For us, Vietnam was a whirlwind of highs and lows and we had a lot to pack in to our 4 weeks there. We had read various travel blogs concerning the Vietnamese people and their relationship with tourists, but we can honestly say it wasn’t as bad as other people reported. However, Vietnam still has a long way to go if they want to change the current statistics of only 10-20% of tourists returning to the country. The main reasons for this lack of repeat visits seem to be traffic, scams and the unfriendliness of people. We experienced all of these to an extent, but we think Vietnam is still worth a visit; at least once.
We spent 25 days in Vietnam and around £1100. Surprsingly our biggest expense was activities which accounted for 32% of our expenses mainly due to the guided tours we did in Ha Long Bay and Sapa. The remainder was as follows: 22% on transport, 16% on accommodation (without a single night couchsurfing) and 26% on food (we ate really well).
Vietnam has a fairly new electronic visa system or a visa on arrival option. Many agencies offer to obtain the letter of permission necessary for a visa on arrival and charge a small fee, perhaps $7. On arrival you can then apply for a visa costing $30. The new e-visa is cheaper, cutting out the middle man, and only requires a digital passport copy and digital passport photo. The application form is easy to fill out and payment of $30 is straightforward. Once completed you can download and print your visa 3 working days later. The only disadvantage you may find with the e-visa is that it takes longer to exit Vietnam at a land border because even 2 years later officials are still learning how to process the e-visa.
Note: the official e-visa website is available here
Vietnam uses Vietnamese Dong (VND), but you will often see prices for accommodation or tours quoted in US dollar. Most of the time payment is in VND, but many places also take US Dollar. Take care when paying as many of the notes are similar in colour. Withdrawing money from an ATM you will recieve VND and also be charged a fee of 20-80,000 VND. The maximal withdrawl varies by location and bank but may be 2, 3 or 5 million. We hated paying fees for transactions but found Agribank reliable and they only charge 22,000 VND per withdrawl. To reduce costs withdraw cash in large chunks but be sure to keep your cash safe. Using credit cards almost always incurs a 3% fee so often withdrawing cash to pay for larger expenses is cheaper.
For us, one of the most unpleasant experience was travelling throughout the country. There is an established rail network running the length of the country and the trains are ok (other tourists complained to us of freezing air-conditioning and cockroaches, but we were lucky not to have either). We booked soft seats for daytime journeys and 4 berth sleepers for overnight journeys which were both fine. The official railway website can be tricky to find but works in English. We couldn’t get our credit card to work so had to use Baolau instead which charges a small fee.
The next best option is to take internal flights which are often cheaper than the train even when booked at short notice. Unfortunately, you need to get to and from airports, which can be expensive. Our last resort choice is to travel by bus and avoiding them as much as possible is probably best. Local buses are cramped for Europeans and leave you open to bus conductors overcharging by at least double. The best thing to do is find out the price, have the correct money ready and be stubborn. The long distance buses tend to be sleeper buses, which have cramped reclining seats and largely unhelpful staff. If you take a sleeper bus don’t expect to sleep and bring an eye mask to prevent being startled by the strobe lights at each stop. They may be door to door but it’s up to you if choose to enjoy travelling or save your pennies.
Travel aside, accommodation is also an important consideration. We chose not to book ahead and find accommodation on the ground which worked well in low season. The advantage of this was that we could see the room before commiting and then haggle about the price. The standard of accommodation varies wildly from luxury to extreme budget. Some of the guide book (Lonely Planet) recommendations were down right dirty and had not been maintained at all. Our cheapest night’s stay was free in a hostel offering the third night free, otherwise we paid $6-18 per night per couple. At this price range we sometimes got breakfast but also saw many properties where sheets were not changed or bathrooms not cleaned. For a nice place to stay expect to pay $15-25 per room per night. Be aware that photos online are often well out of date and sinks falling off walls are common place in budget options. Vietnamese bathrooms are often wet-room style so showering beside the toilet is common.
Sightseeing in Vietnam is fairly easy but varies in price. With guided tours everywhere, you get what you pay for so it is worth shopping around and if possible booking direct. The cheapest places to visit are free markets and temples and the priciest being the caves in Phong Nha (if done on a tour). There is so much to see so it is well worth prioritising what you want to see most. Our must dos were Ha Long Bay, caves in Phong Nha and Hoi An.
Food in Vietnam is fantastic and cheap. We loved trying local specialities and street food everywhere we could. The flavours are fresh and zesty, but due to the French colonialists there’s also some great baguettes and pastries. Western style food is more expensive than the local fare but is not always as good as you expect. We enjoyed Vietnamese coffee (strong, black and sweet), Banh Mi (baguettes filled with pork, pate and salad), Cha ca (fish with turmeric and vegetables) and fresh spring rolls. Pho (noodle soup) is a very cheap dish and although every bowl tastes different it can get a little boring. Every tourist we met confessed to needing something other than rice and noodles whilst in Vietnam, and most of the time pizza or burgers were a good option.
Go to Vietnam, but be prepared for people not to smile much and expect people to be suspicious of anyone outside their family. There’s a deep mistrustfulness due to the past, but it is slowly changing. Plan your travel according to your comfort needs not your budget and instead save money by eating as the locals do; on the street. This way you will have a much better experience and be pleasantly surprised.