1. What do I need to know regarding visas to enter Vietnam?
2. Are there any other entry formalities?
3. What medical precautions do I need to take?
4. What is the climate like in Vietnam?
5. What is the time difference?
6. Where can I find current dong exchange rates?
7. How safe is Vietnam?
8. Is language a problem, or can I get by in English?
9. Should I take my money in cash or travellers' cheques?
10. Where can I change money?
11. Is it better to use dollars or dong for daily expenses?
12. How widely accepted are credit cards?
13. Can I get cash on my credit card?
14. How do I get from the airport to central HCMC/Hanoi if I'm not being met?
15. What recommendations do you have about eating in Vietnam?
16. When should I tip?
17. What major sights do you recommend in and around Hanoi?
18. What major sights do you recommend in and around Ho Chi Minh City?
19. What major sights do you recommend in and around Hue?
20. What major sights do you recommend in and around Da Nang?
21. How can I organize sightseeing excursions?
22. What level of comfort do the trains provide and how safe are they?
23. What tips do you have for hiring cyclos, motorbike taxis and taxis?
24. Should I bargain for everything?
25. What kind of accommodation can I expect to find?
26. Is it a good idea to take gifts? What would be appreciated?
27. What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home?
28. Is the postal system reliable? How about other forms of communication?
29. What should I be aware of regarding etiquette?
1. What do I need to know regarding visas to enter Vietnam?
The most important thing is to make sure your Vietnam visa is stamped with the correct dates and the correct entry and exit points. The standard tourist visa is valid for a period of up to 30 days. If you're going for less than 30 days you can either specify the exact dates, but it is probably best to ask for the maximum period to give yourself more flexibility. Processing normally takes between a week and ten days (some embassies offer an express service for an extra fee), but longer for overseas Vietnamese. To be on the safe side, allow several weeks as mistakes are common and inexplicable delays often occur.
When applying for a Vietnam visa, in general you have to fill in two application forms and provide two passport photos. One of these forms, with photo attached, will be returned to you with your visa. For some odd reason many people throw this form away. Don't, because you'll be asked to hand it in at immigration on arrival. If you don't have it with you, blank copies are available at immigration. If you've got a spare photo, all well and good. If not, you'll have to engage the services of a handy airport photographer for the princely sum of $2-5.
If you need to extend your stay for any reason, it is relatively easy to apply for a visa renewal at present. Again this is handled by tour agents/travellers'cafés. The first renewal costs around $25-30 (including a handling fee) and takes three working days to process (please note that government offices are only open Monday to Friday). The maximum period you can ask for is 30 days and it costs the same whether you ask for 1 day or 30 days. A second 10-day extension is possible at a cost of around $35-40. For this second extension you will be asked to show an air ticket dated after the expiry of your visa.
2. Are there any other entry formalities?
On the plane you'll be given an Arrival/Departure Card and a Baggage Declaration form.
Hand in the completed Arrival/Departure Card with your passport and duplicate visa application form at immigration in Vietnam. The Departure Card will be returned to you. Keep this safely. You usually have to show it when checking into hotels and will be asked for it in when you finally leave Vietnam.
You should list all valuable items on the Baggage Declaration form, such as video cameras, portable computers and expensive jewellery. The duty-free allowance is 200 cigarettes, 2 litres of alcohol plus perfume and jewellery for personal use. You can take up to US $7000 into Vietnam in cash or travellers' cheques; anything in excess of this sum has to be declared.
Hand the completed Baggage Declaration form to the customs official checking your baggage, who will give you the yellow duplicate - again, keep this carefully as it is required on final departure. (NB. You have to show your baggage check when reclaiming your luggage at the airport on arrival; the stub should be attached to either your airline ticket or boarding pass.)
Finally, it's a good idea to make photocopies of your Departure Card and Baggage Declaration form at your hotel and keep them separately, just in case you lose the originals. They won't be accepted in place of the real thing, but may make things slightly easier.
3. What medical precautions do I need to take?
It is important to visit a doctor or specialist travel clinic as early as possible (preferably two months) before departure to allow time for the recommended courses of vaccinations. This is particularly important if you suffer from any medical condition and/or are travelling with young children.
There is obviously a lot that you can do to protect yourself by taking a few common-sense precautions. In tropical climates it's easy to get run down, so one of the keys is to keep your resistance high by getting plenty of rest and allowing time to acclimatise to the heat, humidity and unfamiliar diet. It's important to eat well, especially peeled fresh fruits, and to keep up the intake of liquids - bottled water is readily available and hot tea is offered at the drop of a hat.
