How to enjoy your time in Vietnam

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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.


Rice padi in Ben Tre

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.


Dawn at Chau Doc

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.


Motorbikes lined up in Hanoi

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.

Attitude

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."

The hassle

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.


Floating market near Can Tho

The lies

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.


Having shoes made, Hoi An

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!


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 14 comment(s)

  • We spent 3+ weeks in Vietnam in March-April 2008 on our "honeymoon" & had a Glorious time! Found our amazing Highlands guide in Kon Tum (Mr. Huynh) via Travelfish, & had an extraordinary experience. Granted, my husband was taking me home to a place he lived & soldiered in for 3 years & fell in love with (we're 49 & 62), but we took cooking classes, mini-cruises, the 2-night train from Saigon to Hanoi (eating pho & drinking 333 Beer), ate & drank ourselves into "foodie heaven", trekked into villages, ate stuff, drank stuff, climbed up cliffs to other villages, shopped ourselves silly, kayakked, rode motorcycles, flew Vietnam Airways, took pedicabs, saw puppet theatre, & in general had a total blast, & can't Wait to return to all the places we didn't get to see! Vietnam is WONDERFUL & its people are Wonderful!! I blogged about it extensively w/photos & links (inc. to Travelfish!) on: http://www.southernwestvirginia.blogspot.com (posts after April 2008).

    Posted by Elisse J Goldstein on 31st March, 2009

  • My family and I visited Saigon and Phu Quoc in June 2008. We had a blast! It was by far one of our most favorite destinations to date. We have traveled to Europe, Thailand, Japan, China and Vietnam. WE loved how far the US dollar went, we loved the food, the people were amazing! We can't wait to go back!! We had our 14 year old daughter with us...she wasn't so into the food or the crowds or the humidity (typical teenager) but in the end she is glad she experienced Vietnam. If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, I suggest you take the time to see the island of Phu Quoc - it is raw and rural...but not for long. Soon it will be a developed island with mega resorts and super sanitary beaches. We rode mopeds all over the island and found desolate beaches with the bluest water we've ever seen! We ate prawns the size of my hands and found huge seashells just washed up on shore. Fantastic!!

    Posted by Heather Robinson on 1st April, 2009

  • Thanks for the tips. We're headed to Vietnam tomorrow and will keep these things in mind.

    We're in Cambodia now and get hassled like crazy at the bus stations and while walking down the street. It's really hard to ignore them. They are very tenacious.

    Hasslers are the one thing through my traveling that I have the hardest time dealing with. It puts me in an instant bad mood.

    "You need a tuk-tuk?"
    "No thank you."
    "Where are you going?"
    "None of your business."
    "I take you where you go."
    "No."
    "Where are you going?"

    I guess it'd be disrespectful to answer that question with "Your mom's house," but it's tempting sometimes.

    Posted by SammyK on 2nd April, 2009

  • Hi SammyK,

    First, congrats on the LP win -- nice work... what on earth you going to do with all those books?

    If you've found the hassle in Cambodia to be a bit much, sorry to say you'll find Vietnam probably moreso -- but it's worth putting up with -- tis a fabulous country.

    Cheers

    Posted by somtam2000 on 2nd April, 2009

  • I know it can be annoying but these people earn next to peanuts money and they're just doing what they can for themselves and their family, that's what i bare in mind along with a t-shirt bought in Thailand saying, no i don't want an f**ing tuk tuk, massage or suit

    cheers

    Posted by Manny on 5th April, 2009


  • I completely agree with the author. I enjoyed my trip a lot back in 2007, and although there were unpleasant things about the country (booted out of hotel cause they could get more, travel agency that didn't deliver it's promises,...) in general i find the vietnamese some of the friendliest in the region.
    For financial and preactical resons i used the open tour buses and they were full of people complaining and whining all the time. 2 things i'll never forget:
    - a massive fight in a roadside restaurant over whether rice was or was not included in the price. (= bunch of backpackers raising hell to the poor restaurant workers over 4000VND!!!)
    - a traveller carrying a huge 5 liter jug of mineral waterwith him all the time, because "it was 3000VND cheaper than buying 5 seperate 1 liter bottles

    Need i say more?

