Vietnam is an extraordinary country.
What blew me away the most about Vietnam was its authenticity. It's a country made for tourists--but not in a forced-fun and gimmicky type of tourism. It appeals to travelers without even trying. The country is easy to navigate, friendly, safe, and breathtaking. It's completely genuine--a well-preserved gem.
If you're thinking of going to Vietnam, let me just say how excited I am for you!
It was my favorite destination in all of southeast Asia. I loved the people, the scenery, the food, and the culture. From the mountains and hilltribes in the north by Sapa, to the picturesque beaches in central Vietnam near Danang, and to the historic streets decorated with lanterns during the lunar festival in magical Hoi-An. Vietnam has a variety of places and tastes to cover all preferences. Not to mention the value of the dollar in Vietnam was unbelievable (i.e.: everything was cheap)!
But with each adventure in a destination new to the travel scene, there are some caveats to having a successful trip. Here's are some of the things I wish I knew, or would advise others about, before going to this amazing country!
1. Allow Yourself Plenty of Travel Time Between Places
If you're just starting to plan your trip to Vietnam, and you're looking at a map, distances between places can be deceiving. For example, when we planned our trip to the north, we would originate in Hanoi and head to Sapa for a few days. If you look at the map, Hanoi and Sapa don't look that far from each other. As the crow flies, it's only about 100 miles. But because of winding roads and high elevation, the trip takes close to 6.5 hours. So our two-day trip to Sapa was cut by a whole day to account for travel back and forth.
And when we looked at travel from Hanoi to central Vietnam, near Danang, a bus ride would set us back 16-18 hours. Even though we decided on a quick 1.5 hour plane ride instead, the whole trip--from waking up, getting to the airport, going through security, and flight, and arrival--cost us about 6 hours. Even Hue, Danang, and Hoi-An are 2-3 hours away from each other! We never made it to Ho Chi Minh, but again, if traveling from the north to south, account for large amounts of travel time when planning your itinerary in Vietnam.
2. Respect the Visa!
Live and learn! The visa is EXTREMELY important for travelers to Vietnam. Not only is it essential, but make sure EVERYTHING is correct--to the T!
When I originally planned our SE Asia trip, I was a little flexible on our travel schedule from place to place. So when I filled out the paperwork for our visas, I picked one date, but ended up purchasing plane tickets for one day earlier. It never even crossed my mind that we wouldn't be allowed in the country a mere six hours before the date printed!
In the end we lost our plane tickets and spent one more night in Hong Kong instead of traveling to Vietnam. So the lesson to be learned it that when applying for your visa, make sure you fill out everything correctly, and triple check the information--dates, names, locations, etc. Any mistake and you could be purchasing another plane ticket!
3. Don't Mind the Debris and Construction Here and There
While Vietnam is a fabulous destination exactly because it's fairly new and not over-developed, this means there are still places that are, as I call it, "rustic" by some peoples' standards. Walking the streets or driving through town, you may come across some shabby-looking areas, scattered with debris or bordered with rough edges. This is pretty common not just in Vietnam, but throughout most of SE Asia, as you might expect. At the same time, though, I stayed in some of the nicest and super-chic, boutique hotels, so don't let this note deter you from coming to Vietnam.
Also, the secret is out, and developers (mostly Chinese) are heading to Vietnam in droves. So here and there, just outside the frame of a beautiful picture, are huge areas under construction. Everywhere we went, there were places in which buildings were being demolished and gutted, sidewalks were being torn up and redone, and concrete was still being poured. It's a small price to pay for a profitable future.
4. You Can't Control the Weather (or Flooding)
You can't control the weather. So when it does rain, there's nothing to do but sit back and wait for it to pass. When in Vietnam, this is no exception. Dash into a restaurant, grab a bowl of pho, and watch the street peddlers sell over-priced, plastic rain-ponchos to unprepared tourists. There were at least four times we were stuck going anywhere because of rain (and we went in the dry season!)
In the city, not only can the rain waylay your plans for the day, but you'd be surprised at how quickly the streets can fill up with water, completely flooding everything! On one occasion, we were sitting in the street in Hanoi, eating bac ha, when it started to rain. Thirty minutes later, the waitress was moving us all inside and picking up the plastic chairs from underneath us as nearly a foot and a half of water flooded the entire street, turning the area into a moving river of garbage and debris! We couldn't get back to our hotel without fear of stepping into an 8-inch deep puddle of God-knows-what!
We also planned two days of gorgeous hiking in Sapa that we had to cancel because of the large amounts of rain and fog, leading to mudslides in the northern part of Vietnam. The entire time in Sapa we were hoping for a break in the weather. We only just got our wish as we were leaving on the bus OUT of town.
Just be aware that bad weather, specifically large amounts of rain, can ruin your plans at any time!
5. Practice Your Math with Large Numbers
Walking out the bank with 11 million in cash can feel pretty badass! 11 million dong, that is!
That's because 1 US dollar=22,800 dong. So exchanging a few hundred dollars can turn into a couple million dong. Vietnamese people are used to adding and subtracting in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions. I don't know about you, but I don't normally deal with tens or hundreds of thousands when paying for my lunch!
Have a calculator handy or get to practicing your large-number arithmetic!
6. Be Prepared to Eat Your Dinner on the Street and in a Tiny, Plastic Chair
Hanoi is the capital of small plastic seating! It may feel weird at first, but try it and you'll fit right in. You can't eat in Vietnam without sitting on the street and enjoying a cheap plate of food and a $0.40 beer at one of those little tables!
7. Watch the Motorcycles!
No matter how much you're warned about the motorcycles in Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi, you'll be amazed at the sea of bikes that pass you on the street every second. It's extremely daunting at first, especially trying to cross an intersection. THEY NEVER STOP. You just have to weave your way through the four lanes of bikes, a la Frogger-style. If you wait for the traffic to completely stop, you'll never make it to your destination! But don't worry. I guarantee after a day or two, you'll be crossing the street like a pro!
8. Be Friendly; Talk to People
I was really overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitable nature of Vietnamese people. As an American, there's a small hesitation when traveling to Vietnam. How will an American be received in this country? After all, I have family that fought the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's known in Vietnam) only 40 years ago. But I can assure you that this timidity is unnecessary. The Vietnamese people were nothing but friendly and receptive to us on the entire trip. In every encounter, every conversation, whether in broken or perfect English, people were eager to share their stories, their culture, and their time with us.
Many, if not most, Vietnamese people speak English, especially those in the hospitality business. So communicating in most areas was a breeze. So don't be shy. Open up to the Vietnamese people, strike up a conversation, and you'll find most people receptive and welcoming, and that will make your experience in the country all the richer!