Tips: Planning a Trip to Vietnam
Located in the South China Sea, Vietnam is a great place to visit if you are looking to experience a unique culture and natural beauty. It might not be as popular and accessible as other South East Asian destinations like Bali or Thailand but it offers visitors many options to explore cities, villages, rice terraces, beaches, rivers, temples, and renowned cites like UNESCO World Heritage site Ha Long Bay while remaining affordable, generally safe, mostly malaria free, and easier to navigate as infrastructure continues to improve. In this post, we share 10 tips to help you plan a trip to Vietnam!
1- The Visa Process: Go for the VISA on Arrival:
Canadians and Americans currently have two options to obtain the “tourist” visa to enter the country: by visiting the local embassy or obtaining a visa on arrival. On our 3 trips to Vietnam, we opted for the “visa on arrival” because it is the easiest and cheapest. The visa on arrival process requires you to fill out an application online, pay a small fee, and within a few days, you will be emailed all the documents you need to present on arrival at the airport. In addition, you need to bring and provide 2 passport sized photos. After deplaning, you need to find the visa office where you will need to submit your paperwork, passport photos, wait until they process it, and pay the fee is cash (US Dollars only). There are so many companies that provide this visa on arrival service online but we’ve always used MyVietnamVisa. They are not the cheapest at $18USD per applicant but we have never had any problems and they seem more reputable than some of the other cheaper sites we have found.
Tip: Pay extra to get a private approval letter otherwise it will show the name and information of other applicants on the letter.
FYI: Visa on arrival is only applicable to arrivals by air.
2- The airports: Where to fly into:
At this time, the majority of international flights arrive into either HAN – Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport or SGN – Ho Chi Minh Tan Son Nhat International Airport. There are other airports with some international arrivals/departures such as DAD – Da Nang International Airport, CXR – Nha Trang (Cam Ranh International Airport) and PQC – Phu Quoc International Airport.
Both major airports are serviced by major international airlines and have their pros and cons. For example, HAN – Hanoi Noi Bai Airport is located 45 kilometers away from the city center while SGN – Ho Chi Minh Tan Son Nhat International Airport is 6 kms away from the city. For aviation geeks, the approach and landing is pretty neat and interesting because you feel as though you are landing in the city! When we arrived into HAN – Hanoi from Seoul on Asiana very late at night, it did feel like we drove for a long time to reach out hotel.
As for destinations served, HCM has the advantage but you can still catch flights to other domestic cities in Vietnam and throughout Asia from HAN. On our last visit to Vietnam, we actually flew to PEN – Penang Malaysia on Air Asia’s new service. And once we flew from HAN to Bali by connecting through Singapore. You can also get to Phu Quoc very easily from both airports but there are more daily flights from HCM.
Tip: Use Google Flights or the Airport information on Flight Radar 24 to see the flight departures to help you make a decision.
Tip: If you are connecting at SGN – Ho Chi Minh, make sure to give yourself enough time as you need to change terminals and it can be time consuming.
Unless you are planning on just going to Phu Quoc, Nha Trang or Da Nang or find a really good flight deal, it’s probably easier to arrive internationally at HAN or HCM. In addition, international destinations are served mostly by discount airlines like VietJet and Pacific Airlines (Jet Star) from these smaller airports.
3- The cities: Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi:
Depending on how much time you will be spending in Vietnam, you will most likely end up visiting Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi and we do recommend both of them for different reasons. If you have lots of time, you can visit both and it is easy to do so by flying but if you are short on time, wed recommend splitting up your time between the city and other destinations. While each of these cities have similarities, they are also very different.
Ho Chi Minh is located in the south of Vietnam and has a population of ~8.4 million while Hanoi is located to the north of Vietnam and has a population of ~ 7.8 million.
Ho Chi Minh is much more modern and cosmopolitan due to some of the sky scrapers; we imagine Bangkok may have looked like this too at one point in the past. That being said, Hanoi also has sky scrapers now too. If there is one thing that we found easier in Hanoi, it is crossing streets through the never ending flood of motorbikes. We do enjoy the rooftop restaurants in Ho Chi Minh where you can get nice views and observe the chaos of the street life below.
Both cities also have a wide range of accommodations for different budgets and preferences. In Ho Chi Minh, we’ve stayed at the InterContinental Saigonand most recently really enjoyed staying in a suite at the Park Hyatt Saigon. In Hanoi, we stayed at the InterContinental Hanoi West Lake and found the setting very serene and close to the things we wanted to visit.
If you like craft beer, then you will want to visit Ho Chi Minh city as it has numerous breweries and a great craft beer scene. In Hanoi, the beer scene is all about Bia hoi! For those who are adventurous, try Bia hoi, a beer made fresh daily and served on the street. It’s cheap and fun to drink on the street with locals and other tourists, as we were told from people we have met but we have never tried it!!
