Vietnam is not the easiest of places for travellers with disabilities, despite the fact that many locals are disabled as a result of war injuries. Tactical problems include the chaotic traffic and pavements that are routinely blocked by parked motorbikes and food stalls.
That said, with some careful planning it is possible to enjoy a trip to Vietnam. Find a reliable company to make the travel arrangements and don’t be afraid to double-check things with hotels and restaurants yourself.
Some budget and many midrange and top-end hotels have lifts. Note that bathroom doorways can be very narrow; if the width of your wheelchair is more than 60cm you may struggle to get inside.
Train travel is not really geared for travellers with wheelchairs, but open tour buses are doable. If you can afford to rent a private vehicle with a driver, almost anywhere becomes instantly accessible. As long as you are not too proud about how you get in and out of a boat or up some stairs, anything is possible, as the Vietnamese are always willing to help.
The hazards for blind travellers in Vietnam are acute, with traffic coming at you from all directions. Just getting across the road in cities such as Hanoi and HCMC is tough enough for those with 20:20 vision, so you’ll definitely need a sighted companion!
The Travellers With Disabilities forum on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/travellers-with-disabilities) is a good place to seek the advice of other travellers. Alternatively, you could try organisations such as Mobility International USA (www.miusa.org), the Royal Association for Disability Rights (www.disabilityrightsuk.org) or the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org).
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Bargaining is essential in Vietnam, but not for everything and it should be good-natured – don’t shout or get angry. Discounts of 60% or more may be possible; in other places it may only be 10% – or prices may be fixed. Haggle hard in marketplaces and most souvenir stores, and for cyclos and xe om (motorbike taxis). Many hotels offer a discount; restaurant prices are fixed.
Vietnam has very complicated weather patterns. Broadly there are two completely different climate zones.
Anywhere south of Nha Trang is hot and dry between November and March and the rainy season is roughly late April to October. Conversely central and Northern Vietnam's rainy, cool season is October to March, and summers (April to September) are hot and steamy.
Central Vietnam is most affected by typhoons; August to November are the most stormy months.
Dangers & Annoyances
All in all, Vietnam is an extremely safe country to travel in.
- The police keep a pretty tight grip on social order and there are rarely reports of muggings, robberies or sexual assaults.
- Scams and hassles do exist, particularly in Hanoi, HCMC and Nha Trang (and to a lesser degree in Hoi An).
- Be extra careful if you’re travelling on two wheels on Vietnam’s anarchic roads; traffic accident rates are woeful and driving standards are pretty appalling.
For more than three decades, four armies expended untold energy and resources mining, booby-trapping, rocketing, strafing, mortaring and bombarding wide areas of Vietnam. When the fighting stopped, most of this detritus remained exactly where it had landed or been laid; American estimates at the end of the war placed the quantity of unexploded ordnance (UXO) at 150,000 tonnes.
Since 1975 more than 40,000 Vietnamese have been maimed or killed by this leftover ordnance. The central provinces are particularly badly affected, with more than 8000 incidents in Quang Tri alone.
While cities, cultivated areas and well-travelled rural roads and paths are safe for travel, straying from these areas could land you in the middle of danger. Never touch any rockets, artillery shells, mortars, mines or other relics of war you may come across. Such objects can remain lethal for decades. And don’t climb inside bomb craters – you never know what undetonated explosive device is at the bottom.
You can learn more about the issue of landmines from the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (www.icbl.org), or visit websites of the Mines Advisory Group, which clears landmines and UXO.
If you plan to spend your time swimming, snorkelling and scuba-diving, familiarise yourself with the various hazards. The list of dangerous sea creatures includes jellyfish, stonefish, scorpion fish, sea snakes and stingrays. However as most of these creatures avoid humans, the risk is very small.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
● Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)
● British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
● Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca)
● US Department of State (http://travel.state.gov)
Embassies & Consulates
Generally speaking, embassies won't be that sympathetic if you end up in jail after committing a crime. In genuine emergencies you might get some assistance.
If you have your passport stolen, it can take some time to replace it as many embassies in Vietnam do not issue new passports, which have to be sent from a regional embassy.
Emergency & Important Numbers
To call Vietnam from outside the country, drop the initial 0 from the area code.
|International Access Code||00|
|General Information Service||1080|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Formalities at Vietnam’s international airports are generally smoother than at land borders. That said, crossing overland from Cambodia and China is now relatively stress-free. Crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos can be slow.
