Vietnam or Bust: Ultimate Vietnam Travel Guide

Ha Long Bay in Sunset

In December (during my students’ winter vacation) I went with three other women to Vietnam. Although there has been some negative press about Vietnam in previous years, such as a popular travel bloggers not-so-positive yet blunt review of the country, my friends and I had an overall nice and relaxing time in Vietnam. At that time, the blogger proposed that those who had good experiences were perhaps those who traveled in luxury.

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My group and I traveled on a budget, staying at hotels booked on booking.com that had very cheap rates (about $30 a night). We also tried to either walk around Vietnam for transportation, rent a Grab car or bike, or take buses. There were many times the experiences were not-so-great, however, I didn’t feel as a super-minority (not only foreign, but Black American as well) that I was treated so unfairly or things so below my expectations that I would never return. on the contrary, I would love to return someday to do things I had not done or to see new regions of the country. 

Backstreets of Hoi An

Overall, my review is that it is in fact easy to be scammed in Vietnam, or for things to not meet expectations (especially if you live in ultra-clean Japan where the customer is treated like an emperor). I can give you many examples of this—the time when a random women ran her fingers through my friend’s curly hair at the airport, the time we rented a hostel in Ho Chi Minh that was very rundown and infested with ants, the time we used a bus for the first time and I almost got scammed by the bus lady, the time we did hookah and one my friends got sick, the time we went to a famous restaurant and the staff tried to barre us from entering, the time we tried to buy Durian and the fruit seller tried to overcharge us, the time we rented a Grab and the guy seemed super shady (he was actually super nice though!) However, because I went with a great group of girls, we now look back at those things and laugh.

Vietnam Travel Guide: Backstreets of Hoi An

There were so many awesome experiences and nice people, that I feel the climate or attitude in Vietnam towards foreign people in Vietnam has changed—at least a little—where there are far more nice interactions than the not-so-savory. Perhaps this is due to honest reviews from travel bloggers, or perhaps it’s due to time. My experience might be different from a backpacker’s or from a solo traveler’s experience. But, my experience as a Black American woman in Vietnam, traveling with a wide range of ethnicities and skin tones, I would say not to be discouraged from traveling there and to see if for yourself.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go to Vietnam with my Ultimate Guide to Vietnam!

Ultimate Guide to Vietnam

Where to go in Vietnam?

7 Day Vietnam Itinerary

Planning a trip to Vietnam and have absolutely no idea what to do? In addition to this Vietnam travel guide, check out my one-week itinerary to see what I did during my trip there. It’s a full-packed schedule that allows you to explore the city and experience the culture.

1 Week in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City

Things To Know Before You Go

Getting a (Tourist) Visa
The most important thing to do is to check if Vietnam requires you to obtain a visa based on your nationality (your home country). Vietnam does not require certain countries such as Thailand and Singapore to obtain a visa.

I’ve had my fair share of Visa applications as an expat living in Japan, but Japanese visas are largely my only experience. I’ve tried to stray away from countries that require visas because I thought it would complicate things (kind of how complicated getting my second Japanese visa was).

Don’t be like me and avoid visa-required countries. It’s easier than you think!

There are many visa websites for Vietnam out there that charge extra fees and that might not even be safe. Instead of thrusting my hand in the proverbial covered box, I went to the U.S. embassy website for Vietnam to get a more trustworthy visa website.

Here are the things you’ll need: passport photo, passport, credit card, information about your length of stay and accommodations.

The first step before stepping foot in Vietnam is getting a visa. You can apply for a quick and easy e-visa online through the Vietnamese government’s visa website. Make sure you have a passport-photo sized picture on hand with a white background. Don’t forget to take off your glasses!

When you’re filling out the form on the website, you have about 15 minutes before the tab refreshes itself and erases all entered data.

The fee for the visa is $25 USD and will take up to 3 days to be processed.

*Note: The visa application will ask about your religion.

SIM Cards
Whenever I go abroad, I usually look for mobile wi-fi rental. It’s cheap, easy, and multiple people can tether onto one wi-fi device. If I forget to bring any electrical plug converters, I can even use the plug provided with the wi-fi device.

In Vietnam, the only option for internet while in the country is free wi-fi and getting internet through a SIM card that you can purchase at any of the many SIM card stalls in the airport.

To use a SIM card, you must have an unlocked mobile phone. If your phone is connected to a carrier (Verizon, Softbank, etc.) in your country or a carrier contract, you won’t be able to use a SIM card.

