Know Before You Go to Vietnam

Xin Chao – in Vietnam

This S-shaped country offers the perfect combination of monuments, beaches and nostalgic charm.

An astonishing scene… War, the tropical climate and the building boom have decimated the architectural heritage left by the French, yet the ornate yellow buildings of the colonial era – so typical of the country – seem to have increased in number! This phenomenon is a result of the numerous colonial era-inspired luxury hotels that have sprung up in recent years. They draw on the legendary nostalgic charm of the period – one that is reflected in any number of classic movies and helps explain Vietnam’s irresistible power of attraction.

Wherever you go, the country feels like the backdrop of an epic movie – and you just can’t help being drawn in.

Nowhere is this effect more perceptible than in the lively streets of the Hanoi and Saigon, where almost every Vietnam  journey begins. The high pace of life in these cities is attributable to rapid economic growth, which has also opened up countless new opportunities for the tourism industry. The approximately 83 million inhabitants of this 330,000 sq km country – the most populous in mainland Southeast Asia – are friendly and open-minded, with a firmly forward-looking gaze. That said, those with an interest in the country’s military past can still explore traces of the Vietnam war – there are numerous battlefields, monuments and museums open for visitors.

Vietnam’s fantastically beautiful landscape accompanies you at every turn. This S-shaped country has 3,260 kilometers of coast and enchants visitors with its endless beaches, picture-perfect bays and beautiful coastal resorts, including Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, Danang and the island of Phu Quoc. Situated among lush green rice fields are proud reminders of the nation’s founding father, Ho Chi Minh, including the World Heritage Sites of Huè (a one-of-a-kind imperial city), the medieval port town of Hoi An and the mystical Cham sanctuary of My Son. Other must-see sights on any tour of the country are the natural wonders of the national parks or the spectacular and much-photographed scenes of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta.

Flights leave daily from most major European cities to Saigon and Hanoi. Visitors wishing to explore both North and South Vietnam should look into booking an “open jaw ticket” between Hanoi, Saigon and their city of origin (e.g. London/Hanoi outbound and Saigon/London inbound, or vice versa). In addition, ferries head to Vietnam regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

Overland and on the water: So long as you have a valid visa, it is relatively easy to cross into Vietnam over land or the Mekong. Travelers coming from Cambodia can use the border crossing in Moc Bai or cross over by boat in Vinh Xuong (near Chau Doc) in the Mekong Delta, while those coming from Laos can enter via the border crossings at Lao Bao, Cau Treo, Chalo, Nameo, Nam Kanh or Kontum. Coming from China, you can take a train, bus or car to Lao Cai (near Sa Pa) via Huu Nghi; alternatively, you can also take a car or bus from Dong Hung to Mong Cai (near Halong Town). The border crossing between Pingxiang and Dong Dang was opened recently.

In larger towns and cities, the mains voltage is generally 220-230 Volt/50 Hz. It is usually not necessary for travellers coming from Central Europe to bring a universal adaptor. Travellers should always keep an emergency flashlight in their backpacks – in addition to the possibility of power outages (even in Saigon), the electricity in many rural areas is produced by generators and is therefore not available 24/7.

Public Holidays:  January 1 – New Year’s Day Beginning of February: Tet Ngyen Dan (Chinese New Year) May 1 – Labor Day September 2 – Independence Day September 3 – Anniversary of the death of Ho Chi Minh

Vietnam’s most important celebration is Tet Nguyen Dan (literally “the first morning of the first day”). It is a new year celebration held on the night of the full moon of the first lunar month. Many Vietnamese people visit temples and/or homes of family members, where festive meals are prepared. Most shops are closed nationwide and a premium may be charged for tourism-related services. The celebrations also mark the beginning of spring.

Digital photography in Vietnam is the best way to capture your experiences. Photo shops in many locations are well equipped to burn photos onto CDs or DVDs or to produce paper printouts at a relatively low price.

