Vietnam //

Travel essentials

Addresses

Locating an address is rarely a problem in Vietnam, but there are a couple of conventions it helps to know about. Where two numbers are separated by a slash, such as 110 5, you simply make for no. 110, where an alley will lead off to a further batch of buildings – you want the fifth one. Where a number is followed by a letter, as in 117a, you’re looking for a single block encompassing several addresses, of which one will be 117a. Vietnamese cite addresses without the words for street, avenue and so on; we’ve followed this practice throughout the Guide except where ambiguity would result.

Admission charges

Admission charges are usually levied at museums, historic sights, national parks and any place that attracts tourists – sometimes even beaches. Charges at some major sights range from a dollar or two up to around US$4–5 for the Cham ruins at My Son or Hué’s citadel and royal mausoleums. Elsewhere, however, the amount is usually just a few thousand dong. Note that there’s often a hefty additional fee for cameras and videos at major sights.

Apart from those with some historical significance, pagodas and temples are usually free, though it’s customary to leave a donation of a few thousand dong in the collecting box or on one of the altar plates.

Costs

With the average Vietnamese annual income hovering around US$800–1000, daily expenses are low, and if you come prepared to do as the locals do, then food and drink can be incredibly cheap – and even accommodation needn’t be too great an expense. However, constantly rising petrol prices mean that transport costs are creeping up all the time. Bargaining is very much a part of everyday life, and almost everything is negotiable, from fruit in the market to a room for the night.

By eating at simple com (rice) and pho (noodle soup) stalls, picking up local buses and opting for the simplest accommodation there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to adhere to a daily budget in the region of US$15–20. Upgrading to more salubrious lodgings with a few mod cons, eating good food followed by a couple of beers in a bar and signing up for the odd minibus tour and visiting a few sights could bounce your expenditure up to a more realistic US$30–40. A fair mid-level budget, treating yourself to three-star hotels and more upmarket restaurants, would lie in the US$50–100 range, depending on the number and type of tours you took. And if you stay at the ritziest city hotels, dine at the swankiest restaurants and rent cars with drivers wherever you go, then the sky’s the limit.

Electricity

The electricity supply in Vietnam is 220 volts. Plugs generally have two round pins, though you may come across sockets requiring two flat pins and even some requiring three pins. Adaptors can be found in any electrical shop. Power supplies can be erratic, so be prepared for cuts and surges.

Entry requirements

All foreign nationals need a visa to enter Vietnam, with certain exceptions: citizens of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Japan and South Korea do not need a visa if they are travelling to Vietnam for less than fifteen days, have a passport valid for three months following the date of entry and hold a return air ticket. Citizens of certain ASEAN–member countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are also exempt for stays of up to thirty days. Tourist visas are generally valid for thirty days and for a single entry, though three months multiple–entry visas are also available. A standard thirty–day visa costs the local equivalent of US$30–100, depending on how quickly you want it processed.

The majority of visitors apply for a visa in their country of residence, either from the embassy direct, or through a specialist visa agent or tour agent. Processing normally takes around a week, though many embassies also offer a more expensive “express” service.

If it’s difficult to get to your nearest Vietnam Embassy, consider buying your visa online at wvietnamvisa.com. Prices range from US$22 plus US$25 ‘stamping fee’ (for a one-month, single-entry visa) to US$34 plus US$50 ‘stamping fee’ (for a three-month, multiple-entry visa.) On receipt of your fee (usually within 24 hours), you’ll be sent a document to print out and show immigration on arrival. The process is very efficient and currently only requires a short wait upon arrival, though this wait could get longer if the system proves popular. If you follow this route, look out for the Visa on Arrival desk at the airport before you pass through immigration.

To apply for a tourist visa, you have to submit an application form with one or two passport-sized photographs (procedures vary) and the fee. The visa shows specific start and end dates indicating the period of validity within which you can enter and leave the country. The visa is valid for entry via Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang international airports and any of Vietnam’s land borders open to foreigners.

Business visas are valid for one month upwards and can be issued for multiple entry, though you’ll need a sponsoring office in Vietnam to underwrite your application.

One-year student visas are relatively easy to get hold of if you enrol, for example, on a Vietnamese language course at one of the universities; you’ll be required to attend a minimum number of classes per week to qualify. It’s easiest to arrange it in advance, but you can enter Vietnam on a tourist visa and apply for student status later – the only downside is that you may have to leave the country in order to get the visa stamp.

Special circumstances affect overseas Vietnamese holding a foreign passport: check with the Vietnamese embassy in your country of residence for details.

