7 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Vietnam
Matt and I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for 7 months back in 2016 and backpacked throughout the country for one of those months. We've learned a lot about the country and feel that our knowledge and experiences could aid those who've thought about traveling to Vietnam.
For many people from Western cultures, visiting a country like Vietnam can feel daunting and sense-shocking. However, it can be one of the most enriching experiences of one's life. We were culture-shocked when we first moved there, but every single day, the country surprised and excited us. We are itching to go back!
For those who are looking to go to Vietnam, preparing yourself can help minimize your culture-shock! Here are seven things you need to know before going (and that we wish we knew when we did!):
1. Hot, humid, rainy, and more!
The weather in Vietnam differs depending on when and where you go. Make sure to check first in which season you're planning on going and to which region or regions you're venturing. In the Southern part of Vietnam, like in Ho Chi Minh City, there are two distinctive seasons: winter and hot. The "winter" season is from November to April and their hot season is from May to October. During the "winter" months in the South, it's drier and a bit cooler. During the hot season, it's very hot, humid, and rainy. This is the season with the most rainfall. The temperature throughout the year in the South ranges from 71°F (21°C) to 94°F (34°C). But, those temperatures don't factor in the humidity! In fact, the average annual humidity in Ho Chi Minh City is 78%! That's a lot.
Hottest month: April
Coolest month: December
Driest month: February
Wettest month: September
However, in the Northern area of Vietnam, like Hanoi, they have four distinct seasons. During the winter there, the temperature on average is 63°F/17°C. Their summer, which is from May to October, is an average 83°F/29°C.
The middle of Vietnam, which includes places like Hoi An and Hue, is typically the hottest are of the country. From mid-January to August, the weather is hot and dry, often reaching around 35°C/95°F!
When is the best time to go? Again, it depends on where you're going and when. The cooler seasons would be a bit more tolerable and the wet seasons only tend to rain for maybe an hour each day during the afternoon, so it won't put that much of a damper on your travels. The hot seasons are good, too, if you think it won't bother you too much! We backpacked during one of the hottest months: July! We were in Hue at one point and, including the humidity, that was the hottest point for us: 126°F/52°C!
2. Grab App
If you plan on traveling in Vietnam and want the cheapest way to get around the cities you go to, you need to download the app "Grab." It's like Uber, but even cheaper and along with rides in cars, they offer motorbike rides referred to in the app as "GrabBike!" I used to travel to tutor a father and daughter in Ho Chi Minh City, who lived about a 15 minute motorbike ride from me. I would use the app to get to and from their house. Each and every time, the motorbike driver would show up within minutes and take me to their house just for 17,000 Vietnamese dong or $0.75 USD! Definitely worth it. And not to worry-- they always provide you with a helmet and sometimes even a little pleasant chat!
It's a little different than Uber, though, because you don't pay through the app. You have to pay with cash. That's one thing to keep in mind when using Grab. Uber also exists in most places in Vietnam and is cheap, so you should honestly download both Grab and Uber!
3. The pho-king food!
When we first went to Vietnam, we were most excited to eat one thing: pho, their famous noodle dish. Naturally, Vietnam has the best pho in the world as it originates from there! But, there are different kinds of pho, like phở bò (beef pho) and phở gà (chicken pho). It also differs from region to region. Pho most likely originated from the Northern part of the country, somewhere near Hanoi. In that region today, the pho there tends to have a clearer broth, less of a slight fishy taste, and is made with more herbs in it. In the South, the broth tends to be thicker, with a bit more of a fishy taste, since it's often made with cuttlefish, and there are more herbs on the side rather than made in the soup.
However, Vietnam has far more delectable food available than just pho. There's bún bò Huế, which is a noodle soup commonly found in Hue and is personally my favorite noodle dish in Vietnam! There's thịt bò nướng lá lốt, which is meat wrapped in a betel leaf. We stumbled upon these on the island of Phu Quoc at a random cart on the side of the road. It was so good, we went back again! They even put them in baguettes for us. Divine!
There's also the popular bánh mì, which is a baguette with daikon, carrots, coriander, chili pepper, and often liver pate and other meats. It's one of my favorite sandwiches in the world!
Oh, and there's cha gio or nem ran, which are fried spring rolls and are, in our opinion, far better than the non-fried spring rolls, which are also popular there.