The Vietnamese currency is called the “dong” (VND) and is available in denominations from 100 to 50,000 VND. Notes up to 5,000 VND are also in circulation. The euro is increasingly accepted in exchange for US dollars. A slightly better exchange rate is offered for 50 and 100-euro notes than for smaller denominations. All international airports are equipped with banks, where currency can be exchanged directly upon arrival. In tourist hotspots, currency exchange services are offered by bureau de changes, souvenir shops and jewelers. The exchange rate in hotels tends to be only slightly more expensive than in other places.

It can be advantageous to bring a small number of US dollars in cash, since they are sometimes requested by car rental companies and hotels. Visas (e.g. for an onward journey to Thailand or Laos) must also be paid for in US dollars.

Cash and credit cards: The easiest way to obtain cash is with your “Maestrocard” and PIN number at an ATM belonging to Vietcombank. This will generally be charged by European banks at a rate of around 4.50 euros per transaction. A maximum of two million dong can be withdrawn each time. Credit cards can also be used to make withdrawals and are accepted at many hotels, restaurants and shops (service charges usually do not total than three per cent). Domestic flights with Vietnam Airlines can also be paid for by credit card. Vietcombank offers a cheap rate for exchanging travelers’ checks; however, this can only be done in a branch of the bank and is usually associated with long waiting times.

No specific vaccinations are recommended for travel to Vietnam, but your protection against diptheria, tetanus and polio should be up to date. For all long-distance trips to tropical locations, we also recommend prophylaxis against Hepatitis A/B and Japanese encephalitis. Cases of malaria tend to occur only in areas that are of minimal interest to foreign tourists. Since a malaria prophylaxis does not offer protection against Dengue fever and is often associated with significant side effects, we recommend that travelers protect themselves against mosquitoes using clothing, nets, protective lotion and distance. Travelers may also lower their risk of infection by taking a daily Vitamin B1 tablet, since mosquitoes are repelled by the smell it produces in perspiration. Those wishing not to take any chances should bring an appropriate emergency malaria medication with them. Because of the latent danger of avian flu, it is generally recommended that travelers stay away from live birds. Cooked chicken meat, on the other hand, can be enjoyed without concern.

Generally speaking, health risks for tourist areas of Vietnam are low, particularly since most illnesses can be avoided through careful planning and taking the right precautions.

More detailed information is available on the website of the German Tropics Institute or the German-language Center for Travel Information.

Hygiene: It is imperative that travelers avoid drinking tap water, eating ice cream or ordering ice in drinks. Bottled mineral water is available throughout the country and should be enjoyed in preference to tap water, though be sure to check that the seal has not been tampered with. Unwashed and unpeeled fruit and vegetables should be avoided. Travelers should bear in mind that sanitary conditions in street restaurants may not necessarily be up to European standards. In larger hotels and fancier restaurants, however, an international standard of hygiene is generally to be expected.

To get information about travel insurance or to book a policy for your trip abroad, please click here.

What to wear while visiting Vietnam? We recommend light, breathable cotton clothing and sandals – you’ll find these a suitable choice for most areas of the country. However, if you’re visiting Northern Vietnam during winter, be sure to pack some warmer clothing and sturdy shoes, since temperatures can get decidedly cool. Naturally, you should also be sure to pack sunscreen, sunglasses and a protective head covering! An umbrella and waterproof poncho are essential if you’re visiting Vietnam during monsoon season.

Excess Baggage: We recommend that travelers pack light, since every kilo of overweight luggage (economy class permits a maximum of 20 kilograms, while business class usually does not allow more than 30) carries a hefty fee. What’s more, the temptation to buy souvenirs is so great that it’s good to allow extra capacity from the outset! You needn’t worry too much about running out of clothes, since laundry can be taken care of quickly, efficiently and cheaply in most hotels.

