What to know about Vietnam before you visit

Four things we loved (and didn’t) after two months of travel

Over two months, Daniela and I fell in love with Vietnam and its people. It’s a phenomenal, complicated place, filled with spectacular scenery, a rich and complex history, and no shortage of unique places to visit. I’d never spent that much time in a single country (apart from the US, of course), and that gave us plenty of opportunities to reflect on what made it such a fantastic place for us. Here are eight things anyone considering traveling to Vietnam should know before you visit this wonderful country.

1. Exceptional Nature

We’ve written about some of the spectacular scenery we encountered on the Ha Giang Loop and in Ba Be National Park. But Vietnam’s phenomenal views aren’t limited to a few enclaves throughout the country. Especially in the north, there are plants and greenery everywhere, including amazing green jungles, lush forests, and ancient rice paddies. 

The landscapes alone made a huge impression. In the northern countryside, everything is unimaginably green. Verdantly green. The sort of green you imagine was everywhere before industrialization. The green covers seemingly everything. In fact, from a distance, trees cease to exist as separate entities, but rather stack on top of each other to form an unending jungle mass, like bubbles piled up in a bath. It’s breathtaking, and spoiled us for the rest of our trip throughout Southeast Asia.

Vietnam’s beautiful countryside, by JD Travel

Combined with the greenery creeping out between sidewalks and homes even in the city, the Vietnamese have a strong connection to nature. In many homestays we ate food freshly picked from the garden or nearby orchards. Wandering chickens roam on seemingly every property. And nearly everyone has a pet dog or cat. This rustic feeling contrasts strongly with our lives back home, where only rats wander the streets of DC and pets are kept safely indoors or on leashes.

Of course, Vietnam’s green is marred in places by plantations and construction. We saw plenty of chunks of forest carved out for roads, banana plantations, or buildings. Chinese money is pouring in, spurring a growing volume of boxy architecture that to our eye doesn’t fit in with the surroundings. We hope that, over the coming years, Vietnam is able to preserve its green space and resist the temptation to strip it for natural resources.

2. The people

I’ve written about how warm the Vietnamese were to us as Americans. It was rare to find someone who wasn’t welcoming and kind, and who wouldn’t go out of their way to help us, even without any sort of financial incentive to do so. Almost everywhere we went, smiling faces greeted us and people were eager to chat and share conversation or a perspective. This ranged from the short but friendly exchanges we might have a half dozen times a day with cab drivers, store clerks, or ticket agents, all the way to kids who might follow us on bikes wanting to practice their few words of English. Even when language was a barrier, the Vietnamese would enthusiastically pull out their phones to open up Google Translate so that they could have a conversation with us.

Our H’Mong guide in Sapa, by JD Travel

We think this is due to a number of different factors (beyond our charm and warm smiles): for one, since the US and Vietnam normalized relations about 25 years ago, Vietnam’s economy has grown tremendously, in large part through exports to the US and other western countries. Vietnam sends almost $50 billion of exports to the U.S. every year, and America is its largest trading partner. Couple that with western tourism dollars, and the financial case for friendship is clear.

One other element of friendship is that there is an undercurrent of anti-China sentiment, or at least a love-hate relationship with the growing power. This is due both to historical tensions (China was the original colonizer long before France), as well as more recent skirmishes over resources and territory. China and Vietnam have clashed over sea boundaries, and the Vietnamese – some of the ones we spoke to, at least – are anxious that China will strip Vietnam’s resources in their thirst for growth. 

Finally, U.S. soft power remains alive and well. While we avoided discussions of Trump, from the lingering celebrity of Barack Obama, who made a well-received visit to the country, to American TV, music, and movies, the Vietnamese seem to love US culture. 

This dynamic made our two months especially enjoyable. There’s something wonderful about seeing people smile when you tell them where you’re from–it’s humbling and flattering. And connecting with people halfway across the world always reminds us of how small and interconnected humanity is. This was a true highlight of our time in country.

3. The food

Fresh Vietnamese food is a delight. It’s savory and vibrant and (mostly) wholesome. It’s cheap, readily available, and delicious. Food is not often transported across the country. Instead, it’s often picked straight from a garden next door, or purchased that morning from the women (it’s always women) who sell freshly picked herbs and greens on the side of the road. Especially in the countryside, eggs often come from the resident chickens roaming around the restaurant. Few perishable goods are stored for any period of time, as without strong transport links throughout much of the country, longer-term refrigeration of goods is difficult. This ensures that the food is particularly fresh and seasonal.

