Traveling to Vietnam DIY can be very simple as well as very complicated, it always depends on what information you can find before the trip and also during it.
Planning a trip is never too easy because you always have to correlate places, places, times…and of course the budget. If, however, someone can give you sound and objective advice , it saves you time and allows you to make good choices.
When I write these posts related to advice for a given country, I always try to be as precise as possible and write down everything that would have been useful for me to know in the planning stage of the itinerary.
You might be interested in these articles of mine:
- Vietnam Travel Itinerary
- Sapa, trekking among rice paddies and ethnic minorities
- Best Things to Do in Hanoi
- Halong Bay in Vietnam: the Complete Guide
Tips for traveling in Vietnam do-it-yourself
Therefore, I hope to answer the majority of your doubts.
If you click on the item you are interested in in the table of contents, you will go straight to the part of the post where that topic is discussed.
Costs in general
Traveling to Vietnam is inexpensive. Thus, the main cost remains the airfare to Vietnam. Everyday life costs very little compared to the cost of living in the West, but one must still always be careful because scamming the tourist is always around the corner.
I defined thehotel costs when creating the itinerary in Vietnam by spending from a minimum of 15 euros to a maximum of 30 euros for a double room with breakfast included.
Food costs are negligible, you can spend a few euros (in dong) as well as a few more but I assure you that with a 600,000 dong dinner (about 25/30 euros) you are sure to be full. This amount I spent in a beautiful restaurant in Hoi An. Figures that in Italy would barely allow you a pizza. Also, there is no tipping and it is not even demanded.
Transportation costs arealso low, a cab ride will cost between 6,000 Dong to 16,000 Dong per kilometer, a pickup from the Hanoi airport to the old quarter of Hanoi about $18 (total cost of the car) for 45 minutes on the road. There were two of us; if there are 4/5 of you traveling in Vietnam in DIY mode, transportation costs will be even less.
Traveling in Vietnam is therefore inexpensive except for agency excursions such as to Sapa or to Halong Bay (click to read the article). In that case prices will be significantly higher, for example the cruise I chose costs $340 per person for 3 days and 2 nights, although you have to consider that within this price all meals and even nights are included.
Dong, dollars and payment information
Dongs look like Monopoly paper bills (with all due respect), even the consistency is similar and the minimum denomination starts at 1,000 Dong and a maximum denomination of 500,000 Dong (you will feel like you are rich). This means that there are no coins; all payments are made through paper bills. You will always find yourself with lots of banknotes in your pocket and will initially struggle to understand the value of each banknote.
But for traveling in Vietnam my advice is to always have Dongs on hand since daily life has to be paid for in Dongs. Hotels and restaurants you can pay by credit card but everyday purchases you pay with the local currency.
Want to stop for coffee, have a drink, buy some treats, or more simply pay for a cab? Pay in Dong. A few times you will be reasoning in dollars, this can happen when you request a pick-up fee at hotels.
Where to change euros into dong?
I began this trip to Vietnam with the belief that, like all countries, changing at the airport was less convenient than in the city center. I was wrong.
I don’t really understand why but the exchange rate at the airport was 1 euro = 26,700 Dong, in the cities it ranged between 26,000 and 26,700 Dong.
I must point out one thing: in Hanoi and also in the other cities there are no (or at least I did not find them) real exchanges. If you want to exchange euros into Dong you have to go to the jewelry stores that also offer this service, but it is not easy to find them. Otherwise you go to the bank.
Recommended food and restaurants
One of the things I like best about “do-it-yourself travel” is that every variable you have to decide for yourself. And among those variables is always the food aspect. If I want to eat street food one day I can do that, if I don’t want to eat ditto, if I want to eat in a cheap or expensive restaurant the choice is entirely up to me.
And on a trip to Southeast Asia I think that is the best thing. There are days when you want to stay completely immersed in local life, others when you prefer more quiet and “more controlled” foods. Vietnam gives you endless possibilities. You can eat literally sitting on the sidewalk like sitting in a restaurant where they serve you water whenever your glass is half full.
Vietnamese cuisine is excellent, although from my point of view it does not beat Thai cuisine. Several times I have read that Vietnamese cuisine is the best in Southeast Asia, but I have not found any evidence of that.
About one thing I am sure, hygiene is not at the highest level but I think you already know that. Therefore, the advice is to bring along some medication that can help you in case of intestinal discomfort.
However, I would like to give you some possible references on where to eat in the various cities on my itinerary. I did not do many restaurant dinners since many dinners were included in the excursions and in Hanoi I dined on some classic street-food, but I can give you some recommendations for Sapa city and Hoi An.
- Sapa city -> The Hill Station Signature, beautiful restaurant with mountain views, you can also eat on the low tables. The ambiance is elegant and its special feature is that it uses all local products.
- Hoi An -> Morning Glory Original, quite large and with lots of place settings, excellent cuisine and price on 300,000 Dong for two dishes, for a full and plentiful dinner on 500,000 Dong. Courteous staff
- Hoi An -> Morning Glory 2, practically opposite the original is another restaurant under the same ownership as the previous one. The dishes on the menu are pretty much the same.
- Hoi An -> Home Hoi An Restaurant, was the “coolest” of the restaurants in Hoi An. It is one of the few that has air conditioning and there are few place settings. It is difficult to get a seat without a reservation. The waiters are courteous, even overly helpful and the price is averagely high.
