I recently chatted to some friends who wanted to visit Vietnam for the first time and asked me for recommendations.

For that reason, I organized my thoughts and put them together in this article which I just gonna call “The Ultimate Guide To Vietnam for Newbies”.

I’ve noticed that people have increased interest in this country. Many are curious about how it is compared to other asian countries, especially Thailand. A lot of people feel that Vietnam is still a jewel compared to other main tourist hot spots in asia.

This also reflects in this chart which displays the number of people visiting this country for the first time.

I observed a massive development in recent years. Many countries and companies are investing heavily and you will see a lot of construction sites.

This is great because it results in infrastructure improvements which makes getting around more easy.

On the other hand, however, it takes away a lot of the original flair and Vietnam starts to become a metropolitan city like many others. I guess this is what globalization brings with it.

Regardless, I still think that you should visit, because Vietnam has many beautiful and unique places.

In this article I want to cover the most burning questions that first time travelers have:

  1. What budget do you need?
  2. When is the best time to go?
  3. What is the local currency and where you can get cash?
  4. How stay connected by buying a Sim Card
  5. Where to stay?
  6. Where to go?
  7. How to get around?
  8. What to eat?

You can use the right dot navigation on this website to jump quickly to the topics.

What budget do you need?

Here are the good news: Vietnam is not going to blow up your bank account.

Although there is massive change happening in the country and the tourist level is constantly going up, it is still a very cheap country.

As always, depending on your lifestyle, you can either travel extremely cheap, or extremely comfortable.

Here is a quick breakdown what to expect for the average traveler:

Flight ticket: 550€ – 650€
Hotel: 30€ – 40€ / night
Food: 10€ – 20-€ daily

Based on that, you would need between 1100€1490€ for 2 weeks of vacation to cover the basics (flight, food, accommodation).

 

Transportation:

Now, let’s say you want to visit 4 Destinations in those 2 weeks. Plan between 50€80€ to get from one place to other(flight/train). This is roughly between 200€320€.

 

Total:

In the end you will end up between 1400€1820€.

This seems like quite a bit of money, but as always with my calculations, I tend to be very generous. It’s a better feeling to have some money left in the end, than going over budget.

When is the best time to go?

Whenever you visit a new country the most important question you probably ask is: When is the best time to go?

Vietnam is an S-Shape country with a length of over 1600+km that spans from north to south. The weather, unfortunately, is not consistent across the whole country which makes planning your trip a bit more difficult.

In general the country can be divided into 4 zones: 1. The Mountain Region, 2. North Vietnam, 3. Central and 4. South Vietnam.

1. Mountain Region

Recommended: April / May, September – November

This area of vietnam is dry during the winter months and can get very cold during December and January with frost and eventual snow fall. If you plan to visit Sapa, I would recommend planning your trip for April/May because flowers will start to blossom and the fields will look amazing. I went in March and it was still beautiful but I couldn’t experience the scenery in its full beauty. The summer month, usually May to September can be rather wet with lots of rain which makes roads slippery and explorations more adventurous.

 

2. North Vietnam

Recommended: November/December, March/April

The winter in the north is usually dry with a comfortable temperature around 20° C. During the summer months starting in May and lasting till October, city life can be almost unbearable with temperatures up to 40°C and very high humidity. This makes exploring the city by foot quite exhausting. Last year I went in July and and it was almost impossible for me to go outside during the day to do something. Luckily, many stores have AC installed.

 

3. Central Vietnam

Recommended: April – June

While central Vietnam is mostly dry from January – October, I would recommend to visit in late spring or early summer, since the Temperature is around 30°C during this time, beach vacation in Da Dang or Nha Trang is wonderful. As of June/July, temperatures start to go up to the upper 30s and as of September/October rain showers are the daily agenda with occasional typhoons.

 

4. South Vietnam

Recommended: March / April

The weather in the south is quite consistent throughout the year. Yet expect short and heavy downpours in the summer months from May to November.
But these showers come and go quickly and will most likely not heavily effect your visit. During the other months, December – April, you can expect pleasant temperatures between 25° – 30°C.