Getting Around

Taxi or Shuttle
When you first land in Vietnam, you may be tempted to jump into one of the many taxis that are waiting outside the airport. Instead of taking those taxis, you should book a shuttle service with your hotel or accommodations. Taxis in Vietnam are notorious for scamming tourists and for their pushy nature. You can avoid the hassle by having a car pre-booked so that you can walk out of the airport in style. If you can’t get an airport shuttle, you can use Grab.

Ride Share
Grab is the Uber of southeast Asia, except you can use cash. In Vietnam, the majority of Grab rides are on scooters, but you can book a car as well. Grab also has in-app translation so that you can communicate with your driver even if you don’t speak the language. I mentioned Grab in my Thailand post and I’d still recommend it.

*Note: It’s best to download the app before you get do your country destination. The app requires phone number verification, so unless you want international charges, it’s best to set up your account and verify your phone number in your home country.

Bus
Another way to get around is to use a bus. The bus system in every country can be quite different, so it’s a daunting thing—especially when you have a significant language barrier as well. A surprisingly large amount of people in Vietnam spoke English (which helped me significantly during my bus escapades). When trying to catch a bus, what worked for me was to get into the street and wave the bus down. When you get on the bus (sometimes they don’t fully stop for you), you will be handed a paper slip by a bus attendant. That is your bus ticket and you are to pay the attendant the bus fee as soon as you get on the bus. My first bus experience in Vietnam was…traumatic.

I was almost ripped off of about $10 USD because the bus attendant wanted me to pay twice and then gave me the incorrect change. After arguing with her with the help of a nice Vietnamese man who spoke English and getting supported by the whole bus, I was able to get my correct change and avoid paying twice. My subsequent bus rides were much better. >.<

Scooters and Motorbikes
Although my group did not rent scooters or motorbikes, many travelers and backpackers who go to Vietnam do. If you want to rent a scooter or motorbike, you should look into getting travel insurance as driving in a foreign country can be dangerous, and Vietnam is no stranger to crazy drivers.

Plane
I’ve talked about how to get around a city or town, but how about getting from one far away city to the other. In Thailand, I would recommend buses or trains, but the best way to get from one far away city to another is by plane. I used VietJet Air for my in-country flights.

Eating and Drinking Safely
Vietnam is still considered a developing country, so water purification and sewage systems may not be like your home country’s (depending on where you’re from). To be safe, you should drink bottled water and avoid drinking the tap water. I brushed my teeth with the tap water, but I avoided drinking or swallowing it.

The same goes with food. Cooking and cleaning practices of food are different in each country. If you think you’re own country’s methods are different from Vietnam’s you should eat meats, vegetables, herbs, and fruits with caution. I am usually a cautious person, so I avoided most meats and tried to eat cooked foods only. I also washed any fruit I bought there. Not everyone in my group was as cautious as I was, but we all avoided getting sick.

Don’t forget to try out my top 8 foods to eat in Vietnam while you’re navigating the Vietnamese culinary scene safely.

Souvenirs
Nowadays, souvenirs are the bane of my existence. Before I moved to Japan, I didn’t really care about buying souvenirs so much. If I found something cool, I bought if for someone. Now that I work in a Japanese office, I have to follow the Japanese custom of giving souvenirs. In Japan, if you go on a trip, you must bring back souvenirs for your whole office. Usually, this is something that people can eat. If my office was composed of only ten people, I wouldn’t mind. Except, I work at two schools. That means I have to give souvenirs to at least 70 teachers! Even more, I have to give souvenirs to my Japanese friends and club members. That’s over 100 people I have to give something to. You see, that is absolutely crazy.

If you’re in a similar position, the best place to go to get bulk souvenirs is to the supermarket. You can get all kinds of local foods and drinks there, so instead of stressing out about negotiating the best deals at a street stall or a night market, head over to a local grocery store to get your items in bulk.

The next big headache is getting all those souvenirs in your suitcase and through that budget airline you’re using. I usually fly budget airlines like Peach when flying within Asia (from Japan). It’s the cheapest airline to fly from Japan to almost anywhere in Asia. The downside is that you’re only allowed to bring 2 items with a combined weight of 15 pounds (7kg) for free. That’s not so much space when you’re trying to be stylish on your travels, stay for a week, and bring back 100 packs of Vietnamese coffee. For this trip, I flew with Hong Kong Airlines, which offered 1 free checked bag. Whew, problem solved.

Have any questions or comments about traveling in Vietnam, comment below!

Explore More of Vietnam

Interested in seeing more of Vietnam? You can find more travel guides, itineraries, tips and photography of Vietnam in the Vietnam archives to plan your next trip.

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