Receiving over 12 million tourists last year in 2023, Vietnam is a popular destination in Southeast Asia that is known for its breathtaking limestone cliffs, emerald bays, and ancient cities.
Having spent an adventurous two weeks in Vietnam, I share must-know travel tips that are especially useful for first-time visitors.
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1. Best Places To Visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a long, thin country with eight regions. From a travel perspective, the country can be split into three areas: northern, central, and southern.
Below are Vietnam’s most popular destinations and the top things to see and do in each location.
Best Places in Northern Vietnam
The northern regions of Vietnam are known for their stunning natural landscapes where visitors get to see lush mountains, iconic emerald bays, terraced rice fields, and limestone karsts.
📍 Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is world-famous for its spectacular limestone cliffs submerged in emerald waters.
For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, try deep water soloing in Lan Ha Bay which is part of Ha Long Bay.
The capital city of Hanoi is the second-largest city and home to one of the major international airports. The Old Quarter area has narrow and bustling streets filled with motorbikes, delicious food, and historical sites.
Top attractions in Hanoi include:
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a structure that carries the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the founder of modern-day Vietnam
- Temple of Literature, a traditional architecture dedicated to Confucius
- Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular lake at the heart of Hanoi
One of the best things I did in Hanoi was an Old Quarter street food tour. If you do this early in your Vietnam trip, you’ll easily learn what authentic Vietnamese food to try for the rest of your trip.
📍 Ha Giang
Ha Giang is one of the more rural areas in northern Vietnam and is known for its epic mountain scenery and ethnic minorities.
Ha Giang’s most epic activity is a road trip through the Ha Giang Loop.
📍 Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is another UNESCO World Heritage Site called the “Ha Long Bay on Land” for its green rice paddies and limestone cliffs.
Top attractions in Ninh Binh include the Bai Dinh Pagoda, the Trang An boat ride, and the Lying Dragon Mountain view.
If you have limited time in northern Vietnam, Ninh Binh is a good destination for a day trip from Hanoi. I booked this Ninh Binh day tour that took me to all the top attractions around the area.
📍 Sa Pa
Sa Pa is a more remote town, known for rice terraces and mountains.
It’s a great place for nature lovers who want to experience hiking through the paddies and staying at a homestay.
🍀 My Take on Northern Vietnam
I visited Hanoi, road-tripped on the Ha Giang Loop, did a day trip to Ninh Binh, and rock-climbed in Lan Ha Bay. Here are my honest opinions of each place:
- Hanoi’s traditional Vietnamese food was phenomenal, but the air quality was poor, and crossing the streets was terrifying. I share things to do and skip in this Hanoi guide.
- While Ha Long Bay is stunning, Lan Ha Bay is just as beautiful and quieter, which made the trip there very worth it. Rock climbing in that area was breathtaking.
- Riding a motorbike on the Ha Giang Loop was epic and one of my most memorable experiences in Southeast Asia.
- I wish I had done a longer trip to Ninh Binh, so I could have seen some of its hidden gems as well. If you have limited time like I did, Ninh Binh is a great day trip from Hanoi.
Best Places in Central Vietnam
Central Vietnam is known for its beautiful beaches and well-preserved historical sites, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
📍 Hoi An
Hoi An is a well-preserved ancient town that’s also known as the tailoring capital of the world and the food capital of Vietnam.
The area is fairly touristy, but small and fun. It’s filled with lanterns and cultural heritages, and many visitors come here to get high-quality tailored clothes.
Check out great things to do in Hoi An.
📍 Da Nang
Da Nang is a coastal city known for its pristine beaches (My Khe Beach is the most well-known one) and the clusters of marble hills called Marble Mountains.
Hue is a town known for its rich history, particularly for the Imperial City, a vast complex of palaces, temples, and gates.
📍 Phong Nha
Phong Nha is a town that’s closer to being in the north-central area of Vietnam than the central region. It’s renowned for its mesmerizing natural wonders, particularly Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world.
The cave is part of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for other stunning landscapes.
