Vietnam. A land of colours, contrasts and endless curiosities. Awash with surreal landscapes, brimming with culinary delights and steeped in its jarring history, few countries have risen so gallantly from the ashes of a war-torn nation. Four decades later, the country’s entrepreneurial spirit has propelled its land and economy back onto the tourist map – and rightly so.
Memorable experiences are a given, but knowing how to cross the road there isn’t. Here’s five things every first-time traveller to Vietnam should know.
- Step out into moving traffic
Seriously. Though it sounds bizarre, you’ll quickly realise crossing a road in Vietnam is unlike anywhere else. The traffic consists almost entirely of motorbikes which race through the streets in a completely unregulated manner. As there are few traffic lights and even fewer cross walk signals you have little choice but to step out into the road and continue with conviction. It can be daunting initially, but you get used to it… almost. Walk in a straight line with confidence and do not pause or retreat. Amazingly, the infinite stream of motorbikes will weave their way around as you wade. Follow the local pedestrians if you need a little guidance.
- Sometimes cheaper is better
Do not assume a higher price tag equates to higher quality when it comes to meals. As is often the case in South-East Asia, street food, market stalls and roadside BBQs can provide some of the best grub around. The fish eateries – “Bo Ke” – that line the coasts are prime example. You can sample Vietnam’s finest and freshest seafood, essentially from ocean to plate. Select your next meal from their tanks (often just plastic bowls) and they’ll grill it right in front of you.
Or try the do-it-yourself BBQs. The goat served with rice paper rolls is surprisingly tender and flavour-packed. The classic Vietnamese noodle soup, Pho, is essential eating of course, and it’ll keep you satisfied for next-to-nothing. Asking your taxi driver where their favourite pho joint is will often lead to a memorable meal.
And don’t always trust review sites. Some of the greatest hidden gems can be found not through online traveller ratings, but by asking locals and looking for places with a dedicated Vietnamese following.
- Patience is key (and maybe a good book)
If you are traveling by road, it’s safe to add a few hours onto every journey. Travel agents will give you the time a trip should take, but that’s not accounting for snack or bathroom stops, breakdowns, dodgy roads, unexplained traffic, meandering cows or just inexplicable delays: all of which you are likely to encounter at some point. Fortunately the buses are comfortable, equipped with single-person sleeper chairs that fully recline.
- Keep calm and bargain on
Yes, a lot of people want to rip you off, especially in the big cities. Deal with it and keep your cool. First-time travellers to South-East Asia may feel a little miffed initially but you quickly learn how to minimise the damage. In areas with fewer tourists it becomes harder to shop around so vendors may just pull prices from thin air if there is no means of comparison.
Although metered cabs seem like a safe option the driver might take you on a detour, so often agreeing on a price first works to your advantage. You’d be amazed at how many things you can bargain for, and it never hurts to try!
- Technology is your friend
Purchasing a Vietnamese SIM card on arrival is cheap and can be extremely useful – particularly if you plan on using your own vehicle to get around. Having access to maps saves a lot of hassle as roads and towns can be poorly signposted. For around £10 you can buy a SIM card at the airport that’ll give you unlimited 3G access.
If you’re someone who needs their technological comforts abroad, bring an adapter with a power board. Many rooms are equipped with one outlet only so if you’ve got to charge a camera, phone, laptop and so on, this is the way to do it.
If you intend to venture off the beaten track it’s a good idea to download a Vietnamese to English translator on your phone as English can be scarce. Need coffee? Simply type ‘coffee’ into the app, show the on-screen translation to the café workers…et voila! (And you will need coffee – Vietnam has some of the world’s best).