We often find ourselves compiling recommendations for friends who are planning to visit Vietnam. In hopes that our tips can be useful to others who happen upon our blog, we’re now including them here, and will periodically update this post based on the feedback and additional questions we receive over time. We’re so glad you’re considering visiting!
The prices and term lengths around Visa requirements vary according to your nationality. For Americans visiting Vietnam, terms have changed frequently in recent years, however what has remained constant is that you absolutely must have a Visa to enter the country and you must make arrangements in advance. While you can bring your passport to the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C. and arrange a Visa in person, a much easier AND cheaper route is to use a “Visa on Arrival Service” (VOA). These online services will charge you a fee for arranging a Visa sponsorship letter for your planned visit to Vietnam. Your Vietnam Visa sponsorship letter will be delivered to you electronically for you to print before your trip and will include not just your name(s) but the names of anyone else who applied for the service during the same time period (so don’t be alarmed if/when you see the names of multiple strangers additionally listed on your letter!). With this type of service, the total expense for your Vietnam Visa will be split into two: the first portion is by way of the online service fee you’ll pay via credit card to the Visa on Arrival service in advance of your trip. The second portion is a “stamping fee” which you will pay in cash in USD (bring the exact amount as the government personnel aren’t always prepared to make change) at your arrival airport in Vietnam, accompanied by your Visa on Arrival letter, a pre-filled out VOA application form (the template for which the VOA service should provide to you in addition to your letter), two (2) passport photos (we took our photos at home following guidelines we found online and then had them printed online through Target), and your passport.
Oy vey…yes, we know this sounds all-kinds-of-complicated, but don’t worry! It’s actually not that hard. And especially not in your case, presuming you’ll only need the shortest available Vietnam Visa which allows you to stay in the country for up to 1 month. The company we have used on three occasions and can recommend for their terrific customer service is Vietnam Visa Easy. As of this writing in early 2018, the VOA service fees are $16pp and the Vietnam Government is currently charging a Visa stamping fee of $25 USD for a 1-month, single entry Visa (which means you can’t visit Thailand in the middle of your trip to Vietnam then return to Vietnam on the same Visa (but there are multiple-entry Visas for that if you need one!)). So mostly likely, your total Vietnam Visa fees will sum to about $41 per person.
You cannot have your Visa on Arrival letter processed until your arrival and departure dates have been confirmed. The government is very particular about your VOA letter matching your exact entry and exit dates and the corresponding Vietnam airports. We recommend you confirm your Vietnam Visa at least 1 month prior to your travel dates.
Traveler’s insurance that provides you with medevac coverage IS A MUST. If you are seriously injured or ill, the coverage WON’T bring you back to your home country, but WILL ensure you are brought to the nearest international hospital (likely in Bangkok, Thailand) where you will receive excellent care in a sophisticated facility from English speaking doctors.
We recommend IMG Traveler’s Insurance. It’s what we had when Mark had a medical emergency here in Vietnam (seizures that led to unconsciousness and loss of oxygen while on an overnight trip to an island which led to the diagnosis of a brain tumor and the necessity for a medevac plane). If that’s not an illustrative enough example of the kind of thing you can’t plan for, but which one is SO GRATEFUL to have traveler’s insurance for, we don’t know what is!
The cost of your plan will depend on your age and the duration of your insurance plan. We’re in our 30s, renew the insurance every 12 months, and pay less than $30 USD per month per person for our plan. Whichever traveler’s insurance provider you decide to use, make sure you add an “Adventure Sports” rider because otherwise, often the standard plan doesn’t cover you if you are injured doing routine vacation activities like snorkeling, hiking, etc.
As with any travel, you should inform your current ATM and credit card providers of your travel dates so they don’t incorrectly freeze your account due to suspicious international activity.
International ATM fees: Why pay them if you don’t have to? You may already be in-the-know about the Charles Schwab Investor Checking ATM card, but if not, and especially if you have international travel planned in the coming year, you absolutely must jump on this. Charles Schwab will first require you to sign up for a fee-free, no-balance-required investment account (if you’re like us and most others who use this card solely for the international ATM benefits, you will never use the investment account) which then qualifies you to open one of their free checking accounts. You then can use their free checking account and its perks of monthly domestic and international ATM fee reimbursements. It saves us many hundreds of dollars a year and we and our fellow expat friends here in Vietnam are all big fans. You can read more about how this works HERE.