🍀 My Take on Central Vietnam
I visited Hoi An and the nearby Da Nang over four days. Here are my honest opinions on them:
- Hoi An is a pedestrian-friendly small town with a picturesque atmosphere. Visiting Hoi An was a nice change of pace for me after I spent most of my time in northern Vietnam jumping off rocks and riding a motorbike around the mountains. I highly recommend getting affordable custom clothes here.
- Da Nang is a more residential area and was a nice day trip. If I had more time in Vietnam, I would have liked to visit its beaches.
Best Places in Southern Vietnam
Southern Vietnam is known as the economic powerhouse of the country and is also well-known for the Mekong Delta, a vast region with waterways and floating markets.
📍 Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, also called Saigon, is Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan city with an active nightlife.
Its most famous attractions include the War Remnants Museum (which is about the Vietnam War, which they call the American War) and the Cu Chi Tunnels used during the wars.
📍 Nha Trang
Nha Trang is a coastal city known for its stunning beaches. It’s a popular place for water sports enthusiasts, as it has everything from snorkeling to parasailing to banana boat rides.
📍 Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc is a tropical island known for its great beaches and the surrounding tropical landscapes.
🍀 My Take on Southern Vietnam
I had two weeks in Vietnam and traveled to the northern and central areas, so I didn’t make it to the Southern portion of Vietnam.
If you have less than two weeks in Vietnam and want to explore each region’s destinations sufficiently, you’ll have to choose between visiting northern or southern Vietnam.
2. When To Visit Vietnam
Vietnam has both a tropical and temperate climate. The peak season is typically from December to March and July to September.
☀️ Best Time To Visit Vietnam
The best time to visit Vietnam varies by region since each one has its own distinct weather conditions.
- Northern Vietnam: The best time to visit is from October to February when the climate is cooler and dryer with average temperatures of 60 °F to 75 °F.
The rainy season in northern Vietnam is from May to October.
- Central Vietnam: The best time to visit is from February to April if you plan to mostly stay in the city. If you want to spend most of your time at the beach, May to August is the best time since the weather is warm, with temperatures varying from 70 °F to 95 °F.
- Southern Vietnam: The best time to visit is from November to April when it’s the dry season and average temperatures vary from 70 °F to 90 °F. May to October, like in northern Vietnam, is the rainy season with high humidity.
Monsoon season is from May to September in northern Vietnam and May to October in southern Vietnam. These are the times you will likely experience heavy rainfall.
🍀 My Experience With Vietnam’s Weather
I traveled to Vietnam from late October to early November and experienced mostly warm days with some intermittent rain and cloudy days.
The humidity felt high compared to the United States, so I was most comfortable in loose-fitting clothes.
3. How Long To Spend in Vietnam
Vietnam is a medium-sized country where visitors typically spend ten to fourteen days traveling.
🗓️ How Many Days Do You Need in Vietnam?
First-time visitors should spend at least a week in Vietnam to visit either the north or south side of the country and see multiple areas in that region.
- With three to five days in Vietnam, you have enough time to visit Hanoi in the northern region or Ho Chi Minh City in the southern region. You can also plan a day trip from either city, but you won’t have much time for anything else.
- With one week in Vietnam, you can focus on visiting either northern or southern Vietnam. You can likely only visit two to three areas in that region depending on how much you want to move around.
- With two weeks in Vietnam, you can explore two regions of the country. This will give you enough time to see the different towns, cities, and landscapes.
- With three weeks or more in Vietnam, you can slowly travel around the country, starting from either the south or north side. You’ll also get to visit more remote areas like the Son Doong Cave.
🍀 How Long I Stayed in Vietnam
I spent 12 days in Vietnam and that gave me enough time to visit the northern and central areas. At that point, I felt like it was a good time to leave Vietnam and come back on a second trip.
Three or more weeks in Vietnam would have been a bit tiring at the rate I was moving around the country. That said, if I had an extra week in Vietnam, I would have prioritized visiting natural wonders like the ones in Phong Nha over going to the south.
4. Entry Requirements for Vietnam
The entry requirement for Vietnam is straightforward for US citizens.
🛃 Vietnam’s Visa Requirements
When applying for a Vietnam visa, read and follow all instructions closely. One of my friends submitted photos incorrectly, and their visa was delayed. Another friend’s entire Vietnam trip was canceled because they didn’t check the right boxes in the application.
