Vietnam: Know Before You Go
Vietnam is a great place to visit. In our few weeks here, we've found the sights, food and affordability of Vietnam are unmatched. Vietnam does come with a steeper learning curve than some of its neighboring countries, however. As we write this, we've only been in Vietnam for a couple of weeks, so, there's a lot we still have to learn. In the meanwhile, we thought we would share some travel tips based on what we have learned so far - some things we would have found helpful before we got here.
keep your wits about you
There are a lot of times in Vietnam where you'll be thrust into a situation before you've had a second to think about it. For example, near the Reunification/Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, you'll see vendors with delicious looking coconuts. They'll hand you a coconut and before you can say no, and you'll required to hand over exorbitant amounts of cash if you take a sip - and they will be aggressive. It's important keep your wits about you and be ready to firmly say no to everyone, because before you know it you'll be hassled to hand over your money. Appearing confident and a polite but firm "no" will help you avoid most of these situations.
Do your research
There are plenty of tour agencies, booking agencies, you name it all over every city and town in Vietnam. They will all claim to have the best price or the best options - but many of them will sell you something that doesn't exist. This happens a lot with train tickets and bus tickets, where they'll sell you upgraded seats that do not exist. Typically, you only find out once you're at the station. Another example is online, where travel agents will pose as official airlines (e.g., Flyvietnam.com, which poses as the official Vietnam Airlines website). These will typically charge 50% to 100% above the airline's actual price (see vietnamairlines.com for the official site). Before purchasing tickets from anywhere, do your research on the company - check TripAdvisor, online forums, etc to make sure others can vouch for them.
Only certain taxis are legit
We learned this one the hard way, even though if you Google it quickly you'll found countless forums and conversations about this. We took a yellow taxi from HCMC airport that quoted us $10 to get into the city, and then when we got in the car and the meter moved it was suddenly $10 per km! So, first of all, do not take the yellow taxis. The government approved taxis are Vinasun (white) and Mailinh (green) that go by a fair meter. They should start at around 7,000-11,000 VND - not 90,000 VND like our yellow taxi one did. We'd recommend getting a SIM card (if your phone is unlocked) before leaving the airport so you can check Google Maps and get around. Uber is great in HCMC as well and cheaper/safer than most taxis.
Don't be flashy
Vietnam is the land of motorcycles and, especially in HCMC, it's pretty common for some on motorcycles to snatch and run. Be cautious. Don't wear a necklace, try to wear a cross shoulder purse or backpack instead of a side shoulder purse, don't hold up your phone by the street to take pictures. All of these are targets for snatch and runs. If you're a pedestrian while this happens, you're unlikely to be able to catch up with the motorcycle.
Crosswalks aren't really a thing
You'll see your life flash before your eyes when you cross the street in the bigger cities like HCMC. Most intersections (even the major ones) don't have traffic lights. Drivers in Vietnam are a lot more willing to play chicken with pedestrians than in other countries. To cross the street successfully, try and spot a gap and start walking slowly and steadily. Motorbikes are a lot more capable of avoiding you, since cars and buses can't swerve as easily - so don't stop suddenly or change pace quickly as they'll be looking to go around you and making yourself unpredictable could mean an accident.
Do the math
When buying anything, from a vendor, restaurant, cafe, anywhere, make sure to check your change before you leave the counter. It is pretty common to receive the wrong amount of change.
Be ready to haggle
If you've been traveling around Southeast Asia you know this is true any where. Vendors in Vietnam will often give you a price that is double, triple or even ten times the appropriate price. So, make sure you're ready to bargain. But also remember to have fun, at the end of the day it might be a difference of only a dollar or two, so don't sweat it too much.
On top of what your own bank charges you, like everywhere else ATMs throughout Vietnam charge anywhere between 2% to 5% to withdraw cash. Credit cards aren't any better, with most vendors charging 3% to use a card (on top of any currency conversion fees your own bank charges). There is one bank, however, that doesn't charge you anything. And, depending on the city and/or ATM you can take out between 3,000,000 to 10,000,000 VND at a time. Look for Military Bank (MB) ATMs to save that little bit extra - because it just doesn't make sense to have to pay to spend your own money. While most prices are quoted in USD throughout the country, you'll get a better rate if you pay in Vietnamese Dong.
Overall, enjoy Vietnam. It's a beautiful country with wonderful people, gorgeous scenery, delicious food, interesting culture and a fascinating history. Don't let being too cautious get in the way of enjoying your time in Vietnam!