Enter Vietnam by air and the procedure usually takes a few minutes. If entering by land, expect to attract a bit more interest, particularly at remote borders. Duty limits:
- 400 cigarettes
- 1.5 litres of spirit
- Large sums of foreign currency (US$5000 and greater) must be declared.
Your passport must be valid for six months upon arrival in Vietnam. Many nationalities need to arrange a visa in advance.
Some nationalities need a visa in advance for all visits, some don't. The standard length of stay for tourist visas is 30 days; for visa-exempt nationalities it is 15 days.
Types of Visas
The (very complicated) visa situation has recently changed for many nationalities, and is fluid – always check the latest regulations.
Firstly, if you are staying more than 15 days and from a Western country, you'll still need a visa (or approval letter from an agent) in advance. If your visit is less than 15 days, some nationalities are now visa-exempt (for a single visit, not multiple-entry trips).
Tourist visas are valid for either 30 days or 90 days. A single-entry 30-day visa costs US$20, a three-month multiple-entry visa is US$70. Only United States nationals are able to arrange one-year visas.
Until recently there have been two methods of applying for a visa: a Visa on Arrival (VOA) via online visa agents; or via a Vietnamese embassy or consulate. That is changing as e-visas have been rolled out (for a limited number of nationalities).
Visa on Arrival (VOA)
Visa on Arrival (VOA) is the preferred method for most travellers arriving by air, since it's cheaper, faster and you don't have to part with your passport by posting it to an embassy. Online visa agencies email the VOA to you directly.
It can only be used if you are flying into any of Vietnam's six international airports, not at land crossings. The process is straightforward: you fill out an online application form and pay the agency fee (around US$20). You'll then receive by email a VOA approval letter signed by Vietnamese immigration that you print out and show on arrival, where you pay your visa stamping fee in US dollars, cash only. The single-entry stamping fee is US$25, a multiple-entry stamping fee is US$50.
There are many visa agents, but there are some inefficient cut-priced operators out there. It's recommended to stick to well-established companies; the following two are professional and efficient:
Vietnam Visa Choice (www.vietnamvisachoice.com) Online support from native English-speakers. This agency also guarantees your visa will be issued within the time specified.
Vietnam Visa Center (www.vietnamvisacenter.org) Competent all-rounder with helpful staff well briefed on the latest visa situation. Offers a two-hour express service for last-minute trips.
Visas via an Embassy or Consulate
You can also obtain visas through Vietnamese embassies and consulates around the world, but fees are normally much higher than using a visa agent and (depending on the country) the process can be slow. In Asia, Vietnamese visas tend to be issued in two to three working days in Cambodia. In Europe and North America it takes around a week.
A pilot e-visa program introduced in early 2017 allows visitors to apply for visas online through the Vietnam Immigration Department. Citizens of 80 countries are eligible, including those from the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
E-visas are single-entry only, valid for 30 days (nonextendable), and cost US$25. Processing takes three to five days.
However this e-visa system has not exactly been efficiently implemented. The official website is glitch-prone and often fails to load. We've also heard of several cases where applications have gone AWOL and photos rejected for not being picture-perfect.
There have been reports of visitors being deported due to incorrect details (such as wrong date of birth or misspelt names) on the online application form. If you do apply for an e-visa, double-check that all the information you provide is 100% accurate.
E-visas can be applied for online at https://evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn.
At this time, citizens of the following countries do not need to apply in advance for a Vietnamese visa (when arriving by either air or land) for certain lengths of stay. Always double-check visa requirements before you travel as policies change regularly.
Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, UK
Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore,Thailand
It’s possible to enter Cambodia or Laos from Vietnam and then re-enter Vietnam without having to apply for another visa. However, you must hold a multiple-entry visa before you leave Vietnam.
Single-entry visas can no longer be changed to multiple-entry visas inside Vietnam.
Tourist visa extensions officially cost as little as US$10, and have to be organised via agents. The procedure takes seven to 10days and you can only extend the visa for 30 (US$40) or 60 (US$60) days depending on the visa you hold.
You can extend your visa in big cities, but if it's done in a different city from the one you arrived in (oh the joys of Vietnamese bureaucracy!), it'll cost you US$50 to US$70. In practice, extensions work most smoothly in HCMC, Hanoi, Danang and Hue.
