We visited Vietnam for 3 months and even ended up living halfway along its coast in the beautiful town of Hoi An for over a month. During our stay we experienced and learnt so much about this South East Asian country that we compiled this ultimate guide with all our knowledge in one place.
Before visiting we will both openly admit that we knew very little about the country beyond scraps of information gleaned from various Vietnam War films. Unfortunately this famous conflict of the 60’s and 70’s still dominates in any google search you make but there’s so much more to explore here history wise.
The Vietnam of today is a busy, noisy one, racing to catch up with the progress of China to the north of Thailand to the west. While it can be confusing and annoying at times, you’ll soon discover a county with a rich and painful past looking towards a bright and hopeful future.
Throughout this guide use the buttons below to jump between the sections.
Money & Costs
The currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong. This is one country where you could quite quickly become a millionaire and you’ll have to learn to shop in thousands of Dong at a time.
Current exchange rates:
$1 USD = 22,300 VND
£1 GBP = 29,200 VND
€1 EUR = 24,700 VND
ATMs and Currency Exchange
Are readily available in major cities and towns but can be hard to come by in smaller places. If you’re planning to spend a few days in more remote areas of villages then stock up on cash before heading off.
We did struggle with the withdrawal limit from most ATMs in Vietnam which is set at 2,000,000 VND per transaction, that’s around $90 USD. Many hotels will accept only cash so this can soon disappear. If you can seek out an MB Bank ATM which mostly allows you to withdraw 5,000,000 VND each time.
In the bigger towns and cities you’ll find places to exchange your money. Most banks will offer this service but don’t forget to use a handy app like the XE Currency Exchange app to check you’re getting a decent rate on the go.
Cash and Card Payments
Many places will only accept cash and although card payments are becoming more commonplace, it’s only in the main towns and cities that you’ll be able to pay with a credit or debit card. This even applied at several hotels where we stayed so you can soon use up your cash reserves.
For most daily transactions cash is the way to go, just remember to break up the bigger notes at stores or your accommodation as most stalls and small shops will struggle to provide much change. One benefit of the currency in Vietnam is the lack of annoying coins, there are several in circulation but thankfully no one likes using them and sticks to the notes instead.
MONEY SAVING TRAVEL TIP: Make sure that you have a great Travel Credit Card to avoid a poor exchange rate and extra fees when using ATMs in Vietnam. Check out our guide to choosing the right travel credit card to help avoid those evil fees and charges!
Rough Daily Budget for Vietnam
Backpacker: As with many countries in South East Asia, Vietnam is the perfect backpacker destination with lots of super budget accommodation, food and travel options.
If you stay in dorm rooms, eat street food and take local transport you’ll comfortably get by on around 400,000 VND ($18) per person.
Staying in private rooms with aircon, eating in a mix of restaurants to street foods and taking the occasional taxi? Then you should budget around 1,500,000 VND ($67) per couple per day. You might increase this slightly depending on how many activities and tours you book.
We had a daily budget of around $50 USD for both of us which evened out over the 3 months creating a comfortable travelling experience for the most part. We saved on accommodation by renting an apartment for 1 month in Hoi An.
Staying in top end hotels, eating at fine restaurants and taking many private tours you could spend upwards of 3,500,000 VND ($158) for a couple per day. There are plenty of resorts and restaurants, particularly on the coast, catering to the high end market and the emerging middle class from neighbouring countries.
For the ultimate backpacker budget fare explore the numerous sprawling fresh markets and stick with street food. You can grab a bowl of the famous Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, for as little as 10,000 VND ($0.50) at local food joints. This is a big deal at breakfast time so don’t get there too late or they will have sold out. You can opt for chicken, beef, pork or just a veggie version, red meat will usually be the most expensive option so cut down on that for the ultimate money saver.
At most street food stalls you’ll be pretty hard pressed to go beyond spending $2 per dish. For example in central Hoi An, one of the most touristy spots in Vietnam, we paid 20,000 VND for a delicious bowl of Cao Lau (noodles, pork and greens) and a tasty fresh mango smoothie cost an extra 10,000 VND. So around $1.35 USD for a meal and drink, not bad at all.
Even if you only go ‘street’ once or twice we really recommend pulling up one of the tiny plastic chairs (seriously, the Vietnamese have tiny bottoms!) and joining the locals for a bowl or something warm and comforting. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in to local life.
