Vietnam Travel FAQ 2
By Jan Dodd, Author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam
Jan Dodd's Vietnam Travel FAQ answers to many of your questions on Vietnam travel. Part 2 of the Vietnam Travel FAQ covers eating, tipping, sightseeing, bargaining, gifts and many more frequently asked questions regarding travel to Vietnam.
How do I get from the airport
to central HCMC/Hanoi if I'm not being met?
What recommendations do you have about eating in Vietnam?
When should I tip?
What major sights do you recommend in and around Hanoi?
What major sights do you recommend in and around Ho Chi Minh City?
What major sights do you recommend in and around Hué?
What major sights do you recommend in and around Da Nang?
How can I organize sightseeing excursions?
Can you recommend some tour agents?
What level of comfort do the trains provide and how safe are they?
What tips do you have for hiring cyclos, motorbike taxis and taxis?
Should I bargain for everything?
What kind of accommodation can I expect to find?
Is it a good idea to take gifts? What would be appreciated?
What sort of souvenirs are available to bring home?
Is the postal system reliable? How about other forms of communication?
What should I be aware of regarding etiquette?
Vietnam Travel FAQ Part 2
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
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.
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.
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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. Usually one or two dollars will be enough. When deciding how much to give, bear in mind that the average income in Vietnam is around $250-300 per year (not per month).
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.
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Ha Long Bay
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.
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 Hué, 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.
Mausoleum of Tu Duc in Hué, VietnamOf Hué'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.
Hué Folksongs on the Perfume River in Hué, Vietnam
There's no better way to spend a balmy Hué evening than drifting gently down the Perfume River to the sound of traditional folk songs.
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.
Once a magnificent Cham temple complex, My Son now comprises an atmospheric collection of ruins mouldering away in a bowl of lush, wooded hills.
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).
In Hanoi, the main travellers' cafés include Love Planet Café,
Red River Café, Queen Café and the Green Bamboo (this last is
slightly more upmarket). Kangaroo Café is a newcomer to the scene and
gets good reviews. For higher quality, tailor-made tours try Buffalo Tours
The two main travellers' cafés in HCMC are Sinh and Kim. Among the agents, try Cam On Tours or Fiditourist at the cheaper end, or the more upmarket Ann's Tourist, Vidotour and Exotissimo.
NB. The travellers' cafés also provide ticketing and visa services, dispense all sorts of advice, serve cheap food and drinks, and are great places to meet people and pick up the latest information.
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.
Meals are provided on longer journeys, though you may prefer to take your own supply of snacks, fruit and bottled water. You can supplement these when vendors come on the trains at stations to hawk their wares.
As far as safety goes, in my experience (as a female travelling alone) the trains in Vietnam are fine. However, theft is becoming more of a problem on some routes, particularly the night trains from Hanoi north to Lao Cai. It's wise to ensure your luggage is locked and safely stowed away, don't leave anything lying near an open window and always carry your valuables with you. In the sleeping carriages the bottom seats lift up and you can put your bags underneath, so these berths are quite a good idea. The only downside is that everyone will be sitting on them during the day - which means you can't stretch out if you want a nap. The top berths have access to a useful storage space above the door.
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 8,000-10,000d.
You can also hire them by the hour, in which case count on paying 10,000-15,000d
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 5,000d per km with a flag fall of 10,000d. If you can only find an unmetered taxi, make sure to agree a price before jumping in.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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Using Email in Vietnam
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.
©Jan Dodd 1999, Updated Allison Martin 2007
Jan Dodd is the author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam, as well as guides to Japan and Tokyo, and a contributer to the guide on France. She writes for various newspapers and journals, including the Independent on Sunday and National Geographic Traveler Magazine. Visit Jan Dodd's website.
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