What is the climate like in Vietnam?
What is the time difference?
Are there any other entry formalities?
What medical precautions do I need to take?
How safe is Vietnam?
Is language a problem, or can I get by in English?
Should I take my money in cash or travelers' cheques?
Where can I find current dong exchange rates?
Where can I change money?
Is it better to use dollars or dong for daily expenses?
How widely accepted are credit cards?
Can I get cash on my credit card?
What recommendations do you have about eating in Vietnam?
Should I bargain for everything?
Is it a good idea to take gifts? What would be appreciated?
What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home?
Is the postal system reliable? How about other forms of communication?
What should I be aware of regarding etiquette?
What is the climate like in Vietnam?
Vietnam has a particularly complicated climate and, like elsewhere in the world,
weather patterns have been changing over recent years. The situation described
below is therefore only an indication of the type of weather you can expect.
Northern Vietnam Climate:
Starting in the north, autumn (September to December) is undoubtedly the most
pleasant season. At this time of year it's generally warm (average temps above
20°C), dry and sunny in the delta, though you'll need warm clothes up in the
mountains and on the waters of Ha Long Bay. Winter (December to February) can be
surprisingly bitter as cold air sweeps south from China bringing fine,
persistent mists and temperatures as low as 10°C. Things begin to warm up again
in March, which ushers in a period of good, spring weather before the summer
heat begins in earnest in May, closely followed by the rainy season in June.
This combination makes for hot, sticky weather which takes many people by
surprise. Temperatures, which can occasionally reach 40°C, average 30°C, while
humidity hovers around 70-75%. The rain comes in heavy downpours, causing
frequent flooding in Hanoi and the delta. By mid September, however, the rains
are petering out, and from October onwards it's perfect sightseeing weather.
Central Coast Vietnam Climate:
The coastal region from Hanoi south to Hue lies in the typhoon belt. Around Hue,
typhoons seem most prevalent in April and May, while further north the season
generally lasts from July to November. However, typhoons are incredibly
difficult to predict and it really is a matter of luck - or bad luck, rather -
if you are caught. Flights are usually only disrupted for a matter of hours, but
in recent years the main road and rail routes heading south have been cut by
floods at least once during the typhoon season. The good news is that they
usually get everything moving again incredibly quickly - within four or five
days, depending on the severity of the damage.
The central region of Vietnam has a notoriously wet climate, particularly around
Hue, where the annual average rainfall is a generous 3m. The so-called "dry"
season lasts from February to May, though you'll need an umbrella even then.
After this it gets wetter and hotter (ave. temps 30°C) until the rainy season
begins in earnest in September, gradually easing off from November through
January. Winter temperatures average a pleasant 20°C or above.
Southern Vietnam Climate:
Southern Vietnam is blessed with a more equitable - and predictable - climate.
Here the dry season lasts from December to late April/May, and the rains from
May through November. Most of the rain falls in brief afternoon downpours, so
you can still get out and about, though flooding can be a problem in the delta.
Daytime temperatures rarely fall below 20°C, occasionally reaching 40°C in the
hottest months (March to May). Once the rains start, humidity climbs to an
Central Highland of Vietnam Climate:
The central highlands follow roughly the same weather pattern as the southern
delta. In the rainy season (May-November) roads are regularly washed out, but it
can also be very beautiful at this time, with tumbling rivers, waterfalls and
misty landscapes. You just have to build a bit more flexibility into your
What is the time difference in Vietnam?
Vietnam is fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, twelve hours ahead of New York
and seven hours ahead of London, one hour behind Perth and three hours behind
Sydney (give or take an hour during daylight saving time).
Are there any other entry formalities for Vietnam?
On the plane you'll be given an Arrival/Departure Card and a Baggage Declaration
Hand in the completed Arrival/Departure Card with your passport and duplicate
visa application form at immigration in Vietnam. The Departure Card will be
returned to you. Keep this safely. You usually have to show it when checking
into hotels and will be asked for it in when you finally leave Vietnam.
