Travel Vietnam with Confidence: Your First-Time Visitor's Guide

Travel Vietnam with Confidence: Your First-Time Visitor's Guide

There's a lot to love about travelling in Vietnam, which stretches from the soaring mountains and fascinating ethnic groups of the north to the endless rice paddies and vibrant waterways of the Mekong Delta in the south, with more than 3000km of glorious coastline in between.

When planning your inaugural journey to Travel Vietnam, you'll discover a nation endowed with an impressive transportation network encompassing buses, trains, and flights, facilitating seamless exploration of its diverse landscapes. The allure of Vietnam lies not only in its remarkable infrastructure but also in the abundance of delectable and cost-effective street food that beckons travelers from around the world.

Yet, akin to any travel destination, Vietnam presents its own set of unique challenges. Some first-time visitors return home with tales of encounters with scams, navigating bustling roads, and dealing with persistent vendors. Fear not, as arming yourself with these invaluable tips will serve as your compass in this captivating country.

Embark on your maiden voyage to Vietnam, savor the exquisite street flavors, and let these guidelines be your trusted companions on this remarkable journey. Your inaugural visit promises not only cherished memories but also the iconic souvenir conical hat that embodies Vietnam's enduring charm.

Tips and tricks for first-time travelers

Photo: Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Be open

Vietnamese residents may not be as outwardly curious about visitors as in some neighboring countries due to long exposure to foreigners. Additionally, language barriers may cause locals to overlook lost-looking tourists unless assistance is requested. However, rest assured, the Vietnamese are genuinely friendly people. A smile and clear, slow English inquiries, like 'xin chào' (hello) and 'cám ơn' (thank you), can bridge the gap and lead to helpful interactions.

Stay Connected

You can easily get online by purchasing a SIM card for as little as US$3, even though most hotels, cafes, and restaurants offer Wi-Fi. Many travelers prefer digital maps over paper ones due to the famously long Vietnamese street names, often named after individuals. Having a local phone number is also handy for coordinating with tour guides and making last-minute bookings. SIM cards are readily available in corner shops and simple to recharge. However, registering for internet access can be a bit tricky, so consider asking the shopkeeper or your hotel for assistance. Lonely Planet's Guides app provides coverage for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Street food is one of Vietnam's great joys – and you'll need cash to pay for it © Dory F / Shutterstock

Know your dong from your dollar

The Vietnamese dong is the currency of Vietnam and comes in denominations ranging from 200 to 500,000 (about US$22 at the time of writing). While it’s thrilling to become a Vietnamese millionaire, dealing with that many zeros can become frustrating, especially since some of the currency is very similar in colour. For example, the 10,000d note and the 200,000d note are both tan while the 20,000d and 500,000d notes are both blue. It’s very easy to hand over the wrong bill to a taxi driver while in a rush. Spend a minute in your room before going out to sort your bills to avoid overpaying. Even if you do end up overpaying a small amount for certain things, take it in stride. In the grand scheme of things, it’ll likely not be worth the aggravation.

While international credit and debit cards are accepted at most larger hotels, restaurants and travel agencies (sometimes with an added fee), cash is still king in Vietnam for day-to-day transactions. ATMs are widely available, and currency can be exchanged at banks (and some gold shops, although this practice is frowned upon by the government).

Note that the official system of separate prices for Vietnamese and foreigners – which applied to everything from train tickets to entrance fees – is a thing of the past.

Be wary of taxi scams

For many, motorcycle taxis are the best way see the thronging streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. However, scams can happen, and your best protection is a decent knowledge of where you are going and points along the way. Always agree on a price beforehand and be prepared to be quoted a higher price than the locals. For regular taxis, stick to the two major companies of Mai Linh and Vinasun (both have apps). Smaller, independent taxis are known for fast meters and aggressive drivers. If you’re in one of the larger cities, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Grab are good, offering both car and motorcycle taxis. Sometimes the driver will call to confirm, so having a Vietnamese-speaking friend nearby will come in handy.

Photo: Sarawut Intarob

Know your transport options

Overnight buses are budget-friendly for long trips but not spacious, making it uncomfortable for taller passengers. Top bunks provide privacy but might be too close to streetlights. Bring sleep masks, earplugs, and noise-canceling headphones if there's loud music or movies.

Alternatively, consider flying for convenience, despite being pricier. Budget airlines have cheap fares but are often late and strict about carry-on limits. Vietnam Airlines offers better service at a comparable price when booked in advance.

For a comfortable and affordable option, choose train travel. Vietnam's railway stretches along the coastline from HCMC to Hanoi and beyond. It's a must for train enthusiasts and ranks among the world's most breathtaking train journeys.

Be aware of your surroundings

Violent crime is extremely rare in Vietnam, and firearms are heavily regulated. But snatch-and-grabs and, to a lesser extent, pickpocketing, do happen. It pays to be vigilant. Use your phone and other electronics sparingly when outside (even while sitting at a sidewalk cafe or on the back of a motorbike). Leave your passport at the hotel; there’s rarely a reason to have the original on you.

Also, while Vietnam has some of the cheapest beer in the world, be careful about overdoing it. Inebriated tourists wandering back to their hotel in the morning hours when there is little traffic around can be seen as easy targets. If you come home late at night, go with a friend and splurge the extra dollar or two on an automobile taxi instead of a motorcycle taxi.

Photo: Matt Munro 

Be safe on the roads

Traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can seem terrifying at first glance. Just walking across the street during rush hour can feel like an impossible task! But there is method to the madness and, like a school of fish, the traffic will inevitably glide around you as long as you keep moving at a slow and steady pace. If unsure, do as the locals do and raise one hand high to be seen above the sea of helmets.

If you’re looking to drive a motorbike yourself, it’s best to save it for one of the quieter destinations like Hoi An, Dalat or Phu Quoc. Always wear a helmet, and be aware of the exhaust pipe, which has caused many a leg burn. As motorbikes tend to drive closely to each other, keep your feet pointed inwards and think of wearing closed shoes which offer extra protection for your feet.

For more tips on planning a trip to Vietnam, including what to wear and what to book in advance, see our planning tips.

Some authentic travel destinations for you in Vietnam:

When exploring Vietnam, don't miss these captivating off-the-beaten-path destinations that offer a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle:

Mekong Delta - non touristy day trip from Ho Chi Minh City
  1. Mekong Delta: Venture deep into the heart of the Mekong Delta, away from the tourist crowds. Discover amazing floating markets, serene waterways, and authentic local life through Mekong Delta 2 day tour or Mekong Delta - non touristy day trip from Ho Chi Minh City.

  2. Pu Luong Nature Reserve: Immerse yourself in the lush landscapes of Pu Luong, a hidden gem for nature enthusiasts. Trek through terraced rice fields and stay in traditional stilt houses.

  3. Con Dao Islands: Explore the pristine beauty of the Con Dao Islands, known for their crystal-clear waters and untouched beaches. It's a paradise for divers and beach lovers.

  4. Ha Giang Loop: Embark on the Ha Giang Loop, a motorbike journey through dramatic landscapes and remote hill tribe villages in Northern Vietnam.

  5. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: Delve into the underground wonders of Phong Nha's cave systems, including the world's largest cave, Son Doong.

  6. Bac Son Valley: Escape to the picturesque Bac Son Valley, surrounded by emerald-green rice fields and stunning karst formations.

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