✈️ Vietnam’s Passport Requirements
Like many other destinations, your US passport must be valid for 6 months from your Vietnam trip.
5. Budgeting and Cash in Vietnam
Vietnam is a very affordable tourist destination in Asia.
💰 Expected Budget in Vietnam
Here’s approximately how much you can expect to spend when visiting Vietnam:
|Budget per Day
|Mid-Range Budget Travelers
🏧 Do You Need Cash In Vietnam?
Vietnam’s economy is still largely based on cash transactions, so make sure to bring cash. Credit cards are not widely accepted.
Vietnam doesn’t have a big tipping culture, but locals will gladly accept tips. I always had some cash on hand to tip tour guides.
💵 Are US Dollars Accepted in Vietnam?
Vietnam’s local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). The US dollar is not widely accepted, so make sure to exchange currencies.
The exchange rate was $1 USD = 24,300 VND at the time of writing.
🍀 My Vietnam Trip’s Budget
Vietnam is one of my cheapest vacation trips to date. I share all my travel expenses and credit card usage in this Vietnam budget breakdown.
The most expensive thing I bought in Vietnam was tailored clothes. The custom clothes are high-quality and still extremely affordable.
6. How To Get Around in Vietnam
You can easily travel around Vietnam without needing to rent a car.
✈️ Flying Into Vietnam
Vietnam has three international airports to fly into:
|Noi Bai International Airport (HAN)
|Da Nang International Airport (DAD)
|Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN)
|Ho Chi Minh City
Once you land in Vietnam, there are several common ways to get around the country.
✈️ Option 1: Domestic Flight
You can take domestic flights to get to the three different regions of Vietnam. These flights are usually fast and convenient and will save you a lot of transportation time.
If you’re flying on budget airlines that hop around Asia, be aware of bag weight limits with extra fees. I flew AirAsia and VietJet Air and both had a combined carry-on and checked-bag limit of 7kg (about 15 lbs).
🚌 Option 2: Bus and Sleeper Bus
Vietnam has an extensive and affordable bus system to get around the country. You’ll likely be able to find a bus that takes you from your location to your desired destination.
Vietnam also has a lot of sleeper buses, a type of bus designed for riders to sleep in, which can double as accommodation for the night.
🚆 Option 3: Train
Vietnam has several trains that connect major cities throughout the country. Heads up that the Vietnam railway’s official website can be difficult to navigate.
🚙 Option 4: Taxi and Grab
For shorter distances within an area, you can flag down a taxi or use Grab.
🚗 Option 5: Driver for Hire
In many places in Vietnam, you’ll find willing drivers who are ready to drive you to places for cheap (e.g., $30 USD for several hours).
How you hire these drivers can be very casual (one of my tailors in Hoi An called her brother to drive me around for the rest of the day), but make sure you trust the source who is connecting you.
🏍️ Option 6: Motorbike Rental
The streets of Vietnam are filled with motorbikes. 95% of registered vehicles are motorbikes. Renting one is relatively easy, but you need to ensure you have a proper International Driver’s License (IDP).
🍀 How I Got Around Vietnam
I got around in Vietnam using several of the transportation methods mentioned above. Here’s my honest opinion on traveling around Vietnam:
- The domestic flights are very convenient and relatively cheap. I booked a one-and-a-half-hour VietJet flight from Hanoi to Hoi An and it cost $24. Traveling by land would have taken over 13 hours.
- I found buses to also be convenient and cheap for slightly shorter distances. I took a bus from Hanoi to Cát Bà Island that cost $28 round-trip.
- I took a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Ha Giang for the stunning Ha Giang loop tour. The sleeper bus was very affordable, but I found it difficult to fall asleep at the beginning. Make sure to pack earplugs and a sleeping mask if you’re a light sleeper.
- Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia and it’s usually more convenient and cheaper than riding a taxi. I used Grab often in big cities and small towns, and thought it was easy to use.
- My Hoi An tailor connected me to a local driver to take me to several places in Da Nang for $28 in total. As mentioned above, getting in contact with these drivers can be done in a very casual way, and I felt safe since I trusted my tailor.
