Thursday, January 24, 2008

The "Dos" and "Don'ts" of Traveling in Vietnam by Saigon Charlie

2007 Jun 16
by Saigon Charlie

Last night as I was writing this up, once again, Saigon's power failed. This time for 40 minutes between 17:30 until 18:10. Thank God I wasn't in the elevator. Guess with all the power failures I have experienced across the country, one should add a small flashlight to the list of things you should bring but thankfully, I have a laptop with a 3 hour battery that serves as my portable/emergency power station as I also carry a USB light stick! haha

These are just some loose thoughts pulled together. I hope they help. At the time of this journal entry the exchange rate was 16,000 dong=$1.00 and 20,000 dong was 1 euro.

  1. Do travel to Vietnam as it is an experience of a lifetime!
  2. Don’t gamble in their casinos as they are all massively rigged.
  3. Do travel by train in Vietnam if you want to see it and the locals through their eyes while meeting people, young and old.
  4. Don’t use travel agencies for train tickets as the price you are charged is considerably higher than the actual price if obtained at the station window.
  5. Do expect the trains to be considerably less comfortable than Thai trains and almost always behind schedule, even to the point of hours.
  6. Don’t buy electronic goods in Vietnam as they are double the price you would pay if you bought your new camera or laptop at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok.
  7. Do expect an effort to be made to steal whatever electronic item you have on you by what is commonly known here as ‘Saigon Cowboys’ who commit the grab and run while on motorbikes. Also expect less violent theft at train stations and other public venues. Almost everyone I have spoke to who has been here for any length of time as had his phone, camera, laptop, etc. stolen but it is somehow accepted as the way things are, very unlike Thailand where such things very seldom happen.
  8. Don’t expect the police to assist you if you are robbed. They do not carry weapons and are totally ineffectual. They are a complete joke in Vietnam compared to Thailand; which makes a considerable effort to protect you and your personal belongings and security.
  9. Do carry toilet paper at all times as you often do not have napkins or tissues available at restaurants and of course, for that run to the toilet afterward.
  10. Don’t worry about malaria tablets. Toss them if you have them.
  11. Do however carry Tiger Balm, bandages and Band-Aids along with some decent antibiotics you picked up in Thailand before heading to Vietnam. Make sure you take care of even the smallest scratch.
  12. DON’T get sick in Vietnam as the price of medical care is ridiculously expensive due to a scam they run with travelers and their travel insurance companies. I guess it is OK if you got the insurance but if you don’t, are you prepared to pay $300 for a doctor’s visit? Better fly back to Bangkok if you are that sick as the ticket and medical care cost less.
  13. Don't drink their coffee if you like to wait lengthy periods between being served and at best 3 good sips as it drips into the cup beneath it. I like all forms of coffee but this method is not appealing to me in either form or taste.
  14. Do use Highland’s Coffee cafes in Saigon if you like an excellent cup of coffee, a decent breakfast or meal and a solid and free access to the Internet for your laptop via their WiFi networks.
  15. Do expect free Internet and WiFi at most restaurants and cafes around Saigon as well as in Hanoi. Notebook required of course.
  16. Do expect VOA (Voice of America) Internet news and sites to be filtered and blocked by the Vietnamese government (www.voanews.com ) Not sure what else they block politically.
  17. Do expect to pay less for the local beer, Bovina than for a bottle of water. I have been in cafes where Bovina on the menu is 8,000 dong while the water was 15,000 dong. Other beers such as 333, San Miguel, Heineken, etc. are usually around 30,000 dong as they are beers that foreigners drink.
  18. Don’t expect wine to be inexpensive as that it is expected to be drunk by foreigners and as in Thailand, taxed as such.
  19. Do expect hotels, guest houses, restaurants, café and streets to be exceptional clean with few if any bugs.
  20. Do expect many building’s exteriors to be brightly colored along with their trim. Radically different than in Thailand as most buildings there are dull, grey or black.
  21. Don’t expect huge differences in prices between a backpacker’s hostel room with bunk beds and a very nice hotel with all the trimmings. The difference is usually only between $7 for the hostel bunk and $15 for first rate accommodations.
  22. Do expect high quality postcards with very inexpensive rates for international mail. I have also discovered that all my cards reached their intended recipients in Germany in less than 2 weeks, but none reached the USA. Cheap rates however do not extend to sending purchased items home as these rates are very expensive!
  23. Do expect all post office personnel to be amazingly friendly and helpful. Every place I went I was stunned with how professional and friendly they were.