You should list all valuable items on the Baggage Declaration form, such as
video cameras, portable computers and expensive jewellery. The duty-free
allowance is 200 cigarettes, 2 liters of alcohol plus perfume and jewellery for
personal use. You can take up to US $7000 into Vietnam in cash or travelers'
cheques; anything in excess of this sum has to be declared.
Hand the completed Baggage Declaration form to the customs official checking
your baggage, who will give you the yellow duplicate - again, keep this
carefully as it is required on final departure. (You have to show your
baggage check when reclaiming your luggage at the airport on arrival; the stub
should be attached to either your airline ticket or boarding pass.)
Finally, it's a good idea to make photocopies of your Departure Card and Baggage
Declaration form at your hotel and keep them separately, just in case you lose
the originals. They won't be accepted in place of the real thing, but may make
things slightly easier.
What medical precautions do I need to take when traveling to Vietnam?
It is important to visit a doctor or specialist travel clinic as early as
possible (preferably two months) before departure to allow time for the
recommended courses of vaccinations. This is particularly important if you
suffer from any medical condition and/or are traveling with young children.
At the time of writing, no vaccinations are required for Vietnam (with the
exception of yellow fever if you are traveling directly from an area where the
disease is endemic). However, typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations are normally
recommended, and it's worth checking that you are up to date with boosters for
tetanus, polio etc. Other injections to consider, depending on the season and
risk of exposure, are hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis and rabies.
It is best to discuss these with your doctor.
There is obviously a lot that you can do to protect yourself by taking a few
common-sense precautions. In tropical climates it's easy to get run down, so one
of the keys is to keep your resistance high by getting plenty of rest and
allowing time to acclimatize to the heat, humidity and unfamiliar diet. It's
important to eat well, especially peeled fresh fruits, and to keep up the intake
of liquids - bottled water is readily available and hot tea is offered at the
drop of a hat.
Personal hygiene is also crucial. Wash your hands frequently, especially before
eating, and clean all cuts, scratches and bites carefully. Note that tap water
may be infected, especially during floods, so use an antiseptic spray on open
wounds after washing.
Malaria is present in Vietnam. However, at the time of writing both Hanoi and Ho
Chi Minh City have very low incidences, while the northern delta and coastal
regions of the south and centre are also considered relatively safe. The main
danger areas are the highlands and the rural areas, where Plasmodium falciparum,
the most dangerous strain of malaria, is prevalent. Your doctor will advise on
which, if any, anti-malaria tablets you should take.
Again you can help yourself considerably by not getting bitten in the first
place. (Other mosquito-borne diseases include dengue fever and Japanese
encephalitis.) Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, when you should wear
long sleeves, trousers and socks, avoid dark colors and perfumes (which
apparently attract mosquitoes), and apply repellent to any exposed skin. Sprays
or lotions containing around 40% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are the most effective,
but it is toxic - keep it away from the eyes and open wounds - and not
recommended for young children. Other, less worrying alternatives are Mosi-Guard
Natural, X-Gnat or Gurkha repellents. Most hotels provide mosquito nets where
necessary; make sure you tuck the edges in well and check for holes in the mesh.
Air conditioning and fans also help keep the little blighters at bay.
When it comes to eating, the most important thing is to choose places that are
busy and look well-scrubbed, and to stick to fresh, thoroughly cooked foods.
Despite appearances, often the small local restaurants with a high turnover of
just one or two dishes are safer than expensive, Western-style places.
Restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you - for example, steaming
bowls of "pho" soup at a street stall - are usually a good bet, as well as being
lots of fun. However, steer clear of shellfish, peeled fruit, salads and raw
vegetables. On the other hand, yoghurt and ice cream from reputable outlets in
the main cities shouldn't cause problems.
