How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
Updated on 27th January, 2011. First published 30th March, 2009
Many visitors in Vietnam find themselves scratching their heads at some stage, wondering "What on earth am I doing here?" Vietnam tends to elicit the most varied reactions among travellers to the region. While Cambodia (too poor), Laos (too boring) and Thailand (too touristy) each get their share of mediocre reports, Vietnam often gets a far more hostile report card. It's the only country in Southeast Asia of which we've heard people say they would never, ever return, alleging it’s a veritable snakepit of scams and hassle. Yikes!
If you're a first time visitor heading to Vietnam, read on for some suggestions on how to avoid finding yourself in a negative frame of mind -- hell, you might even enjoy your trip!
Plan your trip
Vietnam is big -- bigger than you think -- and this size is amplified by what is a relatively slow-moving public transport system. Our mantra of less is more holds particularly true for Vietnam.
First off, be sure to allow enough time so that you can travel at a relaxed pace. Many first-time visitors to Vietnam try to see too much in too little time. With anything less than two weeks, we'd argue you're best off to either restrict yourself to just one section of the country, or be prepared to make good use of Vietnam's domestic flight network.
Still, a "mini-tour" industry has sprung up to cater for those in a hurry, which people who would otherwise be classified as independent travellers find themselves using time and time again. The tours are everywhere: the DMZ, Sapa, Ha Long Bay and the Mekong Delta to name just the most popular ones. Prices are often incredibly cheap -- and there is often no way to do the trip for less independently, particularly the Mekong Delta trips.
However, it's not all about the money.
Generally speaking, the mini-tour experience tends to lean towards the contrived. You're shuttled around in a minibus full of other tourists, eat at tour-sanctioned restaurants and sleep at tour-sanctioned lodgings. You'll often have zero interaction with any Vietnamese nationals who are not employees/contractors/sub-contractors/sub-sub-contractors of the tour company. The low rates are often loss leaders and the organisers make their profit via flogging you overpriced wares or inferior goods along the way.
While fine for some, these mini-tours can leave a bad taste in the mouth of others. Complaints, especially revolving around promised goods not being delivered, are all too common.
The simple solution is to allow yourself enough time to explore the country independently. With the exception perhaps of Ha Long Bay, there is absolutely no need to do a mini-tour anywhere in Vietnam.
Don't use the Open Tour system
The most prevalent of the mini-tours is the "Open Tour" bus network that encompasses nearly all of Vietnam's highlights. In theory, a jump on and jump off prepaid bus service, often ridiculously cheap, sounds great. But in practice, passengers are dropped off at -- or herded to -- "associated" (read commission-paying or company-owned) guesthouses, hotels and restaurants along the way. The hotels are often out of the way and considerable pressure is put on passengers to stay at the "recommended" guesthouse. This can and does lead to uncomfortable stand-offs in the middle of the night. While a minor point, the system only serves specific destinations, so if you get off somewhere else, you can't get back on later without paying for that leg again.
The easiest way to avoid these problems is to not use the Open Tour system. For long legs, when possible use the train or fly. For shorter legs, anything under say 6 to 8 hours, the local bus system is adequate.
Get off the beaten track
If you're not doing mini-tours and not using the Open Tour system, you'll find it is very easy to get off the beaten track in Vietnam. The country has a massive coastline, yet the vast majority of visitors only touch the ocean in four towns -- Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and perhaps Vung Tau. Get out there and explore a bit!
Exploring can be more challenging: You will have language issues and the standard of accommodation may not be quite what you're looking for. But these issues will be more than compensated for by the benefits received. Vietnamese people are a really friendly, hospitable bunch. No doubt you'll get invited to weddings and eat and drink things you'd probably prefer you hadn't, but that's what the travel experience is all about.
Accept that sometimes you will have to pay more
Get over it. At some stage, during your time in Vietnam, you will be expected to pay a higher price for something than a local would pay. It may be for something as small as a pack of cigarettes or as big as a five-night Ha Long Bay luxury cruise, but it will happen. In the public bus system you may be charged a higher tariff than a local. Sometimes the difference will be nominal, other times it won't -- pick your battles! Getting red-faced over a 2,000 VND stitch-up is a waste of everyone's time.
Personal space, staring
If you take our advice and use the public bus network, you may well find yourself wedged into smaller spaces than you thought possible. The Western idea of personal space doesn't really float in Vietnam. Space is there to be used and it will be, regardless of how much you choose to bleat. If you make a big enough stink, you may get away with a few extra inches of breathing space, but all you've really achieved is taking a few inches off someone else. If you decide to use the public system, you need to accept that you're travelling on the terms of the Vietnamese.
If you don't fit the "normal" caricature of a foreign traveller, expect to be stared at -- especially if you've ventured off the beaten trail. Be it hair style, size, height or even fashion sense (or lack thereof) you may be stared at. Ignore it. Getting off your motorbike and stomping across the street to scream at some poor guy will only make more people stare -- including us.
A long-time Vietnam hand involved in the tour industry puts it this way: "Some backpackers can be quite blunt and un-polite in their dealings with the locals. At the same time, many Vietnamese hate the way they dress and the fact that they often drive a very hard bargain over amounts of money that are, in the scheme of things, not important to them, but mean a lot to the locals. Attitude -- how you dress, how you behave -- counts for a lot."
If you've travelled somewhere like Morocco the "hassle factor" in Vietnam will barely register, but if you've never been further than the corner store, the hassle factor in Vietnam can be pretty over-the-top. Again this can be mitigated by avoiding spending all your time in the tourist centres, but only to a certain degree. The hassle, be it beggars, motorbike drivers, tailor touts, touts in general, postcard-selling kids, pot-selling kids, book-selling kids, cigarette-selling kids -- you get the idea -- can be close to non-stop. Though difficult, just try to ignore them. Don't even make eye contact.
Hanoi, and to a lesser extent Saigon and Hue, are home to snakepits of travel agencies. The business is absolutely cut-throat, margins are miniscule and many will promise the earth and deliver less than nothing. Deception is all too common, especially online. Around 90% of accounts we have banned on Travelfish.org have been Vietnam-based travel agents masquerading as travellers. Treat anything you read online recommending the service of any agent with a quadruple dose of scepticism. The best way to get a straight answer is to talk to other travellers.
You get what you pay for -- but what do you want?
One of the most problematic areas in Vietnam is doing a tour of Ha Long Bay, where, while you can do it independently (sort of) by getting the ferry to Cat Ba and staying on Cat Ba Island, the vast majority of people do tours. Tour rates run from next to nothing to hundreds and hundreds of dollars, so you do need to consider precisely what it is you want out of a trip -- and perhaps try to rustle up a group of like-minded souls. Our researcher said after doing three different Ha Long Bay tours that much of his enjoyment simply depended on the group of people he winded up with on the boat.
You need to "earn" Vietnam
Vietnam can be more challenging than its neighbours, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. One needs to "earn" Vietnam. You need to make the effort to get to enjoy Vietnam. Spend some time planning, eschew unnecessary tours, get off the beaten track, learn a smidgen of the lingo and hang out with regular Vietnamese -- even if it is for nothing more than a "Yo" or ten over a couple of Saigon Beers. You can do it!
Related readingA litany of scams: Laos and Vietnam
The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
A short break in Nha Trang
Ha Long Bay conclusions
Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
Ha Long Bay for backpackers
How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
Read 14 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (7)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (72)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (20)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.