  24. Don’t expect your clothes to be ironed when you send them off to be laundered. Even when I ask for them to be ironed, they still come back wrinkled as hell. Seems the concept of an iron is Thai in nature, not Vietnamese.
  25. Do expect to pay 9-10,000 dong per kilo in Vietnam for your wash. Two kilos worth of laundry is a couple of shirts, pants and underwear for a week.
  26. Don’t expect to sleep late as Vietnam starts early (6AM) and noise is overwhelming all of the time.
  27. Do get a room without a window which will cost less AND afford you some quiet from the noise of the street.
  28. Don’t expect elevators to be a common item which is one reason the higher you go, the cheaper the room, unlike in the west.
  29. Don’t expect Vietnamese to queue or line up at any public window or while boarding a bus, train, etc.
  30. Do expect to have a wide selection of TV channels on your hotel’s cable system ranging from the Discovery Channel to Chinese TV in English as well as many movie channels.
  31. Do expect to have hot water in your room from a central system instead of from wall heaters that seldom work as in Thailand. Also expect toiletries in your room such as toothbrush, comb, soap, shampoo, etc., which seems to be required by the government to acquire a ‘star’ rating of any type. I have never lacked for anything with any hotel I have stayed in Vietnam EXCEPT for peace and quiet!
  32. Do expect the traffic to be insane, far beyond what you might have experienced in Thailand. It is nerve racking both as a pedestrian and as a rider or driver. For me, I much prefer to be driving than riding. Sidewalks are no more than an overflow for street traffic and all are used in both directions. Bikes are constantly coming at you and whizzing by you as you walk on the sidewalk if you can. Most of the time you are however forced to walk on the streets as Vietnamese don’t walk anywhere and sidewalks are motorbike parking lots.
  33. Don’t expect traffic lights, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings to give you ANY protection from vehicles. I have found it actually to be safer to hire a moto for a short distance than to walk there which is sad as I really like to stroll around cities.
  34. Do expect to use dollars as your primary currency while in Vietnam instead of the dong. Many restaurants hand you the bill in both currencies. Fees and rates are quoted in dollar as well. Euro is hardly recognized and can actually be quoted at rates significantly less than the international rate. Dollar is king in Vietnam and the American’s lost the war???
  35. Do expect to pay 10,000 dong for a moto ride just about anywhere you might want to go.
  36. Do expect to be able to rent a motorbike but don’t expect the rates to be cheap like in Thailand. Usually double the daily rate from Thailand.
  37. Don’t expect Vietnamese food to be anywhere as good as Thai food. It is also very ‘bland’ by comparison. I consider it much ‘heavier’ than Thai dishes but Thai food is readily availalbe and very good.
  38. Do stay in the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel and Hoa’s Place on China Beach if you want to meet other folks traveling the world. Both places are incredibly unique and extremely friendly. Email Max at www.hanoibackpackershostel.com and Hoa at hoasplace@hotmail.com
  39. Do use the Air France/KLM office in the Caravel Hotel in Saigon (next to the Sheraton) for some of the friendliest and most professional travel service I have experienced in Asia. Make sure you ask for ‘Diem’. www.airfrance.com.vn
  40. Do have a beer and some damn good pub food at a place that has had its named changed to ‘The Office’ as I write this but has no signage yet. They are just down the street from the Sheraton in Saigon and have many different screens showing Rugby to poker playing. Michael the owner is a Brit and quite a character. Actually, every expat I met there is quite a character!
  41. Do stay at the Orient Hotel in Saigon if you want to be in the center of the action with an exceptional room with breakfast for $12 a night. They are located in an area which is pronounced ‘fam u lau’ (Pham Ngu Lao) and are on De Tham Street in District One. orient-hotel@hcm.vnn.vn
  42. Do visit Finnegan's Irish Pub in Hanoi if you like to meet other travelers for a beer. Located on Duong Thanh Street. finneganirishpub@yahoo.com.vn
  43. Do visit the Cho Dan Sinh Market not far from De Tham street if you want to buy US military memorabilia such as Zippo lighters.
  44. Do expect visas in Vietnam to be much easier to obtain than in Thailand as well as being for longer periods of time. Unlike Thailand, but like Cambodia, they can be obtained through travel agencies here.
  45. Do expect English teachers to make double that of what you can make for the same amount of hours teaching in Thailand. Vietnam teaching jobs forum.
  46. Do expect ‘local grown’ motobikes to be half the coast of similar models in Thailand. A new, 110cc bike is no more than $550USD.
  47. Do expect there to be many options for playing golf in and around Saigon.
  48. Do expect to find ATM’s EVERYWHERE!!!! And often times they are air-conditioned!
  49. Don’t go to any of the 100s of Western Union counters if you want to send money out of the country; only if you want to receive it!
  50. Do visit Nha Trang if you want to hit the beach as well as party your ass off at night. Sex and the City has nothing on this place.