Visa extensions
Thirty-day extensions are issued in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hué and Hoi An. Some people have managed to obtain second and even third extensions, usually in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Applications have to be made via a tour agent. In general they take three to five days to process and cost $25 for the first one-month extension.

Holders of business visas can apply for an extension only through the office that sponsored their original visa, backed up with reasons as to why an extension is necessary.

Incidentally, overstaying your visa will result in fines of between US$10 and US$50, depending how long you overstay and the mood of the immigration official, and is not recommended.

Culture and etiquette

With its blend of Confucianism and Buddhism, Vietnamese society tends to be both conservative and, at the same time, fairly tolerant. This means you will rarely be remonstrated with for your dress or behaviour, even if your hosts do disapprove. By following a few simple rules, you can minimize the risk of causing offence. This is particularly important in rural areas and small towns where people are less used to the eccentric habits of foreigners.

As a visitor, it’s recommended that you err on the side of caution. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are fine for the beach, but are not welcome in pagodas, temples and other religious sites. When dealing with officialdom, it also pays to look as neat and tidy as possible. Anything else may be taken as a mark of disrespect.

Women in particular should dress modestly, especially in the countryside and ethnic minority areas, where revealing too much flesh is regarded as offensive.

It’s also worth noting that nudity, either male or female, on the beach is absolutely beyond the pale.

When entering a Cao Dai temple, the main building of a pagoda or a private home it’s the custom to remove your shoes. In some pagodas nowadays this may only be required when stepping onto the prayer mats – ask or watch what other people do. In a pagoda or temple you are also expected to leave a small donation.

Officially, homosexuality is regarded as a “social evil”, alongside drugs and prostitution. However, there is no law explicitly banning homosexual activity and, as long as it is not practised openly, it is largely ignored. Indeed, the number of openly gay men has increased noticeably in recent years, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and homosexuality is discussed more frequently in the media, although the lesbian scene remains very low-key. Although outward discrimination is rare, this is still a very traditional society and it pays to be discreet in Vietnam. For more information, consult the excellent Utopia Asia website, Wutopia-asia.com.

As in most Asian countries, it’s not done to get angry, and it certainly won’t get things moving any quicker. Passing round cigarettes (to men only) is always appreciated and is widely used as a social gambit aimed at progressing tricky negotiations, bargaining and so forth.

Tipping, while not expected, is always appreciated. In general, a few thousand dong should suffice. Smart restaurants and hotels normally add a service charge, but if not ten percent is the norm in a restaurant, while the amount in a hotel will depend on the grade of hotel and what services they’ve provided. If you’re pleased with the service, you should also tip the guide, and the driver where appropriate, at the end of a tour.

Other social conventions worth noting are that you shouldn’t touch children on the head and, unlike in the West, it’s best to ignore a young baby rather than praise it, since it’s believed that this attracts the attention of jealous spirits who will cause the baby to fall ill.

Insurance

It is essential to have a good travel insurance policy to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. It’s also advisable to have medical cover that includes evacuation in the event of serious illness, as the local hospitals aren’t that great. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Vietnam this can include scuba diving, whitewater rafting, kite surfing, rock climbing and trekking. If you’re doing any motorbike touring, you are strongly advised to take out full medical insurance including emergency evacuation; make sure the policy specifically covers you for biking in Vietnam, and ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event that you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.

Internet and email

Accessing the internet in Vietnam has become a great deal easier, though it is still monitored and controlled by a government fearful of this potentially subversive means of communication. Occasionally social networking sites like Facebook have been blocked.

There’s no problem about logging on in the major cities and tourist centres in Vietnam, where you’ll find dozens of internet cafés, while many hotels also offer internet access. Many upmarket and even some budget hotels offer wi-fi broadband access in your room – sometimes free to attract custom. Even remote regions are wired to the web these days, though the service may be slower and more expensive. Rates in the big cities currently stand at around 100đ per minute, with some places charging by the hour (about 6000đ).

Laundry

Most top- and mid-range hotels provide a laundry service, and many budget hotels too, but rates can vary wildly, so it’s worth checking first. In the bigger cities, especially in tourist areas, you’ll find laundry shops on the street, where the rate is usually around 10,000đ per kilo.

Mail

Mail can take anything from four days to four weeks in or out of Vietnam, depending largely where you are. Services are quickest and most reliable from the major towns, where eight to ten days is the norm. Overseas postal rates are reasonable: a postcard costs 7000–8000đ, while the price of a letter is in the region of 12,000đ for the minimum weight. Express Mail Service (EMS) operates to most countries and certain destinations within Vietnam; the service cuts down delivery times substantially and the letter or parcel is automatically registered. For a minimum-weight dispatch by EMS (under 250g), you’ll pay around US$30 to the UK, US$32 to the US, US$35 to Canada and US$27
to Australia.

