Marybeth Bond, Gutsy Traveler, just returned from Vietnam, an outrageously exciting country to travel to. A little preparation before you go can take the headache out of simple things like crossing the street or avoiding dog or cat meat.
1. Learn how to cross the street (–and stay alive), slowly wade out into the moving traffic of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and food carts. Keep moving at a steady pace. Do not hesitate, stop, text, or read a map while crossing. Trust me, they will careen around you.
2. To avoid eating dog or cat meat, learn the Vietnamese words: thịt chó, dog meat and thịt mèo, cat meat. Despite laws passed in 1997 banning the consumption of cat meat, more and more pet cats are snatched off Vietnamese streets and are smuggled in from China and Laos. The delicacy appears on the menu as “little tiger.” Beware of restauranteurs who boast about an exotic surprise.
3. Figure out the crazy currency before you go or as soon as you arrive, so you won’t tip $ .05 or $ 50.00 by mistake. All the extra zeros can be very confusing. Memorize the currency by color. A blue bill is approximately $5.00, etc. A currency converter is helpful too.
4. Pronounce Vietnam’s national dish ‘pho’correctly. Pho, pronounced like “go” means “street” in Vietnamese. The soup is pronounced “fuuh” like the first syllable in “phenomenal.” A handy app for languages will also help with pronunciation.
5. Pack for the right season. In the summer, Vietnam is hot and humid, so you can leave your jeans at home. In the winter months North Vietnam can be extremely cold so be sure to pack a warm jacket. Check the weather reports before you go and bring a cheap umbrella to protect you from common rain storms. Checkout this packing tips to make it easier.
6. Ask for the price of a private car, driver, and guide. If there are three people in your group it is often the same price or less expensive to hire a private car and guide than to pay for a pre-arranged tour. On a private tour you call the shots: when to leave your hotel, if you want to eat at a huge tourist buffet for lunch or visit four temples, or when you’ve had enough and want to return to an air-conditioned hotel room.
7. Beware of taxi scams. There are numerous rogue taxis at the airport. Book a transfer through your hotel from the airport to your accommodation. You do not have to pay for tolls. Drivers in Vietnam routinely disobey traffic laws. Insist your driver does not talk on his cell phone while driving.
8. Your passport must be valid for six months after your arrival in Vietnam. The passenger in the seat next to me on the flight into Hanoi had been denied entry a month earlier because his passport had only five and a half months of validity. Vietnamese officials take this requirement very seriously and it could be a costly and time-consuming oversight.
9. Visas can be obtained two ways. You can send your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC, which can take up to a month. You can also get a visa upon arrive, which require an “approval letter” from the Vietnamese immigration service. Such letters are frequently offered as part of a tour package, for example, a cruise to Halong Bay, or you can purchase one online through a registered agent for a nominal cost ($50).
10. Unlock your phone before you go and buy a SIM card when you arrive. When you run out of minutes, you can easily “pay as you go” for more minutes from any road side stop. If you use your smart phone abroad, it can cost a lot, so be careful. You can check to see if your phone plan offers global messaging or if there are phone apps that offer international texting for reasonable fees. Use SKYPE when you have free Wi-Fi to make free phone calls.
We shopped around for hotels, guides and airfares during the planning process and saved tons of money. We used the TripAdvisor suggestions for a hotel in the old quarter and were disappointed. The second day we found the Zephyr Hotel, with a small Lake View from our windows, a large room, fabulous breakfast and very reasonable.