Do NOT forget the coffee. Vietnamese coffee is honestly our favorite coffee in the world! It's most commonly served with condensed milk on the bottom and the delectable, fresh, and strong coffee is put through a drip on top. It's to die for!
There are tons of other delectable food items and treats in Vietnam. You'll just have to explore them all for yourself!
4. Beautiful and diverse landscape
Vietnam is not just beaches and cramped, humid cities, as many assume. The country is far more than that. It offers incredible views and vistas that the world, for whatever reason, is just not fully aware of yet. While backpacking through the country, we went from bustling cities, to golden and pristine beaches, but also found ourselves in colorful towns with clean air and nestled in a mountain range, like Da Lat, which was one of our favorite places in Vietnam.
We discovered glorious caves in Phong Nha.
We even rode in boats through calm rivers among monstrous and lush mountains in Ninh Binh.
We also found small cultural towns, like Hoi An.
We even wandered around on towering sand dunes right next to the ocean in Mui Ne!
Vietnam has so much to offer and we are so glad that we discovered that on our own. Each place you go is so vastly different than the last. It's completely worth the journey! (You can learn more about these places and our backpacking journey here and here!)
5. Traffic and crossing the street
If you have happened to hear from someone that traffic is terrifying in Vietnam, well, they're not wrong. There are a lot of people in Vietnam's cities. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are 8.5 million people! Almost every single person also owns and drives their own motorbike; there are 7.43 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City!
Being that there are millions of people and motorbikes on the streets, crossing the road on foot can be terrifying. The motorbikes drive erratically and very close together. They never stop for pedestrians either-- even when they're in crosswalks! When crossing the street, use caution, of course. But, here's the best advice you're going to get about crossing the street in Vietnam: do not run, speed up, slow down, or stop walking. Ever. The motorbike drivers will go around you if you just walk straight across the road and at a normal walking pace.
6. Pickpockets and drive-by robberies
Fortunately for us, we never experienced this firsthand. Maybe because we were incredibly careful when we were there, but who knows? A common complaint from foreigners traveling in Vietnam is being robbed. It's common for thieves to steal things out of your purse. But, it's also more common for them to steal your entire bag and its contents. This is especially more common from people on motorbikes. While driving by foreigners, whether they're pedestrians or riding on the back of a motorbike, they may try to steal their bags right off their shoulder or back!
How not to be pickpocketed/robbed:
- Don't have your bag wide open. Always make sure it's closed well, like with a zipper or something along those lines.
- Hold on tight to your bag, whether it's a small purse or a backpack.
- Wear your backpack on your chest rather on your back, as they don't mind ripping those right off your back. Putting them on your front will make it much more difficult for ride-by robberies.
- When riding on a motorbike, always keep your bags on your chest or on your shoulder and in your lap. If possible, put it in the compartment under the motorbike's seat.
- Keep your bags out of view the best you can from those behind you.
- Be aware of your surroundings and of people who may look suspicious.
If you are smart and follow these rules, then you shouldn't be robbed at all. We were never robbed in Vietnam because we were fortunate enough to know these things from research!
7. It's an overall very safe country
Even though the last two points might have made you feel a little nervous about going, don't let that deter you! Vietnam is very safe in general. We would often walk around in cities and other places at night and feel completely comfortable. As a woman, I was completely comfortable walking around by myself, whether it was night or day. The people in Vietnam are overall friendly and curious. If they know a little English, they want to talk to you and generally want to learn about your life. Vietnamese people are some of the most friendly, sweet, and genuinely kind people we've come across. I made a friend with a Vietnamese English teacher and she invited us to stay one weekend with her family in the mountains about three hours away from Ho Chi Minh City! We attended her sister's wedding, too, and we were the hit of the reception! Her entire family made us feel so welcomed and comfortable, even though none of them spoke any English. They fed us unforgettable meals, let us stay with them in their home, and spoiled us rotten!
Vietnam was the most incredible place we've ever had the pleasure of traveling and believe more people should discover it like we did. So, what are you waiting for?
Have you ever backpacked around Vietnam? If you have, what was your experience? If you haven't, do you want to go after reading this article?
Thank you so much for reading! Feel free to share this blog post with your friends and family to bring awareness to the wonders of Vietnam!
Cheers and happy travels, friends!