Poste restante services are available at all main post offices. You’ll need to show your passport to collect mail and will be charged a small amount per item. Mail is held for two months before being returned. To avoid misfiling, your name should be printed clearly, with the surname in capitals and underlined, and it’s still worth checking under all your names, just in case. Have letters addressed to you c/o Poste Restante, GPO, town or city, province.

When sending parcels out of Vietnam, take everything to the post office unwrapped since it will be inspected for any customs liability and wrapped for you, and the whole process, including wrapping and customs inspection, will cost you upwards of 30,000đ. Pirated CDs and DVDs and any other suspect items will be seized. Surface mail is the cheapest option, with parcels taking between one and four months.

Receiving parcels is not such a good idea. Some parcels simply go astray; those that do make it are subject to thorough customs inspections, import duty and even confiscation of suspicious items – particularly printed matter, videos or cassettes. However, if you do need to collect a parcel, remember to take your passport.

Maps

The most accurate and reliable map of Vietnam is the Rough Guides Map of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1:1,200,000). Other decent maps are the International Travel Map of Vietnam (1:1,000,000) or Nelles (1:1,500,000) map of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: both feature plans of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Alternatively, the locally produced maps you’ll find on sale in all the major towns and tourist destinations in Vietnam aren’t bad.

If you need more detailed coverage, if you’re cycling or motorbike touring for example, there’s no beating the book of maps entitled Giao Thong Duong Bo Vietnam (1:500,000) published by Ban Do Cartographic Publishing House and available in bigger bookshops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Trouble is, it weighs about a kilo. Another good option for cyclists and bikers is the Vietnam Administrative Atlas by the same publisher, with a map of each province per page. Look out, too, for Fauna and Flora International’s Vietnam Ecotourism Map (1:1,000,000). Not only is it pretty accurate, but also includes information on visiting the national parks and other areas of environmental interest.

Money

Vietnam’s unit of currency is the dong, which you’ll see abbreviated as “đ”, “d” or “VND” after an amount. Notes come in denominations of 500đ, 1000đ, 2000đ, 5000đ, 10,000đ, 20,000đ, 50,000đ, 100,000đ, 200,000đ and 500,000đ, coins in 200đ, 500đ, 1000đ, 2000đ and 5000đ (though coins are rarely seen). In addition to the dong, the American dollar operates as a parallel, unofficial currency and it’s a good idea to carry some dollars as a back-up to pay large bills. On the whole, though, it’s more convenient to operate in dong, and you’ll often find dong prices are slightly lower than the equivalent in dollars.

At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 33,000đ to £1; 20,000đ to US$1; 29,000đ to 1 Euro; 21,000đ to CA$1; 22,000đ to AUS$1; and 17,000đ to NZ$1. Recently the country has been plagued by high inflation rates, so these exchange rates are liable to fluctuate. For the latest exchange rates go to Wxe.com.

Dong are not available outside Vietnam at present, so take in some small-denomination American dollars to use until you reach a bank or ATM. Most banks and exchange bureaux don’t charge for changing foreign currency into dong; banks in major cities will accept euros and other major currencies, but elsewhere may only accept dollars. Some tour agents and hotels will also change money, and most jewellery shops in Vietnam will exchange dollars at a slightly better rate than the banks, but watch out for scams. Wherever you change money, ask for a mix of denominations (in remote places, bigger bills can be hard to split), and refuse really tatty banknotes, as you’ll have difficulty getting anyone else to accept them.

There’s also a comprehensive network of ATMs, many open 24 hours: most accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards issued abroad. The maximum withdrawal is two million dong at a time, with a charge of 20,000–30,000đ per transaction (in addition to whatever surcharges your own bank levies). In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City you’ll also find ATMs operated by ANZ and HSBC. These accept a wider range of cards, including those in the Cirrus and Plus networks.

Major credit cards – Visa, MasterCard and, to a lesser extent, American Express – are accepted in Vietnam’s main cities and major tourist spots. All top-level and many mid-level hotels will accept them, as will a growing number of restaurants, though some places levy surcharges of three to four percent.

Traveller’s cheques are less common now that ATMs are so widespread, but can be cashed at major banks (you need your passport as ID), for a commission of up to two percent. Vietinbank generally charges the lowest rates: at the time of writing these were 0.55 percent (minimum US$1.1) when changing into dong and 1.1 percent (minimum US$2.2) into dollars or other foreign currencies. Vietcombank waives commission on American Express traveller’s cheques.

