came from Hoi An’s night market: gooey banana was cooked into a crepe-style pancake and drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauce! Since Vietnam has been heavily influenced by France, you won’t be short of incredible bakeries, selling everything from buttery croissants, to soft macarons. Whichever dessert you decide upon, be sure to wash it down with a traditional Vietnamese drip coffee, with plenty of condensed milk.
While Vietnam is malaria-free, mosquito bites are still a real problem, especially around lakes and beaches. Be sure to buy good-quality mosquito repellent before you arrive, as it’s hard to find — and fairly expensive — in Vietnamese supermarkets and pharmacies. The same goes for sunscreen: even though I traveled during monsoon season, and the sky was filled with thick cloud, I still suffered from sunburn and sunstroke. I’d recommend keeping topped up with factor 50 at all times!
Be sure to buy bottled water whenever you can, as Vietnam’s tap water isn’t safe to drink. If you have a salad, or eat fruit without a skin, be sure to ask how they washed the food, and try to avoid opening your mouth in the shower!