Read also: Hoi An, the romantic city of lanterns.
The Night Trains, my advice
Among the tips for traveling in Vietnam I would also like to include this small paragraph about night trains. While I was waiting for the cruise in the lobby of Indochina Junk, an Italian girl, while I was talking to other Italian girls about my experience in Sapa, asked me with no small amount of concern how the night train I had taken was.
I was not puzzled by the question because I, too, had wondered before I left for Vietnam what the condition of the trains was like.
Well, I can assure you that if you choose the two- or four-person VIP cabin, the cleanliness is very good. I did not find any strange insects or animals and the train used was the Chapa Express.
Getting around cabs and grabs
You will often find yourself needing to get around by cab from one area of the city to another or even simply to go to the beach as you might in Hoi An. Cabs are the perfect solution. They are cheap, clean, and most importantly they have air conditioning which I assure you is a boon if you are traveling in Vietnam in August. The only problem is that they often don’t know a word of English and sometimes they don’t even know where you want to go and you have to point them out on google maps.
Now I will explain everything, let’s start with the rates.
A cab in Vietnam might cost you from 9,000 to 16,000 Dong per kilometer with a starting base that can be between 6,000 and 16,000 Dong, at least for the ones I got on. To be more precise if you do 1 km with those with a starting fare of 6,000 Dong and 9,000 Dong per kilometer, the total cost will be 15,000 Dong, just over 50 cents.
It may happen that cab drivers will offer you a flat rate to them, but rest assured that it will be cheaper for them than for you. Sometimes, however, it might also be useful to bargain if you are in a hurry and do not want to wait for the next cab. If you know more or less the miles you have to travel, do a quick calculation and if the rate the cab driver proposes deviates by a little, accept.
It happened that for a 90,000 Dong ride I was asked for 100,000 Dong flat rate, well 10,000 Dong is maybe 30 euro cents, would you wait for another cab for 30 euro cents? I wouldn’t. Of course, if they offer you 200,000 Dong you already know that the fare is way out of line.
Use GRAB App
In case of WiFi connection or presence of data connection if you will have purchased the local sim card, you could use GRAB and you would not have to do any calculation.
GRAB is a widely used application in Vietnam and the operation is similar to that of Uber. Through the app you can request a transfer from point A and point B and the app already shows you how much you will spend. These are not official cabs but it is still a reliable service as well as very convenient. Once you enter your request, the app looks for an available driver who will accept your route. When a driver accepts your request, you are sent information about the driver, the license plate of the car and the type of car used.
Nice little parenthesis…they can also send you chat-like messages, I’ve had them send smiley faces a couple of times…never mind valà.
How to cross the street in Vietnam
This sounds trivial but it’s not. Forget precedence, crosswalks and green for pedestrians at traffic lights. Put yourself in anarchy mode and at the same time cross your fingers.
All kidding aside. Crossing the street in Vietnam can be dangerous given the huge number of mopeds and the lack of aptitude for traffic rules on the part of anyone driving a motor vehicle.
When crossing the street you must be decisive, go slowly but be sure that the moped coming toward you has seen you and changes direction.
If you pay attention and are decisive, nothing happens. In the city, cars and mopeds go slow, they honk all the time but don’t worry because that is simply their way of communicating their presence on the road.
Backpack or trolley: which is the best solution?
Whenever I find myself having to pack a suitcase, I am always torn between using a trolley or a backpack.
Let’s say that due to the nature of travel, using a lot of public transportation, a backpack would be preferable because it allows you to keep your hands free and not have to drag anything around. So if you are fond of traveling with a backpack you will be comfortable.
I do not like traveling with a backpack and, therefore, always end up filling my trolley. Despite being less practical to carry around, I have not had any problems.
Data connection, WiFi and electrical outlets in Vietnam
You may be in the most remote valleys of Sapa that you will still find WiFi. Joking aside, WiFi is particularly prevalent in Vietnam. Every place, hotel, and cafe has a WiFi connection, and they all work pretty well. Just think, even the train from Sapa to Hanoi had it. The cities themselves have free connections.
The curious thing is that the Vietnamese have a particular fondness for numeric WiFi keys. You will find lots of passwords like 123456789 or 11223344, etc etc.
The data connection has good coverage, if you want to be more secure and not just take advantage of the WiFi connections in the various bars, I recommend buying a local sim card.
As far as electrical outlets are concerned you will find 90% traditional 220v connections as in Italy, sometimes you may happen to have old sockets, flat type, for this reason and to be safer I recommend you to bring a universal adapter with you.
DIY VS Guided Tours
I am usually an arduous advocate of DIY. On this trip to Vietnam I preferred to rely on two different local agencies for the cruise and trekking in Sapa.
DIY assumes one has extra time and I had none available.
In Sapa, it will be your choice whether to go on an organized trek or do some walking on your own; for Halong Bay, on the other hand, it is very complicated to get off the classic tourist routes although it is not impossible. I admit that for some reasons I would have preferred something less touristy but with Ha Long it is difficult to find alternative solutions.
I hope these tips will help you plan your trip to this beautiful country of which for now I have only spoiled an “appetizer.” Vietnam is a country that deserves many days of travel. Should you need any other possible tips or any questions, please feel free to comment on the post, I will reply as soon as I can.