Hugging the eastern coast of the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam is roughly shaped like a seahorse. At its narrowest point, it is just 31 miles across. Mountains, hills and tropical forest cover most of the land, with many of its highlands in the north. The country is fed by two major delta systems–the Red River Delta and the Mekong Delta. Each one nurtures a fertile farmland that feeds millions and produces one of its major exports, rice.
Vietnam’s cityscapes have been deeply influenced by the country’s French occupation from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Elegant hotels, grandly arched post offices and more mingle easily with Buddhist temples and the modern structures of emerging cities. Vietnam is a Socialist Republic with a single-party system. Its capital is Hanoi.
Vietnam is a developing country. Infrastructure, including modern roads, is fairly good, but poverty is apparent. The Country Walkers tour has been designed to maximize exposure to the diversity, land, people, and culture of Vietnam, both on foot and during the travel days.
The most important tools that a traveler can bring are a sense of humor, flexibility, and an open mind to cultural differences. While the itinerary in Vietnam has been established with the assistance of local expert guides and operators, each experience is unique and requires patience on the part of the traveler.
Language: The official language in Vietnam is Vietnamese, which is a fusion of Mon-Khmer, Tai, and Chinese elements. It is spoken throughout the country, although there are dialectical differences between the north and central regions. Much of Vietnam’s older population still speaks French, but Vietnamese youth have fully embraced the English language.
While knowledge of the local language is not necessary, you may want to learn some fun and useful phrases to use during your walking tour. The effort seldom goes unappreciated and by trying some greetings and salutations with a smile, your interactions are likely to grow into rewarding exchanges.
Shopping and banking hours: Shops, stores, and open markets are generally open daily between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Banks are open from 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday, and Saturday morning.
Shopping and bartering: Bartering in markets for some of Vietnam’s lovely fabrics, clothes, and crafts is an accepted and expected practice. Once in Vietnam, with your guide’s assistance, you will develop a sense of a fair price—relax and keep it light to enjoy this cultural experience. Once you’ve agreed upon a price with the vendor, it is expected that you will purchase the item.
Meal times: Breakfast is served at hotels from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Restaurants are generally open all day from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.
Tipping: In many restaurants, five or ten percent service is added to the bill; an additional five percent of the total is appreciated. For taxi drivers, you can round up the fare. For luggage assistance, about 10,000 to 15,000 dong is appropriate.
Vietnam public holidays: Vietnam public holidays, festivals, or calendars of events may affect your travel planning. Visit the Vietnam tourist board’s website for a list of public holidays and festivals.
Dress etiquette and social conduct: It is important to dress modestly in Vietnam. Shorts are generally fine as long as they are not too short. Please note that when visiting temples or pagodas, shorts and tank tops are not acceptable. Your knees and shoulders must be covered. Footwear and socks must be removed in pagodas and also some temples. Shoes are usually removed when entering private homes. Public displays of affection between men and women are considered shocking. On the other hand, it is perfectly normal for a pair of men or women to link arms or hold hands. Upon meeting each other, people may simply nod or shake hands. Using both hands is a warm gesture of respect. When greeting someone, hands are put together in a prayer-like position at the chest and the head is slightly lowered. Avoid putting your feet up and inadvertently pointing them at someone, which can be interpreted as being disrespectful. Likewise, touching someone’s head is also considered improper in Vietnamese culture.
Charitable donations to children: We recommend that you do not acquiesce to the temptation of rewarding children who beg for sweets, pencils, or spare change. As difficult as this may be, you can make a more positive impact by giving donations of school supplies or books to your guide, who will ensure that they reach one of the villages visited on the tour, or by making a donation to a nongovernmental organization working in Vietnam.
Vietnamese food has an amazing amount of sauces, dips, herbs, and spices. Pho is a wonderfully healthy soup (available in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia). This rice noodle soup is prepared with varying amounts of vegetables and any type of meat may be added. Of course, rice is a way of life here and can be found cooked in several ways—sticky, steamed, or fried. One of the most popular dishes is spring rolls, usually made of rice paper and filled with vegetables, either cooked or raw, plus crab, vermicelli, shrimp, and minced pork. You can also find them fried and steamed. As Vietnam has an incredibly long seacoast, you will find an abundance of fresh seafood on menus, too, such as shrimp, prawn, crab, clams, eel, and shellfish.
After rice, fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of the Vietnamese diet. The variety of vegetables is incredible, and at any meal you can enjoy a vast array of local, fresh produce, including bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and cabbage. French baguettes, a legacy of the French colonial period, are available, often served as sandwiches with pâté.
Food tips: Country Walkers and our guides take great care to select and work with hotel properties and restaurants that meet our rigorous standards in food safety. Outside of these establishments, it is wise to avoid eating foods sold by local street vendors, peeled fruit or unwashed vegetables. We recommend following the simple rule, “If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it.” Avoid fresh salads, with the exception of those served in fine restaurants, and fruit juices unless they are 100 percent juice.