International Credit Card fees: The Chase Sapphire card is our preferred credit card because there are no fees charged for international transactions. While there’s an annual fee to hold the card after you’ve been a member for one year, in our case, it more than pays for itself through the savings we incur through omitted fees and cash-back bonuses.
We wrote this section for friends who are planning visits from the Philadelphia, USA area. Sorry that we don’t know more about ideal options from other regions!
Flights from the Philadelphia Area
Flights to Vietnam that depart from Newark Airport (EWR) out of Newark, NJ and JFK Airport (JFK) in NYC are typically a lot cheaper than those out of Philadelphia (PHL), AND have shorter overall travel times. There are no direct flights to Vietnam from the East Coast of America. Most stopover in Hong Kong (HKG) after a 15-16 hour flight, then have a brief layover in HKG before a short 1-hour flight to Vietnam for a total travel duration of about 20-23 hours. In our research, we’ve found the optimal flights (cheapest and most direct) are through Cathay Pacific airlines. Often, using Cathay Pacific and leaving from EWR or JFK can save you about $250-$500 PER PERSON on a flight. Factoring a Uber or Lyft ride (especially if shared by two or more people) still makes these flights a lot cheaper than leaving through PHL. We’ve seen round trip flights price from $600-$700 out of JFK and $800-$900 from EWR.
Domestic Flights in Vietnam
Vietnam’s three major international airports are in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. A domestic flight within Vietnam is usually around $45 USD per person for a one-way flight and about $85pp RT when using Vietnam Airlines or VietJet. We have only ever flown Vietnam Airlines because we received feedback from others saying that although they’re a little more expensive than VietJet, the quality of service is appreciably better and they have fewer plane delays.
STEP: THE UNITED STATES’ SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM
If you’re a United States Citizen, whether traveling abroad to Vietnam or anywhere for that matter, it’s prudent to sign up for and actively update your profile with STEP, the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program when your travel plans are confirmed. It allows the government to know where you are while abroad and how to contact you and your family (or other designated contact) in the case of an emergency. In advance of your trip, simply register the address of the first lodging you’ll be using (hotel, hostel, friends’ house, etc.).
The weather in Vietnam often varies significantly between Vietnam’s cities of Hanoi in the north, the coastal city of Da Nang in the central region, Da Lat in the central mountains, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, and Phu Quoc island adjacent to Cambodia. Hanoi has four recognizable seasons as we do in America and can become chilly enough in the winter to need a coat and scarf. Da Nang is always warm, ebbing between the high 70°s in “winter” and high, humid 90°s in summer, but is distinguished by a rainy and dry season. Due to its elevation, the beautiful city of Da Lat has cooler temperatures year-round. And Saigon is always hot and humid as heck with a rainy and dry season. There are many online resources to learn about the seasonal weather in the areas of Vietnam you’re interested in visiting, however in our opinion, the months of February – May + September are ideal if you are planning (as we hope you are!) to travel to multiple areas of Vietnam during your visit.
FOOD AND LODGING BUDGET
We’re frugal eaters who occasionally “splurge” when out with friends, but otherwise rarely spend more than $8.00 USD per person per day on dining out. As a visitor who will be eating up to three meals a day at restaurants including finer dining options, you still likely don’t need to budget for more than $15-$20 per day. Here are some sample prices for food and lodging which we’ve found to be typical:
- Delicious noodle or rice-based street foods: $0.66 – $0.88
- Mid-range restaurant: $3.50 – $5.75 per person
- High-end restaurant: $8.00 – $13.00 per person
- Local Vietnamese beer: Usually less than $1.00 a bottle/can
- Wine: $2.50 – $8.00 per glass
- Mixed drink: $3.50 – $8.00 per glass
- Airbnb: Private room with private or shared bathroom (AKA “Homestays”): $11-$19 USD per night
- Airbnb: Entire 1-2 bedroom apartment: $25-$45+ USD per night
- Mid-range hotel: $30-$60 USD per night
- High-end hotel with swimming pool and ocean views: $120-$150 USD per night
The following is a list of items we were super glad we brought with us because they’re difficult to impossible to acquire in Vietnam, or, were supremely handy.
