10 Things to know before planning your Vietnam Trip

Not many Indians visit Vietnam compared to Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore. May be because Vietnam Tourism is not aggressively promoted in India and there're no direct flights. I recently returned from my first visit to Vietnam and my Vietnam trip was better than expected. I had not done great deal of research before the trip- only few hotel bookings and some minimum reading on what all can be done in Vietnam. Rest of the things I planned it on the go. I did a few mistakes and learnt lots of things about Vietnam in this trip. I am summarizing my findings in this post, so that when you plan your trip to Vietnam, you can plan better, making the most of your time and money.
1. Flight booking: I had failed to much research before my flight booking and booked Chennai- Ho Chi Minh city and return during an Air Asia sale. Only later I realized that most places worth visiting are near to Hanoi. Then I booked a Ho Chi Minh-Hanoi return ticket on Jetstar. This cost me few extra k and precious time. If you’re smart, you might want to book two one way tickets- from your city to say Ho Chi Minh city, spend a few days here, take a flight to Hanoi, spend few more days there n fly back home from Hanoi. (Or you can do the opposite- enter in Hanoi, exit from Ho Chi Minh). Many combine Vietnam trip with Cambodia- if you have enough time you can plan that was as well- Arrive in Vietnam, return home from Cambodia. Do some research and book your India-Vietnam-return tickets at low cost, local flights you can book closer to travel date as you fine tune your itinerary.

Reasonable pricing for flight tickets: My Chennai-Ho Chi Minh return ticket was booked 10 months ago on an Air Asia sale for Rs 10600. If you’re booking only 2-3 months in advance, around 15-20k is a reasonable fare on a budget airline.  20-25 on full service airlines. If you’ve to spend more than 30k per person on flight alone, I would suggest wait for some more time for better deals. I booked Ho Chi Min-Hanoi n back just 2 months in advance, for Rs 4500 INR with Jetstar. 

There're several domestic destinations you can consider flying into- Such as Phu Quoc, Nha Trang and many more- if you've lots of time you can fly around to these destination as well.

2. Vietnam Tourist Visa: You can either get a proper visa in home country, or get a pre-authorization and convert it to Visa upon your arrival in Vietnam. Getting a full visa before leaving will entitle you to faster immigration, but at home country you’ve to spend time running around to get this visa. Getting pre-authorization is easier to do, but may take about an hour upon arrival to get a visa on arrival. You will get about 1 month duration, unless explicitly asked for extended stay. Note that Visa process may be different/complicated if you’re entering Vietnam through land borders. Cost for Visa will be around 40 USD (15 for pre auth, 25 to be paid upon entry)

3 Where to stay? You’ve two options at a high level: 
Option 1: Base yourself in a city center, do day trips to various attractions nearby- this is what most tourists do- convenient, flexible option with very less planning required. You don't have to plan too much, just ensure that your hotel/hostel is not far away from city center. Once you arrive, rest of the activities can booked from a travel shop nearby (there're several of them in all streets). But the disadvantage of this option is that it will be too touristy- you will spend 2-3 hours each day in bus travel one way to reach the attraction, get very limited time at the attraction. Check option 2 for more off-beat approach.

Option 2: Stay at off beat places. Instead of spending all nights in main cities (like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh), you can plan an activity/stay away from city. There’re overnight cruises available for Halong Bay, you can stay at hotels/hostels far from city, closer to unique attractions such as Tam Coc, Halong Bay, Sapa etc. This needs a bit more elaborate planning. Besides selecting a place to stay you will also have to plan your commute from city to that place, local explorations etc. In most cases once you book accommodation your host will assist with commute/siteseeing etc. There could also be unique package tours which include stay in these off beat places- you will have to research better. If you do this, you can explore places when it is not crowded with tourists (as day visit tourists usually arrive by noon n leave by evening), you will have more unique experience compared to a tourist. But if your plans change, re-adjusting the itinerary might be complicated.

4. Booking local site-seeing: Local trips can be booked at reasonable price from any of the travel shops in city centre. I don’t see a need to book online, in advance. Online bookings are expensive by a few dollars and come with complicated cancellation terms that limit the flexibility. There is more supply than demand, so I don't see a need to pay n book all trips in advance. Walk in into any shops and book as per your convenience once you arrive in Vietnam. 

Some activities are dependent on weather-Halong Bay cruise will be suspended in case of storm warnings. Don't plan them for last day.
Note: If you're pressed for time, some agencies offer 2-in-1 packages- like Makong Delta and Monkey island. Leave from hotel at 7 AM, visit two attractions one after another and return same day by 10 PM. This option saves lots of time and is better than doing two one day trips which usually start at 8-8.30 AM and end by 6 PM

5. Budgeting your trip: Vietnam is relatively cheaper to explore. I did my 7 day trip in about 40000 INR, everything included (flight, stay, food, local siteseeing etc). I've a detailed post planed on this. For now, below is a quick idea of what various things cost in Vietnam
  • Visa - 40 USD
  • Hostel stay- per night, per bed: 8 to 10 USD
  • Hotel stay- per night per room: 20 USD onwards
  • Day trips to attractions outside city, per person, seat in coach basis- 25 to 50 USD
  • Full meals for one person in Indian restaurant: INR 500-700
Roughly factor 100 USD per person per day excluding flight.
6. Indian Food (Vegetarian): There’re several Indian restaurants available in main cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi- but most of these open at 11 AM, close at 3 PM, re-open at 5 PM. During your day trip out of city proper veg food may not be available. You will have to manage with rice, salads, potato fries, fruits and such items. Tender coconut, Banana and other fruits easily available in most places.  More details about Indian/Veg food options in Vietnam in this detailed post.

7. Local Commute: Indian license is not valid in Vietnam, so you can’t rent a bike or car and explore on your own. City Buses, motorbike taxis, taxis etc are available, not very difficult to use as Google maps gives the details. Vietnamese use English like character, so reading something is not very difficult (though you may not understand it). For visiting places outside city you will have to largely depend on tour operators- I couldn’t find practical public transportation to most of the places. Buses n trains were fairly on time.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, most places worth visiting within city are only few kms apart- you might as well walk around. Uber is available, Grab is a popular local bike taxi app which you can use. Trains are also available to various destinations within Vietnam.
8. Best Season to visit Vietnam: Travel season for Vietnam is fairly similar to that of Thailand. October to April is generally peak, May to September is low. Traveling in off-peak season has its advantages- check this post.

9. Weather: Tropical, similar to India and Thailand. Expect high humidity and harsh sun.

10. Miscellaneous:

Currency: Indian forex agents may not be stocking Vietnam dongs. Your best bet is to withdraw cash from ATM (there’s 3 million dong limit), or get USD and convert on arrival. USD is accepted almost everywhere. 100,000 VND is around 300 INR

Scams: Lots of tourist scams are high probability in Vietnam- you should be careful not to fall pray to them. But this is not a worry during planning stage, do read before actual travel. I've a separate post planned on this.

Malaria scare: There's a deadly Malaria scare spreading in South East Asia, be careful. [Details on BBC here]
Similar: Japan on budget * Bali itinerary * Vietnam on Budget- My experience n tips *

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