Asia,  Country Guides,  TDM,  Tips,  Vietnam

10 Things to know before your First Trip to Vietnam

I think Vietnam is very different from the countries in Southeast Asia. Those who make the tour Thailand – Laos – Cambodia – Vietnam are perhaps a little shocked when they come to Vietnam, after having visited the 3 other countries, because Vietnam has NOTHING to do with these 3 countries indeed.

Vietnam isn’t a Buddhist country! while the 3 other countries are Buddhist, hence the cultural difference.

I am Vietnamese and objectively, after visiting the 4 countries, I can say that the most beautiful landscapes are in Vietnam. The landscapes are so varied, we have such a culinary richness that Vietnam is really a must see destination.

To minimize the impact of your culture shock, here are 10 things to know before your very first trip to Vietnam.

1. You need a visa if you want to stay more than 15 days

You can opt for an e-visa that is valid for 30 days (see my guide here) – but that requires a bit of work beforehand because you can’t enter/exit with this type of visa anywhere.

You can apply for your visa at the Vietnamese embassy somewhere in the world before your arrival. Rates vary according to the country, you will pay more for your visa in France than in Laos for example.

But I strongly recommend that you go through an agency such as action-visas.comIt’s not much more expensive, but it will be smoother. Because the Vietnamese embassy in France isn’toriously inefficient, in addition to having very limited hours.

2. It takes time to visit the country from North to South

Being very fast, you need at least 3 weeks to travel all over the country and visit the most interesting corners (see my 3 weeks in Vietnam itinerary here). If you don’t have a lot of time, I recommend you to limit your visit to everything between Sapa and Hoi An.

In the South of Vietnam, the people are really nicer, but the landscapes are less impressive.

For dream beaches, it is necessary to go to the island of Phu Quoc, in the very South.

3. Expect culture shock

Of course, we won’t have as much of a culture shock as in India, for example. But for tourists who have travelled through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand for a few months, the arrival in Vietnam can be shocking.

First of all, the Vietnamese honk their horns a lot. To say “I’m here”, “I’m going straight”, “I’m turning”, “did you see me?”. The first days can be a little hard because your head will explode, but you get used to it quickly.

Then, the air pollution is very real, added to the humidity of a tropical country. It’s like being in a polluted sauna. Contrary to Thailand where there are a lot of cars, in Laos or Cambodia where there is still little traffic, in Vietnam, everyone has a scooter and you can feel the pollution especially at rush hour. Anyway, in the big Vietnamese cities, you don’t WALK, everyone has a scooter, so opt for a race in Grab motorcycle (if you dare) or simply take a Grab car (equivalent of Uber).

Finally, unlike the other three countries, the Vietnamese may appear colder , more distrustful (this is particularly the case in northern Vietnam). It is a proud nation (having driven the Americans, Chinese, French, Koreans and Japanese from its territory); and the Confucianism (misinterpreted) that dictates our behavior makes us very unhappy and even impolite us against the other Buddhist countries in the zone (the people of other countries influenced by Confucianism such as China, Japan and Korea… aren’t the most fulfilled on the planet).

Of course, when one isn’t happy oneself, it is difficult to be smiling just for the tourists. We see a clear difference when we go to the South of Vietnam, it is a favorable area (sunshine all year round, trees growing by themselves, economic wealth…), people are richer, more zen and therefore more smiling. Despite our painful history, Vietnamese people have absolutely no animosity towards French tourists or Americans.

I recommend that you leave the big cities very quickly, and visit them only at the end of your stay, when you will be more accustomed to the flow of scooters at rush hour.

If one expects a culture shock, one will be less shocked 😀 and will be more open to experimenting with another way of life, without (too much) judgment.

4. Say hello and thank you in Vietnamese

I told you that Vietnamese people can be a little cold, but it takes very little to get a sincere smile out of them.
Just learn to say hello and thank you in Vietnamese.