    Bert Dosfel

    Posted by Bert Dosfel on 17th April, 2009

  • I have lived and worked in Sai Gon for the past decade. I agree with the article about Vietnam. Like anywhere else you travel to, use common sense. ALWAYS ask for the price of a good or service before using it. Desperate people tend to desperate things. Except for the traffic, I am safer living in Sai Gon than I was when I lived in Orange County, California. But heroin and Ecstasy, among other "social evils" are laying waste to the youth of Vietnam. And those lost souls are walking the streets, ready to "liberate" you from your worldly possessions.

    I passionately agree with posters who lament the disgraceful sight of obese Western tourists who take bargaining with the poor vendors so seriously. If you like to bargain, raise holy Hell with your hotel operator. They are rich. But the street vendors are scraping by - and not getting much sympathy from the local government, who want to run them off the streets and back into their villages (Where there is no work.)

    Traffic- Don't think for a SECOND that those motorbike drivers care if they hit you or not. When you are walking, you are LOWEST on the respect scale. DO NOT RENT A MOTORBIKE IN HA NOI OR HCMC if you are not an experienced driver. And look hard at any Honda om you ride with. Yes, they drink beer. No, they will not sacrifice their beer money for eye glasses to correct their vision. And if you feel safer taking a taxicab, think again!! The average taxi driver has less than one year of driving experience. He is usually a young man from the provinces who does not know the city, does not know how to make change, and does not know how to drive! Sure, Vietnam is safe from Islamic terrorists but who cares about al-Queda when they have Mai Linh Taxi? And the small coaches that shuttle you to your resort destination? Check out the recent news about the bus headed to Mui Ne that rolled down a cliff and killed 10 Russians.And this past year locals have been purchasing automobiles and drivers licenses as if there was no tomorrow. Get the picture? Traffic is LETHAL here.

    Otherwise, VN is a great place. Sample the street food (outdoor dining.) Be generous with the war invalids. Who cares which side they fought on? Their lives are grim and they need our support. Women: NO! NO! NO! DO NOT buy an ao dai (Vietnamese long dress.) Only VN women (With long necks) look good in them. Men: You will NOT see any locals wearing HCM or Che Gueverra t-shirts. Get the idea? Don't set yourself up as a naive honky tourist.

    Chuc mung du lich.(Pidgin VN for "have a nice vacation.)

    Posted by Jim in Sai Gon on 23rd April, 2009

  • Hi

    In general, great coverage.

    Each time I've been to VN, I've enjoyed myself (in an overall sense).

    For an overview of my last (major) journey, visit my blog:

    http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Vietnam/blog-373859.html

    - - - -

    I must say that each time I revisit Vietnam, I get more and more p****d off with locals trying to extort large sums of money for some good or another.

    I fail to understand why the Vietnamese gov't encourages the Vietnamese to double price - that is, have one price for a local, and another for a tourist.

    This practice has merely 'educates' the locals to adopt the same approach.

    If a street vendor wants to up the local price by say 10 or 20%, I don't mind. But, all too often, the price is double, triple or more. I feel as though I have a HUMAN right to object. I DO haggle. But, my 'secret' is to be cheerful about it. I'll say things like "Oh, so much, do you want to buy a new car (or new tuk-tuk, or elephant, or etc., etc.)" "Maybe I can buy for ***** (citing a third the price)".

    I don't care whether it is a measly 2000 dong at stake. I just don't like being ripped off. If the vendor doesn't want to reduce, I go without.

    I disagree with the comment on Halong Bay "the enjoyment simply depended on the group of people he winded up with on the boat".

    If one is stuck in a boat with loads of people in a traffic jam of junks around Dao Titop, I'd very much agree. But, there is much much more to Halong Bay than going with the cheap(er) rabble of tourist boats full of drunken yobbo's.

    Last, I am really surprised this Travelfish 'advice' has only skirted the issue of HaNoi and travel agent 'honesty'.

    In HaNoi, the 'officials' will not close copy-cat travel agencies (especially if they have HQ in Saigon). For example, Sinh Cafe has offices in most tourist oriented cities. The Sinh Cafe reputation is widely acknowledged. In HaNoi, every street corner has a Sinh Cafe tourism agency, each claiming to be the 'right one', and many being no more than crooks. It is only from Hue (south) that this horrible practice ceases. Be warned that advice on travel from a travel agency in HaNoi is most probably going to be a pack of lies. If you want to rely on a semblance of truth, seek out the correct travel agency office of the company with whom you hold some faith.