It's possible but not at all practical for travellers using a visa exemption to extend their stay at the end of the visa-exemption (around US$35). But this can take up to 10 working days and you need to give up your passport during this time so it's not a useful option at all.
- Meals When dining with Vietnamese people, it's customary for the most senior diner to pay for everyone. It is still polite to offer to pay at least once.
- Homes Remove your shoes when entering a private house.
- Heads Don't pat or touch an adult (or child) on the head.
- Feet Avoid pointing your feet at people or sacred objects (eg Buddhas).
Insurance is a must for Vietnam, as the cost of major medical treatment is prohibitive. A travel insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is the best bet.
Some insurance policies specifically exclude such ‘dangerous activities’ as riding motorbikes, diving and even trekking. Check that your policy covers an emergency evacuation in the event of serious injury.
If you're driving a vehicle, you need a Vietnamese insurance policy.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Internet and wi-fi are widely available throughout Vietnam. Something like 98% of hotels and guesthouses have wi-fi; only in very remote places (such as national parks) is it not standard. Wi-fi is almost always free of charge. Many cafes and restaurants also have (free) wi-fi. Connection speeds are normally good. Internet cafes are also available, costing 3000d to 8000d per hour.
Most travellers also surf the net using 3G or 4G mobile phone connections.
On paper it looks good, but in practice the rule of law in Vietnam is a fickle beast. Local officials interpret the law any way it suits them, often against the wishes of Hanoi. There is no independent judiciary. Not surprisingly, most legal disputes are settled out of court.
The country has a very serious problem with heroin and methamphetamine use and the authorities clamp down hard.
Marijuana and, in the northwest, opium are readily available. Note that there are many plain-clothes police in Vietnam and if you’re arrested, the result might be a large fine, a long prison term or both.
Few foreigners experience much hassle from police and demands for bribes from travellers are very rare. If something does go wrong, or if something is stolen, the police can’t do much more than prepare an insurance report for a negotiable fee – take an English-speaking Vietnamese person with you to translate.
Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free place for gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. There are no official laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, or same-sex sexual acts in Vietnam. There's very little in the way of harassment. VietPride (www.facebook.com/vietpride.vn) marches have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012. The Hanoi event now takes place over several days in September and includes film screenings, talks, parties and a bike rally.
Vietnam has more progressive governmental policies than many of its Asian neighbours. In January 2015, a Law on Marriage and Family was passed that officially removes a ban on same-sex marriages (though these partnerships have not yet been legally recognised). Transgender people were granted the right in November 2015 to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognised.
Hanoi and especially HCMC both have gay scenes. That said, gay venues still keep a low profile and most gay Vietnamese choose to hide their sexuality from their families.
Gay travellers shouldn’t expect any problems in Vietnam. Checking into hotels as a same-sex couple is perfectly acceptable, though be aware that Vietnamese people don't react well to passionate public displays of affection, by heterosexual or nonheterosexual couples.
Interestingly, the former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, is openly gay and he often attended official government events with his husband and their children.
Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) has useful gay travel information and contacts in Vietnam. The gay dating app Grindr is popular in Vietnam.
Newspapers & Magazines Vietnam News (http://vietnamnews.vn) is a state-controlled English-language daily. Popular mags include The Word and AsiaLife.
Radio Voice of Vietnam hogs the airwaves all day and is pumped through loudspeakers in many rural towns (and Hanoi).
ATMs are found throughout the country, even in small towns. Cash is king but debit and credit cards can be used in many hotels.
The Vietnamese currency is the dong (d), which has been pretty stable against hard currencies for many years. Most establishments quote prices in dong, with some (mainly luxury hotels) giving US dollar rates.
There’s no real black market in Vietnam.
ATMs are very widespread. You shouldn’t have any problems getting cash with a regular Maestro/Cirrus debit card, or with a Visa or MasterCard debit or credit card. Watch for stiff withdrawal charges (typically 25,000d to 50,000d) and limits: most are around 2,000,000d; Agribank allows up to 6,000,000d and Commonwealth Bank up to 10,000,000d.
US dollars can be exchanged and used widely. Other major currencies can be exchanged at banks including Vietcombank and HSBC.
Most land border crossings now have some sort of official currency exchange.