Bottled and canned drinks, such as Coke, 7UP, Fanta and beer, are widely
available even in the countryside. Bottled water is also plentiful and very
cheap, though check the seal before you buy and if the water looks at all
cloudy, give it a miss. It's not a good idea to have ice in your drinks and
never drink water from the tap.
If you do fall ill, pharmacies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City stock a decent
range of imported medicines (check they are not past their "use-by" date). Both
these cities also now have good, international-class medical facilities.
Elsewhere, local hospitals will be able to treat minor ailments, but for
anything more serious head back to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Finally, don't get paranoid! By coming prepared and taking a few simple
precautions, you're unlikely to come down with anything worse than a cold or a
quick dose of travelers' diarrhea.
How safe is Vietnam?
Vietnam is a relatively safe country to visit. As a woman, I have traveled
extensively in Vietnam on my own with absolutely no problems. Despite people's
fears, there is almost no animosity towards Americans.
That said, there are increasing instances of theft, especially in Ho Chi Minh
City where pickpockets and snatch thieves on motorbikes are the worst menace.
The best tip is to be vigilant at all times. Often cute kids or old grannies
have deft fingers. Leave all valuables (expensive watches, jewellery, glasses,
etc.) at home, and don't even wear flash costume jewellery. Make sure you have a
firm grip on cameras and shoulder bags at all times and never leave anything you
value lying around unattended. I would also not advise taking cyclos late at
night, especially in Ho Chi Minh City or as a female on her own.
The other problem area is on the trains, especially the night trains from Hanoi
to Lao Cai. Again, make sure all your luggage is safely locked, preferably
stowed out of sight or attached to an immovable object, and don't leave things
near open windows. It's also wise not to accept food or drink from people you
don't know (there are reports of one or two people being drugged and robbed this
You might also have read warnings about unexploded shells, mines and other
ordnance lying around. This is still the case in the DMZ, around My Son and
certain border areas, particularly along the Chinese border. It is advisable to
visit such areas only with an experienced local guide and never stray off
well-trodden footpaths anywhere in Vietnam.
Finally, there's the traffic. Trying to cross the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh
City is an adventure in itself! You'll be faced with a tightly-packed stream of
scooters, bikes and cyclos which looks completely chaotic at first. But don't
give up! Either walk till you find some traffic lights or just go for it. The
key is to walk slowly and steadily out into the traffic. As long as you keep a
steady pace and make your movements clear, the traffic will flow round you.
Problems arise if you stop or move too quickly and the drivers/riders can't
anticipate your progress.
Unfortunately, driving standards are pretty poor. Vehicles are badly maintained
and the roads are becoming ever more crowded, especially Highway 1. As a result
the number of serious accidents on the highways is on the increase.
But don't get paranoid! Thousands of people visit Vietnam each year without
experiencing any problems whatsoever. It's also worth bearing in mind that the
situation in Vietnam is certainly no worse than many big European and American
cities. Just take the same precautions you would in any unfamiliar place, and
you should be fine.
Is language a problem in Vietnam, or can I get by in English?
Everyone in Vietnam seems to be learning English. Standards are relatively high
considering the country has only been open for just over a decade. Most young
people and many of those working in the tourist industry speak sufficient
English to communicate at a basic level. You'll find more and better
English-speakers in the south - a legacy of the American presence - but even
here don't expect to find English spoken at small restaurants, in markets or
anywhere off the tourist trail. For such situations it will help to have a basic
People over 60 years old, especially in the north, speak wonderfully
old-fashioned French. Other northerners might speak Russian or German, depending
where they were sent to be educated or as "guest workers".
If you're having real difficulties communicating, it sometimes helps to write
things down in English. As a last resort, someone will probably go and find an
English speaker to help sort things out.