Hello: Xin chào (pronunciation sin ciao
)Thank you: Cảm ơn (pronunciation cam uhhhn

If it’s too hard to learn, just smile 😀 All over the world, when you’re nice, people will be nice to you. You can learn more about Vietnamese here

However, avoid putting both hands on your chest to say hello, nobody does that here (you aren’t in Thailand anymore). And don’t bow either, you aren’t in Japan 🙂

5. You have to haggle, all the time

Bargaining is part of the culture. It isn’t necessarily to rip you off. Even I, as a Vietnamese, I have to haggle every day at the market, even I find it painful. There are some places where haggling isn’t welcome: restaurants and supermarkets (where prices are clearly marked).

For restaurants, if prices aren’t properly displayed, ask for the price before sitting down and place the order. The best way to do this is to show this sentence :

Cái này bao nhiêu tiền?

how much does it cost? and give them a little calculator so they can give you the price. If you agree with the advertised price, sit down and enjoy the food.

6. Ecological awareness isn’t yet developed

I think France is very advanced on this with its ban on plastic bags and sorting. For example, even in Japan, they still give us one bag and two packages for the slightest purchase. Here in Vietnam, there are still far too many plastic bags and it often happens to see trash lying around even in the most heavenly places.

I find a lot of negative comments and judgments on this issue. But I also find it very hypocritical to criticize a developing country when here in France, we still find butts thrown anywhere while there are garbage cans every 2m.

7. The food is excellent

Forget the Vietnamese dishes discovered in France. It is NOTHING compared to the real egg rolls, the real soups that you will taste in Vietnam. The food is better in the North of Vietnam, too spicy in the Center, and bathed in oil in the South. So for a real culinary journey, it is better to stay as long as possible in the North – and especially in Ha Noi.

Be aware that Vietnamese people eat all the time and are particularly fond of ganh hang rong(walking bui bui).

A good Vietnamese restaurant is one where there are lots of locals and very few tourists. It isn’t normal that a good restaurant isn’t very crowded because we eat all the time. An empty restaurant = bellyache guaranteed!

There are two restaurants that I recommend you with my eyes closed in Ha Noi :

  • Quan Sen: an all-you-can-eat buffet. It is the opportunity to taste a hundred Vietnamese dishes in one place. I brought my in-laws here and they still tell me about it years later. Address: type Sen60 Lý Thái Tổ on google maps. It costs only 12€/person.
  • Quan An Ngon restaurant chain: it is a restaurant where you can eat street-food without having to sit on chairs 10cm high. Address: Quán Ăn Ngon, 18 Phan Bội Châu. Dishes cost from 50,000VND (2.5€).

Vietnam offers a multitude of choices, from walking bui bui at 1€ per dish, to bling bling restaurants at 200€/person.

8. We don’t talk politics

Unlike other communist countries, Vietnam suffered less. There is no point in connecting them on this subject, nor amalgamating them with China. Here, Facebook, Google, Twitter… aren’t blocked at all.

Moreover, Vietnamese people hate the Chinese (type “Chinese domination in Vietnam” on Google to understand) so any comparison you make with China will only attract a scornful glance or even insults.

9. Buy a SIM card as soon as you arrive

It will be easier for you, even if wifi is available in all cafes. It’s more convenient, especially for your instant translations. Read my article about buying a SIM card in Vietnam

10. It’s very easy to organize your trip on the spot

Whatever your desire, it is very easy to find a cab to take you there, a tourist agency, an inter-city bus… everything depends on the comfort you want and the money you want to put in. And of course, the comfort is proportional to the price (you get what you pay for).

If you are looking for a restaurant, Google and Tripadvisor will be your friends. If you are looking for a bus, you just have to put one foot out to find a tourist agency. If you need a hotel, just go to Agoda and book (more choices than For the linen, you can give to your hotel which will wash it for about 40,000VND/kg. Domestic flights are sometimes cheaper than bus or train, compare prices before!

For your transportation in the city, Grab and Uber have merged to offer you cheap shopping in all major cities of Vietnam. More info about Grab here. Use our code GRABTOURDUMONDE to get your first ride for free.

Do not hesitate to read our travel diaries in Vietnam as well as our recommended itinerary for your 3 weeks in Vietnam.

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