Essential Vietnam Travel Tips for First-Timers

Central Vietnam,Hoi An.

Vietnam is one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia. Home to breathtaking landscapes, mouthwatering cuisine and welcoming locals, it offers travellers of all stripes an enriching and enchanting experience.

Be warned though, the culture shock here is real. That means it’s a good idea to have a few Vietnam travel tips under your belt to help you adapt! Put together using the help of our epic backpacking community, this shortlist of our top tips for travelling Vietnam will help you save money, stay safe and see the best of the best! 

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20 Tips for Travelling Vietnam 🇻🇳

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“I wish I’d known these tips before I visited Vietnam for the first time! They would’ve helped me get around, save money, prevent embarrassing bathroom ‘moments’ and avoid the devil’s lettuce (or as most people call it, cilantro)!”

1. Get Your eVisa From the Official Website 🛂

Unless you are from one of the visa-exempt countries, you will need an eVisa to enter Vietnam.  This visa, valid for 90 days, takes around three to five working days to be processed. To apply for an eVisa, you should use only the official government website and not any other. There are a lot of scam websites which charge extortionate fees.

Passport stamps
Make sure you sort your visa before visiting!

Read 👉 Vietnam Visa Rules and Entry Requirements

2. Pack for All Climates ☀️🌧️

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam is a hot country. While there are definitely hot and humid areas, the climate varies hugely depending on where you are.

The flooded streets of Hoi An, Vietnam during rainy season.
The flooded streets of Hoi An, Vietnam during rainy season.

The south of the country is generally hot year-round but the far north can get very chilly, especially in mountainous areas such as Sapa. Pack clothes that you can layer up easily and don’t forget to prepare for rain! Vietnam’s wet season is no joke but you should bear in mind that downpours can happen year-round, especially due to the warming climate.

“On my first visit to Sapa, I was seriously underprepared. My t-shirt and shorts combo served me very badly for three days of rain and single-digit temperatures!” 🥶


3. Learn a Few Vietnamese Phrases 🗣️

When it comes to getting the most out of your backpacking trip, few tips are as valuable as learning some of the local language. Being able to talk to the locals will make your life way easier, no matter whether you are asking for directions or haggling in a market.

Backpacker's at Vietnam street
A few Vietnamese phrases will help when it comes to bartering!

Some knowledge of the language also makes you a harder target for scammers. Sadly, very few Western travellers make the effort to learn the language so having a few key Vietnamese words and phrases under your belt will undoubtedly impress your hosts! 

“While my Vietnamese is rudimentary at best, the locals really appreciated me making the effort with basic words. They were also very willing to help when I screwed up the pronunciation – which was a lot!”

4. Get Travel Insurance ✅

If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel, bottom line. As much as it is a boring outlay, travel insurance can seriously come to the rescue if you get sick or have an accident while you’re on the road. Make sure you know exactly what activities you are covered for and remember to declare any pre-existing medical conditions. Failure to do this could invalidate your policy! SafetyWing is one of the most popular options among backpackers.

The most popular backpacker insurance!
SafetyWing Nomad Insurance

SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers! 

  • Subscription style insurance
  • Cheap and flexible
  • Available after your trip has started


5. Get a Local SIM Card 📱

In this age of travel, staying connected is important. Whether you want to update your Instagram, chat with your mum or arrange a lift to My Son Sanctuary, you will likely need data. The most cost-effective way to get online is to get a local SIM card.

Phones and SIM Cards -
A local SIM will help you stay connected!

If you are arriving by air, you can do this at the airport. It will likely be a dollar or two more expensive than doing it on the street but the vendors are more likely to speak English and you won’t need to worry about haggling.

Alternatively, there are loads of phone shops in the cities, all with posters advertising data outside. To give you an idea of price, a 30-day SIM card with 4GB of data per day costs around 70,000 VND (approx. $3USD)

6. Bring a Day Pack 🎒

Before a trip, a lot of thought goes into what backpack to buy for travel. However, this is only part of the decision-making process! Arguably even more important is what day pack to buy for travel. Your day pack will be the bag you carry on your everyday adventures, while your main backpack will likely stay locked in your hostel locker!

Day backpack
Your daypack will be your best friend on your travels!

All of your big Vietnam adventures such as the Ha Giang Loop and trekking in Sapa will require you to be light on your loafers – meaning all your essentials will need to fit into your day pack. Most travellers agree that a day pack between 20-30 litres is the best for day-to-day use.

“When I went on my Halong Bay cruise, I was able to leave my main bag at the hostel. This meant that the only thing I needed to carry was my 15-litre daypack – much more manageable!”

7. Rent a Motorcycle 🏍️

It is no secret that the easiest way to get around Southeast Asia is by bike. It is estimated that two-thirds of the Vietnamese population own motorbikes and as of 2020, there were 65 million motorcycles registered in the country!

