The Vietnamese have a saying: “A day of travelling will bring a basketful of learning”. When it comes to experiencing Vietnam for yourself, you’ll find a lot of truth in this proverb. The crossroads of Southeast Asia, it’s a country of warmth, unsurpassed hospitality and more than a few contradictions.
The breakneck pace of development is evident in the hustle, bustle and overcrowding of the cities, while the peaceful mountains of the north and the Ninh Binh countryside offer a stillness you wouldn't imagine existed after a couple of days in town. You'll find young people impatient for modernisation living side by side with ancient traditions. Its complex, tumultuous history is one of near unbelievable suffering and yet everyone you meet will greet you with a smile and an impressively positive attitude.
Vietnam will bring you out of your comfort zone, but reward you mightily for the effort. To help you get off on the right foot, we’ve got some handy Vietnam travel tips to pack in your pannier.
Vietnam travel tip No. 1 - Cross the road with confidence
Before you set off on the road, you have to know how to cross it. Motorbikes and mopeds are the preferred form of transport in the country and there’s almost as many scooters as people. To put this into perspective, there are roughly 9 million people in Ho Chi Minh City alone. And of those 9 million, roughly 7.4 million own some form of motorised bike. While pedestrian crossings and lights exist, don’t expect the traffic to stop when the little green man appears. Horns are often used in place of indicators, adding a blaring cacophony of beeps to the chaos. This can cause visiting pedestrians to freeze motionless in fear. You might find you're stuck on the wrong side of the road for what feels a larger proportion of your trip than you'd prefer.
Here comes the first of our Vietnam travel tips: Cross the road with conviction, and the motos will part around you. The law of the jungle applies and right of way will always go to the biggest road user. This means you must always give way to lorries and cars. But motorbikes are agile, a fact that their riders are well aware of. Confident in their ability to maneuver around you, motorbikes will easily swoop and swerve either side, letting you pass so long as you make your intent clear. So take a big breath, glance right, left, and right again (the Vietnamese drive on the right) and move forcefully forward at the next small gap in traffic.
Scooters and motorcycles in the street of Ho Chi Minh City © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock
Vietnam travel tip No. 2: Be choosy when it comes to food (i.e. choose one of everything)
No doubt one of the Vietnam travel 'tips' you’ll hear from plenty of people (that haven’t actually been to Southeast Asia) that you should avoid the street food at all costs or you’ll risk traveller’s tummy. But rather than the delicious roadside dishes, it’s advice like this that will seriously upset your stomach.
Food is everything in Vietnam, and one of the best places to find it is at traditional open-air stalls. Stalls are often family-run and usually focus on one dish only, honed through the generations and meticulously prepared. Vietnamese food places an emphasis on fresh herbs and seasoning rather than outright spice so there’s no need to be cautious if your palate prefers mild flavours. Pull up a child-sized plastic chair and work your way through the following:
Pho: Noodle soup in a light broth flavoured with ginger, coriander, spring onions, lime, chilli and slivers of chicken pork or beef. Although it’s now popular in the west as a lunchtime meal, it’s traditionally eaten at breakfast in Vietnam.
Banh mi: A crispy but soft baguette filled with a choice of meats, pâté and whatever tasty treats the vendor is carrying.
Banh xeo: Fried pancake with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and egg.
Bun cha: Seasoned charcoal grilled pork with rice noodles and assorted foliage.
Goi cuon: Translucent spring rolls packed with greens coriander and minced pork shrimp or crab.
Vietnamese coffee: Strong, aromatic (almost always Robusta) filtered coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
While nothing should be off the menu when it comes to food, be aware that tap water is not safe to drink. Most establishments now use filtered water for their ice but it’s probably still best to avoid if you're unsure. The phrase “không có băng cảm ơn” (no ice please) should keep your drinks safe.
The second of our Vietnam travel tips? Eat everything but avoid the ice.
An assortment of delicious street food at a stall in Vietnam © 2807 PS / Shutterstock
Vietnam travel tip No. 3: Take the overnight train
Friendlier on the budget than flying and infinitely more comfortable and safer than coach travel, overnight trains in Vietnam are a rite of passage. Travelling by train is a great way to get talking to locals and if your journey starts or ends during daylight hours you’ll enjoy views of the countryside as the tracks divert away from built up areas. The most popular overnight journeys are from Hanoi to Hué and Hanoi to Lao Cai.
While it’s always tempting to wing it, Vietnamese sleeper trains often sell out. Book your tickets at least a few days in advance, especially if you plan on traveling during the weekend or at a holiday period. You can book through the Vietnam National Railways bookings site or go through your hotel or agent for small fee.
Vietnamese train carriages come in several different classes and seat types. Look for the roomier ‘soft-berth’ compartments which have just four berths, or splurge a little on the ‘luxury’ carriages and slightly fancier fittings. Sleeper carriages come prepared with linen, blankets and pillows. Air conditioning is prevalent on all classes but it can be turned up a little high for everyone’s tastes, so make sure to pack a cover up for the journey. In terms of facilities, there’s normally at least two toilets on either end of a carriage. The majority of these are still squat in nature but you’ll be able to find a sit-down one every few carriages.
Once on board, you can buy a basic dinner or breakfast from the small food cart that makes its way down the train twice a day. Alternatively stock up before you go. Every station usually has a couple of kiosks selling snacks and drinks as well as the obligatory banh mi stand.
Top train travel tip for Vietnam: buy your tickets in advance and choose a bottom bunk in a soft-berth or ‘luxury’ carriage so you can have access to the little table below the window.
A typical 'soft-berth' sleeper carriage on a Vietnamese train © Chaitawat.P / Shutterstock
Vietnam travel tip No. 4: Get vaccine advice before you travel
There are no mandatory vaccinations required to enter Vietnam – except for yellow fever if you’re making your way directly from an area where the disease is endemic. Typhoid, diphtheria and hepatitis A vaccinations are recommended though, and it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re up to date with tetanus and polio boosters.
Depending on where you’re going to, you may need to take antimalarial tablets at least one week before you leave. Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis and rabies are also to be considered. Contact your doctor or a specialised travel clinic to find out what’s best for your travel plans and make sure to allow at least two months before your departure to get the shots.
Our Vietnam vaccination tip: put getting a doctor’s appointment high on your priority list.
Thinking of visiting Vietnam? From train booking to finding the best places to eat, get everything taken care of on a Rough Guides tailor-made trip to Vietnam.
Top image: Train and railway on Hai Van pass in the Bach Ma Mountains in Hué, Vietnam © Tonkinphotography / Shutterstock