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VIETNAM

With everything from superb cuisine to stunning landscapes, this corner of Southeast Asia dazzles the senses. Peaceful paddy fields give way to frenetic urban centers like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, where the youthful population rushes to embrace the future. Boutiques fill the French colonial buildings in enchanting Hoi An; in the north, a world away, are Sapa’s ethnic markets. Around Vietnam, lush jungles and jagged karst peaks beckon adventurers. Absorb it all but take time to relax, perhaps on the long, alluring coastline with its world-class beaches.

EXPLORE VIETNAM

TRAVEL TIPS

AIR TRAVEL

International flights into Vietnam typically connect through hubs such as Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Beijing, Seoul, Osaka, Tokyo, Dubai, Melbourne, Sydney, and Taipei and fly into Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. It’s also possible to fly into the international airport in Danang, in central Vietnam, via Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul. There are no direct flights between Vietnam and North America. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are the main hubs for direct flights to Vietnam from the United Kingdom.

Be aware that two airlines may jointly operate a connecting flight from an Asian hub, so ask if your airline operates every segment of your flight—you may find that your preferred carrier flies only part of the way. For instance, if you purchased a ticket through an international carrier such as Air France, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Japan Airlines, or Thai International Airways but are not flying directly to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, it is possible that your connecting flight into Vietnam will be on Vietnam Airlines.

Some layovers require an overnight stay in a connecting city. Before buying your ticket, check to see who covers the cost of the hotel—you or the airline—if you have to stay overnight.

Airports

The major gateways to Vietnam are Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport (HAN), 44 km (28 miles) north of the city, Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN), 7 km (4 miles) from the center, and to a lesser extent Danang International Airport (DAD), 5 km (3 miles) from the center. As the main gateways for thousands of international visitors, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi airports have procedures that can involve more in-depth immigration checks and baggage searches, should customs officials have any cause for suspicion. If you have arranged for a visa on arrival (VOA) waiting times can be long, so allow for at least an hour prior to check-in if you have a connecting flight, and make sure all the required paperwork, photographs and visa fee are easily accessible to avoid delays. If you have obtained your Vietnam visa in advance, you are more than likely to get through immigration, pick up your waiting bags, and breeze through customs quite quickly. All the international airports have free Wi-Fi and snack bars. For domestic air travel, major transportation hubs are Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Danang, but there is also service to Buon Ma Thuot (BMV), Ca Mau (CAH), Can Tho (VCA), Con Dao (VCS), Dalat (DLI), Dien Bien Phu (DIN), Dong Hoi (VDH), Haiphong (HPH), Hue (HUI), Nha Trang (CXR), Phu Quoc Island (PQC), Pleiku (PXU), Quy Nhon (UIH), Rach Gia (VKG), Tam Ky (VCL), Tuy Hoa (TBB), and Vinh (VII).

International Flights

For most international visitors, flying to Vietnam usually entails a nondirect flight, with popular layovers for U.S. travelers flying Delta, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, or Air Canada being either Bangkok, Tokyo, or Hong Kong. From the United Kingdom, Vietnam Airlines is the only carrier offering direct flights into the country. Nondirect flights with major carriers Emirates, Air France, and Malaysia Airlines are often serviced by two different airlines; flights connect from Paris, Doha, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, before flying into Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi or, to a lesser extent Danang. Silk Air and Vietnam Airlines offer daily services from Danang, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to several cities in Cambodia.

Air Travel Within Vietnam

The main operator for domestic routes in Vietnam is Vietnam Airlines, which offers the most reliable service. Its smaller competitors, Jet Star Pacific (owned jointly by Vietnam Airlines and Quantas) and the privately-owned VietJet Air, service fewer aircraft and despite being slightly cheaper, tend to suffer the most delays and cancellations. Flights are short and very reasonably priced; when booked in advance the two-hour trip between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City can cost as little as $25 (a third of the price of the 34-hour train journey).

Flying Times

There are no direct flights to Vietnam from the United States. Flying time to the Southeast Asian hub of Bangkok is approximately 18 hours from Los Angeles, 20 hours from Chicago, and 22 hours from New York; the onward flight to Ho Chi Minh City takes an hour. Flying direct to Ho Chi Minh City from London takes 12 hours and from Sydney it’s about nine hours.

BOAT TRAVEL

Traveling by boat in Vietnam is generally reserved for those who want to explore the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, or the Perfume River. The slow pace, limited routes, and high costs make it an inconvenient way to get from point A to B. For many riverside or seaside towns in Vietnam, boat rides are a natural attraction and a great way to get a view of life on, in, or near the water. In northern Vietnam and in the Mekong Delta, ferries are often the only way to get to destinations where bridges have not yet been built or have been destroyed, or to get to islands such as Cat Ba. Bicycles and motor vehicles can usually be brought on board for a fee.

Speed boats that make sea crossings to the islands are notoriously unsafe. Designed for use on rivers, they are often not sea-worthy when the water gets choppy, and the companies that run them tend to take too many passengers. Do some research and make sure you book with a reputable company or opt for a slower trip on a large dive boat or local supply boat. Life jackets are a legal requirement on all boats; if you are told you can take it off once the boat has passed the checkpoint, you have chosen the wrong company. Ignore them, and keep the jacket on throughout the crossing.

For travel between Cambodia and Vietnam, there’s a speedboat service to Phnom Penh from Chau Doc (a 3–4-hour bus journey from Ho Chi Minh City). Although very few companies service this 5–6-hour transfer, one reputable company that does, is Blue Cruiser. Tickets can be arranged at any of the tour offices in the main backpacker district (Pham Ngu Lao) in Ho Chi Minh City and include bus transportation to the Pier Café boat dock in Chau Doc for approximately $35. Boats depart daily at 7 am and include a stop off at the Vinh Xuong border to arrange visas, before continuing onward to Phnom Penh International Port, which is near the city center.

BORDER CROSSINGS

Air travel is the recommended way to go between Vietnam and other points in Asia. You must obtain a visa to visit most countries near Vietnam—Laos, Cambodia, and China—which can be difficult; it’s best to make visa arrangements before you go to Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos currently provide visas on arrival at international airports (with a photo), but this is subject to change; inquire at these countries’ embassies for the most up-to-date policies. In general, Thailand automatically grants short-term-stay visas to most Western visitors. Note also that tourist visas can be arranged quickly for most Asian countries from their respective embassies in Bangkok.

Going overland from Vietnam to other points is neither easy nor comfortable, though it is possible. Again, although it’s possible to arrange visas at most borders, rules change all the time. It’s important that you make inquiries or prearrange visas before making the journey overland. Vietnam–China border crossings include Mong Cai, Huu Nghi, and Lao Cai (near Sapa). Two trains per week run from Hanoi to Beijing via Nanning, crossing at Dong Dang. The trip takes 55 hours. Traveling overland into Laos today is easier than in previous years; many travelers make the journey via the Lao Bao border crossing, 85 km (53 miles) from Dong Ha in central Vietnam, or opt to cross the border at Cau Treo, near Vinh, also in central Vietnam. Entering Cambodia on the Mekong River has become possible at Vinh Xuong, 30 km (19 miles) north of Chau Doc. Travelers also make the trip into Cambodia by bus through Moc Bai, northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, from which it takes about 6–8 hours to reach Phnom Penh or by boat from Chau Doc which takes 5–6 hours. The best time to make this journey is on the early morning bus, as the roads on the Cambodian side of the border are neither in good repair or well lit, making the journey slower at night.