The food itself, is filled with simple but delicious flavors. Many Vietnamese start their mornings with a steaming bowl of pho, a (traditionally) beef or (sometimes) chicken soup cooked overnight and flavored with spices. Although we thought that hot soup in the summer would be unappetizing and oppressive, somehow it works. Topped with lime, chilis, and a handful of fresh herbs, it’s aromatic and cozy and I loved starting my days with it.

Daily breakfast, by JD Travel

Other meals often follow a pattern, with steamed or stir-fried meat, vegetables, rice, or fish, depending on the region and place. Fried or fresh spring rolls complement nearly every meal, filled to the brim with more herbs. And the flavors of garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chili, and basil help keep everything from getting repetitive. Vietnamese is one of my favorite kinds of foods, and traveling through the country exposed me to just what a broad variety the cuisine offers.

Lastly, no comment on Vietnamese food would be complete without mentioning the fruit, which is spectacular and available everywhere from corner grocers to street stalls to people carrying baskets or carts through the street. There’s freshly picked watermelon and papaya and lychees and pineapple and bananas and dragonfruit and oranges and myriad others available for a song. It’s the best fruit either of us have ever had.

4. The prices

One of the best parts of traveling during low season in Vietnam is how easy it is live cheaply. Private, clean, comfortable (albeit spartan) hotel rooms often cost less than $15 or $20. A morning bowl of pho can be had for less than $1.50. A delicious, filling lunch for $3. And a multi-course dinner in a restaurant for maybe twice that. Add $.60 if you want a beer. This isn’t an “eat in the cheapest places you see regardless of quality” approach either. Rather, some of the best food Vietnam has to offer, including in “nice” restaurants, is easy to find for these prices.

One can, of course, find Western-brand hotels and upscale stylish restaurants that will cost nearly as much here as anywhere else in the world. And some creature comforts—non-whitening sunblock (see below)—cost more than they do back home. But for the traveler who wants to stretch their budget, Vietnam is a great place to do it.

This doesn’t just apply to food and lodging either. A 15 minute Grab (the local Uber equivalent) might cost $2, versus $8 at home. An hour massage might be $10-15. And even a 5GB SIM card might be only $5. We found it easy to stay under our budget, which will pay dividends down the road, especially if we travel to more expensive places like Australia and New Zealand.

______

As much as we loved Vietnam, it’s not perfect and presents its fair share of challenges. Anyone planning a visit should be aware of the following:

1. The sidewalks (or lack thereof)

Daniela and I are avid urban walkers–we don’t own a car back in the U.S.–and when we travel we like to explore by foot. But in most parts of Vietnam, sidewalks, if they exist at all, are nothing like we’re used to in the West. They’re completely given over to motorcycle or scooter parking, or they’re set up with little food stalls, or packed with goods for sale—either way, blocking people from walking through. So while sidewalks might exist in theory, pedestrians are often forced to walk in the gutters with the mud and trash, or precariously in the street with traffic. If you love leisurely walking along spacious sidewalks touring new cities, Vietnam may not be the place for you.

“Sidewalks,” by JD Travel

Crossing the street in Vietnamese cities is another matter entirely. Certain parts of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) are so clogged with motorcycles that it’s often difficult and dangerous to cross the street. The traffic is like a school of fish that may or may not part for you as you try to ford through the streams of motorcycles. This can make walking even short distances stressful, and often requires a coordinated, attentive effort to ensure you’re safely avoiding the traffic that’s not doing much to avoid you.

That being said, once you get the hang of the traffic rhythms and grow accustomed to the behavior of drivers in the cities, crossing becomes (almost) second nature. The gutter and lack of sidewalk issue was a bit more annoying for us, but our shoes now have plenty of “character” (despite scrubbing them with soap many times). We also got more accustomed to going a little out of our way to walk through Vietnam’s parks or other city greenery where we could completely avoid the traffic.