Though you will certainly be able to get by in English, it's worth learning a
few Vietnamese phrases before you go. The pronunciation is a bit tricky, but
otherwise Vietnamese is not a particularly complicated language. A few standard
phrases (such as hello, thank you, how much is it? and goodbye) always go down
well. It will also help if you learn the numbers, though this can be
circumvented by asking people to write down prices, times etc.
Should I take my money to Vietnam in cash or travelers' cheques?
Vietnam's official currency is the dong, which can not be purchased outside
Vietnam. The main banks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can handle a fairly broad
range of currencies nowadays, but the dollar is still the most widely accepted.
I therefore recommend taking a combination of US$ cash and US$ travelers'
cheques, with the bulk in travelers' cheques for safety. American Express, Visa
and Thomas Cook cheques are the most recognized brands.
It's a good idea to arrive with at least some small denomination dollar bills
($1s, $5s and $10s) to get you from the airport into town and to a bank. Even if
they're open, the airport exchange desks offer unfavorable rates. If you do
bring dollars cash into Vietnam, make sure they are not badly tattered as they
may be refused.
Where can I find current exchange rates for Vietnamese money?
Current Dong exchange rates are available on the internet. Please try one of the
links on the page given below.
Note: You can not buy or exchange dong outside
Vietnam Dong exchange rate
Where can I change Vietnamese money?
You can change cash and travelers' cheques at exchange desks in big hotels and
at authorized foreign exchange banks in the main cities. Among the banks,
Vietcombank usually offers the best exchange rates and charges the lowest
commission (around 1-2%). Note that commission rates are slightly lower if
changing travelers' cheques into dong rather than dollars. Vietcombank does not
levy commission when changing dollars cash into dong, though some other banks
do. It's worth bearing in mind that you get a slightly better exchange rate for
$100 and $50 notes than for smaller denominations. When cashing travelers'
cheques you may be asked for your passport, though this practice seems to be
Outside the main cities and tourist areas, authorized foreign exchange banks are
few and far between. So if you're heading off the beaten path, stock up with
enough cash (dollars and dong) to last the trip. Wherever you are, you'll always
find someone willing to change dollars cash into dong, though rates will vary.
When receiving dong, you'll be presented with a huge pile of notes. The largest
bill is only 500,000d (roughly $30), so bear this in mind when changing $100!
Refuse any badly torn notes (you'll find it hard to get rid of them - the same
goes for dollars) and ask for a mix of denominations so that you always have a
few low-value notes in hand.
Is it better to use American dollars or Vietnamese dong for daily expenses in
Despite government attempts to outlaw the practice, the US$ still acts as an
alternative currency which is almost completely interchangeable with the dong.
Many prices, especially for hotels, tours and expensive restaurants, are still
quoted in $, though you can pay in dong if you'd rather - just check what
exchange rate they're using.
For everyday expenses, I recommend carrying a mix of US$ cash and dong. For
larger items (hotel bills, train tickets, etc.) or when the exchange rate works
in your favor, use dollars. For cyclos, local food stalls and small purchases,
it's best to use dong. In either case, make sure you always have a stock of
small notes so that you don't have to worry about change.
How widely accepted are credit cards in Vietnam?
Major credit cards (Visa, American Express, JCB, MasterCard) are gradually
becoming more widely accepted in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
City. All top level and many mid-level hotels accept them, as do a growing
number of restaurants and up-market shops catering to the tourist trade. But
watch out for the extra taxes they wap on when using a credit card - these can
amount to an additional 5 percent. Outside the major cities you will have to
rely on cash and travelers' cheques.
Can I get cash on my credit card in Vietnam?
Cash advances on credit cards are available at the central Vietcombank in Hanoi,
Ho Chi Minh City and other major cities, for which you will be charged around
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City also boast 24hr ATMs where you can withdraw cash on
MasterCard, Visa and other cards in the Cirrus/Plus networks. In Hanoi, go to
the ANZ Bank beside Hoan Kiem Lake; in Ho Chi Minh City both ANZ Bank and HKSB
What recommendations do you have for eating in Vietnam?