BUS TRAVEL

Public uses are often cramped, unbearably hot, packed with chain-smokers, and notoriously loud. Air-conditioned open tour buses are a better alternative; Catering to travelers, the “Open Tour” option has comfortable buses that run between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with stops in most cities along the way. Services are also available to bordering countries Laos and Cambodia. Ticket prices are based on the route and are only slightly more expensive than regular buses; $60 will buy you an open ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with four stops at destinations in between, and is almost half the price of a train ticket. About a dozen tour operators offer bus service, but the most reputable are Mai Linh, Phuong Trang, Hanh Cafe, and Sinh Cafe who all offer air-conditioned sleeper buses with fixed reclined seating, blankets, and onboard toilets (although these are not often operational) for longer distances. Onward journeys are best booked at least a day in advance (earlier if it happens to be a national holiday) and can easily be arranged by phone or email with the option of a cheap hotel pickup; a good option if you have a lot of luggage.

Tour companies that run bus services accept both dollars and dong. Public buses require dong.

CAR TRAVEL

Despite changes in Vietnam’s traffic laws and a new law that recognizes international drivers’ licenses, it is not yet clear what specific limitations may apply to foreign drivers. This, coupled with the hazard of locals driving dangerously, means that it is not advisable to drive a car in Vietnam, although many foreigners do drive motorbikes.

Car Rental

Before 2015, tourists were not permitted to drive in Vietnam at all. Now, although the laws are set to change and international drivers’ permits will be accepted, there is still some uncertainty about restrictions that may be imposed, particularly on driving a car, so it’s very important to check the situation before deciding to rent. Keep an eye on embassy websites for any changes.

It is still a better option to rent a car with a driver, who will, hopefully, speak some English. Cars and minivans with drivers are readily available from private and state-run travel agencies, tourist offices, and through most hotels in bigger cities. You are charged by the kilometer, by the day, or both. A daily rate runs from $70 to $100 per day, depending on a number of criteria: the city in which you rent the vehicle; whether it has air-conditioning; the make of the car; and your bargaining skills. The agreed price should include gas and tolls, but clarify all this before you set off. Travel agencies can also arrange for English-speaking guides to accompany you and the driver. For overnight trips you’re generally responsible for the driver’s lodging costs as well, which may or may not be included in the quoted price; make sure to clarify this up front.

Note that most rental cars lack seat belts and the provision of child seats is unusual. You should negotiate a price in advance and check out the vehicle before you rent it. Note that the name “Land Cruiser” is overused in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi. Too many people consider a Land Cruiser—made only by Toyota—to be any four-wheel-drive vehicle that’s not a Russian jeep.

Emergency Services

If you have hired a car and driver and the car breaks down, you should not be held responsible for the cost of repairs. Make sure everyone is clear about this before you embark on a long journey. Mechanical and engine problems with Japanese-made cars and SUVs are rare, but expect breakdowns if the vehicle was made in Russia. Most mechanical problems can be fixed, and there are mechanics on virtually every block in the cities.

In case of a traffic accident, remember that the foreigner is always at fault. So, in minor accidents, even if you’ve done nothing wrong it’s a good idea to stay in the car and let your driver do the talking or to try to get out of the situation as quickly as possible without involving the police. Even if the case seems crystal clear, you’ll likely be fighting a losing battle and will probably be asked to pay damages immediately even if you are not to blame. Many of Vietnam’s civil laws provide for the underprivileged, and as a foreigner you are automatically considered privileged.

Gasoline

Unleaded gasoline is sold by the liter in Vietnam. (There are about 4 liters to the gallon, which will usually fill a motorbike tank.) Gas stations sell at a government-regulated price of 25,000d per liter and payment must be made in Vietnamese dong. Minsks and some other makes of motorcycle take a 2%–4% oil-gas mixture; oil is added after you purchase your gasoline. Always check that the attendant has reset the meter to zero before he starts to fill your tank and check your change, especially if you are paying with a large bill. Gas sold by vendors on the street is a good option when stations are closed. The prices are slightly higher, however, and it’s not unheard of for watered-down gas of the lowest octane to be sold on the street, just buy enough to get you to the next gas station and fill up there.

Parking

Any traveling by car you do will be with a hired driver, so he (drivers are rarely women) will be the one responsible for finding adequate parking. On many streets in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi it is illegal to leave an unattended car; the streets are simply too narrow or crowded. Instead, cars—and motorbikes and bicycles—are often parked in guarded lots, driveways, even on roped-off pieces of sidewalk. A few streets have marked automobile parking, and some of the newer high-rises in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have underground or elevated garages. In most small towns and at the entrance to beaches, private home owners and parking attendants will offer to look after bicycles and motorbikes for no more than 5,000d. These are the safest places to park bicycles and motorbikes and will prevent your bike or helmet from being stolen, or being removed by the police for parking illegally. At night always check what time the attendant’s shift ends—if your bike is still there, he will most likely take it home for safe keeping overnight. If this happens you’ll need to make other arrangements to get back to your hotel and return in the morning to be reunited with the bike.

Road Conditions

Highways are the main transportation route for cars, public buses, trucks, tractors, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, and a host of farm animals. Highway 1 is the primary north-south commercial route and is the backbone of Vietnam’s road system. It has been upgraded along its entire length, which extends from near the Chinese border, north of Hanoi, through Ho Chi Minh City and to the heart of the Mekong Delta in the south. Other major roadways include Highway 5 from Hanoi to Haiphong; Highway 6 from Hoa Binh to Dien Bien Phu; Route 70, which bisects the northwest; Highway 7, the Nghe An Province route into Laos; Route 14 through the central highlands; Route 22, west out of Ho Chi Minh City toward Tay Ninh and the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; and Route 80, through the upper Mekong Delta. A second north-south route, the Truong Son Highway, is currently under construction. An ambitious project, it will follow a similar route to the famed wartime supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once completed, it will cut through Vietnam’s western mountains and extend from the northern province of Ha Tay to Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam’s major roads are for the most part paved, and the entire country’s road network is continually being upgraded with extensive soft loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Road conditions in the north are far worse than in the south, where the U.S. war effort built or paved many of the roads. Thoroughfares labeled national roads cover only 15,3600 km (9,544 miles) of Vietnam’s transportation system; only 84% of these roads are paved. The lowest category of roads, called provincial or district roads, account for 83,000 km (51,574 miles) of the system. Only 58% of these are paved. Most dirt roads turn to mud during the rainy season and become impassable. Despite some stretches of highways having speed limits up to 100 kph (60 mph), road transportation is very slow in Vietnam. When working out approximate journey times by bus or car a more realistic average speed to work from is approximately 30 kph (20 mph).