Personal hygiene is also crucial. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating, and clean all cuts, scratches and bites carefully. Note that tapwater may be infected, especially during floods, so use an antiseptic spray on open wounds after washing.
Malaria is present in Vietnam. However, at the time of writing both Hanoi and HCMC have very low incidences, while the northern delta and coastal regions of the south and centre are also considered relatively safe. The main danger areas are the highlands and the rural areas, where Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous strain of malaria, is prevalent. Your doctor will advise on which, if any, anti-malaria tablets you should take.
Again you can help yourself considerably by not getting bitten in the first place. (Other mosquito-borne diseases include dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.) Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, when you should wear long sleeves, trousers and socks, avoid dark colours and perfumes (which apparently attract mosquitoes), and apply repellent to any exposed skin. Sprays or lotions containing around 40% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are the most effective, but it is toxic - keep it away from the eyes and open wounds - and not recommended for young children. Other, less worrying alternatives are Mosi-Guard Natural, X-Gnat or Gurkha repellents. Most hotels provide mosquito nets where necessary; make sure you tuck the edges in well and check for holes in the mesh. Air conditioning and fans also help keep the little blighters at bay.
When it comes to eating, the most important thing is to choose places that are busy and look well-scrubbed, and to stick to fresh, thoroughly cooked foods. Despite appearances, often the small local restaurants with a high turnover of just one or two dishes are safer than expensive, Western-style places. Restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you - for example, steaming bowls of pho soup at a street stall - are usually a good bet, as well as being lots of fun. However, steer clear of shellfish, peeled fruit, salads and raw vegetables. On the other hand, yoghurt and ice cream from reputable outlets in the main cities shouldn't cause problems.
Bottled and canned drinks, such as Coke, 7UP, Fanta and beer, are widely available even in the countryside. Bottled water is also plentiful and very cheap, though check the seal before you buy and if the water looks at all cloudy, give it a miss. It's not a good idea to have ice in your drinks and never drink water from the tap.
If you do fall ill, pharmacies in Hanoi and HCMC stock a decent range of imported medicines (check they are not past their "use-by" date). Both these cities also now have good, international-class medical facilities. Elsewhere, local hospitals will be able to treat minor ailments, but for anything more serious head back to Hanoi or HCMC.
Finally, don't get paranoid! By coming prepared and taking a few simple precautions, you're unlikely to come down with anything worse than a cold or a quick dose of travellers'diarrhea.
4. What is the climate in Vietnam like?
Vietnam has a particularly complicated climate and devided into 4 different regions:
- Northern Vietnam Climate:
Starting in the north, autumn (September to December) is undoubtedly the most pleasant season. At this time of year it's generally warm (average temps above 20°C), dry and sunny in the delta, though you'll need warm clothes up in the mountains and on the waters of Ha Long Bay. Winter (December to February) can be surprisingly bitter as cold air sweeps south from China bringing fine, persistent mists and temperatures as low as 10°C. Things begin to warm up again in March, which ushers in a period of good, spring weather before the summer heat begins in earnest in May, closely followed by the rainy season in June. This combination makes for hot, sticky weather which takes many people by surprise. Temperatures, which can occasionally reach 40°C, average 30°C, while humidity hovers around 70-75%. The rain comes in heavy downpours, causing frequent flooding in Hanoi and the delta. By mid September, however, the rains are petering out, and from October onwards it's perfect sightseeing weather.
- Central Coast Vietnam Climate
The coastal region from Hanoi south to Hué lies in the typhoon belt. Around Hué, typhoons seem most prevalent in April and May, while further north the season generally lasts from July to November. However, typhoons are incredibly difficult to predict and it really is a matter of luck - or bad luck, rather - if you are caught. Flights are usually only disrupted for a matter of hours, but in recent years the main road and rail routes heading south have been cut by floods at least once during the typhoon season. The good news is that they usually get everything moving again incredibly quickly - within four or five days, depending on the severity of the damage.
The central region of Vietnam has a notoriously wet climate, particularly around Hué, where the annual average rainfall is a generous 3m. The so-called "dry" season lasts from February to May, though you'll need an umbrella even then. After this it gets wetter and hotter (av temps 30°C) until the rainy season begins in earnest in September, gradually easing off from November through January. Winter temperatures average a pleasant 20°C or above.
- Southern Vietnam Climate
Southern Vietnam is blessed with a more equitable - and predictable - climate. Here the dry season lasts from December to late April/May, and the rains from May through November. Most of the rain falls in brief afternoon downpours, so you can still get out and about, though flooding can be a problem in the delta. Daytime temperatures rarely fall below 20°C, occasionally reaching 40°C in the hottest months (March to May). Once the rains start, humidity climbs to an enervating 80%.