Visa and MasterCard are accepted in major cities and many tourist centres, but don’t expect noodle bars to take plastic. Commission charges (around 3%) sometimes apply.
If you wish to obtain a cash advance, this is possible at Vietcombank branches in most cities. Banks generally charge at least a 3% commission for this service.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
- Hotels Not expected. Leave a small gratuity for cleaning staff if you like.
- Restaurants Not expected; 5% to 10% in smart restaurants or if you're very satisfied. Locals don't tip.
- Guides A few dollars on day trips is sufficient, more for longer trips if the service is good.
- Taxis Not necessary, but a little extra is appreciated, especially at night.
- Bars Never expected.
Hours vary little throughout the year.
Banks 8am–3pm weekdays, to 11.30am Saturday; some take a lunch break
Offices and museums 7am or 7.30am–5pm or 6pm; museums generally close on Monday; most take a lunch break (roughly 11am–1.30pm)
Temples and pagodas 5am–9pm
Vietnamese people rise early and consider sleeping in to be a sure indication of illness. Lunch is taken very seriously and virtually everything shuts down between 11.30am and 1.30pm. Government workers tend to take longer breaks, so figure on getting nothing done between 11am and 2pm. Many government offices are open till noon on Saturday, but closed Sunday.
Camera supplies are readily available in major cities.
Avoid snapping airports, military bases and border checkpoints. Don’t even think of trying to get a snapshot of Ho Chi Minh in his glass sarcophagus!
Photographing anyone, particularly hill-tribe people, demands patience and the utmost respect for local customs. Photograph with discretion and manners. It’s always polite to ask first and if the person says no, don’t take the photo.
Every city, town and village has some sort of buu dien (post office).
Vietnam has a quite reliable postal service. For anything important, express-mail service (EMS), available in the larger cities, is twice as fast as regular airmail and everything is registered.
Private couriers such as FedEx, DHL and UPS are reliable for transporting documents or small parcels.
If a public holiday falls on a weekend, it is observed on the Monday.
New Year’s Day (Tet Duong Lich) 1 January
Vietnamese New Year (Tet) January or February; a three-day national holiday
Founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Thanh Lap Dang CSVN) 3 February; the date the party was founded in 1930
Hung Kings Commemorations (Hung Vuong) 10th day of the 3rd lunar month (March or April)
Liberation Day (Saigon Giai Phong) 30 April; the date of Saigon’s 1975 surrender is commemorated nationwide
International Workers’ Day (Quoc Te Lao Dong) 1 May
Ho Chi Minh’s Birthday (Sinh Nhat Bac Ho) 19 May
Buddha’s Birthday (Phat Dan) Eighth day of the fourth moon (usually June)
National Day (Quoc Khanh) 2 September; commemorates the Declaration of Independence by Ho Chi Minh in 1945
- Smoking Vietnam is a smoker’s paradise (and a nonsmoker’s nightmare). People spark up everywhere, despite an official ban against smoking in public places. It’s not socially acceptable to smoke on air-conditioned transport – so those long bus and train journeys are usually smoke-free.
- Vaping There are vape stores in all the main cities.
A mobile phone with a local SIM card (and an internet-based calls and messaging app) will allow you to get online and make phone calls in Vietnam.
Domestic calls are very inexpensive using a Vietnamese SIM.
Phone numbers in Hanoi, HCMC and Haiphong have eight digits. Elsewhere around the country phone numbers have seven digits. Telephone area codes are assigned according to the province.
It’s usually easiest to use wi-fi and a calling app such as Skype. Mobile phone rates for international phone calls can be less than US$0.10 a minute.
If you have an unlocked phone, it’s virtually essential to get a local SIM card for longer visits in Vietnam. 3G and 4G data packages are some of the cheapest in the world at around 150,000d for 3GB and will enable you to use the net if wi-fi is weak; some packages include call time, too. Many SIM card deals allow you to call abroad cheaply (from 2000d a minute).
Get the shop owner (or someone at your hotel) to set up your phone in English or your native language. The three main mobile-phone companies are Viettel, Vinaphone and Mobifone.
Most regional phone codes (59 of Vietnam's 63 provinces) changed in 2017. Inevitably, many publications and web pages have yet to update numbers using new codes.
Vietnam is seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time/Universal Time Coordinated (GMT/UTC). There's no daylight saving or summer time.
