LAST UPDATED: May 18th, 2016
Vietnam was the first country on my RTW in 2016/7 and I couldn't have been any more excited to be there. After traveling through the country for 3 weeks, here is a digest of some practical advice on how to survive your first 48 hours in Vietnam. For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that you are going to be in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) or Hanoi.
Getting In & Out Of The Airport
In Ho Chi Minh City, the airport is roughly 30 minutes away from the city center. I took a taxi to my hostel on Backpackers St (Phạm Ngũ Lão Street) from the airport that set me back 200,000 VND (USD 9). Oddly enough, this was a negotiated rate at the official taxi stand, and luckily for me, my hostel was kind enough to send me an email with a price estimate for me to use as reference.
The city bus #20 is also available to shuttle you to and from the airport. A ride will cost 20,000 VND (USD 0.90) and the attendant will be able to advise you on when you need to get off if you let he/she know where your accommodation is. The last stop is the main bus interchange on Backpacker St which is extremely convenient if you are planning to stay in one of the many hotels and hostels nearby.
In Hanoi, the airport is about 45 minutes away from the city center. According to the Hanoi Airport Guide, city buses #7 and #17 will get you to the city center. I arrived in Hanoi via bus from Hoi An so I didn't need to get to the city center from the airport.
To get to the airport, there are a number of shared shuttles that will take. I caught a Vietnam Airlines (you don't need to be flying with them to use this service) shuttle on the corner of Quang Trung and Tràng Thi to the airport for 40,000 VND (USD 1.80). If you elect to do this, the driver will make sure there are at least 3 passengers in the shuttle before leaving. If you are in a hurry, I would see which one will be leaving soonest because there are many in the area.
Money & Finance
The official currency is the Vietnamese Dong with notes as low as 500 all the way up to 500,000. Be very mindful of the notes you are giving out when paying for goods and services. For example, the 10,000 Dong note is eerily similar to the 100,000 Dong note!
In and around the city, ATMs are readily available to withdraw cash from. Most often, I've seen the withdrawal limit set at 2,000,000 VND (USD 91) with the ATM fee ranging from 35,000 VND (USD 1.60) - 85,000 VND (USD 3.85). I have, however, seen ATMs (such as the one by MIB) with a withdrawal limit of 5,000,000 VND (USD 225)!
Credit Cards are not widely accepted apart from large retail stores, upscale restaurants and hotels. The hostels I stayed in did accept payment by credit card but added on a 3% service fee (which I didn't mind too much). Lastly, if credit cards were accepted, it was mostly Visa and MasterCard only, no American Express.
I cannot speak for hotels in the country because I didn't stay in any, but the dorm rooms in hostels are fairly affordable ranging from USD 5 - 8 /night for a good one. In Ho Chi Minh City, I highly recommend The Hangout Hostel and Funky Jungle Hostel in Hanoi as affordable places to stay.
On the same note, I do not recommend Hanoi Rocks in Hanoi. Even by party hostel standards, I was extremely appalled when I stayed there for one night.
Wifi is extremely prevalent and fast in the cities. You will have no problem checking your email, uploading snaps from the day or even streaming the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I was extremely surprised at how good the download and upload speeds were in certain places - often as good as 15mbps down and 10mbps up.
Getting a SIM card is also another affordable way to stay connected. The carrier I went with was Vinaiphone and I got a data-only sim for my unlocked iPhone 6 Plus for 100,000 VND (USD 4.50) pre-loaded with 4.5 GB of data valid of 30 days. Even with heavy cellular data use, I was able to stay within limits for the entirety of my trip. At the airport, look out for the Vinaiphone or Viettel stores and pick up a sim card there. When I first arrived, it was rather late at night and they were already closed. Fortunately, the awesome staff at The Hangout Hostel was able to arrange for sim cards to be delivered to me. Now, that's what I call service!
Health & Safety
It is hot in Vietnam and even hotter in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. When I visited, the temperature would be a high of 38ºC/100ºF and about 30ºC/86ºF at night. Be ready to sweat like you've never sweated before!