- Central Highland of Vietnam Climate
The central highlands follow roughly the same weather pattern as the southern delta. In the rainy season (May-November) roads are regularly washed out, but it can also be very beautiful at this time, with tumbling rivers, waterfalls and misty landscapes. You just have to build a bit more flexibility into your schedule.
5. What is the time difference in Vietnam?
Vietnam is fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, twelve hours ahead of New York and seven hours ahead of London, one hour behind Perth and three hours behind Sydney (give or take an hour during daylight saving time).
6. Where can I find current exchange rates for Vietnamese money?
Current dong exchange rates are available on the internet. Please try one of the links on the page given below. Note: You can not buy or exchange dong outside Vietnam.
7. How safe is Vietnam?
Vietnam is a relatively safe country to visit. As a woman, I have travelled extensively in Vietnam on my own with absolutely no problems. Despite people's fears, there is almost no animosity towards Americans.
That said, there are increasing instances of theft, especially in HCMC where pickpockets and snatch thieves on motorbikes are the worst menace. The best tip is to be vigilant at all times. Often cute kids or old grannies have deft fingers. Leave all valuables (expensive watches, jewellery, glasses, etc.) at home, and don't even wear flash costume jewellery. Make sure you have a firm grip on cameras and shoulder bags at all times and never leave anything you value lying around unattended. I would also not advise taking cyclos late at night, especially in HCMC or as a female on her own.
The other problem area is on the trains, especially the night trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Again, make sure all your luggage is safely locked, preferably stowed out of sight or attached to an immovable object, and don't leave things near open windows. It's also wise not to accept food or drink from people you don't know (there are reports of one or two people being drugged and robbed this way).
You might also have read warnings about unexploded shells, mines and other ordnance lying around. This is still the case in the DMZ, around My Son and certain border areas, particularly along the Chinese border. It is advisable to visit such areas only with an experienced local guide and never stray off well-trodden footpaths anywhere in Vietnam.
Finally, there's the traffic. Trying to cross the street in Hanoi or HCMC is an adventure in itself! You'll be faced with a tightly-packed stream of scooters, bikes and cyclos which looks completely chaotic at first. But don't give up! Either walk till you find some traffic lights or just go for it. The key is to walk slowly and steadily out into the traffic. As long as you keep a steady pace and make your movements clear, the traffic will flow round you. Problems arise if you stop or move too quickly and the drivers/riders can't anticipate your progress.
Unfortunately, driving standards are pretty poor. Vehicles are badly maintained and the roads are becoming ever more crowded, especially Highway 1. As a result the number of serious accidents on the highways is on the increase.
But don't get paranoid! Thousands of people visit Vietnam each year without experiencing any problems whatsoever. It's also worth bearing in mind that the situation in Vietnam is certainly no worse than many big European and American cities. Just take the same precautions you would in any unfamiliar place, and you should be fine.
8. Is language a problem in Vietnam, or can I get by in English?
Everyone in Vietnam seems to be learning English. Standards are relatively high considering the country has only been open for just over a decade. Most young people and many of those working in the tourist industry speak sufficient English to communicate at a basic level. You'll find more and better English-speakers in the south - a legacy of the American presence - but even here don't expect to find English spoken at small restaurants, in markets or anywhere off the tourist trail. For such situations it will help to have a basic phrasebook.
People over 60 years old, especially in the north, speak wonderfully old-fashioned French. Other northerners might speak Russian or German, depending where they were sent to be educated or as "guest workers".
If you're having real difficulties communicating, it sometimes helps to write things down in English. As a last resort, someone will probably go and find an English speaker to help sort things out.
Though you will certainly be able to get by in English, it's worth learning a few Vietnamese phrases before you go. The pronunciation is a bit tricky, but otherwise Vietnamese is not a particularly complicated language. A few standard phrases (such as hello, thank you, how much is it? and goodbye) always go down well. It will also help if you learn the numbers, though this can be circumvented by asking people to write down prices, times etc.
9. Should I take my money to Vietnam in cash or travellers' cheques?
Vietnam's official currency is the dong, which can not be purchased outside Vietnam. The main banks in Hanoi and HCMC can handle a fairly broad range of currencies nowadays, but the dollar is still the most widely accepted. I therefore recommend taking a combination of US$ cash and US$ travellers' cheques, with the bulk in travellers' cheques for safety. American Express, Visa and Thomas Cook cheques are the most recognised brands.
