If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:
Vietnam is hot pretty much all year round – in the north it’s cooler in the winter months between November and February, but in the south it’s sweltering all year round. I visited in November/December and it was hot and humid everywhere. As a tropical country, Vietnam has a rainy season, which usually lasts from May to October. It was mostly dry during my trip, but when it did rain, it tended to chuck it down.
The Vietnamese Dong is the official currency of Vietnam, although many tourist places also accept US dollars. I took a mixture of both currencies, but mostly spent the Dong. Vietnam is the only place I’ve been able to refer to myself as a millionaire as the Dong comes in high denominations, such as 100,000d, 200,000d, and 50,000d, which made currency conversions tricky. If you run out of cash, there are lots of ATMs throughout the country and I didn’t have any problems withdrawing money or using my debit card.
What to pack
Vietnam is hot and humid, so sun protection is essential – suntan lotion, a hat and sunglasses are a must. But an umbrella or poncho is also handy for those inevitable downpours. I only had an umbrella with me and ended up buying a luminous pink poncho during one particularly heavy rain shower as my umbrella just wasn’t cutting it.
A lot of the public bathrooms don’t have soap or toilet roll, so it’s worth packing hand sanitiser and toilet roll for when you’re out and about. You should also consider taking basic medical supplies, too. I tend to have a fairly strong stomach when I’m travelling. Not so, in Vietnam. By the end of the trip, I was having to eat Western food with some regularity – much to my disappointment – because my body was just saying no. Needless to say, the diarrhoea tablets I’d packed came in very handy.
What to wear
It’s hot and sticky pretty much everywhere, so I stuck to a mix of cool summer dresses or shorts and t-shirts depending on where I was. I mostly wore summer dresses when sightseeing in the cities, and shorts and t-shirts for activities. It sometimes got a little cooler in the evenings, so a cardigan or jumper is handy for when the temperature drops.
Negotiating the crazy traffic
The traffic in Vietnamese cities is like no other and defies logic. Apart from in Ho Chi Minh City and at the odd set of traffic lights, no one really pays attention to the traffic signals and every type of vehicle you can think of comes at you from all possible directions at the same time. Miraculously I didn’t witness any accidents and all the drivers seemed to effortlessly weave around each other.
The traffic is incredibly intimidating at first, but luckily there’s a knack to crossing the roads. If you can, look for other people to cross the road with and if you find a group, spread out horizontally and cross the road in a line together. But whether you’re crossing by yourself or in a group, make sure to walk at a slow but steady pace – don’t stop or change speed, just keep going steadily – this allows the drivers to judge how fast you’re going and they’ll weave around you. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get used to it and it (almost) becomes second nature.
Shop ‘ til you drop
Literally. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to take a half-empty suitcase. I’m not a massive shopper when I travel, but Vietnam is a shopping dream, especially if like me, you love home wares. There are so many beautiful things to buy and it’s all incredibly cheap. I came home with pretty ceramics, wooden objects, paintings, clothes, table mats, coasters, scarves, to name but a few. And I would have bought more if a.) I had more room in my suitcase and b.) I wasn’t worried about breakages. I’m looking to buy a house this year and if I could, I’d fill it with Vietnamese crockery.
One of my favourite shopping streets in Ho Chi Minh City was Le Loi and I especially loved the Saigon Boutique, a small store selling lovely home wares. I bought quite a bit in there including bags, mugs and combs, so much so, they gave me a little wicker shopping basket for free for buying so much. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city.
If you like fashion, the town of Hoi An is renowned for its tailor-made clothing stores. I’d never be able to afford made-to-measure clothes at home, but I had a dress and a pair of trousers made up while I was in the city. I had great fun choosing the designs and fabrics, and then going to fittings to make sure everything fit perfectly. It’s definitely worth doing, even if it’s just for the experience.
Relax with a massage
One of my favourite discoveries in Vietnam was the cheap massages. At home, a massage is a very rare treat as I can’t usually afford them. But most of the hotels I stayed in had lovely spas with rock bottom prices, so I indulged in more than a couple of massages during my trip. It was the perfect way to unwind after a day of non-stop sightseeing.
Indulge in a beer – or two!
Before going to Vietnam, I hadn’t drunk beer in about 15 years. I hated it. But beer is ubiquitous in the country with the restaurants and bars selling different brands, usually something local. Hanoi, in particular, is famous for its fresh beer. As the old saying goes, when in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do (or something like that), so I found myself drinking quite a bit of beer – and surprisingly, liking it!