Vietnam is a very popular choice for travelers to Southeast Asia, and for good reason. It’s very cheap to travel there, the people are welcoming, the locale is breathtaking, the cities are vibrant, the culture is unique, the history is complex, and the food is amazing. There is a pretty good travel infrastructure in most of Vietnam, so it’s quite easy to travel there. And there’s something there for just about everyone: the culture buffs, the beach bum, the adventure traveler, the foodie, the city explorers, shoppers….
Getting there – I suggest flying to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) from Bangkok. Flights are relatively inexpensive (roughly $40 one way on a discount airline). From Hanoi, you can then fly or take a train to Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh City, and then fly back to Bangkok. Air Asia, Nok Air, and Jetstar all fly from Bangkok to several Vietnamese cities. Please keep in mind that many of these flights depart from Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok, not Suvarnabhumi Airport, the airport we arrive and depart from. It’s anywhere from 45 – 90 minute drive via taxi or shuttle bus between the two airports, depending on traffic, so keep this in mind if you are arriving in Bangkok and departing for the US on the same day.
Communications in Vietnam – If you have an unlocked smartphone, the best advice I can give you is to get a local SIM card for your phone. Get one with a data plan. This is invaluable in Vietnam. The data connection is fast, and I can’t tell you how handy Google Maps and TripAdvisor were when I was wandering around Hanoi. You can get SIM cards with data plans at the airport for less than $10, or you can wait and get it in one of the seemingly thousands of little shops selling SIM cards. You can top it off just about anywhere if you need more data. This site is a great primer on SIM cards in Vietnam.
Make sure your phone is unlocked (meaning it will take a SIM card from another provider). You can check with your provider to see if it is unlocked, and if it is locked, see if they will unlock it. Also, make sure your phone can access LTE networks. Older Verizon and Sprint phones use a different technology, and may not be compatible with networks in Vietnam. Newer ones (iPhone 6 or newer) should be fine.
You might also check with your US provider to see how much it is to upgrade to an international plan for one or two months. Some providers (like T-Mobile) have free or very inexpensive international roaming. But others charge by how much you use, and it isn’t unheard of to hear about unwary travelers who racked up thousands of dollars in roaming fees while traveling abroad. Update: the free data that many providers offer abroad tend to be really slow, so keep that in mind if you are used to high speed access.
Getting around once you’re there – The big cities all have taxi services, which is probably the best way to get around. They typically are metered, so you have less chance of getting scammed (although that is always a possibility). Hanoi even has Uber, which was nice, since it can be challenging to communicate where you want to go with your taxi driver. The best thing to do is have someone write down your destination on a card, so you can show the driver. Or look it up in Google Maps on your phone, and show the driver the map.
They also have public bus systems, but good luck figuring them out. There aren’t any train or subway systems in Vietnamese cities.
You will be very tempted to rent a scooter. Don’t. You will die.
Otherwise, walk. It’s the best way to experience a city, anyways. But be careful crossing the street! Vietnamese streets are, shall we say, challenging to cross.
If you’re wanting to travel to another city, you can fly, which is not much more expensive than other modes of transportation, and very quick. Otherwise, trains are a great way to see the country and meet people, as are buses. I have little experience with these in Vietnam, so I can’t comment, but this site is a great primer on train travel in Vietnam, and this site is a great primer on bus travel.
Where to stay – Lodging will vary, from $5 a night at a hostel (like Hanoi Rocks!, a hostel some Westminster students have stayed in) to much more. You can stay at a nice mid-level to luxurious hotel , equivalent to $250 hotel rooms in San Francisco, for as little as $40-$80. I stayed at the Apricot Hotel, a luxury hotel by any standard, for around $75 a night. AirBnB also has extensive listings all over Vietnam. When booking a place through AirBnB, keep with the listings that have a high number of positive reviews.
Health issues – There are no special vaccines necessary for travel in Vietnam outside of the ones you received for Thailand. Furthermore, if you are staying in the cities, you do not need antimalarials. If you plan on spending time in the rural areas, you should get antimalarials. More details are at the CDC Traveler’s Health website.
Money issues – ATMs are everywhere in Vietnam, and are very reliable. I suggest using ATMs for cash rather than money exchanges, which do not offer as good an exchange rate. Make sure you tell your bank that you will be in Vietnam, so your card doesn’t trigger their anti-fraud systems.
One thing to realize is that the exchange rate between the US dollar (USD) and Vietnamese dong (VND) is about 1 USD =22,700.00 VND. So you may have to withdraw 1,000,000 VND, which seems like a lot, but is less than $50.
If you are getting a visa on arrival at the airport, make sure you have at least $25 in US currency for the fee. Make sure it is crisp and new, and have exact change. Sometimes, immigration will reject currency that isn’t new.
Visa issues – Vietnam requires a visa for American citizens. They are good for 30 days. The best way to get a visa is through the Vietnamese consulate or embassy before leaving for Thailand. This will entail sending your application, application fee (as a money order), passport photo, passport, and a prepaid return envelope (trackable, such as UPS or Fedex). It typically takes no more than 2 weeks. Details and a link to the application can be found on the website for the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
If you don’t get this done before leaving, don’t despair; you can also get a letter of approval through an authorized agent, and present that letter to the immigration agent upon arrival in Vietnam. You can then get a visa on arrival. The main disadvantage of this method is that the letter is not free (it costs $20+, depending on how quickly you need it), and it takes longer to process at the airport. The service I used to get my letter of approval was Vietnam Visa. I filled out the online form, submitted a credit card number, and they emailed me a .pdf version of the letter, which I printed out and presented to immigration in Hanoi. If you go this route, make sure you have some US currency with you when you go ($25 at least) for the visa on arrival fee.
Update – There is a third, much easier, way to get a Vietnamese tourist visa, and that is through their official e-visa site. As of February 1, 2017, citizens of forty countries (including the United States) can obtain an e-visa online. In exploring this further, this is by far the easiest way to obtain a Vietnam tourist visa. The process is completely online, and you get approved usually within three days. It charges $25 for a 30-day tourist visa. You can access this system here. More helpful information can be found here.
Additional information on Vietnam –