Eating at a restaurant will add a few extra Dong to the bill for the exact same dish but some aircon can be very welcome at times. You’ll find no shortage of place to eat that are effectively someones front room converted into a restaurant opening onto the street. This is a great change to effectively sample some home cooking but can be very hit and miss as it seems anyone can open one regardless of their culinary skill level.
In the mid-range, local restaurant dishes can range from around 50,000 VND ($2+) upwards depending on the location and western style dishes usually start upwards of 80,000 VND ($3.50+) each.
At the high end of things there are many brand new and exciting contemporary restaurants springing up all over the country to cater for the increased wealth and investment that Vietnam is experiencing. In Hanoi, Saigon or Danang it’s not difficult to find food from around the world on offer from 200,000 VND ($9+) and up per dish.
If you fancy a tipple, Vietnam is the ultimate destination for cheap beer with a Bia hơi (meaning gas beer) on many street corners. The beer at these local hangouts is brewed daily and drunk after being matured for a very short period so is very refreshing with a crisp taste.
It’s typically less than 3% alcohol and costs between 3,000 and 7,000 VND ($0.13 to $0.30 USD) per glass. I’m not sure we’ve encountered cheaper beer anywhere yet and it’s easier to drink than Lao-Lao.
Local bottled and draft beers, such as Bia Hanoi and 333, costs around 15,000 to 30,000 VND ($0.70 to $1.40 USD). Imported beers will costs at least double that so try a local Bia Hoi spot where possible.
At the higher end of the scale we splurged on 1 beer and 1 cocktail at a rooftop bar in Hanoi and it costs us 380,000 VND ($17) including a great view across the city.
Vietnam provides plenty of cheap accommodation for budget backpackers right across the country with the most choice being in the big cities and towns. Dorm beds can start from as low as 110,000 ($5) in a large shared dorm in the coast towns and cities. Expect to pay from 156,000 ($7) in Hanoi and Saigon.
For couples travelling in Vietnam a private double room in a hostel or low end hotel will start from around 20,000 VND ($9) with a fan and 25,000 ($11) with aircon. At this price it’s likely to have a shared bathroom too.
In the mid range of accommodation you’ll find plenty of decent, clean accommodation with both hostels and hotels in most of the visitor friendly spots. Expect to pay from around 360,000 VND ($16) for a double room with a private bathroom and aircon in most places.
At the high end there are plenty of hotels and resorts to choose from in most of the highly visited locations. Be aware that some hotels in Vietnam cater very much to the local market and may not have any English speaking staff.
Remember that what is classed as ‘luxury’ in Vietnam may not be the same as western standards. Smoking is still allowed in many hotel rooms and we encountered a few that had a unpleasant odor hanging around even after being cleaned. Be sure you ask to see the room before checking in.
As with other countries in Southeast Asia many temples and religious sites are free to visit with a donation box avaliable.
Phong Na Caves – prices vary depending on the cave visited. The Paradise Cave we visited cost 250,000 VND ($11) per person to enter but was one of the most stunning things we saw in Vietnam.
Hue Imperial City and Tombs – The highest cost to enter any of the tomb sites is 100,000 VND ($4.50) per person and visiting the Purple City complex cost 150,000 VND ($6.70) per person.
Halong Bay Boat Tours – start from around the 2,200,000 ($100) mark for an overnight cruise with the prices gradually increasing with the number of nights and things included.
Hoi An Old Town – an entrance ticket to the Old Town of Hoi An includes several museums too and costs 120,000 ($5), it can be used for the duration of your stay to enter and exit the area.
Sapa trekking experience – treks into the valleys of northern Vietnam can range from a simple 1 day affair to an epic 4 day hike including homestay accommodation. The price depends of the number of people trekking and the amount of nights and days but start from around 700,000 VND ($30) per person for an experienced guide.
As with many countries, the visa requirements and situation for entry into Vietnam is constantly changing. The information below is correct to the best of our knowledge (sometimes limited!) as of August 2016. We always advise checking embassy or your country’s government travel websites for up to date info.
People travelling on a passport from the below 23 countries can enter Vietnam without a visa for the duration stated in brackets. However this only applies if arriving at one of the 3 international airports in HCMC (Saigon), Hanoi or Dalat. There is no visa on arrival at land border crossings!
If you’re not from one of these countries or you want to stay longer than the limits stated above, you will need a visa to enter Vietnam. There are 2 ways to get one:
1. Our preferred option is to obtain a visa in advance from a Vietnamese Embassy. This is the most cost effective and secure way to get your visa but it may take several days or even weeks to process so make sure you plan ahead.
You will need to use this method if you plan to cross at a land border into Vietnam as they can’t process a visa on arrival and you’ll be refused entry.