You probably noticed that I didn’t recommend January or February. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The temperature at the beginning of the year is not optimal in the north. The wind coming from the north can be quite chilly and in winter the nature is not as beautiful as in spring or summer.
  2. There is the TET-Festival (Vietnamese New Year, the most important celebration of the year) end of January / start of February, so prices will go up because many people are traveling. For that reason, many shops in the cities will be closed and public transport is booked out months in advance.
    Make sure to consider this in your planning.

Cash is King, still.

You will become a Millionaire, Literally!

The local currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND). At the time when I am writing this article, 1€ equals roughly 27.000VND. If you withdraw 100€ when you arrive, you will run around with 2.700.000 VND, hell yeah!

Dealing with money in Vietnam can be quite messy. Although there are coins floating around, in day-to-day life people prefer to use notes.

Notes can range from 1000VND to 500.000VND. You can quite imagine how many notes you will be carrying around, right?

Card Payment is not accepted everywhere
As already mentioned above, cash is the main method for transactions in day to day life. Don’t expect that you can swipe your card and use NFC payments everywhere like in some other cities. Even some hotels only accept cash payment which brings me to another problem:

Withdrawing Limit is low
Although withdrawing money is becoming more easy and ATM’s are available almost everywhere in big cities, you will encounter 2 major annoying things:

  1. The withdrawal limit at ATM’s can be only 2.000.000 VND, which is roughly 75€.
  2. With each withdrawal you need to pay a fee that can range from 30.000VND – 50.000VND (1-2€).

There are some banks with a higher withdrawal limit and it might be worth checking out different ATM’s in your local area first. Common banks are Vietcombank, ANZ, Citibank and HSBC.

How to stay connected?

Buying a SIM

This should be one of the first things you should do when you arrive. During my last trip I bought a Sim from Vietttel for around 50.000 VND and topped it up with 100.000 VND.

After that you can sign up for a data package that will cost you around 90.000 VND for 3 GB data for 30days. 

Viettel is currently the biggest mobile operator in Vietnam and comparable to Vodafone. I never had any issues with coverage.

Unfortunately, there is no english website available. However, to make your life more easy:

  1. You can go to that website: www.vietteltelecom.vn/4gviettel
  2. Take a screenshot of the data package you need
  3. go to the shop and show it to them because english might be a barrier

Where to stay?

Hotels or Hostels?

If this is your first time in Vietnam and you are not traveling on a budget, I recommend to go for a Hotel. 3-4-Star Hotels are most common and can be found starting at 30€/40€ a night for a double room!

Personally, I would always go for a 4-Star Hotel or above. Why? First, because many 4 Star Hotels are available for a very reasonable price (which is equal to 2-3 Stars in Germany). Second, as of 4 Stars, I found the service significantly better and the staff has a different attitude towards customers.

If you only have 2 weeks of vacation you want to get the best out of it, right?

And besides, If you have a travel buddy, then it would cost 20€ per person for a 4-Star Hotel.

These prices can vary from place to place. The point however is, it will not break your bank account if you want to experience an upper class hotel with excellent service.

If you found hotels lonely and want to meet people on your trip, it is better to stay in hostels. Although the hostel ecosystem might not be as good as Thailand, yet, Vietnam still offers plenty of great hostels and some are available for already 3€/night, a fraction of a hotel.

To book you stay, I recommend to use:

  1. Booking.com – this is my main website where I book things because often times they have great deals
  2. Agoda.com – this one is used by many for travels in Asia. Agoda tends to have better deals and choices in Asia. But beware, prices shown upfront do not include VAT. Taxes will be added during checkout.
  3. Hostelworld.com – focused around finding the best hostel deals.

How to get around?

Traveling across the country

Until now, I haven’t been able to travel through the country just by myself.

Consequently I can’t talk from own experience how easy it is to get around with local buses or trains.

However, Vietnam is famous for it’s single railroad that connects cities from north to south. The train is probably the most popular and comfortable way to see the country and would be my first choice of traveling.

Here is a website that I found where you can find more infos about traveling by train: www.seat61.com.

Furthermore, for traveling in asia in general, 12goasia is a fantastic resource to book tickets.

Buses are also a convenient way to travel between cities. Friends of mine recently travelled to Vietnam and took night busses all along. There are many travel agencies in big cities like Hanoi or Saigon that provides full packages. If you travel by bus, make sure you have all your belongings with you in the cabin.