It's a good idea to arrive with at least some small denomination dollar bills ($1s, $5s and $10s) to get you from the airport into town and to a bank. Even if they're open, the airport exchange desks offer unfavourable rates. If you do bring dollars cash into Vietnam, make sure they are not badly tattered as they may be refused.
10. Where can I change Vietnamese money?
You can change cash and travellers' cheques at exchange desks in big hotels and at authorised foreign exchange banks in the main cities. Among the banks, Vietcombank usually offers the best exchange rates and charges the lowest commission (around 1-2%). Note that commission rates are slightly lower if changing travellers' cheques into dong rather than dollars. Vietcombank does not levy commission when changing dollars cash into dong, though some other banks do. It's worth bearing in mind that you get a slightly better exchange rate for $100 and $50 notes than for smaller denominations. When cashing travellers' cheques you may be asked for your passport, though this practice seems to be dying out.
Outside the main cities and tourist areas, authorised foreign exchange banks are few and far between. So if you're heading off the beaten path, stock up with enough cash (dollars and dong) to last the trip. Wherever you are, you'll always find someone willing to change dollars cash into dong, though rates will vary.
When receiving dong, you'll be presented with a huge pile of notes. The largest bill is only 50,000d (roughly $4), so bear this in mind when changing $100! Refuse any badly torn notes (you'll find it hard to get rid of them - the same goes for dollars) and ask for a mix of denominations so that you always have a few low-value notes in hand.
11. Is it better to use American dollars or Vietnamese dong for daily expenses in Vietnam?
Despite government attempts to outlaw the practice, the US$ still acts as an alternative currency which is almost completely interchangeable with the dong. Many prices, especially for hotels, tours and expensive restaurants, are still quoted in $, though you can pay in dong if you'd rather - just check what exchange rate they're using.
For everyday expenses, I recommend carrying a mix of US$ cash and dong. For larger items (hotel bills, train tickets, etc.) or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use dollars. For cyclos, local food stalls and small purchases, it's best to use dong. In either case, make sure you always have a stock of small notes so that you don't have to worry about change.
12. How widely accepted are credit cards in Vietnam?
Major credit cards (Visa, American Express, JCB, MasterCard) are gradually becoming more widely accepted in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and HCMC. All top level and many mid-level hotels accept them, as do a growing number of restaurants and upmarket shops catering to the tourist trade. But watch out for the extra taxes they wap on when using a credit card - these can amount to an additional 5 percent. Outside the major cities you will have to rely on cash and travellers' cheques.
13. Can I get cash on my credit card in Vietnam?
Cash advances on credit cards are available at the central Vietcombank in Hanoi, HCMC and other major cities, for which you will be charged around 4%.
Hanoi and HCMC also boast 24hr ATMs where you can withdraw cash on MasterCard, Visa and other cards in the Cirrus/Plus networks. In Hanoi, go to the ANZ Bank beside Hoan Kiem Lake; in HCMC both ANZ Bank and HKSB have ATMs.
14. How do I get from the airport to central HCMC/Hanoi if I'm not being met?
HCMC's Tan Son Nhat airport lies about 7km northwest of the city centre. The best way to get into the city is to take a taxi. Ignore the expensive airport taxi booking desk and pick up a metered taxi outside the terminal (you might have to insist they use the meter; if not agree a price with the driver before setting off). The journey should cost around $7-10. I gather that there's also an airport bus ($2), but that it only runs between the airport and the Vietnam Airlines office on Nguyen Hué. Note that some of the more expensive hotels provide airport pick ups, so ask about this when booking your room.
Hanoi's Noi Bai airport is 35km north of the city. A taxi into town should cost around $15-20. You can either pay at the taxi booking desk inside the airport building (make it clear your paying for a taxi and not the minibus), or find your own taxi outside. A cheaper option is the Vietnam Airlines minibus ($4), which drops you outside their office at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake, though they may take you to your hotel for an extra $1. Tickets are sold inside the terminal building.
15. What recommendations do you have for eating in Vietnam?
I strongly recommend you try the small local restaurants, especially the street kitchens which consist of a few tables and a stove in an open-fronted dining area. They usually specialise in one type of food (often com and pho - rice dishes or noodle soups respectively). Sometimes there will be a range of prepared dishes on display like a buffet, called com binh dan (people's meals), where you just point at what you want. Often the quality is extremely good, the food is cheap (under $1 for a good plateful) and it's a great experience.