On account of the expansive distance between the north and south ends of the country, different regions of Vietnam have very different climates – from the sub-tropical North to the changeable conditions in the central regions and the tropical climate in the South. The 17th parallel (17 degrees north latitude) in Central Vietnam represents an important weather divide.

Climate of Vietnam by Season –

October to April are the best months to travel to any region of the country. The average temperature during these months lies at 22 degrees in the North and around 27 degrees in the South. The hottest weather occurs from February to April in the South, when temperatures can reach more than 30 degrees.

North Vietnam: The best time to travel is from September to November. At 25 degrees, temperatures are pleasantly warm and the weather stays dry. In the mountainous regions of the North, December temperatures can sink to as low as ten degrees or even to zero (as on the Chinese border). March and and April are warmer, but are more likely to be affected by long periods of continuous drizzle.

Central Vietnam: The best time to travel is from January to mid-September. October, November and December are increasingly plagued by violent typhoons, which bring intense, days-long showers of rain and often flood tourist destinations such as the old imperial city of Huè or the medieval port town of Hoi An. The same applies for the more southerly seaside resorts of Nha Trang and Mui Ne.

South Vietnam: The best time to travel is from January to April, although this region of Vietnam – which is also home to the bustling city of Saigon – is generally suitable for visiting all year round. Even if you happen to catch a monsoon shower, the beating down of intense rain can infuse your trip with a uniquely Southeast Asian kind of romance!

The Vietnamese are generally a very open and sociable people who enjoy interaction. They are considered extremely hospitable. Moreover, in Vietnamese culture, it is normal to be curious about your guests or acquaintances, so you should not be surprised if they sometimes ask private questions. They also exhibit a special fondness for business cards, which are always presented using both hands. Since the opening up of their country in the early 1990s, the Vietnamese have cultivated a great spirit of optimism. They are fond of laughing and smiling, preferring to focus on today and tomorrow than on their country’s dark past. For the same reason, they can be quite reluctant to answer questions about the war.

When buying souvenirs on the street, tourists are sometimes taken advantage of. If you get into an arguments – when  haggling over an extortionate price, for example – you should refrain from raising your voice; calmly and rationally making your point will prove far more effective. Those who overreact risk losing face, and a quick temper will be met with impatience. If you want to take a cyclo, you should negotiate the fare in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises. The locals, of course, pay considerably less.

When visiting places and buildings that are frequented by locals – especially temples and pagodas – tourists should wear modest, non-revealing attire. Also remember that you should never show anyone the soles of your feet and should refrain from openly taking photos of locals. Although the Vietnamese are generally happy to be photographed, travellers should ask permission or obtain consent by means of the appropriate hand gestures before snapping a picture.  The people of the Red Dzao tribe in the mountains of the north should not be photographed, as they believe that it causes them to lose their souls.

Telehone/Fax: In major towns and cities, it is usually very easy to make telephone calls (or send faxes) abroad. This can be done from most hotels (though some may levy high service fees), post offices or individual phone booths (with prepaid cards). E-Plus, O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone are among the service providers with roaming agreements in Vietnam. It is also possible to make cheap international calls from Vietnam using low-rate access codes, which differ depending on the country you wish to call. They can often be used from hotel rooms.
Calls to Cambodian landlines from other countries must be preceded by the country code 0084. This should be followed by the area code (minus the first 0) and then the actual number. The cheapest way to make frequent or longer duration calls to Cambodia is to call a Cambodian cellphone number using a dial around service.

Internet: Internet cafes can be found in great numbers in all larger towns and cities as well as in many smaller ones, since surfing the internet is a popular pastime among the younger generations of Vietnamese. Travelers wishing to use their own laptops or notebooks will find WiFi zones in a large number of public spaces and hotel rooms.

Letters: Letters and postcards to foreign addresses can be posted from post offices and hotel receptions. Post dispatched to Europe generally takes between six days and three weeks to arrive at its destination. It will usually arrive quickest if posted from Hanoi or Saigon, where the postal service is most reliable. Important/urgent letters and parcels should only be sent using Express Mail Service (EMS) or DHL.