Having money wired from home via MoneyGram (UK T0800 8971 8971, US T1-800 T666-3947, Wmoneygram.com) or Western Union (US T1-800 325 6000, Wwesternunion.com) is never cheap, and should be considered a last resort. It’s also possible to have money wired directly from a bank or post office in your home country to a bank in Vietnam, although this has the added complication of involving two separate institutions; money wired this way normally takes two working days to arrive, and charges vary according to the amount sent.

Opening hours

Basic hours of business are 7.30–11.30am and 1.30–4.30pm, though after lunch nothing really gets going again before 2pm. The standard closing day for offices is Sunday, and many now also close on Saturdays, including most state-run banks and government offices.

Most banks tend to work Monday to Friday 8–11.30am and 1–4pm, though some stay open later in the afternoon or may forego a lunch break. In tourist centres you’ll even find branches open evenings and weekends. Post offices keep much longer hours, in general staying open from 6.30am through to 9pm with no closing day. Some sub-post offices work shorter hours and close at weekends.

Shops and markets open seven days a week and in theory keep going all day, though in practice most stallholders and many private shopkeepers will take a siesta. Shops mostly stay open late into the evenings, perhaps until 8pm or beyond in the big cities.

Museums tend to close one day a week, generally on Mondays, and their core opening hours are 8–11am and 2–4pm. Temples and pagodas occasionally close for lunch but are otherwise open all week and don’t close until late evening.

Telephones

Rates for international calls are very reasonable, with international direct dialling (IDD) costing around 4,000đ per minute (depending where you are calling). Using the prefix 171 reduces rates by a further 10–20 percent. The 171 service can be used from any phone, except for operator-assisted calls, mobile phones, cardphones or faxes: post offices will charge a small fee for using it.

Nearly all post offices have IDD (inter-national direct dialling) facilities, and most hotels offer IDD from your room, but you’ll usually be charged at least ten percent above the norm and a minimum charge of one minute even if the call goes unanswered.

If you’re running short of funds, you can almost always get a “call-back” at post offices. Ask to make a minimum (1min) call abroad and remember to get the phone number of the booth you’re calling from. You can then be called back directly, at a total cost to you of a one-minute international call plus a small charge for the service. It’s also possible to make collect calls to certain countries; ask at the post office or call the international operator on T110.

Local calls are easy to make and are often free, though you may be charged a small fee of a few thousand dong for the service. As in many countries, public phones are turning into battered monuments to outdated technology as mobile phones become ubiquitous (there’s now more than one phone per user in Vietnam). However, transport centres like airports and bus stations still maintain a few functioning machines, which accept only pre-paid phone cards, not coins. All post offices also operate a public phone service, where the cost is displayed as you speak and you pay the cashier afterwards.

In late 2008, all phone numbers in Vietnam acquired an extra digit after the area code and before the actual number, so phone numbers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now have eight digits and other towns have seven digits after the area code. For subscribers to Vietnam Post and Telecommunications (VNPT), which is over 95 percent of the country, the extra digit is 3, though subscribers to smaller service providers have added a 2, 4, 5 or 6. We have included the new digits in this Guide, though you may still see some old numbers in Vietnam itself, and many businesses have yet to update their websites.

Mobile phones
If you want to use your own mobile phone in Vietnam, the simplest – and cheapest – thing to do is to buy a SIM card and a prepaid phone card locally. Both the big phone companies, Vinaphone (Wvinaphone.com.vn) and Mobiphone (Wmobiphone.com.vn), offer English-language support and similar prices, though Vinaphone perhaps has the edge for geographical coverage (which extends pretty much nationwide). At the time of writing, Vinaphone starter kits including a SIM card cost 120,000đ (with 100,000đ worth of calls credited to your account). Further prepaid cards are available in various sizes from 100,000đ to 500,000đ. Phone calls cost slightly more than from a land line, while sending an SMS message costs 100–300đ in Vietnam and about 2,500đ internationally. However, rates are falling rapidly as more competitors enter the increasingly deregulated market.

The other, far more expensive, option is to stick with your home service-provider – though you’ll need to check beforehand whether they offer international roaming services.

Time

Vietnam is seven hours ahead of London, twelve hours ahead of New York, fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, one hour behind Perth and three hours behind Sydney – give or take an hour or two when summer time is in operation.

Tourist information

Tourist information on Vietnam is at a premium. The Vietnamese government maintains a handful of tourist promotion offices and a smattering of accredited travel agencies around the globe, most of which can supply you with only the most general information. A better source of information, much of it based on firsthand experiences, is the internet, with numerous websites around to help you plan your visit. Some of the more useful and interesting sites are travelfish.org, a regularly-updated online guide to Southeast Asia; worldtravelguide.net, a viewer-friendly source of information on Vietnam and other countries; Wactivetravelvietnam.com, with helpful information about national parks and beaches; and Wthingsasian.com, which consists mostly of features on Asian destinations and culture.