Water: We advise that you drink only bottled water, including for ice cubes in drinks and brushing your teeth. Bottled water is widely available.
Vietnam has a tropical climate with a rainy season from May to October. From November to April, the weather is warm, sunny, and humid, although less humid than during the rainy season. Occasional short rain showers can occur year-round, although typically rain falls at night during the drier winter months. In northern Vietnam the average temperatures in November (high/low) are 78/62°F, and in central Vietnam, 79/69°F.
U.S. citizens: Passports are required and must be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of travel. Visas are required and must be obtained before travel. To apply for a single-entry 30-day visa, complete a Visa Application Form (found on the Vietnam Embassy website). As of December 2016, the fee for US citizens is $25 (excluding handling fees).
On the Visa Application Form under name and address of host or contact in Vietnam, please list the following information:
143 Nguyen Van Troi
Phu Nhuan District, HCMC Vietnam
Tel 011 84 838 448 071
Fax 011 84 838 447 885
For more information, see travel.state.gov.
Vietnam uses the Vietnamese dong (VND). The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 22500 VND. Exchange rates can vary greatly month to month, so we recommend you visit oanda.com for the latest.
We recommend having a variety of payment options readily available to help you start your trip: ATM card(s), credit card(s) and some U.S. dollars to exchange. Always contact your bank or your credit-card company for details on fees and card use when traveling. Note that you will be able to find ATMs in major towns.
No immunizations are required to enter Vietnam. Always consult a travel clinic at a local university, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and/or your personal physician for the most up-to-date recommendations and routine vaccinations. Malaria medication, hepatitis, tetanus, typhoid, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations are generally recommended for all travelers. For the threat of malaria, you should consult the CDC or your physician for the most current information.
Requirements and recommendations change frequently, so always check directly with the Centers for Disease Control (877-394-8747), a travel clinic, and/or your personal physician for the most current information. Plan ahead for immunizations, as some require administration several months prior to departure.
Bathroom facilities: While all Country Walkers accommodations have Western-style flush toilets, it is common to find Eastern-style toilets in restaurants and tea houses. These facilities are not much more than a porcelain-lined hole in the ground and one must carry one’s own toilet paper. Please realize that while this type of toilet may seem awkward, it is not unsanitary.
Personal safety: Vietnam requires the common sense and exercise of above-normal precautions for personal safety that apply in many countries and cities worldwide. In addition to being aware of your surroundings, keep your valuables close and hidden while in public (avoid dangling cameras or other “tourist bait”), and avoid walking alone at night. Please follow accommodation and/or tour representative guidelines about securing valuables.
Electricity: Alternating current of 220V and 50Hz is used in Vietnam. The most common plugs are the type with two round pins and two flat blades. For a full listing of electrical outlets worldwide, see electricaloutlet.org. If you are bringing your own hair dryer or other electrical device, you will need a travel converter, available at most hardware, travel, or consumer electronic stores. For laptops or an electronic device with a dual voltage switch, you will only need the adapter plug, not the converter.
Phone: Vietnam’s country code is “+84.” Cell phone coverage throughout Vietnam is extensive, but we cannot guarantee adequate signals on all American phone models or while on walking trails or in remote areas. For more information regarding international phone use, please refer to this blog post.
Internet: Internet access is generally very good in towns and villages; however, all of the hotels used on our tours do not necessarily provide it, or they provide it at an additional cost. Details regarding Wi-Fi availability in each hotel are available in the Itinerary Overview that you’ll receive once you’ve reserved.
Vietnam is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. For more information on worldwide time zones, see: worldtimezone.com.
Vietnam has three major international airports: Hanoi (Noi Bai), Danang (Danang), and Saigon (Tan Son Nhat). A domestic air network connects these cities with smaller cities within the country as well.
International Airports in Vietnam
- Da Nang International Airport
- Hanoi – Noi Bai International Airport
- Ho Chi Minh City – Tan Son Nhat International Airport
- Can Tho International Airport
- Hai Phong – Cat Bi International Airport
- Hue – Phu Bai International Airport
- Phu Quoc International Airport
- Khanh Hoa – Cam Ranh International Airport
- Quang Nam – Chu Lai International Airport
Other local transportation
Outside of domestic flights, getting around via ground transportation is improving, although it’s still less convenient than flying in Vietnam due to the distances and the road and bus network. A railway system, Vietnam Railways (vr.com.vn), is extensive and also has received recent upgrades, although it is still slow and some security concerns exist.
Renting a car is not recommended; however, taxis are available at airports and towns, and can be reserved in advance (your hotel can provide assistance). A car and driver can also be reserved for an entire day or part of a day. For more information, see the Vietnamese tourist board website at vietnamtourism.com, or contact Country Walkers.