The costs vary depending on your passport and the embassy you’re applying at so check directly with them first.
2. Obtain a visa on arrival at one of the 3 international airports in HCMC (Saigon), Hanoi or Dalat but to do this you will need a ‘letter of approval’ first. This is the route we took due to time restrictions and it does avoid embassy visits but is likely to cost more.
Approval letters are avaliable from agencies in person or online, however there are many reports of bogus agencies that are happy to steal your money in return for a fake letter.
We used vietnamvisacenter.org online and had no issues. They are possibly not the cheapest but the service was quick and secure with clear English instructions and emails sent.
As example we paid $45 per approval letter for a 3 month visa on the 1 day service. Then when you arrive at the airport in Vietnam head over to the ‘landing visa counter’ to obtain your visa. This cost us another $25 each for the ‘stamping fee’, it was a very nice stamp though.
So you can see that it was $70 each for a 3 month tourist visa but would certainly have cost less if we had taken option 1 at an embassy. Plus you can’t yet use this method if travelling via a land border.
Officially it’s not currently possible to extend a tourist visa once you are inside Vietnam. However during our 1 month plus stay in Hoi An we learnt of a few local agents that could possibly extend tourist visas.
As it transpired there were local elections taking place so extensions were not possible but that was set to change a few weeks later. Once you are in Vietnam ask around and it may be possible to extend your visa and if not there’s always the joy of a border run!
Getting to Vietnam
Vietnam has 3 international airports in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and Da Nang. Most of the direct international flights to Vietnam from Europe, the Americas and the Middle East are operated by Vietnam Airways.
The only regular service operates from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta. From there it’s around a 6 hour bus ride to Saigon so of more use if you’re exploring the Mekong Delta area first.
It is possible to travel from China to Hanoi via train in a sleeper train or a more frequent service if you change trains at the border. As yet Cambodia and Laos have no connecting rail lines with Vietnam.
Busses operate from many of the major towns and cities across the border in Laos, Cambodia and China. Costs vary greatly depending on departure point so check with agents or your accommodation in the place you are travelling from.
Busses (coaches) can sometime be a good way to cross land borders into Vietnam smoothly as the assistant on the bus will make sure you have the correct paperwork and deal with the guards for you. This reduces the risk of getting ripped off with mystery fees.
Getting around Vietnam
The 1650 km long ‘S’ shaped curve of Vietnam makes it very easy to navigate, with most visitors either travelling north to south or vice versa. Add to this the fact that the 2 main cities are at polar opposites of the country, which is 50 km wide at its narrowest point, and you begin to see the well trodden path many take.
Flying is a great way to cover larger distances between the major cities in Vietnam. Vietnam Airline, VietJet and JetStar Pacific are the main domestic carriers to check first. We found it’s better to book directly with the airline for domestic flights to avoid any additional fees.
Domestic flights depart from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue, Nha Trang, Da Lat and Phu Quoc.
We used Vietnam Airlines to fly from Danang to Dalat at the last minute for 1,280,000 VND ($58) per person. This could be even lower if we had booked in advance. It was around twice the cost of taking the train and connecting bus but saved us over 16 hours of travel time and a loss of sleep.
The website baolau.vn comes in handy for comparing and booking airfares across Southeast Asia to find you the cheapest of most convinient option. It will also link you up with rail and bus travel for an all in one travel option for Vietnam.
Most boat travel you encounter will be more for tourism purposes than to get anywhere fast. For example there are boat trips along the Perfume River in Hue to see the Imperial Tombs of the former emperors of Vietnam.
The most popular boat trip is around the Ha Long Bay area in the north of Vietnam. Here you can take a short boat trip for stay onboard for several days with food and drink provided. Do your research beforehand as there are many reports of poor value cruises or deceptive booking agents.
We opted instead to take the public ferry to Cat Ba Island from the mainland and our tickets cost 70,000 VND ($3.15 USD) each for a one way trip.
Vietnam has a decent rail network which stretches the full length of the country. Originally built by the French it has recently started to receive some much needed investment and improvements. We found it to be the most relaxing and straightforward way to get between the main towns and cities in Vietnam.
We took both daytime trains using 2nd class seats and a couple of different sleeper trains. All were comfortable and the scenery between Hue and Danang was particularly stunning where the tracks hug the rugged coastline.
Here’s a bit of footage from Charlie’s other YouTube channel, Charlie’s Shed:
To check prices and information visit the excellent Seat61.com rail travel website to find out all you need to know. Then book your tickets online or at a station, following the advice on the site makes this really simple.
