Vietnam today is a popular tourist destination, drawing an ever increasing number of visitors each year. Although the country opened up to tourism during the mid-1990s, since then, infrastructure and related facilities have gradually improved for the millions of tourists visiting each year. All major cities offer accommodations ranging from budget guesthouses to five-star hotels. Most towns and cities also have a range of restaurants catering to varying tastes and budgets. Almost the entire coastline is now open to tourist development and new resorts continue to crop up all the time. The white sand beaches and the spectacular coral reefs add to the beauty. Remote areas such as the northern mountains are still relatively undeveloped – a virtue perhaps – but not too difficult to access given the proliferation of travel agencies in most cities. Govern- ment-run outfits are not known for their helpfulness, but there are several reliable private tour operators who can arrange organized trips in most parts of this scenic and beautiful country.
When to Go
The temperature and rainfall patterns in Vietnam fluctuate widely from region to region . Hence, visitors should make their itineraries according to the area they plan to visit, taking care to avoid the worst of the monsoon. The south gets its heaviest rainfall between May and November, while in the north, May to August are the wettest months. However, as these rainy months are in the off-season, it can work out much cheaper to visit. But bear in mind it can be uncomfortable and inconvenient due to flood- ing and low visibility. If you want to participate in major holidays such as Tet, the period from December to February is best, although prices are higher. For better weather and fewer crowds, the period from March to May is the best time to visit.
What to Take
There is very little that cannot be bought in Vietnam’s towns and cities, and at cheaper rates than back home. Villages and more remote areas are not like ly to offer the same range of options though. In general, it is advisable to wear a wide- brimmed hat and carry lots of sunblock, while a collapsi ble umbrella is a must for rainy months. It is also a good idea to keep a Swiss army knife, a torch and batteries, and a mos quito repellent handy. The best clothing for the south’s warm, tropical climate is pale, lightweight colored cotton or silk. Shoes should be light in weight as you will probably need to walk a lot. In the north, espe cially in the highlands, nights are cold and day tempera- tures can fall quite low. Travelers should wear layers to trap body heat in order to keep warm.
The peak flying season to Vietnam is from December to Febru ary. During this time, thousands of Viet Kieu or overseas Vietnamese flock back to their homeland to spend Christmas and Tet with their families. Make reserva tions for this period at least three months in advance. Some travelers avoid this crush by entering overland from either Laos or Cambodia, but most countries in South east Asia experience the same holiday rush. Several reliable travel agencies can take care of the bookings. It is also wise to book your accommoda tion well in advance during this period, especially if you plan to stay in a high-end hotel. However, budget accommo dations usually present no problem.
Visas and Passports
Most travelers to Vietnam must possess a valid passport and visa, whether entering by air, land, or sea. Citizens from some European (including the UK) and some Asian countries may receive visa waivers on arrival, of varying lengths; the visa regulations are under review, however, and more countries may be added to this list. Visas to Vietnam are issued only by Vietnamese embassies and are best applied for through a travel agency. Visitors on organized tours can get a visa on arrival, using a letter of approval from their tour company, which costs US$10– 20. This can be arranged online, saving a trip to the embassy, though there is a stamping fee (currently US$45) to be paid at the airport on top of the visa fee. A standard tourist visa is currently valid for one month, though a three-month visa costs only a little more. Visitors can also apply for a single- or multiple- entry visa. Business visas can also be obtained for one to three months, though a letter of sponsorship or invitation from a Vietnamese business partner is required for this.
Travel Safety Advice
Visitors can get up-to-date travel safety information from the State Department in the US, the Foreign and Common- wealth Office in the UK, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia.
Vaccinations recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for anyone traveling in Southeast Asia include hep atitis A and B, tetanus, rubella, measles, mumps, diphtheria, and typhoid. Malaria has been eradicated from most of the country, but there is still a slight risk on Phu Quoc Island and Highland areas. Drug recommenda tions for malaria can vary, so it is best to consult your family doctor or the WHO in advance when traveling to this region. Dengue fever is now a serious problem in Vietnam, as in many of the surrounding countries. Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccination; the virus is transmitted by mosquito and the best form of prevention is the use of repellent and nets. Be aware that the quality of medical facilities and other healthcare in Vietnam, espe cially in smaller towns and rural areas, can be very poor. Patients may also be refused treatment if they are unable to provide proof in advance that they can pay their medical fees. For further informa tion on personal health,
Customs regulations for tourists are normally straightforward in Vietnam. Visitors are allowed to bring in 1.5 liters of alcoholic bever ages and 200 cigarettes with them. Cash over US$7,000 must be declared. Upon arrival, visitors have to fill in a cus toms form, a yel low copy of which will be handed back to them. While few foreign visi tors are searched, items deemed politically offen sive or otherwise sensitive can be seized, including pornography, CDs, DVDs, and any material that may be considered critical of the government.