When driving (or, more likely, being driven) around the country, try to travel during the day and be extra vigilant during rush hour—around 8 am and from 4 pm—when traffic is at its heaviest. Driving at night can be hazardous because many vehicles either don’t have lights or drive with their high beams on at all times, and it is difficult to see bad spots in the road.

Driving in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi should be left to the experts.

Roadside Emergencies

There is no motoring organization to provide emergency assistance in Vietnam. If you have a problem on the road and are driving a rented vehicle, call the rental company for help. Otherwise, phone the police emergency number: 113. Try to enlist the services of someone who speaks Vietnamese to tell the police where you are and the nature of your problem.

Rules of the Road

Considering that Vietnam’s streets are a frenzy of motorists, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians, it’s no surprise that the country’s traffic fatalities per capita are among the highest in the world. There seems to be a vague understanding among riders, drivers, and pedestrians that they’re all in it together. But this doesn’t make the streets much safer. Traffic police are treated with contempt, pedestrians seem oblivious to the flow—and danger—of vehicles, late-night construction workers play cards in the intersections, and children have been known to dart into streets without warning.

Though traffic lights are all over Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you shouldn’t put too much faith in them; red lights are often ignored, especially at night and especially in Hanoi. Right turns on red are forbidden, although you’d never realize this by watching an intersection. One-way streets are also dangerous, as there is usually a trickle of traffic flowing the wrong way. And although the Vietnamese technically drive on the right side of the road, the concept of lanes has yet to catch on. Road safety laws and speed restrictions do exist, but they change frequently, are poorly communicated and rarely upheld.

Driving a motorbike in smaller towns like Hoi An is easier than doing so in hectic Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but driving skills remain poor throughout the country. When riding a motorbike or bicycle, use your skills of predicting, timing, and weaving. It is imperative that you use the horn, since most drivers rarely glance around before changing lanes. Unfortunately, since everyone uses the horn at every opportunity, it has become less of a warning and more of an announcement of one’s status as a motorcycle rider.

Always give the right of way to trucks, army jeeps, and buses. It’s not that they don’t necessarily want to stop for you—they just might not have any brakes. The best way to get through traffic on foot, using extreme caution, is to walk at a steady pace across the street and watch out—oncoming vehicles will have a better chance of avoiding you if the drivers can get a sense of where you will be going next, and if you stop suddenly, it’s harder for them to judge.

For border crossings into Vietnam from the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia and China, it is not advisable to drive because Vietnam imposes heavy import taxes on foreign vehicles and formalities are rigorous, involving a lot of pre-planning, paperwork and luck—even armed with the appropriate import papers, visas, and permits, your vehicle is likely to be refused entry. Even major tour companies are not immune and get around it by switching vehicles and drivers at border crossings. Vietnam does not issue visas on arrival, but many reputable travel agencies offer pre-arranged visas, which are available to citizens of most countries, including the United States, but only to those landing in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Danang. This makes for a convenient option for those who don’t live near a Vietnamese consulate, but note that in high season, you may be stuck waiting in line for some time. You’ll need to pay your visa fee in cash; as of this writing, the cost for American citizens is $45 for a one- or three-month single entry visa, $65 for a 30-day multiple-entry visa, and $95 for a longer multiple-entry visa.

MOTORBIKE TRAVEL

It is now legal to rent a motorbike in Vietnam if you have an International Drivers’ License. It’s not a good idea to do so, however, unless you have ridden one before. City traffic is chaotic, country roads may have human-size potholes, and local drivers are unlikely to stick to the rules of the road. If you are involved in an accident you, as the foreigner, will be blamed (whether it was actually your fault or not) and be liable for all costs, including hospital bills for any injured parties.

Previously, though technically illegal, the practice was widespread and so there is a good network of rental sources throughout the country, and most hotels will organize a rental for you. For a day rental, check what time you need to get back. You can rent motorbikes and scooters in major cities at most tourist cafés and some hotels and guesthouses for about 80,000d to 120,000d a day. A deposit is usually required, along with a passport or a photocopy of one (it’s best to leave a copy). It is a legal requirement to wear a helmet, all agencies provide them at no extra cost, but a better quality helmet (look for the safety mark and hologram sticker on the back, showing that it’s passed the minimum legal safety standards) can be picked up for around 215,000d—a wise investment.

Many rental bikes are not in good condition, so always check brakes, tires, and lights before agreeing to the rental; also check the gas tank, which may have been siphoned, and ask for the location of the nearest gas station.

TAXI TRAVEL

Metered taxis are common in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and are becoming more common in Vietnam’s smaller cities. Simply wave down a cab on the street, or ask the hotel or restaurant staff to call you a cab. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the moment you step into a cab the meter reads between 7,500d and 14,000d; after that the rate runs about 14,000d per kilometer. Fares are always quoted in dong, and many drivers will complain if you try to pay with $1 bills. Although tipping is not required, some cabbies have developed a habit of “not having change” in the hope you’ll tell them to keep it.

Although many cabbies act like reckless kings of the road, taxis are the safest way to get around Vietnam’s cities.

To find addresses in Vietnam it helps to know a few local practices. You may see addresses with numbers separated by a slash, such as “361/8 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St.” This means you should head for No. 361 on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street and then look for an alley next to the building; you want No. 8 in this alley. When you see addresses with a number followed by a letter, such as “97A,” this means there is more than one No. 97 on the street and you need to find the one numbered specifically with an “A.” If you see “54bis,” look for a building adjacent to No. 54; this is a leftover from the French that means 54½. The English word street (abbreviated St.) is used throughout the book rather than the Vietnamese words pho and duong. This was done to make sure street names are clear; in Vietnamese, the words pho and duong come before the names of the streets, which can prove very confusing when trying to find your way around. In addition, many Vietnamese refer to streets only by name (without adding pho or duong), so you may only see these words on street signs and maps.

Motorbike Taxis

Faster than regular taxis, but a less safe option, is the motorbike taxi (xe om). Xe oms are available everywhere. Most hang out on the streets with the most foot traffic, outside bus stations, and in busy tourist destinations. They will drive next to you as you walk down the street, offering their services. For a short distance it can be fun. Always wear a helmet, agree to a price before you get on, and make sure the driver knows where you want to go (your best bet is to have the address written down). Never take a xe om late at night, especially if you are on your own or have had one too many to drink. Quite often, a taxi will cost around the same. Expect to pay no more than 10,000d per kilometer.

TAXI TRAVEL

Metered taxis are common in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and are becoming more common in Vietnam’s smaller cities. Simply wave down a cab on the street, or ask the hotel or restaurant staff to call you a cab. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the moment you step into a cab the meter reads between 7,500d and 14,000d; after that the rate runs about 14,000d per kilometer. Fares are always quoted in dong, and many drivers will complain if you try to pay with $1 bills. Although tipping is not required, some cabbies have developed a habit of “not having change” in the hope you’ll tell them to keep it.

