Vietnam Practical Info

Fast Facts

Area: 330,300 sq km
Population: 84 million
Major ethnics: Viets
No. ethnic groups: 52
Language: Vietnamese
Main religion: Buddhism
Capital city: Hanoi
Border countries: Cambodia, China, Laos
Major industry: Rice
No. of motorbikes: 10 million+

Top 7 things to do in Vietnam

  1. Take a ‘Xe Om’ motorbike taxi through Hanoi’s Old Quarter
  2. Cross the road like a local in Saigon
  3. Learn ‘thank you’ in Vietnamese and use it with the locals
  4. Quench your thirst with a locally brewed beer in a ‘Bia Hoi’ (street bar)
  5. Slurp on a steaming bowl of ‘pho’ at a street stall
  6. Soothe the soul and cruise Halong Bay
  7. Stay with a family in a village
Getting there
Vietnam has three international airports – Ho Chi Minh City in the south; Danang in the centre; and Hanoi in the north. If there’s no direct flight to Vietnam from your country, check out other major airports in South East Asia such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for  connecting flights and also excellent stopovers  for shopping and sightseeing…Below are some major airlines flying to and from Vietnam from various major hubs.

Airline Website
Cathay Pacific www.cathaypacific.com 
Japan Airline www.au.jal.com.en
Jetstar www.jetstar.com
Lao Airlines www.laoairlines.com 
Malaysian Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com 
Qantas www.qantas.com 
Silk Air www.silkair.com
Singapore Airlines www.singpaporeair.com
Thai Airways www.thaiair.com
Tiger Airways www.tigerairways.com
Vietnam Airlines www.vietnamairlines.com 
Air Asia www.airasia.com
Domestic flights
Several new companies have been set up over the last few years to accommodate the massive growth in domestic tourism. The major domestic flights are operated by Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar Pacific. All offers daily flights and give many options for air travel throughout the country. But be careful as flights can be overbooked and cancellation and late flights are common…It is recommended you book through a travel agent or internet booking sites to book and secure domestic flights and keep informed on its status.

When you’re in Vietnam, you should reconfirm the tickets 48 or 24 hours prior to departure to avoid any delay or cancellation or unsecured seat (automatically cancelled by system). Reconfirmation can be done through the respective airline’s office in Vietnam – ask you hotel or a travel agent in Vietnam to assist you.

Vietnam Visa
We arrange Vietnam visa on arrival letters, an easy, cost effective way of arranging your visa without the hassles of embassy processing and sending your passport away. Read more Vietnam Visa
Money & banks
TIP: Make sure your Vietnamese notes are not torn as many shops or restaurants will not accept them, if you receive a torn note swap it immediately.

The currency of Vietnam is the “Dong”, which you will see abbreviated “d” or “VND”. The Dong is non-convertible and at the time of writing trades at approximately 19,000 to USD1….

The US dollar operates as an unofficial currency and most travellers carry some dollars in small denominations as a back-up. The US dollar, preferably crisp and clean bills, is widely accepted in major shops, hotels and restaurants.

On the whole it is more convenient to operate in dong, as prices tend to be slightly lower than the equivalent in dollars and USD is quoted at whatever the rate is on the day. Major currencies can be exchanged at leading banks like the Vietcom Bank, ANZ, ACB and VIB, at foreign exchange offices in some hotels and travel agents and jewellery shops. Most of these places do not charge commission when changing currency into Dong.

ATM withdrawals are now available in most popular tourist destinations and major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. However there is a withdrawal limit of about 2,000,000VND (approximately US$125) and a daily withdrawal limit of 20,000,000VND and you will be charged a 50,000VND fee each time. ANZ and HSBC banks accept a wider range of cards including those in the Cirrus and Plus networks.

Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. Getting cash in advance from cards is possible at Vietcom Bank and some foreign banks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Travellers Cheques in US, Euro, Stirling and other major currencies are accepted in major tourist centres. American Travellers Cheques are the most widely accepted. When changing Travellers Cheques at a bank you will pay between 2% to 5% commissions. Vietcom Bank waives commissions on American Express Travellers Cheques.

Try not to change too much money at the one time as you will be carrying around large wads of paper exploding out of your wallet. Notes come in denominations of 200VND, 500VND, 1,000VND, 2,000DVND, 5,000VND, 10,000VND, 20,000VND, 50,000VND, 100,000VND and 500,000VND.

Communication
If you want to use your mobile phone in Vietnam, the simplest and cheapest way is to buy a SIM Card and a prepaid phone card locally…Both Vinaphone and Mobiphone offer English-language support and the best national coverage at the moment. Otherwise, check if your phone company has international roaming coverage in Vietnam.

Broadband internet is widely available in the main cities and wireless is available everywhere. Many hotels and cafes also offer internet access free of charge. In remote areas, logging on can be few and far between – which is not such a bad thing! However when you do log on connection can be slow.