The key is to choose carefully. Look for clean places with a high turnover and where the ingredients on display look fresh. If you see the food cooked in front of you, all the better. Even so, you can never be one hundred percent sure, but I know more people who've been struck down with food poisoning or stomach upsets after eating in upmarket restaurants than from patronising street kitchens.
Expensive restaurants usually price their menus in dollars. In the middle of the range it could be in either dollars or dong, but at this level prices are often not indicated at all, which makes for tedious ordering as you go through each dish. It's worth doing, however, to avoid a nasty shock at the end of the meal. Watch out for the extras as well: peanuts, hot towels and packs of tissues on the table may be added to the bill even in untouched. Ask for them to be removed if you don't want them.
Finally, eat early. Though places in the south (especially in HCMC) tend to stay open longer, outside the main cities and tourist areas restaurants rarely serve beyond 8pm.
16. When should I tip in Vietnam?
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam, but will be greatly appreciated. Smart hotels and restaurants nowadays add a 10-15% service charge (which should be indicated on the bill) but elsewhere it's up to you. In most cases, a small of tip of a few thousand dong will be sufficient. It's a good idea to tip guides, drivers and anyone else who has provided good service.
17. What major sights do you recommend in and around Hanoi?
Hanoi has changed enormously over the last few years, but I still find it a beguiling city. The Old Quarter is as captivating as ever, while some of the revamped colonial buildings are just stunning.
The Old Quarter in Hanoi
I love wandering the intoxicating tangle of streets that makes up Hanoi's commercial heart. Many are still dedicated to one particular craft; don't miss the jaunty prayer banners of Hang Quat, Lan On's fragrant medicines and Hang Ma, draped in tinsel, votive objects and all manner of paper products.
Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Immediately south of the Old Quarter, Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) takes on different personalities at different times of day. It's perhaps best at daybreak, when tai chi experts limber up in the half-light, or at dusk when old men come to play chess and couples seek privacy in the shadows.
The French Quarter in Hanoi
Continuing southwards, the French Quarter is full of stately colonial buildings on tree-lined avenues. Its centre-piece is the beautifully restored Opera House. Nearby, you'll find the elegant Metropole Hotel and Governor of Tonkin's Residence.
Water puppets in Hanoi
Though the traditional water puppet shows are decidedly touristy, they're still huge fun for all age groups. Performances consist of charming vignettes of rural life, such as ploughing, rice planting and children splashing in the paddy or herding ducks.
The Temple of Literature in Hanoi
The green lawns and gnarled trees of this Confucian temple are a pleasant respite from the noise, dust and confusion of Hanoi.
With a few days to spare, a trip to Ha Long Bay is highly recommended. You can either take a guided tour or do it yourself, in which case it's worth considering staying on Cat Ba island rather than the more touristy destination of Ha Long City. Other sights around Hanoi include the Perfume Pagoda (a vast, sacred cave accessible only by river), Tam Coch (another river trip, this time near Ninh Binh) or the mountain villages of Sa Pa and Bac Ha near the Chinese border.
18. What major sights do you recommend in and around Ho Chi Minh City?
Larger and more cosmopolitan than its northern rival, Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most locals still call it) is a fury of sights and sounds. It can be bewildering at first, but it's never dull. Just find a sidewalk café and watch the world go by.
Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City
This ethnic-Chinese enclave - the name means "big market" - is an exuberant manifestation of Vietnam's new economic freedoms. The best thing is just to wander, taking in at least one of the Chinese pagodas, such as Quan Am.
War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
Formerly known as the War Crimes Museum, this is one of those places you should visit, though it's not for the squeamish. Despite some obvious omissions, such as crimes committed by Communist troops, the museum is gradually adopting a more balanced, reconciliatory tone.
Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City
The former Presidential Palace is a museum-piece of 60's and 70's kitsch, complete with private casino, penthouse bar and red-plus cinema, while a helicopter moulders on the rooftop landing pad. Downstairs in the basement, combat maps still plaster the walls of the command room.
Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City
Of Saigon's many pagodas and temples, this is the most captivating. It was built by the Cantonese community and is dedicated to an exotic array of deities, sheltered by a roof seething with dragons, birds and other, nameless beasts.
The most popular day-trip from HCMC takes you west to the Cao Dai Cathedral and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The cathedral is the headquarters of a wonderfully eclectic religion whose saints include Mohammed and Winston Churchill. Worshippers gather four times a day in front of the Supreme Being, represented by a rather unnerving "Divine Eye" on a star-spangled globe. The tunnels of Cu Chi have been enlarged for bulky Western frames, but it's still a sobering experience to crawl through this Viet Cong complex which reached underneath an American army base. If you've got more time, take a couple of days exploring the Mekong Delta.