Although many cabbies act like reckless kings of the road, taxis are the safest way to get around Vietnam’s cities.

To find addresses in Vietnam it helps to know a few local practices. You may see addresses with numbers separated by a slash, such as “361/8 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St.” This means you should head for No. 361 on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street and then look for an alley next to the building; you want No. 8 in this alley. When you see addresses with a number followed by a letter, such as “97A,” this means there is more than one No. 97 on the street and you need to find the one numbered specifically with an “A.” If you see “54bis,” look for a building adjacent to No. 54; this is a leftover from the French that means 54½. The English word street (abbreviated St.) is used throughout the book rather than the Vietnamese words pho and duong. This was done to make sure street names are clear; in Vietnamese, the words pho and duong come before the names of the streets, which can prove very confusing when trying to find your way around. In addition, many Vietnamese refer to streets only by name (without adding pho or duong), so you may only see these words on street signs and maps.

TRAIN TRAVEL

The 2,600-km (1,612-mile) rail system, built by the French, runs north-south, servicing coastal towns between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The main drawback of rail travel is that it’s slow. The quickest train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, the Reunification Express, takes about 34–41 hours, depending on how many stops it makes. Trains are better for the shorter hops between Hanoi and Hue; Hanoi and Lao Cai, which gets you to Sapa; or Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang.

Train travel through Vietnam can be an enjoyable experience, not to mention a time saver if you take overnight trips, provided you can get a soft sleeper or at least a soft chair. Designed just for tourists, the more luxurious Livitrans that run between Hanoi and Danang, the Golden trains that connect Ho Chi Minh and Nha Trang and the privately run tourist sleeping car services between Hanoi and Sapa make for a far more comfortable experience than the Reunification Express, where regardless of what class ticket you hold, the bathrooms are often dirty and noise is often a problem; day and night, when the train stops, vendors may pop into your compartment to try to sell you soda, beer, and cigarettes. Smoking is permitted in some compartments.

Security is another concern. At all times keep the metal grille over the window shut. If you are concerned about eating food from the local vendors who board the train at every station, selling everything from rice crackers to soup, you should bring food and water with you, especially if you have cumbersome luggage that makes trips to the dining carriage impossible.

Classes

There are several seating and sleeping options on the train and most come with air-conditioning: the best are soft-berth sleepers, which generally have comfortable, 4-inch-thick mattresses and contain only four bunks; next are the mid-range soft sleepers, which also have only four bunks but with 2-inch-thick mattresses; then come hard-berth sleepers, which are exactly the same as soft sleepers, but come with six bunks (the top ones are cheapest); after that are soft seats, which are reclining soft seats, perfect for shorter trips; next are air-conditioned hard seats, which provides slightly uncomfortable wooden seats more attuned to short distance, daytime travel, and finally, hard seats, which are just what they sound like.

Fares and Schedules

As everywhere, fares vary based on the length of trip and the class of travel. You can purchase tickets at train stations and travel agencies can also help you make reservations.

The northeastern border crossing is at Dong Dang, just north of Lang Son. Visas for China need to be arranged before you leave home—at the time of writing, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi was not issuing visas to foreigners.

Reservations

It’s a good idea to book ahead, especially for overnight travel, although for some trips you can only reserve a few days in advance. Tickets can either be booked at the train station, through a local tour company, or with an online booking resource such as Vietnam Impressive, Vietnam Train, or Vietnam Railways. Train tickets must be paid for in dong, unless you book through a tour company. Foreigners are charged higher fares than Vietnamese nationals. Once you disembark you may need to show your ticket again, so don’t throw away your ticket stub or you may face major hassle when trying to leave the station, and may even be forced to pay again.

COMMUNICATIONS

Internet

Free Wi-Fi is provided at most hotels throughout Vietnam and they usually also have business centers; newer boutique hotels in popular tourist destinations now offer laptops for in-room use. Internet cafés in remote areas like Sapa are rare, but there are plenty of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country, and most restaurants, cafés, and pho shops will lure customers by advertising an available Wi-Fi connection. However, there are government restrictions on social networking sites, so don’t be surprised if you can’t log on to Facebook outside of your hotel room.

Phones

Due to cheap mobile networks and excellent countrywide coverage, cell phones have taken Vietnam by storm, so phone booths are rare, mostly found in post offices and rural village Internet cafés. Landline phones hardly exist outside of hotels and businesses. Generally, if you need to make a call within the country, all you need to do is ask and a cell phone will be thrust upon you with no expectation of payment. You cannot place collect calls from Vietnam.

Area and Country Codes

The country code for Vietnam is 84. When dialing a Vietnamese number from abroad, drop the initial “0” from the local area code. Some city codes follow:

Dalat, 0263; Danang, 0236; Haiphong, 0225; Halong Bay, 0203; Hanoi, 024; Ho Chi Minh City, 028; Hoi An, 0235; Hue, 0234; Nha Trang, 0258; Phan Thiet, 0252; Phong Nha, 0232; Vung Tau, 0254.

International Calls

To call overseas from Vietnam, dial 00 + the country code (1 for the United States and Canada, 61 for Australia, 64 for New Zealand, and 44 for the United Kingdom) + the area code + the number. Remember when calling that Vietnam is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and 15 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.

Most hotels have international direct-dial (IDD), which they advertise as a selling point and which you need in order to call overseas The connection can be surprisingly clear, but calls cost a small fortune; it’s better to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and use services such as Skype, Face Time, or Viber. International calls made using a local mobile network are also cheap.

Calling Within Vietnam

Vietnam has an incredibly efficient operator service. Call 102 for local and international directory assistance. Calling 1080 will put you in touch with an information service staffed partly by English speakers who can tell you everything from the current time to what percentage of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 20. If they don’t know the answer offhand, they will take your number and call you back.

Most public phones, which accept only phone cards and no coins, are found in post offices. Look for a blue sign that reads “Dien Thoai Cong Cong.” Local calls cost 5–10 cents and international calls start from as little as 10 cents a minute. You can make local calls for free from most hotels. Even if your hotel room doesn’t have a phone, you can usually make calls from the reception desk. Once in a while you will be charged around 25–50 cents to make a call. When making a local call, the area code is not necessary.

Long-Distance Calls

To make an intercity or interregional telephone call, dial 0, then the city’s area code + the number. For instance, to call Danang from Hanoi, dial 0236 + the number.

Cell Phones

Cell phones in Vietnam operate on the GSM900 system. Cell phones from Europe, Australia, and Asia can receive and place roaming calls in Vietnam, but this can make local calls expensive—charges are made for duration of call, exchange rate variation, and roaming charges at both ends. It’s far cheaper to buy a local prepaid SIM card to fit your cell phone, and these can be purchased at phone stores and shops displaying Vietel Telecom signs.

CUSTOMS AND DUTIES

When shopping abroad, keep receipts for all purchases. Upon reentering the country, be ready to show customs officials what you’ve bought. If you feel a duty is incorrect, appeal the assessment. If you object to the way your clearance was handled, note the inspector’s badge number. In either case, first ask to see a supervisor. If the problem isn’t resolved, write to the appropriate authorities, beginning with the port director at your point of entry.

