Updated: Mar 29
Vietnam is an incredibly complex, fascinating country to visit. But it can also be overwhelming if it is your first time traveling there. Planning an upcoming trip? Check out the following tips for a less stressful, more authentic experience.
DO: Try the street food!
I ate the street food everywhere from the Mekong Delta to the center of Hanoi, and was never disappointed. I know this can be a bit intimidating if you’re not accustomed to sitting in tiny chairs at tiny tables on the sidewalk and eating bowls full of who-knows-what served by a woman that could be your great grandmother. But if the locals are eating it, chances are it’s really good...and very affordable.
Note-While many dishes are centered around meat, there are some vegetarian and vegan options (think tofu, vegetables, rice, spring rolls). When in doubt, go for a steaming bowl of rice and veggies. It never disappoints.
DON'T: Use credit cards if you can use cash.
Vietnam is a cash country, and making transactions with credit cards can be a bit of a hassle. Other than for booking hotels and tours, I used my credit card once during a two week trip-to purchase a souvenir at a tourist spot within the Forbidden City in Hue. The woman in the shop did not know how to use the credit card machine and we actually had to help her print out a receipt. Then she accidentally charged my card four times. She was incredibly apologetic and everything worked out in the end, but I could have avoided the trouble if I'd just carried a bit more cash.
The good news is that everything is very cheap in Vietnam as compared to the United States (and many other countries), so your cash will go a lot further here than at home.
DO: Figure out your money conversions before you get there.
One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of travel is when you finally arrive after a long journey- tired, dirty, and hungry-and without a clue about what people are saying or how much things cost. It usually takes a few days to get into the swing of things, but if you practice your calculations beforehand, you will had a much easier time and will reduce your risk of getting ripped off.
Note-You will feel like a millionaire when you exchange U.S. dollars for dong, since $1 is roughly 23,000 dong.
DO: Pack light!
If you want to see more of Vietnam than the Top Tourist Destinations, you will need to be get off the beaten path and live a bit more of a rugged lifestyle. I only packed a 10 kg backpack and a camera bag for a two week trip, and I had everything I needed. After carrying my luggage from the Mekong Delta to the mountains outside of Sapa, I was very grateful that I didn't bring anything unnecessary.
DON'T: Wear your shoes in the house.
It is considered rude to walk around the house in shoes that have been outside. (And reasonably so, the streets are dirty!). Many home stays and Air BNBs will even offer their guests slippers to wear in the home.
DO: Wear proper attire when visiting ancient temples or historical sites.
This may just be a tourist stop for you, but these places hold deeper meaning for many of the locals and it can be seen as disrespectful to show too much skin. And yes, it can be brutally hot. I almost passed out at the My Son Temple because I was wearing long sleeves and pants. But I drank plenty of water...and I survived.
DON'T: Take pictures without asking first.
Vietnam is an incredibly photogenic country, and sometimes it is hard to resist the urge to grab your camera and snap a shot. However, it is always important to respect people’s privacy as well as their cultural beliefs. Many of the older generation in Vietnam still believe that a photograph can steal your soul. I once entered a homestay in the mountains of northern Vietnam and asked the host if I could take pictures. She said yes, bt when I went to take a photograph of the host’s elderly mother sitting by the fire, I was met with an angry waving of chopsticks in my face and a string of what I'm certain were Vietnamese curse words.
It may be a simple shot for your Instagram, but to some its a much bigger deal, so be considerate!
DO: Become familiar with military time.
I booked a domestic flight for 5:40, only to find out when I arrived at the airport that afternoon that the flight had left early that morning. Needless to say, I will never make that mistake again.
DON'T: Try to speak Vietnamese until you are comfortable with the inflections and accents.
A simple mispronunciation can be the difference between "Thank you" and "Shut up". That hot noodle soup so popular in the U.S. nowadays is actually pronounced "fuh," not "fo". Learning the language of a place is always a sign of respect, and I encourage you to try. However, just make sure you take the time to do it right!
DO: Learn how to properly hold chopsticks.
I was informed on my second day in Vietnam that I had in fact been holding my chopsticks incorrectly my entire life. The right way? Hold at the very end and keep the sticks close together. This will provide better control and allow you to reach across the table to share your food with others. Food is a very social activity in Vietnam, and sharing is important!
DON’T: Drink the tap water.
The plumbing in Vietnam is still very rudimentary, often with water run directly from the water source outside directly into the faucet. Most Vietnamese will avoid drinking this water due to the high level of contamination, and I suggest you follow their lead.
DO: Slurp your noodles.
Don’t be shy! It’s not considered rude here to make noises while eating. It is also acceptable to to bring your bowl up to your face to prevent spilling when eating those delicious noodles.
DON'T: Flush your toilet paper down the toilet.
Again, think rudimentary plumbing. While this may not directly effect you, the resultant plumbing issues can become a major problem for the people hosting you, so please be considerate.
Note-The Vietnamese don't even use toilet paper, preferring instead to clean up using a hose located at the side of the toilet. You can avoid toilet paper altogether by just doing things like a local.
DO: Step out of your comfort zone and see where the journey takes you.
Trust a local to take you for a ride through rush hour traffic of Saigon on the back of their motorbike. Try the egg coffee. Don't be alarmed if you order half a chicken and find two chicken heads in the bowl (Yes, this happened). Take that trek into the mountains, far from the comforts of every day life. Trust me, you will survive for two days without hot water or insulation, and the memories will last a lifetime.
DON'T: Blow bubbles while peeing or go fishing in the toilet.
I don't know, its just what this sign at a rest stop told me.
DO: Find local guides to help you on your journey.
There are plenty of up-and-coming tour groups that provide authentic, immersive experiences for a very reasonable cost. Vietnam can be an overwhelming country with all the people, traffic, and the language barrier. Traveling with a local will allow you to see a side of the country that isn't accessible to the average tourist. Not only will have unforgettable experiences but you will make lasting friendships with the people you meet along the way.
Special thanks to https://www.christinas.vn/home2/ for providing us with great places to stay and wonderful tour experiences. I highly recommend this company if you are planning an upcoming trip to Vietnam!
Do you have any other Do's or Don'ts from your travel experiences in Vietnam? I would love to hear from you in the comments section!