Vietnam tips: a first-timer’s guide

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Enthralling and enraging in equal amounts, Vietnam's long-held position as a travel icon is more than deserved.
Enthralling and enraging in equal amounts, Vietnam's long-held position as a travel icon is more than deserved.

Enthralling and enraging in equal amounts, Vietnam‘s long-held position as a travel icon is more than deserved. In no other country is the collision of Southeast Asia’s past, present and future so stark. At times, this clash can seem so confronting and confusing as to send even experienced travellers fleeing for the nearest luxury hotel. However, like most things in life, the more you put in, the more you get out – and in Vietnam just a little preparation will set you up for the trip of a lifetime.

1. Keep smiling

Keep smiling
Keep smiling

Despite the grumbles of many visitors, Vietnamese people are mostly just as friendly as their Southeast Asian counterparts. However, unlike in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos – where local residents are genuinely curious about who you are and where you’ve come from – Vietnamese people tend to ignore lost-looking foreigners unless you actually ask for help. But be assured that if you ask a local a question with a smile, you’ll almost certainly have it answered and the smile returned.

2. Be wary of taxi scams

Be wary of taxi scams
Be wary of taxi scams

For many, motorcycle taxis are the only way to truly see the thronging streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. However, although unlikely, scams can happen and your best protection is a decent knowledge of where you are going and points along the way. If you think you’re going the wrong way, simply tell your driver to pull over and flag down a new bike – those that stop should at least know the English names of the main tourist sights. Also, organise for a hotel pick-up from the airport – scam taxis are rife and, as my quickly lightened wallet can attest, far more expensive and stressful than the $5 you supposedly could save.

3. Know your night buses

Know your night buses
Know your night buses

Overnight buses are a great way to cover long distances and save on accommodation costs, but make sure you book a top bunk as far as possible from the loo (normally situated near the back). Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of buses don’t have working bathrooms and the further back you are, the worse the smell gets. Also, unless you have an iron bladder, don’t drink more than absolutely necessary, as rest stops seem to be purely at the whim of the driver and are skipped completely if the bus is running late. On one seven-hour bus trip – that ended up being a 16-hour voyage – I was very glad to have followed this tip. Not all of the other passengers had done so – enough said!