Friday, May 25, 2018

Five First-Timer Tips for Traveling to Vietnam

Common Mistakes When Traveling to Vietnam - and How to Avoid Them

You Might be Packing the Wrong Clothing

Vietnam isn't a land of perpetual warmth and humidity. Consider that this diverse country is actually about 1,600 km north to south. That's the equivalent of spending a November in Los Angeles, California versus Portland, Oregon.

North Vietnam & the Northern Mountains

Vietnam can be split into several weather regions depending on latitude and elevation. The highest point in Vietnam is about 3,000 meters, while the lowest are the beaches at sea level.
North Vietnam, which is home to Hanoi and Halong Bay, has two distinct seasons: summer and winter. Generally, summer lasts from May to October, and winter from November through April. 
If you plan to travel to the north from November to March, plan on cooler and dryer weather ranging from the 70s Fahrenheit during the day to the 60s F and 50s F at night.
December and January are the coldest months in North Vietnam.
If you plan on visiting one of the mountainous northern regions, such as SaPa or Ha Giang, plan on wearing a coat from October through January as temperatures can dip into the 40s F. From April to September, the mountains experience an increase in rain.
From May to October, most of north Vietnam will be hot and humid.

Women from Red Dao hill tribe in the rice fields of SaPa

Central Vietnam

Central Vietnam has so many things to offer, from historic sites and caves to beaches and amazing cuisine. This region can be divided into the coast and the Central Highlands, where rich Buon Ma Thuot coffee is created.

The coastal region, home beautiful riverside cities like Hoi An, is generally dryer than average throughout most of the year. However, because the coast is separated by a small mountain range, likely you'll find differing weather situations depending on whether you’re traveling north or south. Oftentimes you’ll even find that the weather in Hue doesn’t line up with weather in Hoi An, even though these two cities are just over 100km apart from one another.

From December to January, you'll find slightly cooler temperatures along the coast, but you'll rarely see the thermometer drop below 75 Fahrenheit.
Between January and August, you'll experience the highest temperatures, and September to November will bring increased rains and occasional typhoons.
The Central Highlands are always hotter than the coast, and temperatures stay fairly consistent throughout the year, with temperatures spiking in March and Aril. The Central Highlands have two seasons: dry and rainy. The rainy season lasts from May through October, and the dry season from November to April.

South Vietnam

When most people picture Vietnam's weather, here's what they're thinking of: the southern regions, which include Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and the Con Dao Islands. Temperatures here remain constant year-round, with weather patterns split simply into wet and dry.

The wet season in the south lasts from May to November, with June through September receiving the
most rainfall. During these seven months in South Vietnam, you'll experience rain on an average of 25 days each month. These rains are generally very heavy, but won't last all day. Most rains occur in the afternoon.
The dry season in South Vietnam starts in November and will last through April. These are also the hottest months.

If you're planning on taking in all of Vietnam by travelling north to south during your stay, the best time to visit the country will be late spring or early fall. Bring layers so you can enjoy the beaches as much as the mountains, and plan for some rain.

Your First Trip to the ATM Might be Confusing

Much like Vietnam itself, the history of the Vietnamese dong is expansive. If you're not at least somewhat familiar with VND, your first money exchange experience in Vietnam can certainly lend to confusion.

First off, the exchange rate is pretty wild so don't be surprised when one trip to the ATM makes you an instant Vietnamese millionaire. While the rates of exchange do vary, one dollar generally hovers around the 20,000 VND mark.
Vietnamese notes range from 500 to 500,000, however, most establishments don't deal in notes below 5,000. Consider that the 500 note is the equivalent of only about 1/50th of a dollar, so there's just not a ton of use for this small of a currency. We find that the 2,000 VND notes (roughly $.10) do come in very handy for public toilets.