Vietnam’s growing popularity as a destination is reflected in the increasingly wide range of guidebooks, magazines and fiction works now available for visitors and fans of the country. The following come particularly highly recommended:

Guidebooks Coming soon…

Fiction * Graham Greene: The Quiet American * Marguerite Duras: The Lover * Thu Huong Duong: Paradise of the Blind * Thich Nhat Hanh: The Moon Bamboo * Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War

Non-Fiction * Oriana Fallaci: Nothing and Amen * Francis Fitzgerald: Fire in the Lake

In light of the absence of international terror alerts, Vietnam continues to be seen as one of the safest travel destinations in the world. Acts of violence against foreign tourists are rare, since the government punishes these kinds of crimes harshly. Harassment of single female travelers is as good as non-existent.

This said, there is a relatively high incidence of petty crime, particularly in Saigon. It is preferable to keep passports, flight tickets and credit cards locked in the hotel or room safe at all times.  Travelers should keep only as much money on their persons as they require for a single day. In crowds, it is advisable to keep money as close to your person as possible and to take care of cameras and handbags. It is very common for street thieves to grab tourists’ bags from moving mopeds.

It may also be worth carrying copies of passports and visas with you.
Up-to-date security advice can be found on the webpage of the German Foreign Office (British link coming soon)

Traffic: Travelers will find that the traffic discipline in Cambodia compares unfavorably with that of Europe or the United States and functions according to its own rules, particularly in Saigon and Hanoi. The streets there are teeming with mopeds. If you wish to cross a wide road, you should do slowly and with flowing movements; do not abruptly come to a standstill.

he official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, which uses the Latin alphabet with a four-tone system for pronunciation. English is widely spoken in tourist regions; some Vietnamese in the north of the country are also able to speak French.

THE NORTH

Hanoi Vietnam’s northerly capital is home to around 6.5 million people and offers an abundance of authentic Vietnamese charm. Between broad boulevards, narrow Old Town alleyways, ornate colonial buildings, romantic lakes and the shadows of gigantic trees, you’ll find countless sights to see and numerous fascinating traits of everyday life in Vietnam.

Sapa Located some 1,600 m above sea level, this picturesque spa resort nestles in the midst of a spectacular mountain landscape. Unforgettable trekking tours wind their way to the village homes of several of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, including the Muong, Dao, Thai and Xa Pho peoples. Adventure-seeking tourists can hike up Fansipan, a 3,143-metre mountain that ranks as Vietnam’s highest. Choose between simple homestay options and a comfortable 4-star hotel.

Haiphong This seaport occupies a significant place in Vietnam’s modern history and serves as the main gateway to Cat Ba, the biggest island in Halong Bay. Although its 600,000 inhabitants make it the third-largest city in the country, the pace of life here is relatively relaxed. Major sights include the city theater, a colonial building that dates back to 1904.

Ba Be National Park Around 240 km north of Hanoi lies the diverse tropical national park of Ba Be, which is home to 180 species of wild orchid and the country’s largest lake. The lake stretches 8 km from north to south and is around 800 m wide, while the surrounding limestone mountains reach heights of up to 1,546 meters.

Mai Chau The beautiful valley of Mai Chau is located around 150 km west of Hanoi. If you’re keen to experience a night in an authentic mountain village, then Mai Chau is unmissable – even for those on a tight schedule!

CENTRAL VIETNAM

Huè Spectacular palaces, temples and mausoleums tell of a glorious former era in this city on the Perfume River. One of the country’s most important cultural and historical locations, it was ruled over by 13 different members of the Nguyen Dynasty during its time as an imperial capital.

Hoi An Also known as Faifo, this small city on the sea was once one of Southeast Asia’s most significant trade ports. Even today, the spectacular architectural heritage in the city’s narrow streets bears witness to its former riches. For a truly unforgettable experience, we recommend timing your visit to coincide with the Full Moon Festival.