Keep in mind that it is illegal to export antiques unless you get special permission to do so. If you purchase an item that looks like an antique, be sure to get a note from the owner of the store stating that it is not.

U.S. residents who have been out of the country for at least 48 hours may bring home, for personal use, $800 worth of foreign goods duty-free, as long as they haven’t used the $800 allowance or any part of it in the past 30 days and only once every six months for Vietnam. This exemption may include 1 liter of alcohol (for travelers 21 and older), 200 cigarettes, and 100 non-Cuban cigars. Family members from the same household who are traveling together may pool their $800 personal exemptions. For fewer than 48 hours, the duty-free allowance drops to $200, which may include 50 cigarettes, 10 non-Cuban cigars, and 150 ml of alcohol (or perfume containing alcohol). The $200 allowance cannot be combined with other individuals’ exemptions, and if you exceed it, the full value of all the goods will be taxed. Antiques, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection defines as objects more than 100 years old, enter duty-free, as do original works of art done entirely by hand, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

You may also send packages home duty-free, with a limit of one parcel per addressee per day (except alcohol or tobacco products or perfume worth more than $5). You can mail up to $200 worth of goods for personal use; label the package “Personal Use” and attach a list of its contents and their retail value. If the package contains your used personal belongings, mark it “Personal Goods Returned” to avoid paying duties. You may send up to $100 worth of goods as a gift; mark the package “Unsolicited Gift.” Mailed items do not affect your duty-free allowance on your return.

Information

Do not attempt to bring anything that could be considered subversive (such as political or religious materials) into Vietnam, as you may receive a hefty fine, be detained, or, in extreme cases, jailed. It is a requirement to declare foreign currency over $5,000 or Vietnamese currency in excess of 15,000,000d. Contact the Embassy of Vietnam for more information on customs requirements.

DINING

Vietnam has a variety of eateries, from street peddlers selling food and drinks from handcarts or shoulder poles to elegant international restaurants. In between are small, basic Western-style restaurants serving Vietnamese food; stalls or stands on the street, surrounded by small plastic stools, serving very cheap and often quite good rice and noodle dishes; hip venues (including hotel restaurants) serving Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, French, American, Italian, or other international cuisines; and tourist cafés, which cater primarily to budget travelers and serve mediocre Western and Vietnamese dishes.

Keep in mind that Vietnam’s best eating isn’t found only in elegant restaurants or hotel dining rooms, but also at stalls on every street corner and in every marketplace. To taste Vietnamese favorites, you need only step out of your hotel and onto the streets. These soup, rice, noodle, and seafood kitchens are usually run by several generations of a single-family, and sitting down on the low plastic chairs at one of these self-contained sidewalk operations for a bowl of bun cha (chopped grilled meat over vermicelli-style rice noodles) feels like joining in a family gathering.

If you stick to local restaurants, food will constitute a minor part of your travel costs. Smaller restaurants—even those serving international cuisines—are surprisingly cheap. Expect to pay international prices at hotel restaurants.

Upscale international restaurants to suit nearly every palate can be found in all major tourist destinations throughout the country. The nation’s top hotels have won over an expatriate clientele with their superb cuisine. French, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Thai, Californian, and, yes, certain configurations of fast food are all represented in the northern and southern hubs. And if onigiri are your favorite, you’re in luck; Ho Chi Minh City alone has more than 30 Japanese restaurants. Family-run restaurants and cafés with fresh seafood offerings, delicious meats, and tasty an chay (vegetarian dishes) are nearly everywhere.

Good, strong coffee and Vietnamese tea are served with breakfast, after dinner, and any time of day at local cafés.

Precautions

It’s important to be careful of what you eat and drink in Vietnam. Fresh, leafy vegetables are known to carry parasites, so avoid those of dubious origin or those likely to have been washed in tap water. That said, dining at street-side food stands can be as safe as or safer than eating in restaurants, especially in cities. Ho Chi Minh City in particular has a celebrated street-food scene. The stands often serve fresher food than many restaurants because they have a faster turnover; they also prepare the food in front of you. Be more cautious with food stands once you are out of urban areas. It is imperative that you avoid drinking tap water, ice is always made from pure, filtered water in large factories and then delivered to households, street food stands and restaurants, ask if you are unsure. Most decent restaurants either make their own ice using filtered water or buy ice in bulk from the freezer warehouses. Your best bet is to drink bottled water, particularly La Vie and Aquafina brands; be sure to check the spelling on the container as there are many knockoffs, some quite amusing, and check the seal on the cap to make sure the bottle hasn’t been refilled.

Keep in mind that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used in many dishes in Vietnam, particularly in the ubiquitous pho. If you don’t want MSG in your food, ask—the cooks may not have already added it to the dish. Many people are unfamiliar with the term MSG, so try referring to it by a popular brand name, Ajinomoto, or in Vietnamese, mi chinh.

Meals and Mealtimes

Despite their slim build, the Vietnamese graze throughout the day and unless you are in a very small village after 8 pm you only need stand outside your hotel for two minutes before a mobile food vendor crosses your path. Breakfast vendors usually set up at first light, serving noodle soup, pho or bun bo, rice congee, chao or baguettes, banh mi, most usually sell out by 9 am. Small local restaurants offering a similar menu open at around 7 am. Tourist restaurants generally open around 8 am and hit the floor running with their full menu, including a few Western breakfast options like bacon and eggs and fresh fruit. Practically every hotel will include a breakfast buffet of Vietnamese and Western staples in their rates, although standards vary. Lunch is typically served between 11:30 and 2 and dinner is available anytime after 2:30, and usually before 8. Restaurants are generally open daily (except major holidays), and although the Vietnamese eat dinner fairly early, most city restaurants remain open well into the night, even after they are supposed to close.

Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listedare open daily for lunch and dinner. As a rule the only restaurants that accept credit cards are the more upscale places. However, if you do pay with plastic, these places normally add a 5% service charge to your bill.

Reservations and Dress

Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you plan on dining in a popular restaurant. In some places it’s expected, and in upscale hotel restaurants non-guests are often turned away unless they have made a reservation. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there’s no other way you’ll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can, and reconfirm as soon as you arrive in the locality. Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy. We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.

Wine, Beer, and Spirits

You’ll find Heineken, Carlsberg, Tiger, and San Miguel, along with local beers such as Saigon Beer, Tiger, Ba Ba Ba (333), La Rue, Huda, and Halida. Bia tuoi (also known as bia hoi in Hanoi and Hoi An), a watery draft beer, is available on many city street corners; look for low plastic stools occupied by jovial, red-faced men. The popular rice wine (ruou or deo), which is similar to sake, is highly inebriating. You may want to skip the snake rice wine (with a cobra in the bottle) made “especially for men.” Imported French, Italian, Australian, Spanish, Californian, and even Chilean wines are available in all main tourist destinations. Brave souls may want to pop open a bottle of the locally produced wine, Vang Da Lat, which bears the label “Product of the Thanh Ha Fertilizer Company.”