Cash is king in Vietnam, and most cities have the ATMs and exchange bureaus to prove it. To minimize your chance of theft, we strongly recommend withdrawing money only as you need it, not for your entire trip.
While Vietnam is considered generally safe because violent crimes are rare, theft does happen. Foreigners are often targeted in purse snatching or pickpocketing, so it's important to protect yourself by being vigilant about your money.
Simply put, don't bring valuables with you. Be aware that pickpocketing doesn't just happen in crowds; many thefts occur in scooter drive-bys where purses, phones or IDs are snatched from unsuspecting tourists who are walking or even riding on the back of motos. Lock your passport in your hotel safe.

Depending on your bank, ATMs can impose a limit on how much you can withdraw in one day.  
Although businesses will accept foreign currencies, particularly US dollars, we recommend exchanging your money before you spend it. Shops and restaurants accepting dollars will use their own exchange rate, which will invariably be higher than the official going rate of exchange.
Never exchange money on the street. If the exchange rate looks too good to be true, it is.

VND coins have not been accepted since 2014. You can still find these beautiful historic souvenirs up for sale, however, don't accept them in exchange as they have no market value.
VND isn't accepted outside of the country and it'll be next to impossible to convert your money back to spend at home, another reason why you should only take out what you need. Consider anything you don't spend a souvenir.

 With so many notes to choose from, it can be easy to become confused in the hustle and bustle of the markets or restaurants. The colorful paper doesn't always help, since some notes are deceptively similar in color. With a careless glance, you may pay a vendor 200,000 VND instead of VND 50,000, or receive 150,000 less in change.

If you're not familiar with foreign travel and you find money exchange or bargaining a bit intimidating, you may want to consider letting your guide negotiate for you.

You Can’t Eat Like a Local

Vietnamese cuisine is diverse, and features a wide variety of spices, meats and vegetables. The ingredients are fresh and most food preparations are comparatively healthy.
From Hanoi to Hi Chi Minh City, you'll find distinctive characteristics in Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese cooks use bold flavors to create contrasting dishes that include rice, noodle, vegetables, fruits and coconut.
This cuisine evolved over long periods of time and is based on the country's own history and food availability, which means it’s a little bit different depending on region.

Central Vietnamese cuisine features big and spicy tastes, and includes many dishes with Thai and Cambodian influence, such as beef soups or noodle with pork. You'll also find plenty of delicious banh mi in this region, crispy French baguettes with about 70 years of Vietnamese influence.
The Northern cuisine is famous for hearty pho or bun cha (fried pork) with vermicelli. In the south, things get much sweeter as sugar and coconut milk are central ingredients to many dishes.

While in Vietnam, we recommend sampling a variety of regional foods, but staying away from raw ingredients. Since you didn't grow up there, you haven't developed the right gut bacteria to deal with regional microorganisms. At best, you'll experience a bout of traveler's diarrhea; at worst, you'll ruin your vacation.

Your Itinerary Might Ruin Your Trip

Many things in Vietnam are simply not on a tight schedule so you'll find you'll have much more fun if you're flexible and don't over pack your schedule. Many people underestimate how much time they'll want to take to simply wander or take in an afternoon coffee. An easy itinerary will allow you to spend more time on a new discovery. Err on the side of under-booking rather than over-booking.

Additionally, be aware of the timing of your itinerary. Some trips into the mountains will leave or return at odd hours, with the potential to leave you waiting on the sidewalk in the wee hours of the morning for an inn or a restaurant to open.

If possible, use a Vietnamese specialist as a travel guide. We use because they will customize an itinerary around your interests and they'll be able to help you plan trips so you’re never left stranded.
Using Vietnam Airlines is always a positive and very affordable experience. The service is excellent and you'll leave and arrive on schedule.

Your Memories Aren’t Yours Alone

You'll be amazed at how quickly your photo library will expand on your trip to Vietnam. From rice fields and mountains to beautiful buildings, stunning beaches and interesting people, Vietnam is a place you'll always want to remember.
Although it might be tempting to try and sneak pictures of people because you feel like it might be awkward or insulting to ask for permission, consider that it's far more awkward and insulting to be caught taking a picture you didn't ask for.
If you find yourself wanting to take pictures of people, strike up a conversation with them and politely request a photo. Some folks will readily allow it, while others might make stipulations. This photo of a Dzao woman in customary dress cost us a $2 purse, a small price to pay for such a priceless picture.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Expert Tips for Traveling to Vietnam