We used the super friendly baolua.vn site to book our rail tickets and if you book online there’s no need to print your tickets, just show them to the station staff before you board on your smartphone. No running around looking for a place to print anything!
Busses are the cheapest way to travel in Vietnam and connect up pretty much anywhere you’ll want to go.
There are bigger coach style ‘sleeper busses‘ which run between the major towns and cities. We found these a bit hit and miss and it is always best to go for the tourist version of these where possible for a bit more comfort.
Sleeper buses are built to accommodate the locals and we both struggled at times with the tiny reclined seats and lack of legroom under the seat in front of you. You travel laying down which was a new experience for us and it can feel a bit claustrophobic at first but you soon get used to it and might even manage some sleep.
On some routes there are busses with regular seats available so check before you book and then double check again. If the person selling the ticket says ‘same same’, always beware!
On local bus routes the cheapest option will be a mini van or smaller bus. We only took one of these but will never forget it I’m sure. They overfill the bus with way too many people and packages all squashed in and then proceed to drive as fast as possible between the frequent stops.
On the plus side it’s the cheapest way to travel and you’ll usually get picked up and dropped off where you need to be, thus avoiding bus stations miles out of town.
If you don’t want to be packed in like a sardine for hours then there are always VIP or tourist mini vans avaliable between many popular destinations too.
You can again use the friendly Vietnam travel website baolau.vn to check times and prices for the major bus companies and show your tickets on your smartphone. Nice and simple.
Click on markers in the map below for more info on individual destinations or check out the descriptions below for an overview of the top places to visit in Vietnam.
The buzzing capital of Vietnam, the city of Hanoi has a wealth of history, food and fantastic coffee to make it worth staying for at least a few days if not more.
With the background music of a thousand motorbike horns, don’t miss the magical Old Quarter area just north of the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. Take a stroll around its streets and admire hidden temples and shrines amongst the colonial style buildings and shop houses. Here you’ll find some of the best coffee in Hanoi at the local cafes tucked away down numerous narrow passageways.
Also be sure to pay a visit to the ancient Imperial Citadel, War Museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the direction of the Ho Tay (West Lake) area to the north of the centre.
Read More: Why we loved Hanoi
Sapa and Ta Van
Tucked into the far north west corner of Vietnam, close to the border with China, you’ll find the picturesque alpine style town of Sapa.
Set in a stunning mountainous region, the town sits at around 1500m above sea level with great viewpoints all around. Most visitor come here to trek amongst the rice terraces and along the winding valleys away from Sapa.
It’s a unique experience in Vietnam as this area is still home to many hill tribes and the ladies from the local villages can act as your personal trekking guides. This can often include a homestay at one of the nearby mountain villages such as Ta Van.
Read More: Sapa
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
Around 170km west of Hanoi is the stunning Ha Long Bay area, home to around 2000 imposing limestone islets towering out of the turquoise water.
You can take a day trip from Hanoi, spend a longer stay on a boat in the bay or venture over to the lush Cat Ba Island just across the bay. Why not take the ferry to Cat Ba Island and stay for a day or two to explore the Hospital Cave, gun fort and nature reserve by motorbike.
Tam Coc Village
The town of Ninh Bình is located on the main rail and road links that run along the length of Vietnam. Jump off the trail here and head a short distance to quaint village of Tam Coc close by.
Its a great place to relax for a day or two and it’s easy to cycle to the nearby sights such as the secluded Bích Động pagoda.
Read More: Tam Coc Village
Dong Hoi and Phong Na caves
Dong Hoi has little of interest for most visitors but we found a great beachside hangout just north of the town for a bit of rest and relaxation by the sea.
Again Dong Hoi is an ideal jump off point to visit the stunning Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Here you can stay in the small town of Phong Na and visit the selection of amazing caves close by, including what is thought to be the world’s biggest. Some cave visits require booking in advance so read up before you go.
Hue and the Imperial Tombs
Hue (pronounced ‘hway’) was once the capital of imperial Vietnam with power transferring to Hanoi in 1945, marking the end of imperial rule. Today visitors can explore what was once the inner sanctum known as the Forbidden Purple City. Despite being decimated during the Vietnam War there is still plenty to explore thanks to an ongoing restoration project.
Former Emperors of Vietnam were buried in their own elaborate imperial tombs outside of the city and many of these can still be visited today. They are in varying states of repair and tours tend to stick to the most restored but are definitely a ‘must see’ to help understand the complex history of Vietnam.