- Waterproof, closed-toe shoes with an ankle strap such as many of those offered by KEEN, etc. These are ideal for rainy conditions, boating, motorbike riding, hiking, general city walking, etc.
- Moisture wicking/easy to dry clothing that will also protect you from the sun.
- A bottle of 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion or something comparable that contains DEET.
- Dengue fever can be contracted from mosquito bites here in SE Asia and although Dengue rarely is fatal, it can leave you very ill for many weeks. There is no immunization yet available for Dengue, however it’s easily avoided by using insect repellent with DEET (however products containing DEET are difficult to find in Vietnam).
- SPF sunscreens are hard to find in Vietnam and very expensive when you do.
- Many women’s products from moisturizers to body wash to deodorant and beyond contain whitening ingredients. Best to bring your own unless you want to bleach your face and armpits while on vacation.
- First Aid
- Band-Aids (the ones sold in Vietnam aren’t of the same quality)
- Antacid pills like Tums
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Aspirin and/or Ibuprofen (you can buy them at pharmacies here but so much nicer to already have them on-hand when needed)
- Power converter
- If your laptop or other devices use 3-prong plugs, make sure to bring a power adapter that converts a 3-prong US plug to a 2-prong European outlet like this one.
- We found this power adapter with multiple plug + USB ports very helpful when we needed to simultaneously work on laptops while charging phones, etc. It may be bigger than you need, but it’s worth mentioning.
- If your laptop or other devices use 3-prong plugs, make sure to bring a power adapter that converts a 3-prong US plug to a 2-prong European outlet like this one.
- A re-usable water bottle. Preferably insulated like this one to keep cold water cold and to stop the condensation that’ll dampen other things in your bag. Vietnam’s public water is safe to bathe in and brush your teeth with, but not to drink. Minimize your environmental impact by avoiding individual servings of bottled water and using your re-usable flask from a larger dispenser instead.
- Packing Cubes: While non-essential, for trips which involve multiple destinations and hauling around dirty laundry, we love the organization and separation that packing cubes bring to our luggage. They save us a lot of time and frustration when on the go.
LEARNING THE BASICS OF THE VIETNAMESE LANGUAGE
We picked up some basic Vietnamese words and phrases before our arrival through videos on YouTube and through the free Duolingo mobile app. Before visiting a new country, we typically try to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you”, “sorry”, “how much is this?”, “yes”, “no”, “vegetarian” and “delicious!”.
Vietnam is acclaimed, and rightly so, for their tailoring industry. If you have the time and want to enjoy the experience of having custom clothing, shoes, or a bag created, just bring digital photos of ideas for new pieces and/or favorite pieces from your closet that you want to have copied. Plan to visit a tailor early in your trip and budget for 2 more visits over 2-4 more days for a fitting and final adjustments. You can read about our first Vietnam tailoring experience here.
SHOPPING IN VIETNAM
- In all of the markets and in some of the bigger shops, it’s expected that you’ll need to haggle.
- If you’re purchasing more than one item, make certain the price quoted is for the quantity you wish to purchase, not just for one item.
- Use a calculator (on your smartphone or a hand-held mini calculator if you have one) when discussing prices to confirm that you and the seller clearly understand the total price that’s being agreed on.
- We recommend buying your vegetables and fruit from the local neighborhood markets and meat from the larger climate controlled grocery stores (you’ll see why…).
- Many larger grocery stores offer free delivery. No need to schlep!
TRAVELING WITHIN VIETNAM’S CITIES
In our opinion, UBER and/or GRAB services are the best way to travel within Vietnam’s cities. They’re cheap, fast, and easy. And you don’t have to worry about paying in cash because their mobile apps can be set up to conveniently bill your rides to your credit card. Budget about $2-$5 USD per ride depending on distance. Make sure to carefully select the type of vehicle you want for your ride. Unlike the automobile-only fleets in other countries, in Vietnam, these services also offer motorbike taxi transport! To use the GRAB Taxi app, you’ll need to first equip your phone with a Vietnamese SIM card so that the app can verify your local phone number. GRAB will accept Visa credit cards, but at the time of this update (Feb 2019), they’re not accepting Mastercards.
When traveling by traditional commercial taxi (the green and white Mai Linh taxis are always reputable), make sure they’re running the meter.
