Vietnam is unlike anywhere else in the world. The people, the culture, the food, and the chaos are entirely unique to the country, and create an experience like no other. Vietnam is not immune from the trials and tribulations of any growing country though, and many things you may take for granted where you live are flipped completely. Even with preparation, lots of research, and a suitcase full of excitement, we still had a lot to learn. This isn’t so much a technical list that you’ll find on every tourism website ever, this is the often overlooked stuff that we found important.
1. You need a visa
It may be common sense to some, but not every country requires a visa to visit. The process is about as simple as applying for a passport, but can be done in one of two ways. First is to go online and file electronically for a visa. This can be done HERE. You fill out your info, pay anywhere between $50 to $100, and you’ll receive a physical copy in the mail a few weeks later. The second option is to wait until you arrive in Vietnam to receive your visa. This is slightly cheaper (around $25), but you will have to wait in line at the airport upon arriving, and fill out the forms there. It’s less money, but a much bigger hassle, considering you’ve just been flying for 12+ hours.
PRO TIP: If you do choose to get your visa upon arriving in Vietnam, the visa agents take US dollar, so be sure to have enough cash on you to pay.
2. Vietnam’s driving is an elegant chaos
If you look at Vietnam’s traffic as a whole, it’s insane looking, I know. But once you understand the simple rules that make it up, it actually starts to make more sense than most of America’s traffic laws. Scooters and mopeds seemingly fill every inch of the street, and it looks like they are going to crash, but they never seem to. They are excellent at avoiding each other. The main, and most important rule to Vietnam’s traffic is: go with the flow. One of our favorite pastimes was to find a cafe, preferably a few stories up, and just watch the sea of mopeds zipping through the streets.
3. Chocolate is a worth its weight in gold
Chocolate is an extremely valuable commodity. While chocolate is produced in Vietnam, a lot of it is exported, meaning that the product left behind is often weak, or bitter. If you go into a convenience store, you’ll notice it; instead of the cigarettes being protected behind the counter, its chocolate instead. Seeing a Hershey’s bar behind locked glass is commonplace. If you go to Vietnam as a photographer, chocolate can be a valuable bargaining chip. Most people (especially children) will gladly exchange a piece of chocolate for a photo. Hit up your closest Costco or bulk store and hit your luggage weight limit in the stuff. You’re much more likely to get a willing photo subject with a fistful of Hershey kisses.
4. You will feel like a bad ass once you learn how to cross the street
Crossing the street is no big deal in America, you just wait for the sign to turn green and you go. In Vietnam, the streets are so often flooded with mopeds and cars that there is no chance to get a gap big enough to run across. Instead, you have to adopt the mentality of water running around a large rock. You are the rock, and the mopeds are the water. If you walk at a constant pace, and keep eye contact on the vehicles coming toward you, they will move out of the way, leaving you to feel like Neo from the Matrix. It’s so overwhelming some people may not be able to bring themselves to do it. My mom was surprised that we were able to do it, as when she was younger she said she was never able to conquer that fear.
5. You’re going to have to elbow some grandmas
Old ladies will absolutely elbow you without even a second look to get ahead of you in line. Don’t let these old women fool you, they’re ruthless. Push the images of your own grandma to the back of your mind, and square up like you are about to catch a rebound in the NBA, cause it’s about to get real. With elder respect being a much larger aspect of Vietnamese culture, these old ladies are banking on idea that you’ll be too much of a wimp to put up a fight. It may seem harsh now, but letting 10 old ladies bully their way in front of you at the airport can make you over an hour late.
6. Vietnamese people will sell you anything
Vietnamese people are entrepreneurs. They might not call themselves that, but Vietnamese people will sell you damn near everything if the price is right. While driving to the floating market at 4AM one morning, a moped pulled up alongside our car while we were going about 35MPH. After a few minutes of discussion between our driver and the motorcyclist, he sped off. We asked our driver “what was that?”, and he explained to us that the man saw a white man in our car (Daniel), and was trying to sell us boat tickets to the market. You’ll often find yourself bombarded with sale pitches and offers, even when you’re least expecting it.
7. Hoi An is the tailoring capital of the world
Getting clothing tailored, especially fine clothing like suits and dresses can be a costly affair. In America, a custom fit suit may cost you upwards of $500 on a good day. In Hoi An, the same suit, made with the same material could be $75. This is where Daniel and I went to get our matching suits. Even better, they are so skilled at what they do that they can often make your clothing overnight after taking your measurements, meaning you don’t have to stay in town for weeks on end, or pay expensive shipping costs. Daniel and I cant wait to go back to fill our wardrobe with more matching outfits.
8. Don’t be surprised if you don’t run into other Americans
We didn’t really expect this one honestly. Surprisingly Americans were in short supply, despite the fact that basically every Vietnamese person we met loved Americans. It was mostly large groups of Chinese tourists, or a random scattering of Europeans.
9. You can find grandmas playing ‘shoe bouncer’
Wearing shoes indoors is no good. This is a common theme to many Asian countries, but Vietnam likes to keep their floors clean. Don’t be surprised for shop owners to ask you to remove your shoes before walking around their store. Don’t worry about your shoes being stolen either, most shops have a designated ‘shoe grandma’ at the door who will watch over your sneaks while you shop.
10. Lack of paper goods and sanitation
Vietnam doesn’t have paper goods in abundance. We take our paper goods for granted most of the time. While you may be given some simple wet wipes during your meal at a restaurant, you will be charged for them (typically around $.30 or so) each. I would recommend buying a small pack of alcohol wipes instead of the liquid or gel bottle.Use it to wipe your hands, and your cell phone from time to time, and you’ll be glad to have it when there’s no bathroom to wash up in sight. When we had dinner with one of my family members (in a more rural area), they passed around a quarter roll of toilet paper to use as napkins, but it was even a luxury for them, as they were just accommodating us.