Electricity
The usual voltage is between 220V and 240V, 50 cycles; but sometimes you encounter 110V, also at 50 cycles. Power supplies can be erratic, so be prepared to be flexible…Plugs with two round pins are more popular than the three-pin. If you have any devices needing a special outlet, please bring its adapter kit. The best investment is the universal AC adapter, which will enable you to plug it in anywhere.

Some basic facts
Vietnam’s evolution as a nation over the last 2000 years has been culturally influenced by its close proximity to China. In contradiction, no other country in this region has spent so long fighting off Chinese domination, often at a terrible cost in lives, economic development and political compromise. This rivalry has produced a powerful sense of national identity. In the 20th Century, Vietnam was faced with new perpetrators – first the French, later the Americans – and Vietnam once again successfully retained their territory.

Today, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the capital being Hanoi, is one of the world’s last surviving Communist states. More than 30 years after the American War, Vietnam is on the move reigniting its entrepreneurial spirit while old style Communist systems are giving way to socialist market economy. Seventy four percent live in the countryside and during the last decade, the Vietnamese economy grew over seven percent per annum making it the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand. The percentage of households living in poverty has fallen from 70 percent in the 1980s to under 30 percent today. However, the average per capita income hovers around USD$550 a year, although many people survive on less than 50cents a day.

Tourism is a relatively new industry and great changes have been made in accommodation standards, communications and accessibility. Still more important, the Vietnamese people are increasingly open, friendly and keen to meet foreign travellers.

Land
Vietnam is a long thin country comprising over 330,300 square kilometers. Its narrowest point measures just 50km wide. This makes it slightly larger than Italy and a bit smaller than Japan. The country shares its border with China, Laos and Cambodia and skirts the South China Sea (or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it), Gulf of Tonkin and Gulf of Thailand.

Seventy five percent is mountainous, 3200km is coastline. There are sub-alpine mountains in the north, the highest of which is 3143 metre Mount Fansipan. Central highlands run the length of the country and stretch eastward to the fertile coastal plains. Limestone outcrops scatter Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta and Red River Delta provide the two main cultivated areas.

This range of habitat lends itself to a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna. Current estimates suggest there are 16,000 plant species and 21,000 animals including 850 birds. The Java rhino, Asiatic black bear, Sarus crane and golden headed langur are just some of the endangered remaining species.

One of the biggest environmental challenges facing Vietnam is to preserve the rapidly diminishing forest area by establishing methods of sustainable use. However, Vietnam did recognize the need for conservation relatively early and established its first national park, Cuc Phuong in 1962. Today there are 28 national parks.

Climate
Vietnam’s elongated shape creates a diverse climate varying from hot and humid to drizzly and cold. There’s no particular season to recommend as the best time to visit, so it is probably better to go when the conditions best suit you and the activities you wish to pursue. If you don’t like rain, generally speaking you can travel Vietnam during April and May, although it is very hot, and October and November.

The South (Ho Chi Minh City to Phan Thiet)

The south is hot year round and has two seasons: Wet and Dry. The wet season lasts from May to October and you can expect refreshing afternoon downpours on a daily basis. These are usually brief and easy to predict. The dry season from November to April is generally sunny and humid.

The Centre (Nha Trang to Hue)

For most of the year Nha Trang is bathed in beautiful sunshine but between November and December the area has heavy rain. Dalat, at an altitude of 1,500m is cooler than the coastal area, particularly from November through to March. Danang and Hue both experience typhoon activity from mid October to mid December when the climate becomes cooler, more overcast and wet.

The North (Hanoi to Sapa)

Summer in the north lasts from May to October where temperatures range between 30‐35 degrees Celsius with the occasional welcoming burst of heavy rain to cool things down. The temperature varies from 10‐15 degrees in winter (December to March). February and March can be damp with drizzle and overcast skies.

Vietnam climate chart

Ho Chi Minh
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Av daily temp °C 27 28 29 30 29 29 28 28 27 27 27 27
Av monthly rainfall mm 15 3 13 43 221 330 315 269 335 269 114 56
Danang
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Av daily temp °C 22 23 24 27 29 30 30 30 28 26 25 23
Av monthly rainfall mm 102 31 12 18 47 42 99 117 447 530 221 209
Hanoi
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Av daily temp °C 17 18 20 24 28 30 30 29 28 26 22 19
Av monthly rainfall mm 18 28 38 81 196 239 323 342 254 99 43 20
People
Vietnam has a population of 83 million of whom 85 percent are ethnic Vietnamese (known as Viet or Kinh), approximately 1 million are Chinese and about 10 percent belong to one of the 52 ethnic minority groups divided into dozens of subgroups some with a mere hundred or so members. This makes Vietnam one of the most complex ethnic populous in the whole of South East Asia. The vast majority of ethnic minorities reside in the mountainous regions of the north and central highlands and the more isolated groups still preserve their time honoured ways of life.