19. What major sights do you recommend in and around Hue, Vietnam ?
Of all Vietnamese cities, this is the one I enjoy most. It's an easygoing, peaceful place with lakes and canals, tree-lined boulevards and a certain refinement thanks to its imperial past. Hué also has great cuisine and wonderful restaurants - not to mention all its historical sights. Unfortunately, many sights will have been damaged in the 1999 floods, though to what degree is not yet certain.
Imperial City in Hue, Vietnam
Despite the ravages of war, weather and time, the Imperial City still packs a powerful punch. Much has been done to restore the palaces, which gleam once more under a coating of rich red lacquer and writhing dragons.
Royal tombs in Hue, Vietnam
Of Hue's seven royal mausoleums, this is the finest. Rather than dealing with affairs of state, Tu Duc preferred to hide in his lyrical pleasure garden. You can reach this and other Imperial Mausoleums on a boat trip down the Perfume River. Minh Mang and Khai Dinh Tombs are also highly recommended.
Hue Folksongs on the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam
There's no better way to spend a balmy Hue evening than drifting gently down the Perfume River to the sound of traditional folk songs.
20. What major sights do you recommend in and around Da Nang, Vietnam?
Da Nang is one of Vietnam's fourth largest city. Now a major harbour it was once home to a huge American Air Force base in the Vietnam War. Many visitors don't take to Da Nang, but I find it a surprisingly relaxed, amiable city, with its French past still very much on show. Though it doesn't boast any breathtaking sights of its own, both Hoi An and My Son are within easy reach.
The Cham Museum in Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang's most important sight is this unique collection of Cham sculpture dating from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. It won't take more than an hour to explore and is a must if you're going to visit My Son (see below).
Provincial Museum in Da Nang
Best for its coverage of local ethnic minorities, including a beautifully melodic water harp made by Sedang people. The museum is undergoing very protracted renovation work, so not all rooms are guaranteed to be open.
Cao Dai Temple
Charming little temple built in 1956. You should get a warm welcome from the guardian, keen to explain his religion's colourful intricacies.
Somehow this little town retains its charm despite the tourist hordes. Its most noteworthy monuments are the two-hundred year old homes of Chinese merchants and their colourful Assembly Hall. Add to that a tasty local cuisine, dozens of good restaurants, a riverside setting and some of the best tailors in the country.
My Son Cham Tower Complex
Once a magnificent Cham temple complex, My Son now comprises an atmospheric collection of ruins mouldering away in a bowl of lush, wooded hills.
21. How can I organize sightseeing excursions in Vietnam?
Within the cities, you're probably best off exploring by yourself, though local agents offer tailor-made or group tours if required.
Going further afield, it depends how adventurous you are, how much time and money you have, and whether or not you like travelling in a group. The easiest and cheapest option is to join a tour offered by one of the so-called "travellers' cafés" in Hanoi, HCMC, Hué, Nha Trang or Hoi An (see below for recommendations). These cafés organise tours to the main sights, such as the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels out of HCMC, or to Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa and the Perfume Pagoda from Hanoi. The tours are cheap and offer amazing value for money, but don't expect too much as far as quality of hotel, transport and guides are concerned. They're usually more than adequate, however, and can be excellent if you strike it lucky.
On the whole there's not a great deal to choose between the cafés. Prices vary slightly, but check carefully exactly what is included. Otherwise, just see which café you feel happiest with. Often you'll all end up in the same bus or sharing the same hotel anyway. It's best to book your tour direct with the café rather than through your hotel; you may end up paying more and it's harder to sort things out if the tour isn't as described.
If you'd rather not travel in a group, the same cafés and local tour agents will organise tailor-made tours, including transport, guide and accommodation as required (self-drive car hire isn't available yet in Vietnam, though you can rent motorbikes, bikes and scooters at the drop of a hat). Alternatively, you can book a guide and transport through your hotel. In either case, check very carefully what is included in the price (meals and accommodation for the guide, petrol, parking charges etc).
22. What level of comfort do the trains in Vietnam provide and how safe are they?
There are five classes on Vietnamese trains: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper and "super berths" (soft sleeper with air-con), though only the long-distance expresses offer the full range. For short journeys hard or soft seat carriages are fine, though most Vietnamese people can only afford hard seat so these carriages tend to be packed out.