What a sunny ride in motorbike, HA Giang, Vietnam - Safari Tour
Only those with skills should ride in Vietnam!

While exploring the country under your own steam is undoubtedly the way to go if you can, there are some considerations when it comes to renting a bike in Vietnam. Firstly, you should be confident on a bike. The traffic in Vietnam is unbelievable and you will need some serious skills to navigate the chaos!

Make sure you have an International Driving Permit, always wear safety gear (even though the locals may not), ride defensively and don’t ride without insurance that covers you for motorbikes!

8. Or Opt for an Easy Rider 👥

We get it. You want to see the best scenery in Vietnam but don’t feel confident enough to explore on a motorcycle. While it might feel like you’re the only backpacker in Southeast Asia avoiding hopping on a bike, you’re really not!

Bike rider pic, Ha Giang
If you can’t ride, opt for an easy rider instead.

Some of the most epic Vietnamese road trips such as the Ha Giang Loop and the Hai Van Pass are traditionally done by bike, however, non-riders don’t have to miss out! Both of these road trips can be done with an easy rider. This means a local guide will be riding the motorbike and you’ll be sitting on the back (also referred to as riding pillion). With no riding to worry about, you’ll have nothing left to do but enjoy the beautiful views!

👉  See our favourite easy rider tours in Vietnam here!

9. Download Grab 🚘

In the days of old, taxis used to be one of the best ways to travel short distances in Vietnam. However, when ride-hailing apps burst onto the scene, that all changed. These days, it is far better to use Grab.

Grab ride, Vietnam
Grab is an easy way to get around.

Not only does Grab make it easier to get a ride but it also works out cheaper than taxis and removes the awkwardness of needing to haggle. Once you’ve bought your local SIM, make this backpacking app the first that you download.

Top Tip!

If you’re not fussed about completing your journey in a car, there is also GrabBike which is even cheaper!

10. Factor Burning Season Into Your Plans 🔥

While Vietnam does not suffer to the same degree as some other Southeast Asian countries during the infamous burning season, it can still be affected. Particularly affected are agricultural parts of Central Vietnam, such as Hoi An.

Field on fire during burning season in Southeast Asia
Burning season can impact Vietnam.

Burning usually occurs during the dry season which varies depending on which part of the country you are in. For the most up-to-date information about haze status in Vietnam, we recommend asking the South East Asia Backpacker Facebook community.

11. Carry Toilet Paper and Antibacterial Gel 🧻

Vietnam’s long and skinny geography lends itself well to long-distance travel. Most backpackers choose to make these journeys by bus but travelling overland is hardly a glamorous affair. While a ticket on a sleeper bus will get you a relatively comfortable reclining seat and maybe even a bottle of water, you shouldn’t expect luxury.

Toilet paper
Carry toilet paper in case you get caught out!

Many buses will not have toilets on board and instead, you’ll stop at restrooms en route. Be warned, few of these will be well stocked with toilet paper and soap so it is always best to carry your own supply.

“When I took the night bus from Hue to Hanoi, the driver stopped for a toilet break and I realised I had left my hand sanitiser in my big bag. After seeing the toilet, I knew there was no way I was going to touch anything in there without antibac! Luckily, another girl from the bus had bought a big bottle and I was able to use some of hers. When everyone saw the toilet, she became very popular!”

12. Avoid Public Holidays 🎉

It is always worth keeping up to date with the local calendar wherever you visit. In Vietnam, a lot of people travel during public holidays which can make it difficult to move around if you have not pre-booked transport. It is also worth booking holiday accommodation in advance to avoid missing out.

A dragon in the streets for Tet Nguyen Dan Festival.
A dragon in the streets for Tet Nguyen Dan Festival.

If you’re looking for a unique cultural experience, why not try and time your visit with a traditional festival? This is the kind of adventure you’ll never forget!

👉  Get clued-up on Vietnamese festivals and celebrations here!

13. Know What to Book in Advance 📅

If you are backpacking on a budget, it can be tempting to rock up to every place you’re going without a plan. While we here at South East Asia Backpacker love going with the flow, there are times when this free and easy way of travelling ain’t gonna cut it.

Laptop on a beach.
Make sure you book the right things in advance!

As we’ve already mentioned above, it is always worth booking transport and accommodation over public holidays a few days in advance. This also applies to Western holidays in areas with a high number of tourists.

As for attractions, you can find good deals if you book in advance, whereas for smaller attractions, you will likely get the lowest price on the door. If you are on a tight schedule and don’t have much room for flexibility, it is worth booking your must-do trips and tours in advance to avoid missing out.