6 Expert Travel Tips for Visiting Vietnam

At first glance, a vacation in Vietnam may seem a little intimidating.  Albeit beautiful, this developing socialist country has a longstanding history of conflict with Eastern and Western empires, including the United States.  Whether you’re familiar with travel or you’re just getting your feet wet, Vietnam could appear out of reach – for now.
If you’ve put the idea of travelling to Vietnam on the backburner, get excited. Your Vietnamese vacation is not out of reach.
Over the last ten years, we’ve travelled to Vietnam extensively and have found a young, energetic culture that’s eager to put the past in the past.  The growing population of Vietnam strives to be unique and independent from China.  Here, you’ll always find a friendly smile, comfortable accommodation, exquisite cuisine and a welcoming culture - not to mention some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet.

1. Getting There
Vietnam is a remote country, seemingly tucked away from the rest of the Southeast Asia.  Plan on some jet lag and give yourself time to recover for a day or two before planning any major activities. Relax and enjoy the immersion.

You must have a passport and visa to enter Vietnam.  Tourist visas are inexpensive but must be arranged in advance.  There are several services available on the internet that will provide a visa on arrival service for you. We’ve come to know and trust Mr. Phong at LVP Travel for this service, or you can apply directly to Vietnamese immigration
In order to apply for a visa, you must have your exact travel dates (arrival and departure) and identification details ready for the application, as well as two additional, recent passport-style photos for each traveler (you can take them yourself with your cell phone camera). 

Visa on Arrival
Using a visa on arrival service is fairly straightforward: Simply fill out the details of your trip and pay the fee.  You will receive a stamped acceptance letter within a couple of days from the Vietnamese government, along with another form to fill out.   Show this letter and form to the airline when you check in.  You’ll also show it to the immigration officer when you arrive. 
Finally, expect to pay the immigration “stamping fee” of $25 US dollars per person CASH ONLY (for standard tourist visa) on arrival at the airport. The immigration office does not provide change, so expect to bring $25 per person exactly.
If you apply directly to the immigration service, you’ll be able to use a credit card online to pay your fees.

2. Accommodations
There are a wide range of accommodations throughout Vietnam.  In the larger cities, you’ll find world-class hotels, and a variety of decent and clean inns can be found almost anywhere throughout the country.  These small family-owned inns will provide a more authentic experience, as you will be dealing directly with owner/operators, and mom will literally make your breakfast!

3. Sights
It can be complicated to arrange sight-seeing on your own. Remember, you do not speak the native language, and Vietnamese are just beginning to learn English.  Most inns have tour desks in their lobbies that can help you find interesting and inexpensive day tours.  Many of the tours conducted in in the major cities will be culturally-oriented.  If you have children or teens accompanying you, you may want to head for the beach cities, where you’ll find more kid-oriented activities such as hiking, watersports and amusement parks. 

Pro Tip from a Seasoned Traveler:
Don’t cram your entire vacation with tours and activities. Take time to walk around the block, see the street food vendors, see the traffic jams and hear the propaganda broadcasts.  It’s part of the experience!

4. Money
Carry cash!  Credit cards are only accepted in the more expensive places, and cash is king in Vietnam.
Today in 2018, one US dollar equals nearly 22,800 VND Vietnamese, which means that when you visit one of the many prominent Western ATMs, you will be asking for many millions of dong!

Pro Tip from a Seasoned Traveler:
Keep your valuables close to your body near the edges of the streets.  While not unique to Vietnam, there have been some ‘drive-by’ thefts, especially in Saigon/Ho Chih Minh City.

5. Transportation
Domestic and international airline service is plentiful, pleasant and relatively inexpensive.
Train service is timely, inexpensive and connects most of the major cities.  There are a variety of train service classes available, from first class sleeper cabins to “coach” seats.

Cab and limousine service is abundant in the cities.  Have your hotel call a cab for you.  Fun fact: Vietnamese cabs are smaller than taxis in the US and you may have to sit sideways in the back seat.  Vans or SUVs are also used, particularly for airport trips where luggage is involved.