In the core of the history, all these groups of people have been closely attached to one another in sharing the same tasks of fighting against foreign invaders, defending the country’s territory, gaining the right to live and the right to national independence and self-determination.

Each group has its own language and identity, some characterized by a dazzling array of traditional costumes, making the Vietnamese culture one of variety.

Some of the ethnic minority groups Inner Journey Expeditions encounter include:

  • The Dao

    One of the sub groups include the Red Dao who can be seen on our trips to Sapa. Population is estimated at 620,538 people and they live along the Sino-Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Lao borders and in some midland and northern coastal provinces.

  • The La Chi

    With a population of 10,765, these people can be found in Ha Giang and Lao Cai Province in the North. You will come across the La Chi at the Bac Ha weekend markets with Inner Journey Expeditions.

  • The Mong (H’Mong)

    Some sub groups include White, Red and Black Mong which you meet on trips to Sapa. Estimated population is 787,604, the Mong are concentrated in Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Lai Chau, Son La, Cao Bang and Nghe An Provinces.

  • The Muong

    There are more than 1,137,515 people with the largest population concentrated in Hoa Binh Province where Pu Luong Nature Reserve is found and the mountainous districts of Thanh Hoa Province.

  • The Tay

    The Tay is a large group with around 1,477,514 people. They live along the valleys and the lower slopes of the mountains in Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Kan, and Quang Ninh provinces, and in some regions of Bac Giang and Bac Ninh provinces.

  • The Thai

    Estimated population is 1,328,725 and these people are found in the Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Son La, Hoa Binh, home to Pu Luong Nature Reserve and Nghe An provinces.

  • The Viet (Kinh)

    The main ethnic group in Vietnam is the Viet with an estimated 65.8 million people. The Viet live in all provinces but are densely clustered in the delta areas and urban centres.

Home Stay Protocol

Visiting an ethnic minority village is one of the highlights of a trip to Vietnam, better still if you can stay overnight. Here are a few tips to follow when visiting a village:

  • If invited into a home, remove your shoes at the front door before entering.
  • Avoid giving empty water bottles, sweets and candies or pens to the local people when trekking through ethnic minority villages. You cannot guarantee that the empty bottles will be disposed of in a correct manner, and the people have no access to dental health. If you want to give pens, ask your guide to introduce you to the local teacher and donate them to the whole community.
  • Never sleep or sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards the family altar when in someone’s house.
  • Never use video cameras in the ethnic minority villages. They are considered to be too intrusive by the local people.
Religion
Major spiritual influences in Vietnam include Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and native religions like Ancestor and Mother Worships. Christianity arrived in the late 18th century and now has the second largest following after Buddhism. Other religions practiced comprise Islam and Cao Dai.

TET Festival

Tet is Christmas, New Year and birthdays all rolled into one. Tet Nguyen Dan (Festival of the first day) lasts from the first to the seventh day of the first moon in late January or early February.

Although officially a three-day affair, festivities may continue for a week or more with every effort made to indulge in eating, drinking, and enjoyable social activities. It is also a time for family reunions and paying respect to ancestors and the elders. Gifts of food are made to friends, neighbours and relatives in the days before Tet.

The Tet of the New Year is, above all, is an opportunity for the household genies to meet, those who have helped during the year, namely the Craft Creator, the Land Genie and the Kitchen God. Tet is also an opportunity to invite and welcome deceased ancestors back for a family reunion with their descendants to join the family’s Tet celebrations.

Finally, Tet is a good opportunity for family members to meet. This custom has become sacred and secular and, therefore, no matter where they are or whatever the circumstances, family members find ways to come back to meet their loved ones, gather for a dinner of traditional foods like bánh chưng (a square cake made of sticky rice stuffed with beans and pork), măng (a soup of boiled bamboo shoots and filled with pork) and xôi gấc (orange sticky rice).

Everyone is in a rush to get a haircut, buy new clothes, spruce up their homes, visit friends, settle outstanding debts, and stock up on traditional Tet delicacies. Businesses hang festive red banners which read “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year) and city streets are decorated with coloured lights.

Shopping
In North West Vietnam, Sapa is a great spot for shopping. You can buy clothing, accessories and jewellery produced by the multitude of ethnic minority communities who reside in the hill tribe areas.Some of Vietnam’s top designers have jumped on the wagon and have set up stores in Sapa that produce clothing and household furniture inspired by the traditional motifs and patterns.

A warning on the clothes; as beautiful and inexpensive as they look, the dyes used are not set. After wearing a beautifully embroidered cotton blue top, I discovered indigo stains on my skin. So it’s probably a good idea to wash the fabric first in cold salt water to help stop the dye from running and wrap your newly loved items in a plastic bag before jamming it in your luggage with the rest of your shopping exploits.