  51. Do expect your electricity to be sporadic in places like China Beach and even Saigon at times.
  52. Do expect to hear many conversations from travelers discussing a book called ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. Haven’t read it yet but it sounds pretty amazing.
  53. Don’t expect Vietnam Airlines flights out of the country to be cheap as their ticket prices are double what you might expect to pay as are other airlines flying to places like Bangkok. Cheapest ticket I could find one way to BKK was $185.
  54. Do expect internal air flights to be a bit dodgy. VASCO equipment ‘shakes, rattles and rolls’ with bald tires and hot shot pilots being the norm as with Vietnam Airlines. Expect bus rides from airports such as in Chu Lai to be the ride of your life!
  55. Do expect to find a Mosque calling people to prayers in downtown Saigon next to the Sheraton and Caravel Hotels. Fascinating actually!
  56. Do expect to see some of the most amazing colonial architecture in both Hanoi and Saigon with places such as the post office and opera buildings in Saigon as good as it gets.
  57. Do expect an amazing day trip via Russian hydrofoil to Vung Tau at the mouth of the Saigon River. Way cool place if you arrange transportation around the area and its peaks.
  58. Do visit the ‘Ned Kelly Bar’ just across the ferry docks in Vung Tau when you arrive for a cold beer and a decent lunch. Also a good place to meet the local expats.
  59. Do expect everyone you meet to have a business or name card. If you like to stay in touch with folks you meet along the way, good idea to get a 100 or so printed up with your contact information, web site or blog on it.
  60. Do expect an unending harassment from touts selling things as well as ‘shoe shine boys and men clapping or screaming at you to give you a moto ride while anywhere near a ‘tourist area’. This however stops if you stay in non-tourist areas where there are few white faces.
  61. Do expect ‘fixed prices’ at many tourist shops on the main streets and no flexibility on price which shocked me. You however can bargain hard and should in tourist markets as they start 300 % higher than what is the real price. Also expect a lot of ‘touching’ and an effort to ‘block you’ from exiting when in their shop. Can be quite trying at times.
  62. Do expect children to be very friendly and a simple hello will usually get you a wonderful smile and ‘hello!” back. Many want to practice their English skills as well.
  63. Do expect many older men traveling to Vietnam to be here to obtain ‘brides’ or ‘girlfriends’ (…and I DO NOT resemble that remark!!!). Just the nature of the beast I guess and it is a major ‘industry’ of sorts with many web sites supporting these efforts. Not unusual to meet men in their 70s talking about their fiancée and their efforts to get her and her daughter/son a visa to this country or that. If you are older and lonely, guess this is the place to come…..
  64. Do expect to be constantly offered ‘marijuana’, ‘pot’, ‘smoke’, ‘massage’, ‘boom boom’, etc. wherever you go, regardless of your age. Not sure what they are trying to sell to the women however…..
  65. Do expect every single moto driver to have a plan to sell you something. One I hired for a few days eventually came up with a plan to sell me his neighbor’s motorbike for $350. I had to laugh as he hadn’t tried the other things….yet.
  66. Don’t expect to find McDonalds or Burger King as so far, I have not seen one anywhere from Hanoi to Saigon although there are quite a few KFCs.
  67. Do however go to one of the many ‘’Lotteria’ if you want a super-sized burger with three layers of meat. Super size takes on a whole new meaning there.
  68. Don’t expect to find 7/11s on every street corner like in Thailand as there are none. The concept of a convenience store seems to be in its infancy here and for the person that gets in first here, an incredible money maker. Here however I would put a Vietnamese spin on it and make them a drive through!!!
  69. Don’t expect motorcycles riders or drivers to have helmets. Don’t expect most of the bikes to have rear view mirrors as well (….and do you honestly think they have driver’s licenses or have taken a test concerning rules of the roads?).
  70. Do visit the very professional Tourist Information Center in Saigon on Le Hoi street to meet some interesting and intelligent young ladies who can help you along the way. www.vntourists.com
  71. Do come to Saigon if you like watches, both new and used (originals, not copies) as there is no limit to what you can buy. Most shops I found were clustered around the Sheraton.

3 comments:

Aly Abaquin said...

Hi saigon charlie,

The dos and dont's really help me, coz i'll be working in saigon soon and will be there by March 2008. Great Things to remember it surely helped me in preparing for my saigon trip.... Kudos. Please visit my blogspot: http://alyabaquin.blogspot.com

all the best,

Aly

Sebastian said...

Hey just read this today for a project (May 18,2010) some changes have taken place:

-currency rate is about 1 USD - 19,050 Dong
-convenience stores are popping up everywhere
-Unfortunately now it is illegal not to where a helmet

Davis Morkel said...

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