For longer journeys, particularly overnight, try and get a sleeping berth. Hard sleeper consists of six bunk beds in one compartment (two tiers of three). In most cases the seats have padding and it's reasonably comfortable; the exception is the night train to Lao Cai, when you just get a hard wooden bunk and a mat to sleep on. Prices for the bottom bunk are highest and the top bunk is the cheapest, partly because you have to climb up and also because there's very little space between the bunk and the ceiling. Soft sleeper compartments have four bunks (two tiers of two) which are all priced the same. Note that sleeping berths get booked up well in advance, so it's best to make your reservation as early as possible.
23. What tips do you have for hiring cyclos, motorbike taxis and taxis when in Vietnam?
A cyclo is a three-wheeled, bucket-seat rickshaw where the passenger sits in front facing the traffic - a somewhat scary experience to begin with! Although the government is trying to phase cyclos out in city centres, for the moment they're still widely available and offer the best means of transport for a short journey. The price depends on how fancy the rickshaw is (those waiting outside posh hotels will obviously charge more) and how good you are at bargaining. As a rough guide, a short 5-10 minute ride should cost around 20,000 - 30,000vnd. You can also hire them by the hour, in which case count on paying 50,000 - 70,000d per hour depends on which city you are traveling in.
Always agree on a price before setting off, preferably by writing it on a piece of paper. Make it clear whether you're bargaining in dollars or dong and whether it's for a single or return journey. It helps to have the exact money ready at the end to save any arguments or hassles over change.
Note that cyclos are banned from some streets in the city centres, so don't be surprised if you're taking a slightly roundabout route. Also, it's not a good idea to take cyclos late at night in HCMC as some people have been mugged.
Motorbike taxis (called xe om or Honda om) come in handy in country areas, especially in the mountains. You'll also find them in the main cities where they are a shade cheaper than a cyclo and faster, though perhaps even more scary in the chaotic traffic. The same rules of bargaining apply.
Metered taxis now operate in HCMC, Hanoi and other major cities. You'll find them outside the main hotels or cruising the streets, though you can also order one by phone. Rates for short journeys within the city centre are around 11,000d per km. If you can only find an unmetered taxi, make sure to agree a price before jumping in.
24. Should I bargain for everything when traveling in Vietnam?
Almost everything is negotiable in Vietnam (with the notable exception of meals) and bargaining is very much part of the Vietnamese way of life. All tourists are regarded as wealthy - which we are compared to most locals - but that doesn't mean you'll always be quoted an outrageous price; small shopkeepers and restaurateurs will often charge you the local rate.
When bargaining it helps if you know some Vietnamese numbers and have a general idea of the going rate for the item. Otherwise, the trick is to remain friendly, be realistic and make the process fun. If you manage to reduce the price by 40%, you're doing well. In most cases it'll be more like 10-20%. A common ploy is to start moving away if you're on the verge of agreement. But don't bargain just for the sake of it - if your price is agreed, then you are honour bound to purchase. And always keep a sense of perspective: don't waste time and energy haggling over what only amounts to a few cents.
25. What kind of accommodation can I expect to find in Vietnam?
The main cities now boast top-rank hotels at very reasonable prices thanks to a recent building boom and a drop in tourist numbers. Even new, mid-market hotels now offer satellite TV, minibar, IDD phone and spacious bathrooms as standard. At the cheaper end, the small, private hotels (called mini-hotels in the north and "rooms for rent" in the south) often provide the best value for money. At this level standards vary enormously, but in general the newer the hotel the better the facilities. As a rule of thumb, count on paying a minimum of $20-30 for a reasonable room with ensuite bathroom, hot water, TV, fridge and phone.
Outside the main cities and tourist areas accommodation is more limited, and may well consist of just one state-owned hotel. Often it will be a rather dowdy, relatively expensive place, not always very clean and with poor standards of service. In the south, the hotels may not have hot running water. Toilets may be of the squat variety and drains a bit iffy. In which case, it's always worth asking to see another room.
26. Is it a good idea to take gifts to present in Vietnam? What would be appreciated?
Giving small gifts to those who have performed a special service or with whom you have a working relationship is greatly appreciated. Anything from your local area, such as cakes, sweets, chinaware or photo books or calendars, is a good idea. Otherwise, inexpensive make-up, perfume, jewellery and pretty toiletries go down well with women, while men will prefer pens, cigarette lighters, imported cigarettes, whisky or other spirits and car/biking magazines. For children, obviously small toys such as inflatable playground balls and skipping ropes are popular and easy to transport. Or how about drawing books/pads of paper and pencils or crayons, erasers, model cars, small-size T-shirts and other clothes.
When presenting gifts, don't expect effusive thanks as this isn't Vietnamese style. Whatever their reaction, you can be sure that the gift was appreciated.