Tourists will enjoy a cyclo ride in old Hanoi, although this is really a tourist-only experience.  A cyclo is a bicycle with a passenger cart attached to the front.  It can be somewhat thrilling to ride through old Hanoi on the front of a cyclo, while other traffic seems to be headed right toward you!  Most Vietnamese now travel on motorcycles on in cars.

6. Street Food & Drinks
If you see street food that appeals to you, simply sit down on one of the low stools.  The vendor will hand you the food and you’ll pay the small fee.  There are no menus, what you see is what you get.  For your safety, only eat HOT street food!
While Saigon can be a bit more wild, the Vietnamese are fairly conservative and traditional.  Alcohol
is not overly-consumed, and most towns (including Hanoi) roll up the sidewalks at around 9pm.  Local beers are good, while the most widely available imported beer is Heineken.  Watch the bartender open the bottle for you, and wipe the lip before you drink.  Wine is scarce, but the wine industry is growing!  We do not recommend using ice since many water sources in Vietnam will contain pathogens that are difficult for tourists to process.  Your best bets are hot drinks and drinks that come to the table in sealed containers.

(7. Don’t Hassle Me, I’m Local)
When crossing the street, you can wait for the crosswalk light to change, but for a more authentic adventure, cross like a local!  First, watch the way locals do it – they walk slowly (do not run!) and make themselves very visible.  The motorcycle drivers are skillful, and merge and weave around the pedestrians.  It looks dangerous but when done correctly, it is very efficient!  When in doubt, just follow along and stick close to a local – they know how to do it and are happy to help! 

Recommended Adventures when Visiting Vietnam

Halong bay
Take a cruise on Halong bay for an unforgettable adventure. This naturally-scenic bay features caves for you to explore, kayaking, swimming, fishing and more. Different boats have different offerings and luxury classes.

There are numerous sightseeing opportunities, including the Vietnamese museum, Ho-Chi-Minh’s mausoleum, the one pillar pagoda, the temple of literature, the water puppet show, the French quarter, Hoan Kiem lake, and the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” museum.  The best experiences in Hanoi, however, are about getting out and walking the streets, simply to soak in the authentic and distinctive lifestyle.

Hoi An
This beautiful small town on the east coast in central Vietnam is very walkable. In fact, much of the town is off limits to motorized vehicles.  If you want some tailoring done, this is the place.  Additionally, you’ll find many excellent restaurants to choose from.  A highlight is to visit the riverfront at dusk and send a candle down the river for good luck. 

TIP: Food in the central or south region is usually sweet and hot.  If you prefer milder seasonings, be sure to inform the waiter.

Nha Trang
Take your kids to this seaside town for the Vinpearl amusement park.  Dad can also enjoy the Golf Course south of town.  More cruise ships are starting to visit this port.  There are many world-class resorts to choose from as well. 

TIP:  check prices in beachfront restaurants before you order, as there have been reports of price gouging.

Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon)
The locals still call it Saigon, and it is the most cosmopolitan, international trading and financial center in Vietnam.  All the best hotels and resorts are here as well, but due to international influence, it is not as authentic as Hanoi.

A pleasant overnight sleeper train from Hanoi takes you to Lao Cai (literally on the Chinese border), where you will board a bus to SaPa.  This is where all of those rice paddy terrace pictures are taken.  The people that live here are indigenous ethnic tribes of H’mong and Dzao.  They live in traditional un-heated huts, grow their own food and weave their own clothing.  This is about as authentic as it gets. 
This is an affordable and enlightening adventure you will never forget.  If you enjoy trekking or climbing, this is a great jumping-off point for Fanxaipan (Fan-See-Pan) mountain, Vietnam’s highest point.  A three-day trip to Sapa on a weekend could also include visits to BacHa Sunday market, a sight worth planning around.

Whatever your taste, we’re sure you will find Vietnam interesting and unique, with friendly people, fine accommodations and incredible cuisine.  Check your options and further travel tips at, and let Mr. Phong arrange a trip of a lifetime for you and your family!