7. How To Stay Safe in Vietnam
Here are safety tips to keep in mind when traveling to Vietnam.
⚠️ Is Vietnam Safe to Visit?
Vietnam is considered a safe country to visit and is one of the safest destinations in Southeast Asia.
The most common crimes against tourists in Vietnam are petty theft such as pickpocketing and bagsnatching. Violence against tourists is rare.
💎 Common Scams in Vietnam
Here are common scams to watch out for in Vietnam:
- The driver scam involves a driver overcharging you, which is easy in Vietnam because the driver-for-hire economy is so casual there. Make sure to always agree on a price beforehand or use Grab.
- The gem scam involves the scammer selling you luxury items, usually jewelry, at discounted, wholesale prices, but the items are fake and worthless. Don’t buy valuable items from strangers.
- The motorbike rental scam involves a rental company asking you for your passport to hold as collateral. When you return the rental, they’ll claim that you damaged the vehicle and demand payment before giving back your passport.
💧 Is Tap Water Safe To Drink in Vietnam?
Tap water in Vietnam is not safe to consume. Hotels, restaurants, and tour operators will often provide bottled water.
Also, avoid getting drinks with ice. The general word of wisdom is to avoid eating raw vegetables or seafood in Vietnam to reduce your chances of food poisoning.
🦟 Does Vietnam Have Mosquitoes?
Vietnam has a tropical climate and disease-carrying mosquitoes (dengue fever is common), especially during the rainy season, so protect yourself as best as you can.
🍀 My Safety Tips for Vietnam
I didn’t have any issues with theft, scams, or violence in Vietnam. Based on my experience, I recommend these safety tips:
- One of the scariest things you may experience in Vietnam is crossing the street in bigger cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Make sure to learn how to cross the street safely in those places.
- It’s a good idea to pack insect repellent. I found mosquitoes to be a big problem in Vietnam. I was constantly applying bug-repellent lotion every time I stepped outside.
- As far as food is concerned, I was happy to eat street food and local cuisine, but avoided eating raw vegetables unless I was on a verified street food tour. I ended up having no stomach issues.
8. Language Barrier in Vietnam
Vietnam’s official language is Vietnamese.
🗣️ Is English Common in Vietnam?
Vietnam is English-friendly as long as you stay in tourist-friendly destinations. Vietnamese locals in tourist areas will speak some English and those in remote areas basically speak none.
Here are some common Vietnamese words and phrases to know while visiting Vietnam:
|Common Word or Phrase
🍀 Traveling Vietnam With Just English
You won’t have issues navigating Vietnam if you mostly stay in tourist areas or are with a local guide. For example, most businesses in Hanoi had no trouble understanding tourists while locals in Ha Giang were accustomed to seeing tourists with guides.
However, I went to two extremely local restaurants in Hanoi where they didn’t speak any English. In those scenarios, I ate whatever I saw the locals eat because no one spoke English and Google Translate wasn’t as helpful.
9. Cultural Differences in Vietnam
Vietnam is a developing country that has been transitioning to a more industrial and wealthier country in the past few decades. It’s also a religious country with more than half of the population identifying as Buddhist. Both of these things influence the local culture.
👟 Proper Etiquette in Vietnam
Vietnam has a few cultural differences that can be surprising to visitors, especially those coming from Western countries. Here are a few cultural norms to be aware of:
- Crossing the streets in a big city like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City may be one of the biggest shocks you’ll experience in Vietnam. Vehicles do not stop to wait for you to cross the street and rarely follow street signs.
One of the most important things to learn is how to cross the streets. You’ll have to step into the street while keeping an eye on oncoming traffic and walk in a straight, predictable path with a consistent pace so that vehicles can go around you.
- Vietnam doesn’t have the same cleanliness standards that you may be used to. You won’t see toilet paper or soap in many bathrooms (but you may see a bidet). Also, you won’t see many bathtubs and will simply see a showerhead in bathrooms.
It’s a good idea to carry TP and hand sanitizer when visiting Vietnam.
- Chopsticks are the main utensils used in Vietnam. Make sure to not stick them up in a rice bowl, as it’s similar to incense burning at funerals, which is bad luck.