27. What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home from Vietnam?
Vietnam has a good variety of lightweight, transportable souvenirs. You'll find them on sale in all the main tourist areas, though Hanoi and HCMC probably offer the greatest variety.
Silk is probably high on most people's list, either tailored or as uncut cloth. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, has become the place to get clothes made, but you'll also find good tailors in Hanoi (along Hang Gai) and in HCMC. Beautifully embroidered cottons are another popular choice, as are printed T-shirts in a whole range of designs.
Traditional craft items include laquerware, items decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, conical hats, carvings made of cinnamon and camphor wood, bronze Buddhist bells and musical instruments. A water puppet also makes a nice memento. Fabrics from the various ethnic minorities are either sold in lengths or made into bags, purses or skull-caps. Minority groups in the south produce wonderful basketry and bamboo pipes.
Vietnam has a thriving fine arts scene, with some artists commanding substantial sums, though you need to be wary of fakes. Galleries in Hanoi, HCMC, Hue and Hoi An also show works by lesser-known artists at more affordable prices. Look out also for lovely, hand-painted greetings cards.
American army surplus gear, most of it of dubious authenticity nowadays, is still a big moneyspinner. You can also buy Vietnamese issue, such as the khaki pith helmets, while communist banners and flags make an unusual souvenir. In HCMC nimble-fingered children make model helicopters, planes, cars and so forth from recycled drinks cans. They're not easy to carry, but terribly tempting.
Note that export restrictions apply to all items deemed to be of "cultural or historical significance", including works of art and anything over 50 years old. To take any such item out of the country you'll need an export licence. Even if it's a modern reproduction it might be worth getting clearance anyway, since customs officials aren't necessarily very discriminating.
28. Is the postal system reliable in Vietnam? How about other forms of communication?
Slow but, on the whole, reliable. Letters and postcards leaving Vietnam can take anything from four days to a month, depending on where you are; obviously mail takes longer from the countryside.
Sending a parcel, on the other hand, is more complicated, especially if the post office staff decide to inspect every item. Note that novels or other material about Vietnam printed abroad can cause problems, and you may be charged customs duty on items such as CDs. Take everything to the post office unwrapped and keep it small: after inspection, and a good deal of form filling (they may charge a nominal amount for the forms), the parcel will be wrapped for you. Surface mail is obviously cheapest and takes around 1-4 months depending on the destination and route taken. So far, all the parcels I have sent back to Europe have arrived - eventually.
Phone calls out of Vietnam are very expensive, so a better option might be fax or email. Nearly all hotels and post offices now offer a fax service, though rates are usually cheaper at the post office. Both charge a small fee (5000-10,000d) for receiving faxes. If your hotel name is specified on the incoming fax, the post office will deliver it at no extra charge. Internet access is now widely available in the main cities, generally at the travellers' cafés. Rates vary from 400-1000d per minute.
29. What should I be aware of regarding etiquette?
Vietnamese codes of behaviour are based on Confucianism, with its strict social hierarchy, respect for authority and emphasis on conformity.
One of the hardest things to get used to is people saying yes or agreeing to something when really they mean no, or it won't get done or there's a major problem. This is in part a desire to please and in part a means of avoiding confrontation. The key is to expect nothing to happen as planned and build plenty of flexibility into your schedule. The other point of frustration is likely to be when dealing with the endless, all-powerful bureaucracy.
Even in the most trying of circumstances it's important to remain patient and keep smiling. It's very bad form to show anger in Vietnam and it won't get you anywhere. It's also impolite to criticise people openly. Better to try and work out some sort of acceptable solution. In tricky situations, handing round a few cigarettes to the men will often help.
Dress codes tend to be modest, particularly when visiting religious sites (avoid sleeveless tops and shorts) and for women at all times. It pays to look neat and tidy for any official meetings or functions. When introduced to people, the traditional form of greeting is to bring both hands together pointing upwards in front of your chest and bow. More Westernised Vietnamese, however, are likely to shake hands. The best policy is to wait and respond in kind.
It's common practice to remove your shoes when entering people's homes, Buddhist pagodas and Cao Dai temples. When visiting pagodas and temples it's also good manners to leave a small amount of money on the altar or in the collecting box.
Don't pat children on the head and don't point at people. If you want them to beckon someone, hold your hand palm down and draw your fingers towards you several times. When sitting on the floor, try not to point your feet at other people or at religious symbols such as the family altar. Sit with your legs tucked up beside you rather than cross legged. Finally, as elsewhere in Asia, don't stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice; it's is an allusion to death.