Once you visit Vietnam, you can feel this country in a private way.
Unless you have been here during the past twenty years, your mental picture of Vietnam is probably dead wrong. Many Westerners- especially Americans-expect a land of darkness, deeply marked by the still-festering scars of war; the people are tamed and controlled by a wicked and oppressive regime; their contempt for the West is boundless.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. For most who visit Vietnam for the first time, the big surprise is that is an exciting, spirited and remarkably beautiful place full of happy, healthy, optimistic people. While it is the world’s third poorest country, it has one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
When to go
There is probably no such thing as a bad time to visit Vietnam, although weather is usually a factor for most visitors. Most hotels and tourist places are air conditioned, so it does not matter much anyway.
October through January is probably the most temperate months of the year in the North, though Hanoi can be chilly in the winter. You will be surprised when seeing snow in Sapa – mountainous landscape in the northwest.
July and August are rainy season, and the weather can be refreshingly cool, though punctuated by daily torrential downpours. Many Japanese visit Vietnam during the summer months to avoid the miserable weather at home.
Tet (Lunar New Year, which is also celebrated as Chinese New Year in many parts of the world) is always a heavy travel time. While the exact date changes each year, Tet normally comes in February. Since most businesses close and people return to their home villages, tourists will find very little to enjoy during this time unless you are with a Vietnamese family.
Costly mistakes and wasted time can be avoided if you use the services of a travel agent who has experience with Vietnam. For the most part there is no extra cost for using a travel agent since they are paid by the airlines, hotels and sightseeing firms they work with.
Needless to say, business travelers will be wasting their money on escorted tours. However, some travel agencies offer package deals that are convenient to.
Normally, these include accommodations, round-trip transportation between the airport and the hotel, and an introductory sightseeing excursion.
Vietnam is finally finding its way into many Orient ‘‘grand tour’’ itineraries, and a few tour operators are offering extensive Vietnam tours. If you are traveling for pleasure, have two weeks or more, and want to venture beyond Saigon or Hanoi, it may be worth looking into organized tours. For most first-time vacationers, however, it is best to use a knowledgeable travel agency to book the basics and nothing more.
Passports and Visas
A valid passport and a visa are required of all foreigners visiting Vietnam. Visas are issued by Vietnamese embassies and consulates. Detailed information on this subject is found elsewhere on Vietnam Online.
Vaccinations are not required to enter Vietnam, unless you are coming from an infected area. However, it is wise to ask your own physician (or a medical clinic which specializes in overseas travel) about prudent health precautions before you go. Vaccinations for cholera, typhoid fever and Tetanus may be in order. If you plan to travel outside major cities you may also want to consider taking an anti-Malaria drug. Regardless of where your plans take you, a precautionary prescription for Ciprofloxacin or some other antibiotic which treats diarrhea, could be worth the trouble and expense.
If you take prescription medicines regularly, keep them in your carry-on luggage instead of the bags you check. Lost luggage could end up causing an unnecessary health crisis. Very few pharmaceuticals require a prescription in Vietnam. However, Vietnamese pharmacies do not have the great variety of medicines available in many other countries.
Vietnam’s official currency is the Dong. There are no coins, and the smallest bill is worth about a quarter of a US cent. Depending on where you exchange money, you will get between 14,000 and 16,000 Dong for each US Dollar. Changing $100 into Dong will make you an instant millionaire and get you a wad of bills as thick as a good ham sandwich.
Vietnam’s unofficial currency is the United States Dollar. At major shopping areas, hotels and restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, you can use Dollars and Dong interchangeably and in practically any combination. For foreigners there is no black market for currency.
You can exchange foreign currency and travelers checks at banks throughout Vietnam, though some banks charge a commission of as much as four percent. Most merchants and hotels will not accept traveler checks at all. Cash can be exchanged at hotels and some shops, particularly jewelry stores. You will get a better exchange rate with a clean $100 bill than a worn $5 bill. If bills are damaged or worn they may not be acceptable for exchange
Vietnam’s first ATM appeared in 1996 at the Hong Kong Bank branch in Ho Chi Minh City’s, New World Hotel building. If your bank at home is part of the Plus or Star systems, you can withdraw from your ATM account at home in either Dong or Dollars. Vietnam’s only other ATM is outside the ANZ Bank in Ha Noi.
Travel within Vietnam
While there is an extensive network of trains and busses within Vietnam, it is easier and more comfortable to fly. Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Air serve just about every major city between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, including Nha Trang, Dalat, and Hue.
It is cheaper to buy domestic air tickets once you arrive in Vietnam. For example, airfare between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is about $230 if purchased abroad or $160 in Vietnam. The grueling 40+ hour train trip is about the same price. If your travel agency specializes in Southeast Asia you may be able to find an excursion or ‘‘circle trip’’ fare which costs even less.
What To Take With You
Appropriate dress differs from North to South. Southern Vietnam is tropical year ‘round and people dress comfortably and casually. Light weight cotton and wool fabrics will be comfortable at any time of year. While they may resist wrinkles, synthetics and are blends miserably hot. Generally, short pants are inappropriate anywhere but a beach resort or a farm and you will look like a foolish tourist on the streets of most cities. Jeans are almost always fashionable except for business occasions.
Winter (October through April) can be cool in Hanoi, and a coat may be necessary. Dress here is a bit more formal and somber than the fashionable South.
If traveling on business, jackets and ties are usually appropriate, regardless of the weather. Ho Chi Minh City’s business community is very image oriented. It’s all right to ask your business partners here what kind of attire is appropriate and expected.
Remember that Vietnam is a tropical country. Most of the year is warm and humid. If you are not used to tropical weather, be prepared to shower and change your clothes two or three times a day. Practically every hotel in Vietnam has a laundry service, which is usually quite inexpensive.
Here are a few things you should not travel without:
– Photocopies of your passport and visa.
– Cash in US $20’s and $100’s.
– A folding umbrella if you plan to visit during the rainy season. The wettest months are July and August.
– Zip lock bags. They are cheap, disposable, and keep all kinds of things fresh and dry.
– Business Cards. You will discover that practically everyone in Vietnam has a calling card of some kind. The proper way to offer your card is to hold it by the corners with both hands.
– Photo film. While 35mm print film is widely available, it may not always be fresh or properly stored. Slide film may be difficult or impossible to find.
– Money belt or fanny pack. As you will soon read, cash and small personal items are attractive to pickpockets. Leg wallets are uncomfortable.
What to Leave At Home
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is understandably very particular about the things which it will allow visitors to bring into the country. Explosives, firearms, seditious propaganda, or items that are culturally offensive are positively forbidden. Culturally offensive material includes books and magazines which customs officials may determine to be dangerous, including books or magazines with nudity.
You may not take video tapes, audio tapes into Vietnam without the permission of the customs inspector.
Illegal drugs of any kind are absolutely forbidden and possessing them could cost you your life.
Check Your Attitude
Whether or how much you enjoy your visit to Vietnam, it depends a lot on your attitude. Many things we take for granted at home are sometimes challenging here. Something is simple as crossing the street can become a maddening ordeal. In some places you will be pestered dozens of times a day by children selling gum, cigarette lighters, shoe shines and tourist junk. Sometimes the heat is simply miserable. People may gawk at you like you just stepped from a spacecraft.
Humor, patience and kindness are great virtues here. Taking these with you will enhance your adventure in Vietnam. However, anal retentive people who are obsessed with timeliness, cleanliness and order will probably have a terrible time and should stay home.
For more tips about traveling in Vietnam with adventure tours, you can visit the website: http://www.activetravelvietnam.com