Bring your own sunscreen! With the blazing hot sun, you will need it just walking around the streets. The ones found in the local convenience stores all contain whitening agents (sometimes referred to as collagen) which is no good if you're trying to get a tan. It is also very expensive with 75 ml bottles going for as much as 500,000 VND (USD 22.50)!
Water from the tap in not drinkable anywhere in Vietnam. Refer to the Food & Drink section on how much a water costs.
Cotton is useless, bring quick dry clothing (eg. clothes you work out in) because you'll sweat non-stop. Pants are also pretty useless. Refer to the Shopping section below for a recommendation on where to buy such clothing in Ho Chi Minh City.
Snatch theft is a major issue in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. I've heard many horror stories of handbags, backpacks and even cellphones being taken from folks by motorcyclists who whiz past on the street. Make sure items of value are secure and close to your body at all times!
When crossing the road, don't wait for an opening as you'll never see one. Start crossing the street and the motorbikes and cars will start to weave around you. If you hesitate, you'll get hit. Start and don't stop.
Food & Drink
The going rate for a 1.5L bottle of water is 10,000 VND (USD 0.45).
The going rate for a bottle of refreshing Bia Saigon beer is between 10,000 - 15,000 VND (USD 0.45 - 0.78).
When in Vietnam, you have to try Pho (Noodle Soup) and Banh Mi (Baguette Sandwich). Don't be afraid to try it from roadside vendors as well! A great example of this was the excellent Banh Mi at the roadside cafe Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi. You can get either item starting at around 30,000 VND (USD 1.35).
Another thing you can't miss is Vietnamese Coffee with its signature condensed milk. It can be quite strong for infrequent coffee drinkers and will certainly get your wheels turning to start the day. A cup of this coffee can be had hot and iced starting from 20,000 VND (USD 0.90).
If you want more ideas for local food, check out my vlog on the food tour I went on in Nha Trang.
The Language Barrier
Overall, the level of English is pretty basic. At restaurants, if you have food restrictions, learn how to say "no meat", "no fish" in the local language. Also, when ordering, talk a little slower and point to the menu item on the menu itself to ensure the waiter understands what you are trying to order.
If you are bargaining for something, use the calculator on your phone to indicate your desired price and work from there. Agree on a price before handing over any cash!
"Hello" - pronounced Sin Jow
"Thank You" - pronounced Gamm Ern
"How Much Is It?" - prounounced Zaa baw newie
"1,2,3 Cheers" - pronounced Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!
I walked around the main cities a lot which means I didn't need to take a taxi. In the event that you do need one, there are a small handful of reliable, metered taxis for both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Here is an excellent guide on identifying one in Hanoi, while you want to look for Vinsun or Mai Linh taxis in Ho Chi Minh for a scam free ride. Beware of the fake taxis posing as imposter taxi companies. Before jumping in, make sure to verify that they are running the meter!
Another way to get around are the numerous bike taxis where you get on the back of someone's motorcycle for a fee. It sounds a little sketchy and I personally didn't have a need for one, but if you choose to take one, make sure you negotiate a rate beforehand. The driver will likely quote you 5x the usual fare.
Just like much of South East Asia, bargain for everything (politely ask if the price is fixed first). You're going to be quoted 5x the usual price so try to talk them down as much as possible.
There are lots of mini-marts and convenience stores that should stock much of what you need. The most common one is Circle K. Another great reason to shop there is that their stores are often enclosed and air-conditioned.
In Ho Chi Minh City, I was in dire need of quick dry clothing as cotton wasn't cutting it. I headed over to Saigon Centre for quality knock-off Nike clothing that would be more suitable for the climate. I bought short sleeve quick dry t-shirts and shorts for about 140,000 VND (USD 6.30). You can also head to Bến Thành Market for a better deal but the vendors there are overly pushy and the lack of air conditioning there can make shopping very overwhelming.
About The Author
Nico Atienza is a Philippines born, Sri Lankan raised traveler who sold everything, quit his job and escaped the rat race to travel the world in 2016. Apart from his love of travel, he is an award winning volunteer, miles + points aficionado and perpetually epicurious story teller. You can peer into his life by following him on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or send him an Email.