We had a great time exploring the tombs on a motorbike and we had the more abandoned, harder to reach ones most to ourselves.
Hoi An and Danang
Clinging to the coast and almost marking the midway point of Vietnam you’ll find the thriving city of Danang. It’s home to the country’s 3rd busiest airport, modern shopping malls, good nightlife and restaurants plus one of the best stretches of sand in the country. There’s a lot to like and it’s certainly worth exploring.
However most visitor head just a few kilometers south of Danang to the picture perfect fishing village of Hoi An. With its UNESCO status the well preserved narrow streets of the old town area draw visitors here to experience a past vision of Vietnam. Be sure to time your visit with the monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival for a really memorable experience.
Read More: Our Essential Guide to Hoi An
Nestled in the central highlands of Vietnam, Dalat is a welcome break from the high humidity of the lowland areas. The cooler climate gives it a slightly European flavour and the French colonial architecture now sits jumbled alongside a slew of modern shopping malls and hotels.
There are a wide range of outdoor activities to choose from such as hiking, climbing and even canyoning. For the more relaxed traveler the standout attractions are the heritage railway line and a cable car up to a monastery above the town.
Read More: Our Essential Guide to Dalat
Cat Tien National Park
Just off the main highway around half way between Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City you’ll find the peace and tranquility of Cat Tien National Park. It’s over 72,000 hectares of wildly diverse park offering a range of safaris and hikes for visitors.
We opted to stay on the riverside and venture into the park in daylight hours but you can take a night safari or hike to see the gibbons wake up with the sunrise. There are limited accommodation options here so book ahead in the high season.
Read More: Staying at Cat Tien National Park
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The troubled Vietnam of the past is brought crashing into the modern age in the cauldron of sights, smells and sounds that is HCMC. Even the briefest of stays here and you’ll feel the energy of this fast paced metropolis embracing it’s bright new future.
Don’t miss shopping or grabbing a snack at the famous Ben Thanh Market before exploring the nearby French influence of the Notre Dame Cathedral and stunning Post Office building. Or get a bird’s eye view from one of the city’s tallest buildings at the Brexico Tower viewing platform.
Read More: Our Essential Guide to Saigon
The number for emergency services in Vietnam is 115 from any local phone or cellphone.
Insurance – make sure you are covered by good health insurance before visiting Vietnam. The country has both public and private hospitals and clinics. Foreigners will generally use the private option where available but it will need paying for.
Vaccinations – seek the advice of your healthcare provider before travelling to Vietnam, particularly if you are visiting more rural areas of the country. You may be advised to get vaccinated and this could take several weeks for a course of 2 or 3 injections. See our planning your heath care for travel section for more advice on this.
Malaria – there is a low to no risk status for the majority of Vietnam but it’s advisable to take precautions against insect bites. You can find a handy malaria map and further advice by following the link. Again, seek advice before you go as above.
Tap Water – do not drink the tap water anywhere in Vietnam. Also be cautious with ice in drinks as this can be made from untreated tap water. Bottled water is cheap and avaliable pretty much everywhere.
Food – when eating out use your common sense and avoid anywhere that looks unclean or poorly maintained. We would encourage you to try some street food as very often these spots can be cleaner than a restaurant where the kitchen is hidden.
At many local food joints you’ll see some cut up limes on the table. Wipe these over your forks or chopsticks to help sterilize them, it’s what the locals do. Then don’t forget to squeeze the remaining juice onto your food for even more flavour.
The two times we had a bad stomach bug in 3 months in Vietnam it was from a ‘western style’ restaurant which says a lot. Higher prices do not always mean higher standards!
As Vietnam is such a long country, stretching itself from China down towards the equator, temperature and climate can vary dramatically. This means that there is no one ideal time to visit the whole country weather wise.
Split Vietnam into 3 sections for the best weather months:
North (Hanoi, Sapa, Cat Ba Island) – October, November and December have less rain and clearer views. We were here in March and it was rather cold and misty.
Middle (Hue, Danang, Nha Trang) – January through to July for dry days with lower more comfortable temperatures.
South (Saigon, Mekong Delta) – November through to February/March are dry and slightly less hot.
If you are travelling the whole length of the country light clothes will see you through most of it. Anything that will dry quickly is good as it can be hard to avoid the odd storm and don’t forget an umbrella.
You might need warmer clothes for the northern areas but we picked up a couple of jackets in Hanoi for a few dollars each. Remember: don’t over pack!
Read More: Our travel packing advice
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