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.
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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. 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.
With the average Vietnamese annual income hovering around £1400/US$1800/€1600, 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. 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 £15-20/US$20-25/€18-23. 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 £32-40/US$40-50/€35-44. A fair mid-level budget, treating yourself to three-star hotels and more upmarket restaurants, would lie in the £40-80/US$50-100/€45-90 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.
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.
Most foreign nationals need a visa to enter Vietnam, with certain exceptions: citizens of some Nordic and Asian nations get 15-30 days visa-free, and from 2016 the government allowed passport holders from the UK, France and some other European countries visa-free entry for stays up to 15 days, although this is for a limited time so do check with your local consulate before you travel.
Tourist visas are generally valid for thirty days from your specified arrival date, and for a single entry, though longer durations can be arranged.
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. Visitors can make their applications in any Vietnamese embassy or consulate, or through specialist visa or tour agents, but these days it's more convenient for most people to get their "visa on arrival" online (the most reliable website is Vietnam Visa Center). If you apply in person at an embassy or consulate, processing normally takes around a week, though many embassies also offer a more expensive "express" service. By contrast, the normal service for an online visa is just three working days, and some agencies even quote fees for two working hours.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. For the latest exchange rates go to xe.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 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.
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.
Mobile phones are as ubiquitous in Vietnam as they are everywhere else. However, transport centres like airports and bus stations still maintain a few functioning landline booths, 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. Local calls are easy to make and are often free, though you may be charged a small fee for the service if, for example, you use the phone in a hotel lobby.
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 (or even a phone, if your own is locked). Both the big phone companies, Vinaphone and Mobifone, offer English-language support and similar prices, though Vinaphone perhaps has the edge for geographical coverage (which extends pretty much nationwide).
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, ILA Vietnam and RMIT International University. The TEFL website and Dave’s ESL Café 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 and Volunteer Abroad.
Ethical tourism and the environment
The expansion of tourism in Vietnam has been spectacular, growing from just ten thousand foreign visitors in 1993 to more than five million in 2010. In addition, an estimated 25 million Vietnamese now take holidays within the country each year. While this has undoubtedly been a boon for the economy, tourism has brought with it serious and potentially disruptive effects environmentally, socially, culturally and economically. Some of the most distressing examples are to be found in Vietnam’s ethnic minority areas. Sa Pa’s famous “love market” attracted so much tourist attention it eventually relocated to a more remote location. Many families in the area have sold off their antique jewellery, while Hmong children beg for sweets, pens and money, and some even sell drugs.
Avian flu or bird flu is a contagious disease normally limited to birds and, less commonly, pigs. However, the virus can spread to humans by direct contact with infected poultry or with contaminated surfaces. In the 2004–05 outbreak in Vietnam of the highly contagious H5N1 strain of the disease, there were around sixty confirmed cases involving humans, of which some forty were fatal, according to the World Health Organization. The vast majority of people infected had direct contact with diseased birds. Since the initial outbreak, a further sixty or so cases have been reported, the most recent in April 2010.
Evidence of human-to-human transmission has yet to be confirmed but the indications are that, if it is possible, it is extremely rare and has so far been limited to close family members. The main fear among health experts is that the virus will mutate into a form that is highly infectious to and easily spread among humans.
At present the risk to travellers visiting infected areas remains low. As a precaution, however, you are advised to avoid contact with live poultry and pigs, including live animal markets, and to eat only well-cooked poultry and eggs. Check the latest with your doctor or travel health specialist prior to travel. You’ll also find up-to-date information on the following websites: avianinfluenza.org.vn,
who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en and cdc.gov/flu/avian.
What about the water?
The simple rule is don’t drink tap water in Vietnam, with the exception of a few top hotels which now offer filtered water, and never drink river water. It’s wise to avoid ice in your drinks except, again, in top hotels and other trustworthy places. Contaminated water is a major cause of sickness due to the presence of pathogenic organisms: bacteria, viruses and cysts. These microorganisms cause ailments and diseases such as diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, poliomyelitis, hepatitis A and giardia – and can be present even when water looks clean and safe to drink.
Fortunately there are plenty of alternative drinks around: hot tea is always on offer, while cheap, bottled water and carbonated drinks are widely available. When buying bottled water check the seal is unbroken and the water is clear, as bottles are occasionally refilled from the tap. Tap water in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is chlorinated and most travellers use it for brushing their teeth without problem, but this is not recommended in rural areas, where water is often untreated. Particular care should be taken anywhere where there is flooding as raw sewage may be washed into the water system.
Although Vietnamese law requires that all prices are quoted in dong, you’ll find many hotels, the more upmarket restaurants, tour agents and so forth still use US dollars and, occasionally, euros. To reflect this and to avoid exchange-rate fluctuations, throughout the Guide we quote prices in the currency used on the spot.
Incidentally, don’t be alarmed if you notice that Vietnamese pay less than you for plane tickets, at some hotels and at certain sights: Vietnam maintains a two-tier pricing system, with foreigners sometimes paying many times more than locals. The good news for tourists is that the system is being phased out, with prices for foreigners being adjusted downwards while those for Vietnamese rise to meet them. A single price system now applies on the trains, for example, while the gap has gradually been narrowing for air travel. It will take several more years before the practice disappears completely, however, and for the moment it remains something of a grey area, particularly as regards hotels and bus tickets, where the amount you pay may well depend on the person you happen to be dealing with.