I strongly recommend you try the small local restaurants, especially the street
kitchens which consist of a few tables and a stove in an open-fronted dining
area. They usually specialize in one type of food (often "com" and "pho" - rice
dishes or noodle soups respectively). Sometimes there will be a range of
prepared dishes on display like a buffet, called "com binh dan" (people's
meals), where you just point at what you want. Often the quality is extremely
good, the food is cheap (under $1 for a good plateful) and it's a great
The key is to choose carefully. Look for clean places with a high turnover and
where the ingredients on display look fresh. If you see the food cooked in front
of you, all the better. Even so, you can never be one hundred percent sure, but
I know more people who've been struck down with food poisoning or stomach upsets
after eating in up-market restaurants than from patronizing street kitchens.
Expensive restaurants usually price their menus in dollars. In the middle of the
range it could be in either dollars or dong, but at this level prices are often
not indicated at all, which makes for tedious ordering as you go through each
dish. It's worth doing, however, to avoid a nasty shock at the end of the meal.
Watch out for the extras as well: peanuts, hot towels and packs of tissues on
the table may be added to the bill even in untouched. Ask for them to be removed
if you don't want them.
Finally, eat early. Though places in the south (especially in Ho Chi Minh City)
tend to stay open longer, outside the main cities and tourist areas restaurants
rarely serve beyond 8pm.
Should I bargain for everything when traveling in Vietnam?
Almost everything is negotiable in Vietnam (with the notable exception of meals)
and bargaining is very much part of the Vietnamese way of life. All tourists are
regarded as wealthy - which we are compared to most locals - but that doesn't
mean you'll always be quoted an outrageous price; small shopkeepers and
restaurateurs will often charge you the local rate.
When bargaining it helps if you know some Vietnamese numbers and have a general
idea of the going rate for the item. Otherwise, the trick is to remain friendly,
be realistic and make the process fun. If you manage to reduce the price by 40%,
you're doing well. In most cases it'll be more like 10-20%. A common ploy is to
start moving away if you're on the verge of agreement. But don't bargain just
for the sake of it - if your price is agreed, then you are honor bound to
purchase. And always keep a sense of perspective: don't waste time and energy
haggling over what only amounts to a few cents.
Is it a good idea to take gifts to present in Vietnam? What would be
Giving small gifts to those who have performed a special service or with whom
you have a working relationship is greatly appreciated. Anything from your local
area, such as cakes, sweets, chinaware or photo books or calendars, is a good
idea. Otherwise, inexpensive make-up, perfume, jewellery and pretty toiletries
go down well with women, while men will prefer pens, cigarette lighters,
imported cigarettes, whisky or other spirits and car/biking magazines. For
children, obviously small toys such as inflatable playground balls and skipping
ropes are popular and easy to transport. Or how about drawing books/pads of
paper and pencils or crayons, erasers, model cars, small-size T-shirts and other
When presenting gifts, don't expect effusive thanks as this isn't Vietnamese
style. Whatever their reaction, you can be sure that the gift was appreciated.
What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home from Vietnam?
Vietnam has a good variety of lightweight, transportable souvenirs. You'll find
them on sale in all the main tourist areas, though Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
probably offer the greatest variety.
Silk is probably high on most people's list, either tailored or as uncut cloth.
Hoi An, in central Vietnam, has become the place to get clothes made, but you'll
also find good tailors in Hanoi (along Hang Gai street) and in Ho Chi Minh City.
Beautifully embroidered cottons are another popular choice, as are printed
T-shirts in a whole range of designs.
Traditional craft items include laquerware, items decorated with mother-of-pearl
inlay, conical hats, carvings made of cinnamon and camphor wood, bronze Buddhist
bells and musical instruments. A water puppet also makes a nice memento. Fabrics
from the various ethnic minorities are either sold in lengths or made into bags,
purses or skull-caps. Minority groups in the south produce wonderful basketry
and bamboo pipes.