Dalat Situated amidst mountains, this temperate city was once once of a chain of “Stations climatiques” where colonial rulers came to escape the bothersome tropical climate and sooth their feelings of homesickness. Around 17 of their former villas have been converted into a one-of-a-kind luxury resort.

Nha Trang A place of sophistication since the time of the emperors, Nha Trang offers a chic palm-lined promenade and a number of hotels, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs along its 6 km beach. Excursions to the approximately 80 offshore islands are popular with tourists. The city’s airport also offers direct flights to Russia.

Danang The country’s fourth-largest city is an ideal starting point for discovering Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It also pampers visitors with the picturesque China Beach – over 30 kilometers of pure white sand.

My Son Nestled between hills and enveloped by clouds of mist, My Son is a cluster of ruins marking the former cultural and religious centre of the legendary Cham Dynasty (4th-13th century). It is located around 40 km from Hoi An.

Qui Nhon The charming sandy beaches of this seaside resort are a great place for visitors to relax off the well-trodden tourist trail.

THE SOUTH

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) This lively metropolis in the south of the country is the perfect jumping-off point for your Vietnamese experience. With more than seven million inhabitants, it is the biggest city in Vietnam and pulses with an exhilarating sense of diversity and vitality. The colonial heritage of old Saigon is well preserved in a few quarters of the city. Alongside its nostalgia-inducing charm, Ho Chi Minh also offers a range of excellent shopping opportunities.

Phan Thiet A 16-kilometer bay – the so-called “Côte d’Azur of Vietnam” – extends between this port city and the nearby coastal town of Mui Ne and offers a broad variety of attractive resorts and restaurants. As in many other areas of this coastal region, a number of red-tiled Cham temples can be seen dotted across the landscape. The city is set against a geological wonderland of orange-red sand dunes.

Mui Ne Located around 200 km north of Ho Chi Minh City, and surrounded by gorgeous nature, this traditional fishing town has red and black cliffs, turquoise-blue water and golden sand dunes. In recent years, this natural paradise has become a popular destination for lovers of watersports.

Can Tho Though the Mekong Delta’s largest and most important city might appear quiet and sleepy, its attractive promenade and tempting assortment of stylish hotels and restaurants mean there’s plenty to keep you entertained. A number of floating markets are located the near vicinity, as are an array of authentic Vietnamese rural villages and communities.

Chau Doc Located deep within the Mekong Delta, this charming border city serves as a gateway to Cambodia and the starting point for the water route to the capital, Phnom Penh, which can be reached in just a few hours. The city entices visitors with busy markets, floating fish farms and the sacred mountain of Nui Sam, a well-known place of pilgrimage.

THE MEKONG DELTA

Countless Waterways The Mekong River – the “lifeblood” of Southeast Asia – begins in the Himalayas and runs almost 5,000 km through six countries before splitting into eight main branches (and several minor ones) and flowing into the expanse of the ocean. With an area of around 70,000 sq km, the Mekong Delta is the third-largest in the world and extends around 100 m further into the sea each year. The fertile alluvial soil affords the region its reputation as a the “rice bowl” of Vietnam and makes it a high-yielding area for fruit, vegetables and flower-growing. Rice cultivated in the flooded delta region is known as “floating rice” and can reach up to 5 m in height. 2-3 harvests can be gathered per year – and the markets of the region, which often take place on water, are as rich and varied as one might expect from such a fertile area. Visitors can enjoy being chauffeured through the hustle and bustle on a wooden boat, with an oarsman perched on the stern just like one might see on the gondolas of Venice. The Mekong Delta has numerous interesting holy sites and bird sanctuaries and offers a number of spectacular river cruises, some of which head for the remote island of Phu Quoc or even for the shores of Cambodia. Vietnam’s first major canal system was commissioned by General Thoai Ngoc Hau in 1870. The most recent additions to the landscape are two striking suspension bridges, which have significantly improved the area’s accessibility.