We haven’t yet traveled by train in Vietnam, but can confirm that the air-conditioned long-distance buses are cheap and reasonably comfortable. However, avoid “sleeper busses” for day trips unless you enjoy small spaces, roller coasters, and loud music. This blog post will explain.
RIDING MOTORCYCLES AND/OR SCOOTERS WHILE IN VIETNAM
It’s illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam without a Vietnamese driver’s license. Further, if you’re injured in an accident while riding a motorbike overseas without a license, your traveler’s insurance WON’T cover your medical expenses. We recommend that you only consider renting and riding a motorbike while visiting in Vietnam if you’ve had extensive prior riding experience or if you’re traveling with a professional motorbike tour company. Learning the very different and at times baffling traffic patterns here in Vietnam will be enough of a learning curve! If you’re confident you can ride safely and really want to give it a try, we commend your bravery! While our prior statement about it being illegal to ride a motorbike in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license is true, the motorbike rental industry serving tourists is huge here, and so it’s common for visitors to rent without providing anything more than an automobile driver’s license from their home country. The police typically won’t pull you over unless you’ve blatantly violated a traffic law or are behaving unsafely. Many sizes and styles of motorbikes are available for rent and will vary in price from about $4 to $10 USD per day. The longer the rental period the better the rate.
PHONE AND INTERNET SERVICE ONCE IN VIETNAM
Internet access is readily available, fast, and cheap (if not free!) in Vietnam. Every cafe and nearly every restaurant will offer free WIFI. And thankfully, today’s technology makes international communication vastly less expensive. For texting, most individuals use Facebook, WhatsApp, or Viber mobile apps on their smartphones for free internet-based texting while abroad. If you’d like to obtain a SIM card while in Vietnam to enable you to make local calls and send local SMS texts while in Vietnam, you can visit any Mobifone or Viettel store in any city in Vietnam to get set up (there are hundreds upon hundreds of locations!). We use Viettel and friends use Mobifone and we’re all happy and see no discernable differences in services. You will need to allow them to make a copy of your passport or driver’s license to receive your temporary SIM card. We recommend signing up for a 3G mobile data plan so you’ll have mobile internet plus a messaging plan for SMS text messaging and phone calls. All of this is very inexpensive…less than $10 USD per month.
While most individuals who visit Vietnam don’t obtain vaccinations before travel, if you’re particularly concerned about such matters or if you plan to spend an extended amount of time in the country, this section is for you. Once you have a general sense of your travel itinerary, you may want to meet with a travel medicine doctor (Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia has a specialty department like this) to receive a consultation for what vaccinations you should consider obtaining in advance of your travel. Some vaccinations take several months to complete so it’s best to do this about 4 months before your departure from your home country. Health insurance plans don’t typically cover travel immunizations because they’re non-essential, since travel is a voluntary act. Plan to budget $300-$500 for out of pocket vaccination costs.
Here’s what Mark and I decided to take care of in America before moving to Vietnam (4-6 months before departure):
- Hepatitis A (and/or A/B Twinrix combo)
What some people additionally opt for:
- Japanese Encephalitis.
We decided to forgo this immunization after our Jefferson Hospital Travel Medicine Doctor said we were unlikely to need it since we spend the majority of our time outside of rural areas. Some individuals who will be staying in Vietnam for a longer period and want this vaccine wait to obtain it once in Vietnam, because it’s a lot cheaper to get vaccinated in a hospital in Vietnam ($365 for the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in the US, vs approximately $20 USD in Vietnam).
Tết (LUNAR NEW YEAR)
Tết, Vietnam’s lunar new year celebration is the country’s most important public holiday and occurs annually between late January and mid-February. It’s a week-long celebration that brings fun festivities, rest, and reunions to families. While much anticipated by locals, it can be a tricky time for foreigners to visit Vietnam during this time. Domestic flights and trains are booked far in advance and many restaurants and shops are closed. If you’re planning your travel to Vietnam during this time period, we wouldn’t necessarily tell you to avoid visiting during Tết, but do want to caution that your experience will be different than the norm. You can read more about Tết in this article.
We hope these tips and recommendations will be helpful as you prepare for your visit to Vietnam! We always welcome your feedback and questions, so don’t hesitate to reach out. You can reach us through the Contact Us form here our website. Cheers!
(P.S. We do not receive any commissions from the links provided within this article. They’re purely our personal recommendations with no commercial affiliations.)