Like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is also built along a river but Hanoi has a serene setting on West Lake which is popular for outdoor recreation. We found the lake made things seem less chaotic compared to Ho Chi Minh city. We had a great walk at sunrise one morning in Hanoi, as we made our way to visit a flower market.
If you are headed to Ha Long bay though, you will want to get there from Hanoi though as is only accessible by car.
We have visited Ho Chi Minh twice and Hanoi once and we enjoyed both; they each had history, culture, food, and fun!
4- Ho Chi Minh vs Saigon: What’s the deal?
Ho Chi Minh is also known as Saigon. Ho Chi Minh also abbreviated to HCM became the official name of the city in 1976 after the reunification of the north and the south. From our research and experience, there aren’t really any political or cultural implications of using one over the other but we choose to refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh, even if the airport code is SGN for Saigon!
5- The weather: When is the best time to go?
Vietnam is divided into 4 major climate zones:
- North Mountains: Dry season is from October to late March
- North Vietnam: Dry season is from November to April
- Central Vietnam: Dry season is from mid-January to late August
- South Vietnam: Dry season is from November to end of April or early May
Each zone has its own rainy and dry seasons so you cannot assume that you can visit every area and expect similar weather patterns on one trip.
For example, in November 2017, we were thinking of visiting Da Nang after our stay in Ho Chi Minh but realized it was rainy season why a higher risk of typhoons at that time, so we visited Phu Quoc which was starting dry season.
Tip: Look at the monthly patterns for the last 1-2 years for each destination you may want to visit for more detailed information on https://weatherspark.com/.
6- The beach: Is it worth visiting a beach destination?
We’ve been to two beach destinations in Vietnam: Phu Quoc and Nha Trang; we have enjoyed visiting these two beach destinations but not necessarily for the beach. Keep in mind that we have been really spoiled by Hawaiian and Caribbean beaches and have never been overly wowed by beaches in South East Asia.
We visited Nha Trang in January 2011 when it was expanding as a beach destination. Nha Trang is located on Vietnam’s central-east coast right on the South China Sea. We stayed at the Sheraton Nha Trang and have fond memories of our stay and might even say it’s been our favorite Sheraton overall since we have mixed feelings about this brand; the room was really nice, the lounge was great, and the service outstanding! Max especially liked the hotel staff who would stop traffic to help you cross the road as you left and returned to the hotel. If there is one thing we liked about staying at the Sheraton Nha Trang is that you did have access to the beach across the hotel fairly easily while also being close to the town where you could walk and explore. The water and sand look nice but where was garbage in the water which kept us from swimming so we just enjoyed the promenade along the water.
We visited Phu Quoc in November 2017 in the midst of its expansion to a major tourist destination, including a newly built airport in 2012 to accommodate international flights. Phu Quoc is an island located off Vietnam’s west coast in the Gulf of Thailand that can also be accessed via ferry from Cambodia due to its close proximity. Overall, there is very little tourist infrastructure so you need to just want to come here to relax at a resort. We stayed at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc and really enjoyed this extravagant resort property located on what is known as Emerald Bay. There are so many new hotels that our taxi driver didn’t where it was and we had to use our phone to show him! If there is one thing we found disappointing about our stay, it was the beach and that was one of the reasons why we chose to stay here! Because it was the end of rainy season and due to the currents, the water was brown and murky and there was lots of garbage so we couldn’t take advantage of the kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and just swim as we would have wanted. We did enjoy riding a motorbike around the island, finding places to eat, visiting the Phu Quoc Bee Farm, and the beach at Mango Bay, which was a lot nicer. We’d come back again for sure and stay at the JW Marriott again because it really is a nice resort and they treat Platinum Members well.
Tip: If you need to relax for a few days after visiting cities, book yourself into a nice resort in either Nha Trang or on Phu Quoc to unwind!
7- You drove a motorbike in Vietnam?
We would not recommend renting and driving a motorbike anywhere in Vietnam due to how crazy the traffic patterns but if you are brave then consider doing so in quitter places. We did research about renting motorbikes in Phu Quoc and didn’t think we’d rent them as foreigners/tourists have been banned from renting them in some places due to their carelessness which has affected local people. In Phu Quoc, one person was actually killed. We were able to rent ours directly through the JW Marriott and received a thorough safety and road rules briefing by the staff. Thankfully, the main road on Phu Quoc is paved but not all of them are, and we did find ourselves in a tricky situation when we got lost in a busy town with dirt roads and pot holes. This was a very memorable experience even if it was scary at times and we doubted the mandatory helmet we wore would do anything to protect us. We were disappointed to see tourists driving around like maniacs as their lack of respect affects all of us and we don’t want to be painted with the same brush.
8- Vietnamese Food:
Pho, banh mi, and rice paper rolls are the ubiquitous dishes that Westerners associate with Vietnamese food but there is a lot more to it than that and each region has their dishes and style of cuisine.
