Vietnam is one of those countries often found on the list of “most affordable countries to travel to”. With plenty of good food, proud history, and gorgeous green landscapes to offer, booking a flight to Vietnam is a no-brainer! Yet as with all travel plans, the unexpected does happen and pretty pictures on Instagram can only tell you so much. It has taken me not one, but two trips to discover what to really expect in Vietnam. Here are some things to know before your trip.
You rarely see photos of snow-capped mountains in a tropical country, but winter is REAL here. I learned the hard way on my first trip to Hanoi, expecting a hot and sweaty hiking experience at Sapa in January. It turned out that December to January are the coldest months in North Vietnam, with temperatures dropping between 0 - 5℃ in the mountains. Thankfully many outdoor apparel brands are manufactured in Hanoi and we were able to get jackets at almost cost price, although it was still freezing at night. To pack appropriately for your trip, do a quick check on the season of the exact area you’re travelling to. There is quite a significant temperature difference at any given time of the year between north, central, and southern regions of Vietnam.
I’m always fascinated by how Vietnamese food is so flavourful yet clean and healthy. So, eating street food was top of my To Do list in Ho Chi Minh City. Finding non-touristy street food vendors turned out to be a bit of a challenge because they move around! Many of HCMC’s most authentic street food vendors do business from simple cart-like vehicles, usually attached to a motorbike which makes it easy to quickly relocate. If you’re researching about where to find the best street food (that isn’t on an overpriced tourist-trap street), try to also look for information that might tell you time and day. We found the best-grilled pork skewers, the tastiest Vietnamese-style omelette, and the freshest prawn rolls right outside Saigon Square on a Thursday afternoon, 4.30pm onwards.
I’ll be really honest here. I was first introduced to Vietnamese cuisine in Australia where beef noodle bowls are massive and prawn rolls are huge. But in the motherland itself, portions are smaller in comparison, which means more tummy space to try different dishes! So perhaps switch your habit of eating three full meals a day, to constant snacking instead. I personally enjoyed trying out as many Banh Mi’s (Baguette sandwiches inspired by the French) as possible throughout the day just to compare and find my favourite. The verdict? The freshly grilled pork Banh Mi by a moving food vendor at the corner of CCentral Hotel De Tham late at night, just at the start of Bui Vien’s busy drinking street. Cheap and yummy!
Source: Pasteur Street Brewing
Surprise! Vietnam is Asia’s true beer central, said to consume at least 3.6 billion litres a year. This has created opportunities for many craft breweries to open shop, offering all kinds of fascinating local ingredients that complement the average blonde ale and sturdy stout. Try chocolate stout beer with Marou chocolate and durian wheat ale at Pasteur Street Brewing Co or go on a brewery tour with East West Brewing Company. For those who prefer non-alcoholic drinks, indulge in Vietnam’s nationwide local coffee culture but brace yourself for a strong kick of caffeine and sugar! A favourite place of mine is L'usine Le Loi Cafe right across the Saigon Opera House.
I saw many locals wearing face masks covering their nose and mouth in Ho Chi Minh City, especially motorcyclists and pedestrians. I didn’t think I’d need it because I would only be there for five days, what could possibly go wrong? Well, I spent most of my time walking instead of being in an enclosed vehicle so my throat soon became very sore from breathing in so much of the city’s fumes. Statistics show there are almost 7 million registered motorbikes polluting HCMC alone. While the government is aware of change needed in this area, it would sometimes do well for travellers to remember that the famous proverb by Saint Ambrose can apply beyond Rome too.
Image by thesaigontimes
It’s tempting to ride a motorbike around the city because everyone is doing it too. But if you’re not familiar with local traffic practices (which can be different from actual “rules”), it may not be very safe for yourself or others around you. This is different from just wearing a mask! The alternative way to travel around the city is by GrabTaxi (or GrabBike). It is affordable, reliable and has become the most convenient form of transport even for local business people. Price per km is currently VND8.500.
Image by luneproductions
Tourist activities usually include visiting a museum but I personally found museums in Vietnam quite old and in need of an upgrade. Instead, my highlight was watching Vietnam’s “bamboo circus” known as the AO Show at Saigon Opera House, also available at Hanoi and Hoi An. It was entertaining and delightful and I was so impressed by how creative they were in creating a whole saga out of bamboo! It gave me a true appreciation for Vietnam’s culture, the past and present lifestyle, and its people. The best part is - it’s almost wordless! So language isn’t a barrier at all. Bets to book your tickets before your trip so you secure a seat.
Image by SasinTipchai
Many locals speak basic English in the city and most road signs, commercial and building names are spelt out in English too. However, when you travel out to remote areas, you’ll definitely need to know some basic Vietnamese words to get by. Vietnam was once colonized by France and so you may find certain Vietnamese words are very similar to French. There are also a handful of older folks who speak French and Mandarin. Download the TripLingo translation app on your phone to fit right in with the locals, or you can try Papago which is a translation app that specializes in Asian languages, including Vietnamese. Both are available on iTunes or Google Play.
Image by maichauecolodge
Before you book your hotel or get excited about exploring the city, consider venturing out and staying at an eco-lodge. It’s a whole different experience in itself and can be very rewarding. These places usually offer activities where you can learn about the natural produce of the land and experience sustainable living first-hand while contributing to the community during your stay. Located in a natural reserve, Puluong Retreat in North Vietnam has chalets with stunning views and cycling trails. Mai Chau EcoLodge is also located among the mountains up north, and they offer cooking classes and educational farming activities too.
Image by RudyandPeterSkitterians
It’s the one thing I often forget to check on when travelling around Asia. Luckily, passport holders from ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia do not need a Visa to Vietnam if they’re staying there for less than 30 days. Visa exemptions also apply to passport holders from other Asian countries too but the duration of allowable stay can vary. If you’re a passport holder from America, Canada, China, Australia or even India, a Visa is required to enter Vietnam and you can apply and pay for it online at the Vietnam government website here.