ELECTRICITY

To use electric-powered equipment purchased in the United States or Canada, bring a converter and adapter. The electrical current in Vietnam is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); in Cambodia it’s 230 volts, 50 cycles. In the north and other parts of the country, wall outlets take the Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs; they use both the two round prong and flat-pin plugs in much of the south. Many of the international hotels can provide you with converters and adapters.

If your appliances are dual-voltage, you’ll need only an adapter. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “For Shavers Only” for high-wattage appliances such as blow dryers. Most laptops operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts and so require only an adapter and a surge protector.

Blackouts sometimes occur, especially in summer, when everyone uses fans and air-conditioners. Hotels usually have generators, but you may want to keep a flashlight handy if you’re staying in a minihotel.

EMERGENCIES

If something has been stolen from you, contact your hotel and ask them to help report the theft to the police or phone your embassy, especially regarding more costly items such as expensive jewelry or laptop computers. Also contact your embassy if your passport has been stolen or lost.

Pharmacies are found in every town and village and open daily from 7 to 11:30 and 2 to 8, most stock a limited range of prescription and nonprescription drugs (including antibiotics), which are available over the counter; always check the expiration date on drugs. Outside of these hours and for medical emergencies, seek assistance from local hospitals or clinics or from your hotel.

HEALTH

Temperatures in Vietnam can get extremely high; drink plenty of bottled water and use common sense to avoid dehydration, heatstroke, and sunstroke. Dengue fever and malaria are risks isolated to areas in the Central Highlands—if you’re not taking a prophylaxis, make sure to use mosquito repellent. Most of Vietnam is quite humid; keep a close eye on small cuts and scrapes as they can easily get infected.

Using sunscreen is recommended, especially in the south or on the coast. Sunscreen is sold in more upscale pharmacies and in stores featuring imported products. Pharmacies are plentiful and well-stocked.

Food & Drink

Street food is one of the more authentic ways to enjoy the Vietnam experience and is usually clean and tasty. If you do decide to indulge in frequent street dining, keep in mind the risk of parasitic infection from eating improperly handled meat. The major health risk in Vietnam is traveler’s diarrhea, caused by eating contaminated fruit or vegetables or drinking contaminated water. Drink only bottled water, or water that has been boiled for several minutes, even when brushing your teeth. It’s recommended you avoid eating unpeeled fruit and uncooked vegetables or those you suspect have been washed in unboiled water. Mild cases may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol, both of which can be purchased over the counter. Drink plenty of purified water or tea—ginger (gung) is a good folk remedy. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution (½ teaspoon salt [muoi] and 4 tablespoons sugar [duong] per quart of water); if symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical assistance.

Medical Care

International clinics and hospitals in major cities offer the highest quality care but also cost more. Local hospitals are not up to the standards of Thailand, Hong Kong, or Singapore, but they are decent and occasionally employ doctors who have been trained overseas. The language barrier is an issue in local hospitals, although some doctors can speak English and French.

Hospitals and pharmacies are often undersupplied and out-of-date. Only a handful of Vietnamese doctors have top-quality Western training. Foreign insurance is not accepted in local hospitals, so you should expect to pay immediately in cash on completion of treatment. The larger hospitals in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hue and Danang have experience treating foreigners (mainly due to motorcycle accidents, the biggest cause of injury or death of Westerners in Vietnam). Blood supply is a serious problem in Vietnam: the nation’s blood banks are small and, say Western doctors, insufficiently screened.

Foreign-run medical clinics provide basic treatment, 24-hour on-call services and can arrange for emergency medical evacuation to better hospitals in other countries in the region—Medevac planes dedicated to Vietnam are on standby in Singapore. Embassies have duty officers on call to assist with logistics. If you get sick outside Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, get yourself to those cities as soon as possible.

Local hospitals can perform some serious emergency operations, but these hospitals are understaffed and aftercare is poor or nonexistent. If possible, it’s best to avoid these hospitals altogether, but if you do end up in one, contact your embassy immediately and they will assist if you need to be evacuated to another hospital.

Medical Insurance and Assistance

Consider buying trip insurance with medical-only coverage. Neither Medicare nor some private insurers cover medical expenses anywhere outside of the United States. Medical-only policies typically reimburse you for medical care (excluding that related to pre-existing conditions) and hospitalization abroad, and provide for evacuation. You still have to pay the bills and await reimbursement from the insurer, though.

Another option is to sign up with a medical-evacuation assistance company. A membership in one of these companies gets you doctor referrals, emergency evacuation or repatriation, 24-hour hotlines for medical consultation, and other assistance. International SOS Assistance Emergency and AirMed International provide evacuation services and medical referrals. MedjetAssist offers medical evacuation.

Shots and Medications

Tetanus-diphtheria and polio vaccinations should be up-to-date—if you haven’t been immunized since childhood, consider bolstering your tetanus and polio vaccinations. If you have never contracted measles, mumps, or rubella, you should also be immunized against them. Also note: immunizations for hepatitis A and typhoid fever are advised. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is a risk of contracting malaria only in rural areas of Vietnam, except in the Red River delta and the coastal plain north of Nha Trang, which are safe. The CDC recommends taking mefloquine (brand name Larium) for malaria. Dengue fever occurs in Vietnam, but the risk is small except during periods of epidemic-size transmission; there is no vaccine to prevent it. Therefore, you should take precautions against mosquito bites. Malaria- and dengue-bearing mosquitoes bite at dusk and at night. No matter where you go, it’s a good idea to protect yourself from mosquito-borne illnesses with a good insect repellent containing DEET, and if you’re in susceptible regions, use aerosol insecticides indoors, wear clothing that covers the body, and bring mosquito nets.

If you’re staying for a month or more and are traveling to rural areas, you should be vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis; for six months or more, against hepatitis B as well. Some of these vaccinations require staggered treatments, so plan ahead.

Bringing a first-aid kit with antacids, antidiarrheal, cold medicine, Band-Aids, antiseptics, aspirin, and other items you may need is a good idea. Also, know your blood type and bring enough medication to last the entire trip; you may be able to get common prescription drugs in Vietnam, but don’t count on their availability or their quality. Just in case, however, have your doctor write you a prescription using the drug’s generic name, because brand names vary from country to country.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

Pharmacies are almost as common as tea stalls in Vietnam, and many pharmacists in major cities speak English. Look for a shop with a green sign that reads Nha Thuoc. These usually stock painkillers (such as Panadol); eye-, nose-, and eardrops (such as Polydexa); cold remedies (such as Tiffy); and various antibiotics—for which no prescription is needed in Vietnam. Remember to check the expiration date when buying any sort of medication.

HOURS OF OPERATION

Vietnam has a tradition of afternoon siestas (especially in the countryside), which means that all activities except eating tend to stop during lunch, between 11:30 and 2. Urban life is changing rapidly in Vietnam, however, and more and more businesses are staying open during lunchtime to accommodate the increasing number of tourists and office-bound Vietnamese who use their midday break as a time to catch up on shopping or doing chores.