If you don’t have much time then flying is probably the best choice. Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet and AirAsia are most common. Vietnam Airlines tends to be the most reliable while Vietjet and Co. are comparable to low budget airlines like easyjet.

Getting around in the city

In recent years I observed the rise of Uber and Grab. There is even an Uber Moto available, which is someone picking you up by motorbike (don’t take this if you have bags).

My recommendation is to stick with Uber. I used it myself and never had problems. And is it just damn cheap! The problems with taxis are that you never really know how much it’s gonna cost and some taxi drivers just love to do detours if you’re a tourist.

However, Uber might not be available everywhere and you just need to get a taxi.
To avoid problems upfront, you could show the destination on google maps (with pre-calculated route from current location) and negotiate a price.

Cyclos were considered a luxury transportation for French people during the colonization but are considered more as a tourist attraction nowadays. Because many people have motorbike, you will almost never see vietnamese people getting around with a Cyclo. For that reason, the only people you see on Cyclos are foreigners and you can probably guess the opportunity here: frauds.

While I’ve never been a victim myself, there are countless reports on the internet, that Cyclo drivers tend to charge more than agreed upon. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend it. You better walk (sometimes it’s even faster!), save the money and spend it on good street food.

Update: 15.11.2019

Uber is not available in South East Asia anymore since Grab acquired their asian division. You can only use GRAB now.

What should you see?

Great, now you have all the basics covered, let’s dive into what you should see during your first trip.
There many places you should visit in Vietnam but if this is your first time, you should at least see the most important destinations.

Ho Hoan Kiem is the most famous Lake in the center of Hanoi, close to the old quarter.

1. Hanoi

This is my home town. Hanoi is currently the capital city of Vietnam with a population of roughly 8 million. While the city center maintained some of the old building structures, there are a lot of constructions sites going on elsewhere. In recent years, I witnessed massive change. The city is becoming more modern, lots of shops, foreign restaurant chains and coffee places are popping up like mushrooms. In a couple of years, I can imagine Hanoi to become one of the most important hubs in SE Asia.

Source: www.vietnam-guide.com

2. Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is a spectacular scenery of 1600 small limestone islands located in the north of Vietnam. It was declared as UNESCO World heritage since 1994 and ever since lures tourists with surrealistic scenery and mystical grottoes.

Sapa is a beautiful mountain region close to the chinese border.

3. Sapa

Sapa is a mountainous town in Northen Vietnam. Discovered by the french in the 19th century and set up as a hill station at the border to China, Sapa became a well liked destination among travelers. It offers a wonderful mountain landscape with breathtaking views on beautiful rice terraces, is culturally rich and is the home of friendly ethnic minorities.

Hoi An, this UNESCO world heritage is a wonderful place at night.

4. Da Nang / Hoi An

The ancient town of Hoi An is one of the most popular destinations for travelers. The very well preserved town structure that is permeated by beautiful canals earned its UNESCO World heritage title in 1999. Because Hoi An is very close to Da Nang you can catch two birds with one stone. Stay in Da Nang to have some beach time and go to Hoi An in the early afternoon and have dinner while enjoying the beauty of this ancient town at night.

The capital city of the south with strong economy and hot climate all year along.

5. Saigon

Saigon was used as the US base during the war and is therefore more influenced by the western culture compared to Hanoi. Because it was less effected by the war, the economy had a more stable history which strongly influenced the development of the city. Unlike Hanoi, which offers a more traditional feeling, Saigon has more variety and diversity for travelers. Saigon is better known for great nightlife, rooftop bars and more diverse dining. A great anti-pole to the capital city.

Must Try Food!

Let’s get to my favorite part: FOOD!

Yes, I believe vietnamese food is the best in the world!

And Yes, I am somewhat biased.

I really had trouble to keep this list short, because there are so many must-try dishes and even I haven’t tried all of them.

Chances are high, if you travel across the country, that you will be able to eat things that I’ve never seen before. Be brave and explorative!

Nevertheless, during your first trip to Vietnam, I can highly recommend to try the following dishes as they are a great part of the culture.