14. Be Culturally Sensitive 🪷

Buddhism is the largest religion in Vietnam and many amazing temples and pagodas are waiting to be explored.  Modesty is key when visiting sacred sites and it is important to dress appropriately. In most places, you will be required to cover your shoulders and knees.

Hoa Lu - Ancient Capital of Vietnam.
Remember to dress conservatively at the temples.

Parts of Vietnam are very hot and humid so you’ll likely be tempted to pack your standard summer holiday clothes. A sarong is a good all-purpose item which can easily be fashioned into a skirt or bolero – ideal for when you need a bit more coverage.

15. Master the Bum Gun 💦

Toilet paper is a staple in many households. However, in countries across Asia, it has been replaced with the bum gun. Essentially a handheld bidet for cleaning your butt, bum guns feature all over Vietnam.

The Bum Gun, it all of its glory!

While these may seem unusual to travellers coming from the West, they are actually used in several countries across the world and are way better for the planet! I won’t lie, a bum gun can take some getting used to, however, once you’ve mastered it, you’ll wonder how you ever got by with just toilet paper!

16. Beware of Scams ⚠️

While Vietnam is not a particularly dangerous place to travel to, there are plenty of scams that can catch you out. Make sure you always get in a licensed taxi and be ready to challenge a driver who refuses to use the meter. Rigged meters are a thing too so make sure you know how much the ride should cost and get ready to make a hasty exit if need be.

Vietnamese Dong
Try and withdraw money directly from an ATM.

There are a lot of shifty money changers all over Southeast Asia and Vietnam is no different. To avoid getting ripped off, don’t bother with currency exchanges and instead withdraw directly from an ATM.


17. Stay in Some Homestays 👪

One of the best parts of travel is undoubtedly getting to know the local people and learning about their culture. While it can be easy to end up spending your whole trip in the company of other backpackers – you’ll be meeting them everywhere you go – you should make a conscious effort to get to know the locals too.

Vietnam Homestays
A homestay allows you to experience the authentic Vietnam.

A great way to experience authentic Vietnamese life is to stay at a homestay or farmstay. These allow backpackers to see how real people live, away from the tourist track. While it may not be as comfortable as the plush hotel you’ve booked for Christmas, you’ll undoubtedly get much more out of the experience.

“One of my best experiences in Vietnam was staying with a local family in a homestay on the outskirts of Hoi An. They took me to the local market where we bought ingredients to make spring rolls. Not only was prepping the food very fun but I got to know the whole family over a communal dinner later that evening!”

18. Make Time for Hidden Gems Too 💎

Let’s be real, the popular tourist attractions in any country are popular for a reason. I am not for one second suggesting that you skip trekking in Sapa or cruising Halong Bay. However, there is so much more to a place than its premier sights.

Ellie on the deck of a cruise ship in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam.
Lan Ha Bay is an off-the-beaten-track alternative to Halong!

Making the effort to get off the beaten track and taking the path less travelled is a great way to get under the skin of a country. From the little-known Pù Luông Nature Reserve to the Duck Stop in Phong Nha, there is a hidden gem for every kind of traveller in Vietnam!

19. Visit Cat Ba and Halong Bay ⛴️

One question we get asked a lot in the South East Asia Backpacker Facebook Community is “Should I do Cat Ba Island or Halong Bay?” The answer is both! There is a range of boat trips that will allow you to overnight on Cat Ba so if this is important to you, check the itineraries of the different cruises to help you choose!

Travellers cycling at Cat Ba National Park, Halong Hideaway
Cat Ba is popular with backpackers.

If you’d rather explore Cat Ba on your own time, it is also possible to head there and then take a cruise around Lan Ha Bay, a much quieter alternative to Halong.


20. Embrace the Cuisine 🍲

Vietnam is home to one of the most mouthwatering culinary scenes in the world. With everything from street food favourites like Banh Mi to comfort food like Bun Cha and Pho, Vietnamese food is varied, filling and delicious.

Pho with quay (fried dough)
Are you drooling yet?! 🤤

Street food stalls are perfectly safe to eat from and a great way to get your fill for less. To choose between them, pick somewhere frequented by locals with a high turnover of customers. This will ensure that the food is fresh.

“The thing that I wish I had known before visiting Vietnam was that they put coriander in absolutely everything. If you hate cilantro too, this little phrase is worth its weight in gold… Không Rau Mùi. Trust me when I say, you’ll need it!“

So that brings us to the end of this list of travel tips for Vietnam. While it can feel like a daunting destination at first, Vietnam has so much to offer travellers – with welcoming locals, world-class scenery and food to die for – you’re sure to have a blast if you make Vietnam your next Southeast Asia stop!

Got any Vietnam travel tips we’ve missed? Share them with our Facebook community or drop them in the comments below!

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind, a travel blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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