Cafés and restaurants are open all day, almost every day. Most sidewalk stalls serving breakfast and lunch finish by 2 and reopen for dinner about half an hour later. By 10 pm in Hanoi and 11 pm in Ho Chi Minh City, activity starts slowing down; smaller cities die down even earlier. In bigger cities more popular venues stay open much later. You can always find late-night noodle stands. Bars and nightclubs usually close at about 1 am or whenever the last customer leaves.

Banks and Offices

Vietnam for the most part has a five-day workweek. Some offices are open on Saturday morning, but many are not. Most government agencies and foreign-invested companies take the weekend off.

Banks are open on weekdays and on Saturday morning in some larger towns and cities, from 8 am to noon and then from 1:30 to 5 pm. Post offices are open seven days a week.

Gas Stations

Vendors sell gas at many intersections in the cities, although you will have trouble finding gas stations open after 8 pm in smaller towns. If you cannot find a gas station, look for a bottle on the street curb.

Museums and Sights

Most museums in Vietnam are closed on Sunday and Monday. Some are also closed on Saturday or are only open Saturday morning. It’s also not uncommon to find some museums and galleries closed for a few hours at lunchtime. Pagodas are generally open from dawn to dusk, later if it’s the 1st or 15th day of the lunar month.

Shops

Small family-run shops seem to stay open indefinitely, primarily because living and working quarters are often one and the same. Larger stores, such as supermarket chains and department stores, can stay open as late as 10 pm in major cities.

Holidays

The traditional lunar new year, known as Tet in Vietnam and celebrated throughout much of Southeast Asia, falls in January or February, depending on the lunar calendar. Note that accommodations are scarce and museums, offices, and some shops tend to shut down for days at a time during Tet. Other national holidays only tend to effect banks and government offices, these include New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party (February 3); Liberation Day (April 30), commemorating the day the North Vietnamese army took Saigon; International Workers Day, or May Day (May 1, the day after Liberation Day, which means a two-day holiday); Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (May 19); National Day (September 2); and Christmas Day (December 25).

MONEY

U.S. dollars are the preferred currency of exchange, but other major currencies and travelers’ checks are easy to exchange at banks, exchange counters, and hotels.

Small businesses in more rural places often can’t change 500,000d bills. This can be problematic because many ATMs only give out bills in this denomination. Make sure you have plenty of small change on hand to avoid potentially awkward situations.

ATMs and Banks

Banks and ATMs are easily found in all major cities and towns throughout Vietnam, although they have yet to catch on in rural areas like Phong Nha town, where currently there is only one ATM and it frequently runs out of cash. If you are planning on visiting smaller towns take enough Vietnamese currency to cover your expenses. Despite the easy accessibility of ATMs, the withdrawal limit is low, with most offering a maximum of 2,000,000d per transaction. For limits of 5,000,000d look for ATMs of the major banks, like Donga and HSBC. Transaction charges are set between 20,000d and 55,000d and it’s possible to make multiple transactions at a time, although most Western card companies frown upon this behavior and it’s not unusual for the ATM to retain your card after the third attempt. All ATMs have an English-language option and accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, Maestro, Plus, and JCB Network cards.For larger sums you’ll need to go to the counter and show your passport and card. Withdrawals are charged at 2% of the total amount, Western Union has offices throughout the cities if you need to make a withdrawal outside of banking hours.

Average costs

Be aware that Vietnam has an official dual-pricing system, so foreigners often are expected to pay more than double what locals do for trains, buses, flights, and other goods and services. In 1999 an official decree banned dual pricing at temples and tourist sites, but despite this rule, higher entrance fees for foreigners remain the norm.

It’s standard practice throughout Vietnam for tourist businesses to pay commission to guides, hotel staff, drivers, and anyone who introduces you to their business. In most circumstances the business takes the rap for the fee, but may provide an inferior tour or service because of their outlay in commissions. The worst offenders are in the busiest tourist destinations; the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and Halong Bay. Before committing, always do your research and take advice from people who have used the company. Hoi An tailors have taken this one step further, and most will pay upward of 30% of your final spend in commission, which is added to your bill. Do not accept invitations to visit a “sisters” shop and make it clear that the business was not recommended to you by anyone before you start bargaining over the price. Similarly, drivers of private cars and tour buses, will park at restaurants or at shops where he has previously arranged commissions, meaning you will pay over the odds. If it’s a tour bus, you are unlikely to have a choice, but with a private car you can ask to be taken elsewhere if you’re unhappy with his choice.

Credit Cards

Credit cards have yet to catch on as a form of payment in Vietnam, but Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most large international hotels, upscale restaurants, better shops, large tour operators, and airline agencies. Few establishments accept American Express or Diners International cards so it’s best to check beforehand. For all credit card purchases you will be charged a 2%–3% transaction fee, although some restaurants, hotels, and shops sometimes insist on a service charge of up to 5%. Note that travelers’ checks are accepted in Vietnam by very few places and especially not in rural areas and small towns.

Currency and Exchange

The official currency is the dong. The largest denomination is 500,000 (approximately $23.50), followed by 200,000, 100,000, 50,000, 20,000 and 10,000, which all come as plastic coated bills. Smaller (paper) bills come in 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, and to a lesser extent 500 denominations. Although bank notes come in various colors and sizes, some are difficult to differentiate. Two good examples of this are the blue 500,000d bill, which looks remarkably similar to the 20,000d, and the red 200,000d, which is easily confused with the 10,000d. Keep these larger bills separate to avoid expensive mistakes. The bank exchange rate remains stable although some markets, local shops, hotels, and restaurants accept U.S. dollars, merchants set their own rate, which is usually lower than the bank. Sacom, Donga, or Vietcom Bank, have numerous branches all over the country and give the official government rate. International banks like HSBC have a presence in Vietnam and provide extensive banking services, including currency exchange, cash transfers, and cash advances on credit cards. At currency exchange booths you can exchange money quickly without showing your passport, but rates for smaller bills are not competitive and they will not accept torn or marked notes.

In smaller towns where banks or exchange booths are not an option, you can exchange U.S. dollars to dong in gold shops. However, this practice is technically illegal, exchange rates are usually poor, and it’s not unusual to be short-changed, so this should only be considered as a last resort. If there’s no alternative, be sure to agree on an acceptable rate and check the currency for torn bills when it is handed over. It’s also illegal for many smaller establishments to accept payments in anything but dong, but such rules are widely ignored. U.S. dollars are accepted at almost every private business, but many state enterprises—including trains—only accept dong. It’s recommended that you carry both dollars and dong with you at all times.

PACKING

For warm weather, bring cotton, linen, and any other natural-fiber clothing that allows your skin to breathe and is easy to wash. You can get your laundry done very inexpensively (a dollar a kilo) at shops and stands outside most hotels, although you may not want to give them your delicate items. Pack a light raincoat or umbrella during the rainy season and warmer clothing in winter and early spring, if you are traveling the length of Vietnam check the climate for each region as temperatures vary hugely. Dress in Vietnam is generally informal, except during meetings. Shorts are acceptable for both men and women, although women may feel more comfortable in longer shorts or skirts.