    Cheers



    Posted by brucemoon on 1st May, 2009

  • This is a great article and much needed I think - when you live in Vietnam and love the country it can at times be baffling why some visitors fall passionately in love with the place while others leave bitterly declaring they will never return.

    It is definitely true that you need to approach a country - any country, really - with the right attitude in order to enjoy it the most, particularly if at times it may put you outside your comfort zone. But as you say the hassle in Vietnam is certainly nothing compared to many other countries, and the 'dual pricing' occurs in all developing countries - and it doesn't seem as blatant here as the government-sanctioned tourist prices in Thailand.

    It's worth noting too that often Vietnamese people will also be ripped off by stubborn traders in markets - just as we might at a dodgy car boot sale at home.

    As ever, if you approach your travels in an open, friendly and cheerful manner you will get far more out of it than if you are worrying over every last penny. And the more independently you are prepared to travel the more rewarding your journey will be.

    Posted by Jonny Platt on 2nd May, 2009

  • This is an excellent article with great advice. I've traveled to Vietnam numerous times and while I love it and look forward to going back again soon, each trip is filled with highs and lows. Fortunately the highs far outweigh the lows! Understanding before hand that you'll have to pay more, be hassled, and lied to on occasion is one thing, but accepting it when you're tired or hungry can be trying at times. But as this article and others have pointed out, it's the same in most developing countries, unfortunately. Remembering that you likely have much more than these people do, and imagining yourself in their shoes definitely helps.

    On the whole though, Vietnam is a terrific country to visit with VERY friendly people. As the above article recommends, get off the beaten path. In my experience when you get away from the heavily trafficked tourist areas you're less likely to be taken advantage of and the people are even more friendly.

    Posted by Next Destinations on 26th May, 2009

  • I and my family have visited VN many times. We love it there! My one main piece of advice would be: go with an open mind, and an open itinerary. While it is good to have a rough idea of what you want to do, it is best to leave yourself lots of room to change plans, go with the flow, stay longer in places you like, and move on if you don;'t like a place so much.
    Contrary to the Travelfish article, above, there can be advantages to traveling on the open-tour route. A few years ago, it was strictly travellers (non-Vietnamese) on those buses, but now, there are as many locals as travellers. The quality of the buses can vary, according to the company. I've been fine with TM Brothers, and with Sinh Cafe. Just be forwarned; It's best, if doing a long route like Nha Trang to Hue, to take a bus with an on-board bathroom. Some drivers are particularly unwilling to make extra stops, especially at night. Don't drink beer if you are on one of those long routes, on a bus without a bathroom. As for the bus tending to stop at pre-arranged hotels, and putting pressure on the passengers to check in there, it is easy to ignore them. Or tell them you already have a hotel room, or that your friend is coming to pick you up...whatever! No need to get into a conversation. On the other hand, sometimes the hotels they recommend are really good.
    As to the tendency for locals to charge travellers higher prices, don't take it so hard, as the prices vary for locals too! A local driving a car always gets charged more than one on a bicycle, for example. Regulars eat cheaper than some one who walks in to an eatery for the first time, and that goes for foreigners too! If you like the food, go back, and on the 2nd or 3rd visit, you will find you are paying less. (If not, don't forget, some places charge the right price to everyone, every time.)
    My family and I have both gone with guides on tours, and done our own exploring. I feel this is a good way to do things, as each offers something different. My advice about tours is: don't do big bus tours. Go on private tours, with your friend, your family, or the friend you met at your hotel. It is much more personal, and relaxed. Talk to your guide before you go. Avoid buying your tour from your hotel reception desk, as they are not the people who will be your tour guide, and they will take a cut too.
    So, like I said, go with an open mind, and an open plan. Also, don't be afraid to try something new, and do try to meet the local people. It's worth it.

    Posted by sandabrite on 30th June, 2009

  • I have one piece of simple advice for people considering a visit to Vietnam - Dont bother.

    You will be ripped off here over and over again on an epic scale. Do yourself a favour and stick to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

    Posted by room101 on 21st July, 2010

  • i never been in vietnam befor i wont to visit.

    Posted by addisalem taye on 26th July, 2011

  • This article is 100% like I experiented on my cyclingtrip for nearly two months in the Mekong-delta. A very positief trip, meeting so many good Vietnamese people... Thank you Vienam for being so nice and giving so much.

    Posted by Adriaan Castermans on 20th October, 2013

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