By John Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
I recently took a long overdue vacation to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and it was a really exciting experience, one that I gleaned many lessons from.
Here are my 7 tips for surviving Vietnam when you’re not Vietnamese!
(The exchange rate on my trip was ₫22,500 Viet Nam dong [VND] per $1 U.S. dollar [USD]. All prices will be in USD for the remainder of this piece.)
1. Start your research at the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs and Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There is plenty of general information about any country you plan on visiting, including info on visas, safety, local laws, health, and transportation.
I advise that you start scheduling your appointments for preventative vaccines and medications at the same time you are planning your visa. Your body needs time to build up immunity so it’s a good idea to get this done well before your trip.
2. Get an unlocked GSM cellphone. Smartphones are preferred, but a ‘dumbphone’ will work just fine. Take precautions if you have an expensive phone because thieves are notorious for pickpocketing or just riding by and snatching your phone as you snap a picture. Sim cards are extremely cheap. Mine was $10 and had over 100 minutes.
Even if you have no one to call, it’s great to have one for emergencies. Enter important phone numbers into the contact list like that of a close friend, family member, local police, local fire department, and facilities for medical emergencies.
The calculator function on your phone also becomes extremely useful when the locals don’t understand “How much?” or “Price?” Punch it in your calculator and you’ll get a nod or shake of the head. Then they will punch in their own number to counteroffer.
3. Remember those crazy stories you heard about motorcycles in Vietnam? They are all true.
As a pedestrian, don’t expect any vehicle to yield. They will only yield as a last resort.
Vehicles will drive around you. Walk at a normal pace and trust the driver to see you.
Pedestrian traffic lights do not blink when they’re about to change to a ‘don’t walk’ signal, so give yourself plenty of time to cross. Otherwise, you might get caught in the middle of the road looking like a deer in the headlights as cars and motorbikes come speeding at you.
If you’re staying in a nice hotel, you can ask the doorman to help you out. I did see this once. Go single file and leave space between each other.
4. It’s important to know legit taxis. There are two major taxi companies in Ho Chi Minh City, Vinasun and Mai Linh. Take extreme caution when getting in other taxis with other names.
My friends and I encountered one incident when we got into a taxi at the Ben Thanh market. We didn’t suspect anything until the cab fare jumped an exorbitant amount of $9 when the actual fee should have been $5. After getting back and Googling this, it looks like the scam has been around since 2010.
Have pics of legit taxis with you. Scammers like to use names that are close to Vinasun and Mai Linh. Make sure the taxi color is correct. Snap a photo of the number plate on top of the taxi.
Vinasun and Mai Linh taxis are equipped with a real-time GPS map so you can check to see if the driver is intentionally taking a longer route. Threaten to call the police. Scammers will usually drive off first.
In general though, the police in Vietnam are slow so don’t count on them if you really need their help.
5. Watch your step! When entering buildings, make sure to step over a lip in doorways. The lip is used to keep water out. I tripped three times in the same spot when leaving my hotel. It’s especially annoying since you’ll most likely be in flip-flops.
Bathtubs are also one foot higher than the bathroom floor. I highly advise you to sit on the bathtub rim first. Then, slowly step over with both feet and get ready to stick your landing. The floor is slippery from your shower because water is typical drained from the bathroom floor in Vietnamese hotels.
6. Bring ear plugs and sleeping medication if you’re a light sleeper. Don’t expect much sleep in three-star hotels. My stay was in the Universe Central Hotel Saigon. There were plenty of loud people, construction, water running through pipes, and crowing roosters.
Roosters were doodling around throughout the day during part of my stay, but weirdly, the next day, they were gone. Not sure if they were eaten or not.
For light sleepers, I advise a four- to five-star hotel, as we had much better sleep results there.
7. Be safe with money and valuable possessions. Make sure you keep big bills somewhere safe and keep little bills in a place with convenient access. Keep your bills organized.
You’ll be dealing with $1000 bills, $10,000 bills, and $100,000 bills. Try to remember color and prepare.
This way, you’re not fumbling with bills and being eyed by all the locals. That’s likely to get your money snatched. (end)
John Liu is co-publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.