- Vietnam, like some other Asian countries, has the concept of “saving face“, which is to behave in a respectful and dignified way. You can “lose face” by acting angry at small inconveniences, which is considered very disrespectful and embarrassing.
🍀 My Experience With Vietnam’s Culture
Crossing the streets of Hanoi was an experience in itself. I had a difficult time stepping into oncoming traffic the first two days and would often wait to cross with a local.
Other than that, the other thing I had to remember was to constantly carry some TP in a bag.
10. What To Wear in Vietnam
Here’s what to pack and wear in Vietnam.
👕 Clothes To Pack for Vietnam
Regardless of the season, Vietnam is generally a hot and humid country, so pack and wear loose-fitting clothes to stay comfortable.
Avoid packing jeans because they will be hard to dry if you get them wet (dryers are not common in Vietnam). Make sure to pack a rain jacket, as intermittent rain is frequent.
Overall, Vietnamese people dress in a more conservative way than people from the United States. Most locals won’t show much skin, but it’s fine to wear tight-fitting clothes in some areas.
🧣 Temple Dress Code in Vietnam
Some temples and religious sites in Vietnam require women to cover their knees and shoulders, so pack long skirts and pants. However, you’ll find that Vietnam is not as strict with its dress code as neighboring Thailand and Cambodia.
Some temples in Vietnam will also require you to take off your shoes, so pack sandals or shoes that are easy to take off. Again, you won’t see this as frequently in Vietnam compared to some neighboring countries.
👚 What I Wore for Vietnam
I bought light, long, and loose-fitting clothes in Vietnam to keep myself covered, but also cool. You can find many of these types of clothes for cheap there.
I did my jean shorts and cotton shirt on a cloudy day, but I regretted it due to the humidity. I highly recommend not packing any jeans.
11. Vietnamese Food To Try
One of Vietnam’s highlights as a visitor is its unique cuisine that you can eat at extremely affordable prices.
You’ll be able to try many of these dishes at local markets, night markets, food tours, and restaurants:
- Vietnamese coffee is a strong coffee with condensed milk; you’ll find it everywhere in Vietnam. A unique coffee drink to try in Hanoi is egg coffee, which I highly enjoyed, but I thought of it more as a dessert drink. In central Vietnam, try some salted coffee.
- Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich comprised of a variety of ingredients served between a French baguette (France once colonized Vietnam, hence the bread influence). It’s one of the most recognizable and familiar foods you’ll eat, but they make it extra delicious and fresh in Vietnam.
- Cao lau is a Hoi An specialty comprised of thick noodles with slices of pork. It’s one of my favorite food discoveries in Vietnam.
- Banh xeo is a savory Vietnamese crepe filled with different ingredients and I highly enjoyed them as a side dish in several places.
- Pho, a noodle dish, is Vietnam’s most famous dish. I truthfully didn’t have any while in Vietnam because I was too busy trying all the other new noodle dishes I wasn’t already familiar with.
One of the best things I did in Vietnam was a street food tour early in my trip. It allowed me to quickly learn about authentic Vietnamese food to try to eat for the rest of my trip.
🍀 My Favorite Dish in Vietnam
One of my favorite dishes in Vietnam was xoi gia (sticky rice with pork) at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hanoi which cost less than $2 with a drink.
Vietnam Trip Planner
To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planner below and use it as a starting point. The planner has country-specific travel information, an itinerary, a packing list, and a map with key places pinned.
The trip planner is built on Notion, which I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
Vietnam Travel Guides
- 🇻🇳 Vietnam Travel Tips: 11 Practical Things To Know
- ⛰️ 7-10 Epic Days in North Vietnam: 3 Itinerary Options
- 🏍️ Preparing for the Ha Giang Loop: Safety + Packing List
- 🏮 Hoi An Guide: 11 Great Things To Do + 3-Day Itinerary
- 👗 My Hoi An Tailor Experience: Prices and What To Know
- 🍜 Hanoi Travel Guide: 14 Great Things To Do, Eat and Maybe Skip
- 💰 Trip to Vietnam Cost: 2024 Budget Breakdown
- 💧 How to Deep Water Solo in Vietnam: What to Know + Tips
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