HALONG BAY

Weird and Wonderful Island Worlds Located around 65 km east of Hanoi, with an area of approximately 1,500 sq km, the legendary Halong Bay – whose name literally means “descending dragon” – is one of Asia’s most picture-perfect landscapes. It’s little surprise that this unusual area of natural beauty – whose natural features are paralleled only by the South Thailand province of Krabi or the Chinese city of Guilin – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. A total of 2,000 weird and wonderful islets, many uninhabited, rise from the ocean waters to form the spectacular fairytale landscape. Monkeys and seabirds are the main forms of life on the limestone structures, some of which also play host to fishermen during the fishing season or harbor fascinating networks of caves. Most of the islands’ names come from ancient legends about the region, often with fairies, fish or tigers as the main protagonists. Most visitors discover Halong Bay via a three- or six-hour boat tour, although atmospheric overnight cruises aboard comfortable, stylish junk boats are enjoying ever greater popularity. Those who prefer to sleep on dry land can do so on Cat Ba: a former pirate’s hideout and, at 350 sq km, the largest island in the region. It boasts magnificent beaches and forests that play home to endemic species of monkey. Passionate paddlers will appreciate the many opportunities for scenic kayak tours.

THE ISLANDS

Phu Quoc & Can Dao Archipelago The west coast of the country’s largest island, Phu Quoc, consists of around 30 km of sandy beaches, while several neighbouring islands offer visitors opportunities for bathing, snorkelling and diving. The ample selection of unspoiled beaches includes Long Beach or “Bai Dai” (for romantic strolls on the sand), Sao Beach (with its unbelievably fine, white sand and huge variety of watersports, exotic drinks and seafood) and a number of other secluded natural beaches – true “hideaways” for travelers who appreciate peace and quiet. A recent addition to the list of destinations is the Con Dao archipelago, which is located around 80 km from the south coast. A total of 16 islands rise from the ocean’s depths and are home to towering mountains (many standing at 500 m high or more) and dense pristine forests containing a diverse range of exotic flora and fauna.

A tourist visa is required to enter Vietnam. Rather than going through the hassle of obtaining a full visa stamp from the Vietnamese embassy in your own country before you leave, an easier method is to opt for a “Visa on Arrival”. To be eligible to collect such a visa at the airport, you must apply to a tour operator (or other agent) BEFORE YOU TRAVEL to obtain an official letter of approval. The processing time for this is usually a minimum of seven working days, and your passport must be valid for at least two months after the expiry date of the visa you have applied for. Upon landing in Vietnam, you will then fill in a simple entry form. So long as you have remembered to collect your letter of approval from the tour operator and are able to present it at the “Visa on Arrival” desk, the VOA can be easily obtained from either the Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or Hanoi airports. You must bring with you 2 coloured passport photos, your letter of approval and a valid passport. The corresponding visa fee (dependent on your length of stay) must be paid in USD.

Overland or by water: If you are arriving in Vietnam from neighbouring countries via land or water routes, the visa must already be present in your passport. You will receive a yellow entry paper and must make sure to keep it safe!

Detailed information from the German Foreign Office can be found here.

Vietnam is six hours ahead of Central European Time (CET) and five hours ahead of Central European Summer Time.

Upon arriving in the country, travellers must fill out a currency and import declaration form for electronics, jewellery and cash (official rules state that amounts of more than 500 USD must be declared). For tourists, this procedure is usually observed in a fairly relaxed manner. These declarations must be kept safe until the time of departure, when they may need to be presented again. Aside from this, the usual duty-free allowances apply when bringing in cigarettes or alcohol. It is forbidden to bring weapons, narcotics or pornographic material in or out of the country. All luggage is mechanically scanned upon arrival. Valuable antiques and precious stones may not be taken out of the country without the approval of the customs office. It is absolutely essential that due diligence is applied when considering Vietnam Customs Regulations.

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