In Vietnam itself there’s a frustrating dearth of free and impartial advice. The state-run tourist offices – under the auspices of either the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (Wvietnamtourism.com) or the local provincial organization – are thinly disguised tour agents, profit-making concerns which don’t take kindly to being treated as information bureaux, though the official website has a lot of useful information about destinations and practicalities such as visas. In any case, Western concepts of information don’t necessarily apply here – bus timetables, for example, simply don’t exist. The most you’re likely to get is a glossy brochure detailing their tours and affiliated hotels.

You’ll generally have more luck approaching hotel staff or one of the many private tour agencies operating in all the major tourist spots, where staff have become accustomed to Westerners’ demands for advice.

Another useful source of information, including restaurant and hotel listings as well as feature articles, is the growing number of English-language magazines, such as Asialife, The Word and The Guide. There’s also a government-run telephone information service (T1080) with some English-speaking staff who will answer all manner of questions – if you can get through, since the lines are often busy.

Travellers with special needs

Despite the fact that Vietnam is home to so many war-wounded, few provisions are made for the disabled. This means you’ll have to be pretty self-reliant. It’s important to contact airlines, hotels and tour companies as far in advance as possible to make sure they can accommodate your requirements.

Getting about can be made a little easier by taking internal flights, or by renting a private car or minibus with a driver. Taxis are widely available in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other major cities. Even so, trying to cross roads with speeding traffic and negotiating the cluttered and uneven pavements – where pavements exist – pose real problems. Furthermore, few buildings are equipped with ramps and lifts.

When it comes to accommodation, Vietnam’s new luxury hotels usually offer one or two specially adapted rooms. Elsewhere, the best you can hope for is a ground-floor room, or a hotel with a lift.

One, albeit expensive, option is to ask a tour agent to arrange a customized tour. Saigontourist (Wsaigontourist.com) has experience of running tours specifically for disabled visitors.

Travelling with children

Travelling through Vietnam with children can be challenging and fun. The Vietnamese adore kids and make a huge fuss of them, with fair-haired kids coming in for even more manhandling. The main concern will probably be hygiene: Vietnam can be distinctly unsanitary, and children’s stomachs tend to be more sensitive to bacteria. Avoiding spicy foods will help while their stomachs adjust, but if children do become sick it’s crucial to keep up their fluid intake, so as to avoid dehydration. Bear in mind, too, that healthcare facilities are fairly basic outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, so make sure your travel insurance includes full medical evacuation.

Long bus journeys are tough on young children, so wherever possible, take the train – at least the kids can get up and move about in safety. There are reduced fares for children on domestic flights, trains and open-tour buses. On trains, for example, it’s free for under-fives (as long as they sit on your lap) and half-price for children aged five to ten. Open-tour buses follow roughly the same policy, though children paying a reduced fare are not entitled to a seat; if you don’t want them on your lap you’ll have to pay full fare. Tours are usually either free or half-price for children.

Many budget hotels have rooms with three or even four single beds in them. At more expensive hotels under-twelves can normally stay free of charge in their parents’ rooms and baby cots are becoming more widely available.

Working and studying in Vietnam

Without a prearranged job and work permit, don’t bank on finding work in Vietnam. With specific skills to offer, you could try approaching some of the Western companies now operating in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Otherwise, English-language teaching is probably the easiest job to land, especially if you have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), TESOL (Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) or CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) qualification. Universities are worth approaching, though pay is better at private schools, where qualified teachers earn upwards of $20 an hour. In either case, you’ll need to apply for a work permit, sponsored by your employer, and then a working visa. Private tutoring is an unwieldy way of earning a crust, as you’ll have to pop out of the country every few months to procure a new visa. Furthermore, the authorities are clamping down on people working without the proper authorizations.

The main English-language teaching operations recruiting in Vietnam include the British Council (Wbritishcouncil.org/Vietnam.htm), ILA Vietnam (Wilavietnam.com), Language Link Vietnam (Wlanguagelink.edu.vn) and RMIT International University (Wrmit.edu.vn). The TEFL website (Wtefl.com) and Dave’s ESL Café (Weslcafe.com) also have lists of English-teaching vacancies in addition to lots of other useful information.

There are also opportunities for volunteer work. Try contacting the organizations listed below, or look on the websites of the NGO Resource Centre Vietnam (Wngocentre.org.vn) and Volunteer Abroad (Wvolunteerabroad.com).