2. The roads

Even when you decide to take a car, bus, or tuk tuk to get where you want to go, the roads themselves pose their own set of challenges. While we’ve been told Vietnamese infrastructure is far better than it used to be, it’s common, especially in some of the more remote parts of the country, to spend long drives on unpaved or barely-paved roads with potholes the size of a motorbike. Because the potholes and bad roads are unavoidable, especially if you’re leaving the major cities, it’s best to approach long trips with a flexible mentality, assuming that things will go wrong and take twice as long as you expect.

But it’s not just the quality of the roads that can be a challenge. Vietnamese roads, like those in many other Southeast Asian countries, are a free for all: may the most aggressive driver of the largest vehicle win. Drivers constantly pass each other with zero regard for the rules of the road, safety, or even logic. Lanes are optional. Actually, everything is optional. It’s not for the faint of heart. Not surprisingly, Vietnam has twice as many road deaths as America.

Plenty of Western tourists brave the odds and decide it’s a good idea to ride a motorcycle for the first time on Vietnam’s streets—without a helmet, no less. The number of tourists we saw with gauze or a cast wrapped around an arm or a knee should dissuade anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing from such foolishness. We were quite happy with our decision to ride on the back of motorcycles driven by professional drivers on the famed but treacherous Ha Giang loop. While it may have been less adventurous than driving ourselves, we emerged fully intact.

3. The Pollution

Vietnam has grown tremendously over the past several decades. This has brought welcome wealth and a middle class existence to millions of citizens. But all of those newly flush citizens want to upgrade their bicycles to motorbikes; want to upgrade their small houses to bigger ones; and want to buy more goods, many of them in single use plastic form.

As a result, lots of places in Vietnam are growing increasingly polluted. When the air is bad, Hanoi is one of the world’s most polluted cities—and our throats felt it after a few mask-less days in Hanoi. In addition to the smog, majestic natural wonders like Halong Bay have their views ruined by floating plastic. The sides of roads are often strewn with trash carelessly tossed by drivers or piled up by nearby towns. And the smell and smoke from burning trash makes it hard to find fresh air even in the countryside. This can ruin otherwise pristine beauty, and is something any traveler to the area should be aware of. 

There isn’t much that travelers can do to completely avoid the pollution you’ll encounter—although you can limit your own contributions to it. Because the tap water isn’t potable, people buy bottled water in immense quantities and the results are littered throughout the roadsides and coasts. Instead of buying plastic water bottles, we’ve been using reusable water filter bottles to make drinkable water from the tap. (We also use large reusable water bottles.)* It’s cheaper than buying bottles, and better for the environment too.

4. Whitening toiletries

Finally, unlike in the west, where “traditional” beauty standards call for bronzed, tan skin, in Vietnam, like many other parts of Asia, many people try to keep their skin as light as possible. You’ll see people covered head to toe with clothing in the hottest of seasons to avoid even a single stray ray of sunlight that might impact their complexion. The cosmetic industry is well aware of this, and markets their products accordingly.

This isn’t normally be a problem on a short vacation, except when you run out of (or forget to bring) basics like deodorant or sunscreen. Toiletries in Vietnam include a whitening agent in just about everything they sell: face wash, moisturizers, bug spray, and sunblock. Especially with the language barrier, it’s difficult to find even basic products that don’t have harsh chemicals to bleach your skin.

If you’re planning a trip out here, make sure you bring enough of your favorite skincare products or, if you need to buy them here, be aware that finding the same formula as back home (or even a new brand that won’t dye your skin) may be difficult. We tried to bring our favorite products from back home, but have spent plenty of time searching through ingredients lists, sometimes in vain!
___________
We loved Vietnam, and encourage anyone considering a trip to go. It’s an amazing mix of culture, food, history, and warmth—all for an affordable price. And while the traffic and pollution can be distracting at times, it’s no more than a (whitened) blemish on an otherwise spectacular place.

*We may earn a small commission from Amazon for any products purchased from these links.

2 thoughts on “What to know about Vietnam before you visit

    • Jeremy

      Thanks! Daniela is currently in Japan and I’m in Taiwan, and we’re going to meet up in a TBD place in the next 10 days or so. (We’re about 2 months behind on our blog posts, but if you’re on instagram we most there more often @jdtravelcouple). I hope you’re doing well back home!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *