One of the most common things people say about Vietnam is that it’s an affordable destination — ideal go-to place for backpackers and low-budget travelers. The world-famous Vietnamese pho is an enticing treat and the general hospitality and safety the country offers make this Southeast Asian country a popular destination.
But until you reach this destination, your expectations are likely going to be the same as above.
After traveling to Vietnam as a backpacker, here are things I learned:
You don’t have to have a hotel booking before arrival
Far from the price or popularity of large hotels, smaller accommodations are generally abundant in Vietnam. This certainly sounds good news to backpackers, as temporary shelters are readily available even without prior booking before your arrival.
One good way to look for them is on foot through narrow alleys and backstreets. Try to take a look at a few properties before making your decision. You’ll soon find out that they’re not only cheaper but more spacious and cleaner than those near the roadside.
Although many of these properties have found more traction online through Airbnb (signup and get up to $37 discount on your first booking), there are still many whose listings are limited offline.
Attractions are beyond war memorials
Often touted by travel agents are Vietnam’s war history and saturated tourist attractions that are often crowded with visitors, reducing the quality of experience. But for every Cu Chi Tunnel or Ha Long Bay, there are less heralded places you can visit. From Trang An scenic landscapes and other UNESCO Heritage Sites to fine beaches, Vietnam is a large country with plenty of things to explore.
Motorbike is the best way to get around
Vietnam has long gone past the horrors of war and has moved towards progress. For tourists, one way to check this is the quality of its road network. Those who are taking the motorbike to tour around, the road network is in pretty good shape, paved even along the remote mountainous areas.
You get to learn the Vietnamese way of life
From learning how to cross the street to get to used to the honks in the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese pace of life is distinct but not difficult to acclimatize. For example, you’ll find out that eating by the roadside is safe and dishes served there is even more tasty, not to mention the fraction of the price.
Vietnamese people are early birds
Early birds catch worms, so they say. Such adage fits well with the characteristics of the Vietnamese people. Many of them start their day early and the streets are brimming with activities way before sunrise. One of the most obvious are those managing small roadside eateries. They gather the ingredients, open their shops and accommodate equally early risers craving for an order of pho or banh mi. Others include motorbike guides fine-tuning their vehicles or bed and breakfast operators preparing meals for their guests.
Vietnamese people speak English
In a country-oriented to cater to non-Vietnamese speaking visitors, local people see that English language skills can help them find opportunities in the tourism industry. Whether working in a hotel as a bellboy, tourist guide or bar waitress. Although not everyone speaks the language, a growing number of locals, especially the younger generation, are more confident in their English language skills.
However, accents aside, be careful when asking how much is the price of goods. If one says fifteen, he or she might mean fifty. So don’t rely on verbal messages, have a calculator or phone handy for numerical presentation.
Real Vietnam may be hard to find
Modern Vietnam is characterized by a frenetic way of life, and you need to work hard to get off the beaten path, which can easily be hours away. Just like in many other countries, it is always tempting to join the crowds and flock the most accessible attractions. And as expected in a touristy district, you don’t get the optimal experience of the real Vietnam. So go find alternatives.
Instead of Nha Trang, check out Quy Nhon. Instead of staying in Saigon’s District 1, try District 3, or District 10. As you move away from the touristy areas, the people get friendlier, the food tastier, the prices cheaper and the culture more intact. (English language skills, though, gets poorer.) Explore and don’t be afraid to get lost.
Ask for favor and it may be granted unto you
Vietnamese people are kind-hearted and hospitable, so asking for favor may often get a positive outcome. In exchange for a favorable hotel blog review — based on your genuine experience — the hotel may share your website, or offer you complimentary spa treatment. All you have to do is just ask. Unless it’s against the law, outright unreasonable (staying at the hotel for free) and you’re open to rejection, it’s worth asking the Vietnamese people a favor.
Simple research can go a long way
Imagine you travel alone and just arrived at the airport late at night. Currency exchange shops are closed and you are short of cash. You wander around looking for a taxi to your hotel. Once you exit the airport, you are the center of attention of a handful of touts, offering you a ride. You were told that Vinasun and Mai Linh taxis are the best ones, but none was in sight. You are tempted to give in and become a victim of a fraudulent driver who operates an unlicensed car masquerading as a taxi driver. Avoid falling into the trap set up by touts and only ask the airport staff your questions. Better yet, do a research online a week before your travel.
