Vietnam travel tips
I have lived here in Vietnam for nearly 4 years, and thought I would share some tips on how to conduct yourself when in Vietnam. I notice people doing things that Vietnamese consider inappropriate a lot (and I used to/sometimes do too), so check below to be more travel-wise and culturally sensitive, and basically better than I was on arrival!
Vietnam is quite a conservative country, and though this is changing (especially in the bigger cities), you should dress appropriately. If you’re planning to visit any temples make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. We advise this for museums too. A sarong is a useful thing to carry for these sorts of places.
There was an incident last year where some people were bikini sunbathing on the edge of Hoan Kiem lake in the centre of Hanoi. There was uproar and it was heavily criticised on social and traditional media. It is a place of historical significance, so not the best move!
Also, guys, top off is generally a no-no, even though you may see some Vietnamese guys doing this (other locals frown on them doing it too). What is allowed, and I started doing subconsciously, is the folding up of your t shirt or shirt, so showing off your belly. This tends to be on tattooed Vietnamese gangster looking guys, with a shark tooth chain around their necks! (to clarify, I am not nor have I ever been a Vietnamese gangster)…
Funnier things that you will notice, is the Vietnamese often wear smart shoes, but not always socks. Also, in the height of summer (and June of this year we had a week of over 40 degrees), people completely cover up when driving to avoid getting a sun tan. Like completely!
They are often referred to as ninja leads, which is a reference to the bike they typically drive as well as the fact they look ninja-esque. They jump out of the shadows of side alleys on their bikes with no warning! Watch out for these if you are driving as they often impair their field of vision with the clothing they are wearing.
People wearing a white band round their head are attending a funeral, so don’t wear a white tennis headband or anything.
Bargain, bargain, bargain! Street fruit and veg sellers, all produce in markets, tourist souvenirs, are all things you bargain for. Be aware that as a foreigner they are likely to bump up the price, so come in at least at 50% of their initial price or more. Also, be prepared to walk away, and let them come after you, or go to another shop. If you are here for a while, learn the numbers. Or you can use the calculator on your phone to barter the price of goods down when on the street.
Please note, this does not apply to street food places, who will have a price written somewhere. (Hint- Bough Nyew tea-yen is how you phonetically ask the price, and ask before you sit down so you know).
A good tip for fruits is go to a supermarket to check fruit prices. You then know they cost less from street sellers. Also, be aware that fruits vary with the season. A pineapple in winter might be 18,000 VND but only 6,000 VND in the height of the season. Five bananas in season should be 10,000 VND, I have seen people pay way more for them before!
Yes, they are crazy, there is no getting away from that. But they work, maybe not in a way that westerners would be used to, but they work. Someone once said to me, “in Vietnam the bikes flow like water” (cheers Titch). So as long as they don’t need to stop they will weave around each other and be on their way. Talking of stopping, red lights appear advisory, so keep looking even if you have a green man to cross the street. When crossing the street go at a steady pace and people on mopeds will judge and drive around you. Also you should try to go all together taking up as little space as possible, to make it easier for people to avoid you. A long snake of a single file line would not work!
If you are driving a motorbike, take care. You may need to pay for the other person’s medical bills/damage, even if an accident is not your fault. You will probably also need to pay for yours as travel insurance often excludes motorbike riding, especially as it’s likely you will technically be driving illegally here. Expect the unexpected is probably the best thing I can say to you. Please make sure your brakes are strong and working well. Please don’t drive drunk. Even though the Vietnamese do, you be the sober one to avoid them!
Police, if they stop you, will probably cost 200k VND (don’t show all your money or it will be more, don’t give them your passport either). Keep most of your money elsewhere and 200k or so in your wallet. (disclaimer, this is not official legal advice, as I said you will be technically driving illegally, so all at your own risk).
Eating and drinking
Chopsticks- use them, get some practice in before you get here if needs be. I am left handed and so people find that strange in itself. I am also self-taught in using chopsticks so I do it all wrong, and will have people asking me to pick up a peanut to see if my method works. Luckily it does!
You can pick up your bowl when eating and hold it close to your mouth to drop less rice. You can almost flick it into your mouth. When taking food from a buffet at a table you should always put it into your bowl, never straight from the serving dish to your mouth.
If you are serving rice, never just one spoon of rice into the bowl, always two or more. This is only done for funerals or offerings. When you are mid-eating or when you finish your meal, lay the chopsticks across the bowl, not into the bowl, as this again is something that is only done at funerals. Vietnamese will serve food to the oldest or most respected person first. Also, before eating they will say “an com” (Vietnamese bon appetit).
Street food in Vietnam is generally safe, it is cooked in front of you or in a hot broth so unlikely to cause any major issues. Wash (and dry) your hands before you eat is a good idea, especially if it is finger food such as fresh spring rolls.
Rice wine- there are places that do nice rice wine (relatively- try ray quan in Hanoi on the side of the train tracks near the main train station). There are also places where you can buy half a litre for $0.50, with a quality you would expect for that price. There are lots of places that do cheap drinks and use low quality spirits- know your limits. We warned you!
Vietnam is generally a safe place, though you should always be vigilant. Don’t wear too much expensive jewellery and don’t leave your phone lying around. Furthermore, keep hold of your bag, especially in Saigon, where bag snatching is common (for both Vietnamese and foreigners).
Is there a weird tent in front of someone’s house, poking out into the road? Loud Karaoke of dubious quality? That will be a wedding. These tend to involve drinking a lot of rice wine, and are major events in the family. Sometimes will go for a few days. This is to include the farewell party from the brides family, the welcoming party from the groom’s family.
If there is a more sombre atmosphere around the tent/marquee, and people with white headbands- that is a funeral. Be respectful.
You will see every business has an altar inside, where incense is burned and fruits/other food and drink are offered daily. Often a whole chicken on the first day of the lunar month. Lunar New Year this is a bigger thing (see our other blog posts about Tet). https://seeyouatlilys.vn/2017/01/17/tet-vietnamese-new-year/
There are different traditions and cultures around Vietnam. There are 54 recognised ethnic groups, with their own languages, traditions and clothing. You can see concentrations of these in Sapa, for example. Interesting to experience and understand.
When you take photos, please ask someone if you can take their picture. You can’t just automatically snap away. Also, we recommend not to show too many public displays of affection as this is frowned upon in Vietnamese society. You can still hold hands though 😉
Vietnamese are welcoming people, friendly and generous, and the countryside is stunning. I hope all of you get to experience these sides of Vietnam.
If you need any more advice, or want to plan some trips, let us know at See You at Lily’s hostel and travel. Thanks for reading!
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