Vietnam’s hospitality industry is still developing. The two official sources of information and assistance, Saigon Tourist and Vietnam Tourism, are state-owned enterprises that make a profit by operating hotels and arranging tours. They also have very useful and informative websites. Independent travel agents and tour operators are better and more service-oriented if you need help in planning your own itinerary, or if you want the benefits of a customized package tour. While there are several dubious tour operators offering inferior service, most service providers are reliable and knowledgeable.
Most museums, zoos, and botanical gardens charge a modest entry fee, which is usually US$1 or less. Until recently, a two-tiered pricing system was enforced, in which the price for foreig ners could be five times that paid by the locals. This practice has been done away with officially, but is still prevalent in places. Most pagodas do not charge an admission fee, though a dona tion box is always prominently displayed.
Facilities for the Disabled
Unfortunately, facilities for the disabled are quite rare in this country, especially for those who use a wheelchair. Though the sidewalks are wide, it is quite difficult to maneuver a wheelchair along them as many street ven dors have set up shop there, while others use them for parking their two-wheelers. There appear to be wheelchair ramps on every block, but these are actually meant for motorbike access. Elevators are not very common, and toilets for the disabled are vir tually unheard of. Nonethe less, even though they should be ready for some discomfort, disabled travelers with special needs should not be deterred by these infrastructural short- comings. Many high- end hotels and resorts are now well equipped to accommo date the dis – abled, while travel agents can hire an assis tant, albeit not always a qualified one, for those who require one. With planning and the help of specialist agencies such as Accessible Journeys and Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, incon- ve niences can be minimized.
Facilities for Children
Children are adored by all and wel comed almost every where in this family-oriented nation. The sight of parents traveling with small chil dren is common here, and diapers, baby food, and other child-care products are readily available, especially in bigger cities. All restau rants are child friendly; however, most do not offer any special menus. Some foods may be spicy for kids, but ice cream, yogurt, and fresh fruit are always on offer. There is little in the way of special accommodation for children, but many hotels have rooms furnished with three or more single beds.
With its range of tonal variations, Vietnamese can be a very hard language to learn. Fortunately, many people, esp e cially those who want to sell goods or ser- vices to foreigners, speak a smat ter ing of English. It is often fractured, and, at times, difficult to understand, but since Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet, most ven dors can write what they need to say. All the major airlines, banks, and hotels have some staff that speak adequate English. In rural areas, it is wise to travel with an interpreter or guide who can be hired for around US$25–50 a day plus expenses.
Vietnamese etiquette is strict but generally easy to comply with. As a rule, smile a lot, do not raise your voice, and never point at peo ple. If you need to beckon or attract someone’s attention, make sure that your palms are facing downwards before you ges ture to them. It is also important to remem ber that losing your temper is coun- terproductive. The Viet namese are more likely to respond to your grievances when they are addressed politely. When meeting and greeting, shaking hands is customary. Do not touch anybody on the head as that is consi- dered the repository of the soul. That said, most Vietnamese are tactile individuals. People of the same sex walk arm in arm, pat each other on the shoulder, and hold hands. This does not extend to people of the opposite sex unless the couple is married. It is very common for locals to swoop down on foreign babies, often pinching their cheeks or even cuddling them. Some visitors may find this perturbing, but there is only affection behind such spontaneous displays. In apparel, it is not unusual to see a man wearing just a pair of loosefitting shorts. Most women dress modestly. Always keep in mind that the Vietnamese are very particular about propriety, especially in places of worship. At such sites, you should dress appropriately, with arms and legs covered. At the table, it is good manners to wait for the oldest person there to start the meal, unless you are the guest of honor. Never stab food with chopsticks or set them upright in a bowl of food, as that is a funerary practice. It is normal to eat with noisy gusto as an expression of appreciation for the food. Note that although you may be invited to dine in some- one’s home, guests are usually entertained in restaurants.
Most places in Vietnam are photogenic. Goodquality camera equipment, and memory cards are easily and cheaply available in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other large cities. Note that photography is restricted in military areas and around police stations. It is also safer to request permission before taking pictures of religious sites or of people, especially the ethnic minorities.
Time and Calendar
Vietnam is seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), 15 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time (PST), and 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST). Although the Western Gregorian calendar is used for official and com mercial requirements, the lunar calendar is still used for religious purposes such as calculating the dates of festivals.
The metric system has been in use since the French era. Some basic conversions from the US Standard to metric are:
1 inch = 2.54 centimeters
1 foot = 30 centimeters
1 mile = 1.6 kilometers
1 ounce = 28 grams
1 pound = 454 grams
1 US quart = 0.947 liter
1 US gallon = 3.6 liters
As is common throughout the region, the electrical current in Vietnam is 220 volts. Most wall sockets accommodate French- style rounded pins as well as Americanstyle flat pins. Hotel staff usually have adaptors on hand but they can also be found at any shop carrying domestic goods. Still, to be on the safe side, it is a good idea to bring along your own adapter. Charge your laptop and cell phone batteries daily as power outages are not uncommon, especially in small and remote towns.