- The issue of toilets and what to do with used toilet paper can cause confusion. In general, if there’s a wastepaper basket next to the toilet, that is where the toilet paper goes (many sewage systems cannot handle toilet paper). If there’s no basket, flush paper down the toilet.
- Toilet paper is usually provided though it’s wise to keep a stash of your own while on the move.
- There are still some squat toilets in public places and out in the countryside.
- The scarcity of public toilets is more of a problem for women than for men. Vietnamese men often urinate in public. Women might find roadside toilet stops easier if wearing a sarong. You usually have to pay a few dong to an attendant to access a public toilet.
Tourist offices in Vietnam have a different philosophy from the majority of tourist offices worldwide. These government-owned enterprises are really travel agencies whose primary interests are booking tours and turning a profit. Don’t expect much independent travel information.
Vietnam Tourism (www.vietnamtourism.com)
Saigon Tourist (www.saigon-tourist.com)
Travel agents, backpacker cafes and your fellow travellers are usually a much better source of information.
Vietnam has an excess of travel agencies in all the main tourism centres, most peddling tours. They can be useful for booking air, bus and train tickets though you can usually do this yourself online.
Sinh Tourist (www.thesinhtourist.vn) Nationwide chain with an excellent reputation. They also run open-tour buses.
Travel with Children
Children will have a good time in Vietnam, mainly because of the overwhelming amount of attention they attract and the fact that almost everybody wants to play with them.
- Big cities usually have plenty to keep kids interested, though traffic safety is a serious concern.
- Watch out for rip tides along the main coastline. Some popular beaches have warning flags and lifeguards.
- Local cuisine is rarely too spicy for kids and the range of fruit is staggering. International food (pizzas, pasta, burgers and ice cream) is available, too.
- Breastfeeding in public is perfectly acceptable in Vietnam.
Check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children for more information and advice.
Baby supplies are available in major cities, but dry up quickly in the countryside. You’ll find cots in most midrange and top-end hotels, but not elsewhere. There are no safety seats in rented cars or taxis, but some restaurants can find a high chair. Pack high-factor sunscreen from home as it’s not widely available; antibacterial hand gel is also a great idea.
Opportunities for voluntary work are quite limited in Vietnam as there are so many professional development staff based here.
For information, chase up the full list of nongovernment organisations (NGOs) at the NGO Resource Centre, which keeps a database of all of the NGOs assisting Vietnam. Service Civil International (www.sci.ngo) has links to options in Vietnam, including the Friendship Village (www.vietnamfriendship.org), established by veterans from both sides to help victims of Agent Orange. The Center for Sustainable Development Studies (http://csds.vn) addresses development issues through international exchange and non-formal education. Pan Nature (www.nature.org.vn/en) may have opportunities in the environmental sector.
International organisations offering placements in Vietnam include Voluntary Service Overseas (www.vsointernational.org) in the UK, Australian Volunteers International (www.australianvolunteers.com), Volunteer Service Abroad (www.vsa.org.nz) in New Zealand and US-based International Volunteer HQ (www.volunteerhq.org), which has a wide range of volunteer projects in Hanoi. The UN's volunteer program details are available at www.unv.org.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The Vietnamese use the metric system for everything except precious metals and gems, where they follow the Chinese system.
Vietnam is relatively free of serious hassles for Western women. There are issues to consider, of course, but thousands of women travel alone through the country each year and love the experience. Most Vietnamese women enjoy relatively free, fulfilled lives and a career; the sexes mix freely and society does not expect women to behave in a subordinate manner.
Many provincial Vietnamese women dress modestly (partly to avoid the sun), typically not wearing sleeveless tops or short shorts and skirts. Big-city women tend to wear what they like.
There’s some casual work available in Western-owned bars and restaurants throughout the country. This is of the cash-in-hand variety; that is, working without paperwork. Dive schools and adventure-sports specialists will always need instructors, but for most travellers the main work opportunities are teaching a foreign language.
Looking for employment is a matter of asking around – jobs are rarely advertised.
English is by far the most popular foreign language with Vietnamese students. There's some demand for Mandarin, French and Russian, too.
Private language centres (US$10 to US$18 per hour) and home tutoring (US$15 to US$25 per hour) are your best bet for teaching work. You'll get paid more in HCMC or Hanoi than in the provinces.
Government-run universities in Vietnam also hire some foreign teachers.