In January 2010, I moved to Vietnam for six months to work for Save the Children based in Hanoi. This move was part of a work programme, and my company loaned me to the NGO. I thought this was a great way to travel to Vietnam and the surrounding countries, while at the same time volunteering in public health. The country is rich in history, culture, cuisine, and natural beauty. It is interesting to see the contrast of the French-influenced Hanoi and the more American-influenced Ho Chi Minh City. Also, I was lucky enough to travel to some very rural areas for work field trips. Those are not included in the guide since I went with work transport and can’t recommend how to make a tourist visit. However, I have added a few photos to share my experience of village life.
This guide is about general travel to Vietnam. I will write specific posts for Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue and Hoi An. Although some information may be dated, my hope is that the guide will give you some general tips and ideas for what to search for to plan your own trip.
- Hanoi– French-influenced former capital with beautiful architecture, lakes and markets
- Ha long bay – stay on a traditional wooden boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery of hilly islands in the bay. Also visit the caves and go kayaking
- Sapa- hike through the hilly north to see the tiered rice paddies and meet the locals
- Danang – beach and Marble mountains
- Cham Sculpture Museum, Danang
- Hoi An– traditional buildings and beautiful bridge and river
- Hue Imperial City
- Ho Chi Minh City – buzzing metropolis with a lot of history
- Cu Chi tunnels- historic tunnel complex used during the Vietnam War
- Cao Dai Temple – beautiful, colourful building and interesting history
- A homestay is a good way to see how local people live and eat
- Enjoy the delicious variety of food
- Try a cooking class so you can recreate the dishes when you get home
- Have clothes made to order by the tailors in Hanoi and Hoi An. They usually have cloth to choose from, but you can shop for your own. Ask the tailor how much you need for the design (a photo is ok), and then shop for fabric at one of the open markets such as Hom Market or Dong Xuan in Hanoi
- Massages are very reasonable and there are lots of spas to choose from
Before you go
- Usually, tourists to Vietnam can only apply for 30-day tourist visa and not undertake any work. From March 2022, Vietnam reintroduced visa waivers for the nationals of 13 countries including the UK (but not the US) for stays up to 15 days
- When you arrive, it is advisable to buy a silk sleeping bag. Some hotel sheets are not so clean, and it is nice to be able to slip into your own silk sleeping bag
- The country is long so the weather varies a lot from the north to south. The north is cooler during the winter months. It is hot and humid almost everywhere during the summer
- Be prepared for mosquitos during the summer
- Authentic medication is not always easy to find, so bring what you need
- You’ll probably end up with a big stack of money due to the conversion rate so keep it safe
- Crossing the road takes some practice. Motorbikes will go around you as you walk, but you need to stay out of the way of cars and larger vehicles
- There are some unusual foods in the markets and local restaurants including dog, crickets, worms, etc. However, these are usually clearly stated on menus if you are not feeling adventurous
- You can bargain at the markets so practice and have in mind what max price you will pay
- Tet is the Lunar new year and a time for festivities. However, some businesses are also closed during this time
- There are many people who do not speak English so GoogleTranslate can be useful
- Many airlines fly into the main international airports in Vietnam, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. Vietnam Airlines was my airline of choice for flying to other Asian countries. However, for the London to Hanoi route, I also flew with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines
- Taxis are relatively cheap for travel around the cities. However, sometimes the driving is a little scary so you may want to close your eyes! There are also motorbike taxis that can even take luggage. They are less safe and not that much cheaper than the car taxis
- The overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa is an experience! There are sleeper beds and ours was two bunkbeds in a cabin. However, there were some very sudden stops during the night including some that threw our water bottles across the cabin
- When I first arrived to live in Hanoi, I stayed at the Golden Lake Hotel near Hoan Kiem Hotel. It has since changed name to the Lakeside Palace Hotel. The hotel was well-located and had spacious, clean rooms with air conditioning.
- Some friends had bad experiences with dirty hotels. As mentioned above, I recommend buying a cheap silk sleeping bag so you can at least use that if the sheets do not look very clean!
- After the first couple of weeks in the hotel, I moved into a local apartment in Hanoi’s French Quarter. Most of my friends who visited stayed with me so we didn’t get to try out any other hotels
The official currency is the Vietnamese dong. As of August 2022, one British pound is about 28,427 dong. When I lived there in 2010, it was approximately 25,000 dong to a pound.
I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates
The variety of food in Vietnam is amazing! Even the spring rolls have several distinct versions. The Hue version is especially impressive with a type of shredded pastry wrapper. They are often served on toothpicks attached to a pineapple.
One of the typical, and very affordable meals, is a noodle soup called Pho. This can be found as street food and in restaurants. It’s usually steaming hot and topped with fresh herbs. It’s one of my local favourites, and versions of it can now be found in many countries.
In Hanoi, a regional specialty is cha ca, which is a dill and turmeric fish. It’s usually prepared at the table in front of the guests, and served with noodles, peanuts, and fresh herbs. Cha Ca Thanh long was the place to go in Hanoi.
Of course, you should try the banh mi sandwiches. These are a fusion of the French and Vietnamese cuisines, though the “baguette” is a Vietnamese version. The usual fillings included grilled pork or vegetables, but there are many variations.
Vietnamese cuisine includes all parts of animals including the innards. There are also some foods that are not common in western cuisine such as crickets, dog, snake, and worms.
Unfortunately, often times the food did not agree with me and I was ill. I am still not sure if it was the water used to wash vegetables or old oil or something else. At times, I had to take a break and eat tinned food. However, the Vietnamese food was so tasty, I would always try again!
If you are brave then also try the Vietnamese civet coffee. The beans are eaten and pooped by civets, and are meant to have a milder taste. In general, coffee in Vietnam is strong, and filtered through a metal cup with a perforated bottom.
Note that vegetarians and people with dietary restrictions may have difficulty finding out exact ingredients in foods. Using a translator app will help. However, some of the broths for soup may contain fish sauce or meat stock. And my friend who is allergic to onions and garlic had a very hard time to avoid these even when she let places know.
I will give some more specific food recommendations in the individual city guides.
Q: Do I need a tour guide?
A: You don’t need one for the main cities, but it may be nice to hear the history of the area from a local. To get to some of the sights like Ha Long bay, Cu Chi tunnels, etc then it may be useful to book a tour for the transport and guide in English.
Q: Do people speak English?
A: Some people do and especially more of the young people. The south of Vietnam also tended to have more English speakers than the north, where the French influence was stronger.
Q: Can I travel solo?
A: Yes, in general it is a safe country though do watch out for pickpockets. Even my local friends had their phones and wallets stolen, especially on public transport.
Q: How easy is it to send postcards?
A: It is easy to find postcards and post offices in the larger cities. See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.
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