Yes, you will find pho and banh mi almost everywhere but you will also encounter other things and we do encourage you to be brave and step out of your comfort zone. One great way to learn more about the cuisine is actually to participate in a cooking class. When we were in Hanoi, we signed up for a cooking class with Hidden Hanoi that included a market tour, cooking demonstration, and sit down meal, all coordinated and led by a local person. We chose to learn about the foods eaten during Monsoon season and made a familiar comfort food of cabbage rolls filled with pork and mushrooms and more exotic dishes like a banana flower salad, Chicken stewed in claypot, and wasabi leaf soup.
One of our fondest memories of street food was actually in Vietnam, after setting out to find the Lunch Lady’s food stall in a corner of the city not very known to tourists. Made famous by Anthony Bourdain on an episode of “No Reservations”, Nguyen Thi Than, also known as the lunch lady runs a street stall that serves noodles and soup, mostly due to locals in the neighborhood. This was the first time we had a Vietnamese soup that wasn’t pho! Since we have visited in 2011, we’ve noticed the place is getting negative reviews though.
There are also restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city that offer a wide range of local cuisines, such as Quan An Ngon. This dining experience allows people to walk over to various stations where local food is being made so that you can see the action and learn more about it.
In Phu Quoc, we were treated to fresh seafood, including squid, which is very popular. We found the food here to have similarities with Thai food but not as spicy.
9- The currency and can you pay with credit card?
We always prefer to pay with credit card because it’s annoying to carry currency from home to exchange as well as local currency where we are but Vietnam is definitely a cash country. Some say you don’t always get the best rate but we were satisfied with the amount of Vietnamese Dong we were able to buy with Canadian Dollars at the airport. Some people recommend going to gold shops to haggle for a rate but we sometimes prefer to pay a premium to get service from somewhere more reputable.
We also carry some spare US Dollars in case they don’t accept Canadian Dollars as a back-up. On our first trip in 2011, we also had an HSBC bank account where we were able to withdraw money from ATMs in Vietnamese Dong which was convenient. We always felt like millionaires when we’d withdraw $200 worth which is about 3.5 million Vietnamese Dong and had a fat stash of cash that didn’t fit into one wallet!
We have never had any problems paying with credit card at hotels but did have an issue with a higher end restaurant; one day the machine was working, and the other day it wasn’t so we had to use cash.
Americans love throwing their cash around by most places in Vietnam don’t accept it as payment formally, as we have seen as innocent bystanders.
10 – Vaccines and Health:
You should definitely go to a clinic to get assessed by a Dr but we did not need any additional vaccines for Vietnam than another other destinations we would be visiting in South East Asia. In fact, most places in Vietnam are malaria free. While hindsight is 20/20, we do think we should have taken malaria medication when we visited Cambodia and Sumba Island (Indonesia). If there is one thing we do value, it’s Dukkoral which helps to protect against traveller’s diarrhea and cholera. We also made sure our Typhoid vaccine was up to date.
Vietnamese food is full of fresh herbs, which is a big no-no when it comes to avoiding getting sick by eating food but you can’t avoid it to enjoy Vietnamese food. Max got pretty sick our first trip to Vietnam and had minor stomach issues the second time but no problems the third time. We suspect Max got sick from eating salads at the hotel. We just try to eat at reputable places visited by other westerners, especially street stalls.
We also always drink bottled water and never use tap water to rinse our toothbrush. This is all pretty standard stuff that we’ve mentioned in this post.
One of the reasons we did not try Bia hoi, the homemade beer served on the street in Hanoi is because we didn’t want to take any risks getting sick by consuming homemade beer served in recycled containers that were probably not sterilized.
The Bottom Line:
Vietnam offers a lot of diversity and even if you don’t necessarily visit tons of tourist sites, just watching life as it happens is fun and you’ll so accomplished when you cross a busy street! There is romanticism to Vietnam too, as you see a crumbling building re-purposed into small shops and cafes, you see people smiling as they ride on motorbikes, you see the French influence from France’s occupation every time you bight into the baguette that envelopes your banh mi, and how the humidity and smog seems to disappear after sunset. It’s not manicured and orderly like other places in the world but it has its own order and way of being, one that makes you dizzy but also entices you to keep exploring.
We have also experienced kindness in Vietnam, and can think of one memory in Ho Chi Minh city. We were having trouble crossing at a very busy round about due to all the buses and so, an elderly lady gestured to us that we could go together. She reached out to grab my hand and we slowly inched forward, crossing together until we had reached the other side of the street safely. We bowed and said “xin chào” even if that means “hello” because it was the only thing we could say in Vietnamese.
We’ve found it pretty easy to travel to Vietnam from North America as part of multi-destination itineraries compared to other places; the infrastructure and flight service to numerous destinations has also improved since our first visit in 2011. We hope to visit again one day!
Have you ever visited Vietnam? If so, did you enjoy it? Do you have any tips to add?
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