10 Tips for travellers in Vietnam

This is by no means an extensive list and I welcome input from you guys.  I had a discussion with a group of expats from America, Canada, Philippines and England last night as well as a few local Vietnamese.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that in my own personal experience, I have had nothing but respect and friendliness from the Vietnamese and I have not personally experienced theft or violence, but I’m not silly and I realise it is out there.

  1. When carrying cameras, phones etc try not to make it too obvious.  One of the biggest problems is that tourists (like me) like taking photos and we extend the camera/tablet/phone at arm’s length on the side of the road.  We’re asking someone to please steal it.  When walking down the street, keep your electronic gadgets on the side furthest away from the traffic.  They ride in pairs and the passenger’s job is to snatch the item.  They are gone before you even realise what has happened.  Same goes for handbags ladies (and metrosexual males).

    Traffic in saigon

    Traffic in Saigon

  2. When crossing the road, look left, look right and keep looking left and right.  In Vietnam it is not uncommon for people to drive on the wrong side of the road.  Once you decide to cross, maintain a steady pace.  Do NOT run.  The drivers here will anticipate your movements and drive around you.  If you run, you stuff up their anticipation and chances are you will get run over.  If you think you are going to get hit, slow down or stop, but DON’T run.  I saw a girl panic and run this morning and I screamed out to her before she ran into oncoming traffic.
  3. Learn some basic pleasantries – like thank you “Cám ơn” and sorry “xin lỗi” and Have a Nice Day “có một ngày tốt đẹp”. Even if your pronunciation is bad (like mine) most people are appreciative of the effort and will go out of their way to help you.
  4. When catching a motor bike or taxi (without a meter) negotiate the price beforehand.  It helps to have an idea of what the price should be, (ask someone if you can) but even if you don’t, act like you do!  It saves arguments when you get there.  same goes for any other service like shoe cleaning (I got caught today!).

    Shoe Cleaning in Saigon

    Shoe Cleaning in Saigon

  5. Be wary of anyone asking if you would like to hold whatever it is they are carrying so they can take a picture of you.  They will try to hit you up for an unreasonable amount of money (I got caught on my first day – I held a coconut seller’s yolk and then got hit up for 150,000 dong – a coconut is worth about 15,000 – 20,000).  See rule number 4.
  6. Street vendors are going to try and get as much money as they can off you.  Whatever price they first ask is probably going to be way too high.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate.  I had a girl ask me for 150,000 dong (A$8.33) for post cards I had bought the day before for 15,000 (A$0.83).  I told her she was “cong cong ding” which means “crazy” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know how to spell it correctly, or even if this is correct pronunciation, but she understood me).  I ended up buying 2 lots for 40,000 (A$2.22) total.  Still paid her a little more (because I enjoyed the bartering) but nowhere near the amount she was asking.

    Street Vendor in Vietnam

    Street Vendor in Vietnam

  7. Try and make friends with locals – they will advise you of the things to do and not to do and help when you are stuck.  I have a few people over here I can ring if I need help.  I most often have to ring if I am trying to explain something which is way beyond my limited knowledge of Vietnamese (non la (hat), ao dai (dress), cam on (thanks)).  It is hard asking for directions when you can only say dress, hat, thanks!
  8. Google is your friend.  I wanted to but a kettle, towel and a couple of other small things yesterday so I searched for “appliance sale” in google maps.  It gave me the address of a shopping mall not too far away and I managed to save 0ver 400,000 dong  (A$22.22), including travel costs, by not buying at a local shop.
  9. Everything in the city centre is expensive.  A Café Latte in the city is generally 85,000 dong (A$4.75) which is about the same at home.  By buying just out of the city, it is anywhere from 28,000 dong to 65,000 dong (A$1.55 – $3.60).  Of course, if you go too far out of the city into the country, your chances of finding a Café Latte that tastes ANYTHING like a Café Latte is remote. Of course the local coffee is much cheaper, but it is an acquired taste – it is a very strong coffee generally served with condensed milk.
  10. Don’t be scared to try the local food. My only rules with food (and I have only ever been sick once in Malaysia in about 1995 and I have been to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Vietnam twice and Vanuatu in the pacific) is make sure it is cooked, be very careful with seafood (I tend to eat seafood early in the day when it is most likely to be fresh) especially in the streets and in local markets – restaurants are normally fine.  If you are eating fruit, don’t eat the skin (eg an apple).  When you buy it in the markets, it has been washed with local water and that will make you sick.  I like to eat fruits like bananas, oranges, dragon fruit (not the skin) and mangoes, otherwise I peel them.  Don’t of course, drink the local water – always drink bottled water.  I even brush my teeth with bottled water and I am careful when I shower not to swallow any water.
    Bánh Canh

    Bánh Canh in Vietnam

     

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Saigon – red lights are cautionary and zebra crossings downright dangerous

In a city of 10,000,000 people, it is estimated that there are 3,500,000 motorcycles and 340,000 cars and this makes for some extremely interesting traffic issues! (I actually suspect these numbers are out of date now – I believe not only have the numbers grown but also the number of cars has grown in relation to the number of motorbikes, but I have no proof of this).

The traffic here is one of my main sources of amusement.  I can sit at a cafe and just watch it for hours.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing now!  U-turns in the middle of a busy street, horns honking continuously, lanes ? what are they, red lights – cautionary at best and zebra crossings, well they are downright dangerous for a westerner.  Two only on a bike? you’ve got to be kidding – you can fit the whole family and then carry a load as well.  Helmets – well they are compulsory and apparently there are large fines for not wearing one – but most of them are softer than an ice cream carton at home. Driving  up the wrong side of the road seems to be totally acceptable as is driving and parking on the footpath.

We teach our kids at home to look right, look left then look right again before crossing the road.  Well here of course they drive on the right hand side of the road, so here it is “look left, then look right, then look left again and start crossing the road, then look left and look right, walk at a steady pace, look left and look right, look left and then right and step onto the footpath after you have looked left and then right – then look left and right again”.

Why did I say zebra crossings are dangerous for westerners?  Because in the west, once we step onto a zebra crossing, the traffic must stop to let us cross.  Here, there is no such courtesy.  The only time I cross at a zebra crossing is when there are traffic lights and even then, remember red lights are at best cautionary and follow the “look left, look right” mantra.

The  worst and most dangerous thing you can do when crossing the road here is run – that’s how tourists get killed here.  If you walk at a steady pace, they will maneuver around you.  If you hesitate or worse, run, then they can’t anticipate where you will be properly and you end up causing an accident. In fact, here in Saigon they have traffic police whose sole job is to help westerners cross the road!

Parking – Vietnamese seem to believe that the footpath is for parking and the road is for walking.  Mind you, I have almost twisted my ankle a few times walking on the footpath, so really walking on the road is probably safer.  You have never seen anyone who can park motorbikes like the Vietnamese – they make sardines in a can look spaced out!

After saying all of this, the traffic flow in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the best I have seen anywhere.  I was recently in Manila, a city of 16,000,000 and the traffic was gridlock.  Look at Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane – traffic is a nightmare.  In Saigon, even in peak hour traffic, the traffic flows constantly, albeit slowly and so far as I have seen, it has the best traffic flow of any city in the world.