Source: www.legalnomads.com

1. Pho

This is the national soup, the soup that vietnam is most famous for. I travelled to many countries and whenever I talk to people about food and where I originally came from, they think of Pho first. Pho is a very popular street food that you can get almost anywhere. This traditional rice noodle soup is either available with Chicken or Beef. The recipe differs from region to region so make sure you try it in the north and the south.

Source: http://www.indiechine.com

2. Nem Ran (Spring Roll)

This is the fried version of the summer rolls that many know from vietnamese restaurants. These spring rolls use different ingredients from summer rolls and usually come with minced meat, carrots, kohlrabi, glass noodles, shrimps, mushrooms and other herbs. Because they are deep fried, the soft rice paper turns into a crunchy shell.

http://www.internationalfood4u.com/

3. Banh Mi (Vietn.: Bread)

Oh dear, if I was passionate about opening a food business, I would go all in with this one. Banh Mi are vietnamese baguette sandwiches filled with fresh herbs, grilled meat, omelets or loads of other delicious things. Baguettes were introduced during the french colonization and like the coffee, it became a household name for vietnamese food.

Source: www.adventureinyou.com

4. Bun Cha

My absolute favorite. Yes, I am usually following a plant based diet, but once in a while I am getting weak when I visit my family. This is a speciality in the capital city. Basically a grilled meat patty or grilled pork belly served with fresh herbs, white rice noodles and a sweet sour dipping sauce.

Source: vina.com

5. Xoi

This is a popular breakfast food. This version of sticky rice is not comparable to the mango sticky rice you get in Thailand. While Thailand serves its sticky rice as a dessert, Xoi can actually be full breakfast in Vietnam. The base is sticky rice cooked with beans, turmeric powder and covered by crispy fried onions.
There are a whole lot other sticky rice variations but this is my favorite for breakfast.

Special: Vietnamese Coffee

If you go to Vietnam…You really, really need to try the coffee! Especially in hot summer days, the iced coffee is fantastic.

Survival Tips

Last but not least I want to give you some general tips on how to survive 😉

 

Driving a Motorbike

For those who are brave enough to rent a motorbike and take a tour through the big cities: never look back. Always focus on what’s in front of you. Because everyone does. If you need to make a turn, do it slowly because everyone will circumvent you. Looking back will only result in a higher risk of driving into someone because that person will NOT look back when making a turn.

 

Crossing Streets

One of the most scary things for foreigners is crossing the busy streets.
But there is nothing to worry about, if you just walk slowly, because all vehicles will automatically go around you. Somehow it just magically works. But remember: Don’t run or stop unexpectedly!

 

Traffic lights are for tourists

Yes, the traffic lights mean very little most of the time. If you cross the road, even if the lights are showing green, ALWAYS pay attention. Because some people will for sure don’t give a damn and just keep going. So never just blindly cross the road even when there is green light. There are even some streets that have unofficial agreements where locals just keep driving and the police won’t do anything in order not to create traffic jams.

 

Negotiating Prices

Vietnam is like the wild west. While in shopping malls, prices are mostly fixed, expect to have some flexibility when it comes to shopping souvenirs at street shops. What many people tend to do is to push prices aggressively down by saying: “No! I only pay …. VND”.

But this will only result in resistance.

Instead, try to be friendly, smile and joke around. This will lower the sellers guard and put him in a more comfortable state where he is more willing to go lower. I once bought a hat that was priced at 200.000 VND. It was probably produced for a tenth but I friendly offered 100.000 VND anyway. The lady was like: “You’re handsome guy, why do you need to negotiate so hard?” I smiled and we agreed on 120.000 VND. Bam, 80.000VND saved. Enough to have lunch. Was it the lowest price I could get? Definitely not. But hey, she was happy, I was happy and only that mattered.

For that reason, please keep in mind: most of the time you will negotiate about cent amounts. It may has low value to you, but much value to people living there. Don’t try to negotiate to the absolute minimum and stay fair because a good business provides value for buyers AND sellers


Enjoy your time!

I hope this little guide gave you everything you need to get started. Have a great trip and enjoy every bits of it. Your thoughts are always appreciated and if you have further questions, leave your comments below, so I can extend the guide for others.

If you are in preparation mode already, make sure to checkout the Nomad Essentials with travel essentials.

Cheers,

Ninh