Crossing road is not as hard as you think
You must have heard stories about the infamous traffic congestion in Vietnam’s large cities. It is widely documented that crossing the roads can be a daunting task for newcomers not familiar with Vietnam’s free-for-all road adventure. One basic tip to share is that once you attempt to cross the street, maintain your walking pace and never attempt to slow down or accelerate your walking speed. Motorists are used to seeing foreigners dreading the experience and should be able to avoid pedestrians as they cross the street.
Getting mobile data is better than roaming network
Wi-fi is available across certain spots in Vietnam (your hotel, local restaurant, etc), but you cannot depend on it. Two recommended telecom providers are Viettel and Vinaphone and both have shops outside the airport (at least at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh). After claiming your baggage and clearing customs, turn left and head towards the end of the terminal to find these shops.
A 30-day Vinaphone prepaid data sim comes with a 3GB local data (plus 30 minutes of local calls you can use for an arrangement with local tours and transport inquiries) at VND150,000.
Price of some goods depends on how much you’re willing to pay
It is not unusual for locals to charge excessively to tourists especially if they’re confident they can earn more than worth of goods. That’s because Vietnamese people are generally aware that the price of commodities there is relatively cheaper than in tourists’ home countries. Sellers can make arbitrary prices and as long as you’re happy with the money you’ll be willing to part with, you can buy the item. But it’s not what you call a rip-off, it’s just how things work there.
You don’t have to believe in everything locals will tell you
As a country that’s relatively new to tourism, Vietnamese people who are in the industry are likely going to exert all efforts to bring new business. This could mean some tell you inaccurate information (this is the most precious jade in Vietnam, this is a World Heritage Site) or outright lies (you can only buy this souvenir here). Let’s not even get started with the dynamics of price fluctuation. By the time you ask “how much,” they already have the upper hand in the transaction as they dictate the price. The good thing is that sellers and merchants are open to negotiation and you can often name your price. But be prepared to walk away if you think the deal is one-sided.
You can save money by bypassing intermediaries
It’s a common understanding that buying air tickets directly from the airline website instead of a travel agent will save you money. You can apply this principle when buying stuff like package tours or train tickets.
Usually, hotels provide these services for convenience, but if you’re looking to stretch your budget, you can directly go to the vendor and usually, it saves you time as well. When buying train tickets, a good practice is to buy a ticket for your next destination upon arriving at the current train station. This is because it’s a possibility that train tickets do sell out especially during peak seasons.
It’s okay to skip “breakfast included” at private accommodations
Vietnam is a haven for great food, and the streets are filled with cheap, but tasty meals. Hotels often offer “breakfast included” deals which are enticing since the price for hotel rooms in Vietnam is generally cheaper than in other places.
Breakfast isn’t terrible but maybe it’s not worth the cost of your stay. Outside your hotel, you might easily find a tasty beef bowl, sandwich or cup of coffee. This might be a better option than the eggs and baguette served in your breakfast table. So if you have the option, you can skip the breakfast menu and start the day with a meal outdoors.
Packaged ‘day tours’ is often a bad idea
Backpackers are often lured into joining a packaged tour in Vietnam. And why not, it covers transport, and includes some of the well-known attractions like Mekong River, Cu Chi Tunnels and My Son ruins at a price as low as $5 for the entire trip, who could go wrong?
On the day of your tour, you’ll soon notice why. Your van may be cramped with fellow tourists or stinking backpackers, there are several other stops at “attractions” that are actually vendors selling foodstuff or souvenir items. Or restaurants, bathrooms, bike rentals, and other facilities operated by associates of the package tour operator.
You might think it’s a way to help the impoverished craftsmen who carve intricate designs or necklaces, and a spare change can go a long way. But on the other hand, you’ll also feel wasting your entire day on an itinerary that’s not in your travel plan.
It’s pointless to debate Ho Chi Minh vs Hanoi
The respective pros and cons of Vietnam’s largest cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are there, but it doesn’t make sense to compare which one is better. One has its own characteristics that complement the other, though both share similar qualities such as amazing food choices. Depending on your preference, one city may be more suitable than the other.
Hanoi, as the capital city, and its historical heritage is on full display — from the pagodas prominently located at lakeside to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum as well as the French influence. Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon is a larger city with a modern appeal that better describes the new Vietnam.
Vietnam is a great destination to visit. Beyond the cheap cost, amazing food and a wide variety of adventures, it’s the charm and warmth of its people as the greatest asset you can find. I hope that by reading through these experiences, you’ll enjoy your visit to Vietnam even more.