Sandals, nylon or canvas sneakers, and walking shoes are fine for the cities and more developed parts of the country. Hiking boots are recommended if you’re going to head into the hills or onto trails or if you are traveling during the rainy season. Keep in mind that you must remove your shoes when entering most temples, so you may want to bring ones that are hassle-free. A hat and sunblock are always good ideas.

In your carry-on luggage, pack an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses and enough of any medication you take to last a few days longer than the entire trip. You may also ask your doctor to write a spare prescription using the drug’s generic name, because brand names may vary from country to country. In luggage to be checked, never pack prescription drugs or valuables. To avoid customs and security delays, carry medications in their original packaging.

Pack mosquito repellent and a first-aid kit (with, perhaps, antacids, antidiarrheal, cold medicine, Band-Aids, and antiseptics). Other items to consider are a Swiss-army knife, prophylactics, feminine hygiene products, packs of tissues (toilet paper is not always supplied in public places), moist towelettes or liquid hand sanitizer. Diapers and baby formula are available in Vietnam, but you may not be familiar with the brand and they are surprisingly expensive; unless space is tight, it’s preferable to bring your own.

PASSPORTS AND VISAS

Many reputable travel agencies offer pre-arranged visas, which are available to citizens of most countries, including the United States, but only to those landing in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Danang. This makes for a convenient option for those who don’t live near a Vietnamese consulate, but note that in high season, you may be stuck waiting in line for some time. You’ll need to pay your visa fee in cash; as of this writing, the cost for American citizens is $45 for a one- or three-month single entry visa, $65 for a 30-day multiple-entry visa, and $95 for a longer multiple-entry visa.

Make two photocopies of the data and visa page of your passport (one for someone at home and another for you, carried separately from your passport). If you lose your passport, promptly call the nearest embassy or consulate and the local police.

U.S. passport applications for children under age 14 require consent from both parents, or legal guardians, and both must appear together to sign the application. If only one parent appears, he or she must submit a written statement from the other parent authorizing passport issuance for the child. A parent with sole authority must present evidence of it when applying; acceptable documentation includes the child’s certified birth certificate listing only the applying parent, a court order specifically permitting this parent’s travel with the child, or a death certificate for the nonapplying parent. Application forms and instructions are available on the website of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

RESTROOMS

Hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants that cater to tourists usually have Western-style toilets, at least in bigger towns. Plumbing can be an issue, so if there is a garbage can in the cubicle use it for toilet paper and save your host from dealing with any blockages. In bus and train stations, on trains themselves, and in restaurants in the countryside, you will occasionally find that squat toilets are your only option. Most of these do not flush; use the plastic ladle to splash water around and keep a stash of toilet paper handy. Many public toilets charge a 2,000d entry fee, which entitles you to a scrap of toilet paper, usually kept in a basket near the front door. Unless you are really desperate, avoid the public toilets in parks and on street corners. In remote areas the “bathroom” may actually be a small room with a sloped cement floor or a rickety platform perched over a pond.

SAFETY

Although it is widely accepted that Vietnam is safe for tourists, pickpocketing and bag snatching are becoming serious problems in Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, and Hanoi; even Hoi An is beginning to see more petty crime. You may want to remove any jewelry that stands out. The rest of Vietnam’s cities are safer—the biggest hassles are being stared at and being overcharged for purchases. You should take standard precautions, however.

In the big cities do not walk with your bag or purse on your street-side shoulder or leave it at your feet in a cyclo or in the basket of a bicycle, as the snatch-and-ride stealing method (on a motorbike or bicycle) is common. Put your wallet in your front pocket or in a zipped-up bag or purse, and be extra alert when you enter busy markets or crowds. Also, watch out for children or elderly people who may be acting as decoys or pickpocketing you themselves. When sitting in a street café or in a cyclo, make sure you either hold your bag in your lap with your hands through the straps or put the straps around your neck; if you do put it at your feet, wrap its handles around your ankles so no one can grab it. If someone does steal your bag, don’t pursue the thief—assailants often carry knives. As for cyclos, motorbike taxis, and Easy Riders, be sure to negotiate a price before you get on, don’t go with a driver you don’t feel comfortable with, and don’t travel by cyclo or motorbike taxi after dark, especially in cities. You should also avoid parks at night in large cities. Don’t wear a money belt or a waist pack, both of which peg you as a tourist. If you carry a purse, choose one with a zipper and a thick strap that you can drape across your body; adjust the length so that the purse sits in front of you at or above hip level. Store only enough money in the purse to cover casual spending. Distribute the rest of your cash and any valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Do not reach for the money pouch in public.

You should avoid leaving passports, cameras, laptop computers, and other valuables in your hotel room, unless the room has a safe. If it doesn’t, consider leaving your valuables in the hotel’s safe or with the front desk. It is advised that you leave your passport in your hotel safe and carry only a photocopy with you while out exploring.In cheaper accommodations, it’s normal for the reception desk to hold your passport for the duration of your stay. If they do, demand that it is kept in the hotel safe and not, as is common, kept in an unlocked drawer with all the other guests’ passports. Always check that the correct passport is returned to you when you check out.

Vietnam is a relatively safe place for women travelers. Female travelers seem to encounter more hassles—such as grabbing and heckling—in the less visited, rural areas. Walking alone or taking a solo cyclo or motorbike taxi ride at night is best avoided; if you’re taking a taxi alone at night, sit in the back seat. Finally, don’t venture too far down deserted beaches alone. As anywhere, use your common sense.

Dozens of Vietnamese are killed every year by unexploded war ordnances, but it is very unlikely you will visit any danger areas. If you are unsure, be sure to travel with an experienced guide.

Though both Vietnam and Cambodia are generally peaceful countries, it’s important to check the Department of State website for guidance or travel alerts before making plans to travel.

TAXES

Vietnam’s VAT tax is 10% on luxury items such as alcohol and cigarettes; 10% for hotels, bars, and nightclubs; and 5% for most other goods and services. Larger hotels, especially state-owned and joint-venture operations, often add another 5% service tax. Ask about added taxes before checking in or ordering.

A new VAT refund program for tourists allows travelers flying out of Hanoi, Danang or Ho Chi Minh City to be refunded for the VAT value incurred on invoiced purchases of 2,000,000d (about $100) or more made within the previous 30 days. A service charge of less than 15% of the VAT refund is charged, and certain goods—especially those whose export is prohibited—are ineligible for the refund. Refund counters in the departure area provide travelers who have cleared immigration their refunds in dollars or other currencies.

TIPPING

Tipping is a fairly new concept in Vietnam and is appreciated but not typically expected. Many higher-end restaurants and hotels in Vietnam include 5% service fees in the bill, but if you feel you’ve received good service, a tip is always welcome. Although it’s not necessarily expected, tour guides are more than happy to receive a tip if you enjoyed their services. When tipping service staff, do so in dong.

TRIP INSURANCE

Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.

Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.