Hoian, Central Vietnam is devoted to shopping. The biggest lure is tailor-made clothes made from the local fabrics, coming in a close second in popularity are shoes – the local cobblers can imitate anything from sneakers to the highest heals to Cuban boats. Prices for clothes and shoes are low but the quality can vary dramatically. Chinese lanterns, wood carvings and colourful traditional and contemporary art can be purchased at affordable and attractive prices.

In Hanoi and Saigon there is an array of souvenirs and handicrafts from all around Vietnam. The best place to shop in Hanoi is in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake and in Saigon the markets in Ben Thanh and Cho Lon have a great variety of Vietnamese trinkets. These include paintings (lacquer, oil and silk), mother of pearl ceramics, pottery, carved wood, embroidery, bamboo, wickerwork, baskets, sculpture, jewellery, jade (check for authenticity), silks and brocades.

You can also pick up green pith helmets, now a fashionable item based upon the design of the war, the trade mark Vietnamese conical hat and the ao dai, the feminine traditional dress worn by the Viet women. CDs and DVD shops have popped up everywhere in the cities, however, always check the quality before purchase.

Clothing is comparatively cheap, and there are some good quality rip offs of Gore-Tex jackets, fleeces and cargo pants. T-shirts with slogans are plentiful, and there’s the ever popular T-shirt featuring the Vietnamese flag.

Cuisine
Vietnamese cuisine is a gourmet exploration. It’s inventive, tasty and uses high quality home grown ingredients. Flavours have infused from influences such as the Chinese, Laotians, Cambodian and more recently the French. As elsewhere in South East Asia, rice or com is the main staple diet, although bread, especially baguettes, introduced by the French, are available everywhere. Throughout Vietnam you will find a strong Vegetarian tradition, a legacy of Buddhism. Dishes are generally served at the same time rather than by course and come with chopsticks, or if western food, with a knife and fork. Below are a few Vietnamese specialties.

  • Nem Ran (Spring Roll)

    A popular dish of minced pork, rice vermicelli, mushrooms, dried onions, bean-sprouts, pepper and spiced salt. The mixture is rolled in flat rice cakes and fried in a pan until crispy.

  • Pho (Rice Noodle Soup)

    Typical Hanoi dish primarily served at breakfast or eaten as a light snack. The standard serving is a broth of rice noodles topped with either beef or chicken, fresh herbs and onion. Egg yolk, lime juice, chilli peppers or vinegar may be added.

  • Gio lua

    Found anywhere in Vietnam, gio lua is made from pork pate wrapped in banana leaves then well cooked.

  • Banh cuon

    This is a steamed rice pancake rolled around minced pork and is a popular dish for breakfast.

Language
More than 80% of the population speak Vietnamese (or Kinh), the national language. Ethnic minorities also have their own native languages. Since the tourism boom, more and more young people are learning English at school or university and are only too pleased to practice with tourists. From the colonial period, French is still understood by some of the older generation, usually in urban areas.

The most challenging part about Vietnamese is the different tones and pronunciation. Try some of the phonetic spelling below and remember to have fun!

English Vietnamese Phonetic
Hello xin chao sin chow
Good bye chao / tam biet chow / tam bee-et
Thank you cam on cam urn
Please xin sin
How are you? ba co khoe khong? ban ko kway on?
I’m good toi khoe toy kway
What’s your name? ten ban la gi? ten bah la ji?
My name is…. ten tio la…. ten toy la….
No problems khong cosi kong cozi
Excuse me (sorry) xin loi sin loy
Excuse me (to get past) xin ong Sin on
I want to buy toi muon mua toy moo-urn dee
How much? boa nhieu ba-ow nyew
Where is? o dau…? uh doh…?
Hotel khach san khack san
Restaurant nha hang nya hang
Toilet (nha) ve sinh (nya) veh sing
Bottled water nuoc khoang noo-uk kwang
Tea che (north) / tra (south) chay (north) chah (south)
Coffee ca phe ca-fey
Yes vang (north) da (south) vuhng (north) dah (south)
No khong khawng

Numbers

1 Mot
2 Hi
3 Ba
4 Bawn
5 Num
6 Saow
7 Buy
8 Taam
9 Cheen
10 mooy
11 Mooy mot
12 Mooy hi
13 Mooy ba
14 Mooy bawn
15 Mooy num
16 Mooy saow
17 Mooy buy
18 Mooy taam
19 Mooy heen
20 Hi mooy
21 Hi mooy mot
100 Mot chum
200 Hi chum
1,000 Mot nghin
10,000 Mooy nghin
100,000 Chum nghin
1,000,000 Mot trieu

Please note that the information provided for ‘Vietnam Practical Info’ was correct at the time of writing. If you have more updated details please do not hesitate to contact us.