Vietnam has a thriving fine arts scene, with some artists commanding substantial
sums, though you need to be wary of fakes. Galleries in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City,
Hue and Hoi An also show works by lesser-known artists at more affordable
prices. Look out also for lovely, hand-painted greetings cards.
American army surplus gear, most of it of dubious authenticity nowadays, is
still a big money-spinner. You can also buy Vietnamese issue, such as the khaki
pith helmets, while communist banners and flags make an unusual souvenir. In Ho
Chi Minh City nimble-fingered children make model helicopters, planes, cars and
so forth from recycled drinks cans. They're not easy to carry, but terribly
Note that export restrictions apply to all items deemed to be of "cultural or
historical significance", including works of art and anything over 50 years old.
To take any such item out of the country you'll need an export licence. Even if
it's a modern reproduction it might be worth getting clearance anyway, since
customs officials aren't necessarily very discriminating.
Is the postal system reliable in Vietnam? How about other forms of
Slow but, on the whole, reliable. Letters and postcards leaving Vietnam can take
anything from four days to a month, depending on where you are; obviously mail
takes longer from the countryside.
Sending a parcel, on the other hand, is more complicated, especially if the post
office staff decide to inspect every item. Note that novels or other material
about Vietnam printed abroad can cause problems, and you may be charged customs
duty on items such as CDs. Take everything to the post office unwrapped and keep
it small: after inspection, and a good deal of form filling (they may charge a
nominal amount for the forms), the parcel will be wrapped for you. Surface mail
is obviously cheapest and takes around 1-4 months depending on the destination
and route taken. So far, all the parcels I have sent back to Europe have arrived
Phone calls out of Vietnam are very expensive, so a better option might be fax
or email. Nearly all hotels and post offices now offer a fax service, though
rates are usually cheaper at the post office. Both charge a small fee
(5000-10,000d) for receiving faxes. If your hotel name is specified on the
incoming fax, the post office will deliver it at no extra charge. Internet
access is now widely available in the main cities, generally at the travelers'
cafes. Rates vary from 400-1000d per minute.
What should I be aware of regarding etiquette?
Vietnamese codes of behavior are based on Confucianism, with its strict social
hierarchy, respect for authority and emphasis on conformity.
One of the hardest things to get used to is people saying yes or agreeing to
something when really they mean no, or it won't get done or there's a major
problem. This is in part a desire to please and in part a means of avoiding
confrontation. The key is to expect nothing to happen as planned and build
plenty of flexibility into your schedule. The other point of frustration is
likely to be when dealing with the endless, all-powerful bureaucracy.
Even in the most trying of circumstances it's important to remain patient and
keep smiling. It's very bad form to show anger in Vietnam and it won't get you
anywhere. It's also impolite to criticize people openly. Better to try and work
out some sort of acceptable solution. In tricky situations, handing round a few
cigarettes to the men will often help.
Dress codes tend to be modest, particularly when visiting religious sites (avoid
sleeveless tops and shorts) and for women at all times. It pays to look neat and
tidy for any official meetings or functions. When introduced to people, the
traditional form of greeting is to bring both hands together pointing upwards in
front of your chest and bow. More Westernized Vietnamese, however, are likely to
shake hands. The best policy is to wait and respond in kind.
It's common practice to remove your shoes when entering people's homes, Buddhist
pagodas and Cao Dai temples. When visiting pagodas and temples it's also good
manners to leave a small amount of money on the altar or in the collecting box.
Don't pat children on the head and don't point at people. If you want them to
beckon someone, hold your hand palm down and draw your fingers towards you
several times. When sitting on the floor, try not to point your feet at other
people or at religious symbols such as the family altar. Sit with your legs
tucked up beside you rather than cross legged. Finally, as elsewhere in Asia,
don't stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice; it's is an allusion to