These are the 30 most important things you need to know about Northern and Central Vietnam. Our tips and advice come directly from our own experiences. We aim to help you to plan and feel prepared your Vietnam adventure.
Vietnam is a beautiful country offering a multitude of unique tourist opportunities. But visiting this diverse country comes with its own distinct set of challenges.
Mother Nature has been hard at work sculpting incredible landscapes and geological features from top to bottom of the S shaped country in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam is no stranger to tourism but visitor numbers have exploded over the last decade.
Gone are the days of authentic rural exploration as many more locals speak English now and building work is incessant in all tourist hot spots. There are few places remaining that could offer a similar experience to that of backpackers in the 80’s and 90’s.
In 10 years, Vietnam could potentially be as crowded with tourists as Thailand. A huge investment into infrastructure and facilities will be required to sustain all this growing tourism.
Feel free to click on any of the markers on the map below to find out more about each destination.
Continue on to read our top 30 things to know about Northern and Central Vietnam!
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1. The Weather is Unpredictable
There are 7 separate climatic regions spanning the long and narrow country of Vietnam. Each sub region can be examined in greater detail to determine preferable climate in order to give yourself the best shot at prime conditions for a particular area.
It is almost impossible to plan one full month of backpacking Vietnam around perfect weather. It just doesn’t happen! You will need to decide which part of Vietnam you would prefer to visit at the best time.
For those on a short holiday, it would be much easier to identify a region and plan around weather specifically. Bear in mind that weather often takes a back seat to timing it right for stunning green or golden rice terraces. Nothing ruins a trip faster than relentless rain every day.
To generalize: Vietnam is hot and humid year round with the exception of the far North where Winter gets cold in December and January. Vietnam’s Central Highlands have a temperate climate which means the region is usually cooler. Keep in mind May through October are considered rainy/monsoon/typhoon season across many parts of the country.
To individualize: Let’s break things down into popular tourist hot spots in Northern and Central Vietnam:
2. Understand Your Visa Options
You have a few options when it comes to purchasing a visa for Vietnam:
Option 1 – Don’t buy a visa which means you are only allowed to stay for up to a maximum of 15 days.
Option 2 – Buy a 30 day E-visa or visa on arrival if you plan to arrive into Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh or Da Nang international airports. There are options to stay longer than 30 days if you wish but the cost will be higher.
The easiest option is to purchase an E-visa but only if you plan to arrive by plane. This can be done on the Vietnam Immigration Website. The visa costs US$25 per person and permits you to stay for 30 days. You can also buy the longer visas here as well.
To obtain the E-visa, you will be required to upload a passport photo (no glasses/hats looking straight forward), a passport data page and pay the fee. The E-visa is usually processed within three business days. The E-visa will be emailed directly to you. See, e-asy!
Visa on arrival is a similar process where you upload your information but instead of you receiving a physical copy of your visa, you will receive it as you arrive into Hanoi, HCMC or Da Nang international airport terminal.
Option 3 – Arrive into Vietnam by any other means of transport than plane. Doing so will require purchasing a visa from a Vietnamese embassy within the country you depart from. Commonly tourists will travel from Laos or Cambodia into Vietnam by bus. Using Laos as an example, here are the addresses of Vietnamese embassies you can visit.
3. Vietnam is Bigger Than You Think
Vietnam’s unique S shape is a little over 1,000 miles in length (as the crow flies) and just 31 miles at its narrowest point.
You might be thinking “that doesn’t seem too big?”
But the problem isn’t with its length, it is with infrastructure. Here are a few examples for perspective:
-Driving distance from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh is around 1,050 miles and takes 36 hours by bus. By comparison, San Diego CA to Portland OR is roughly the same distance but takes less than half that time at approximately 17 hours drive time.
-New York City to Boston is 216 miles and takes around 3h 30m to drive with not much traffic. Hanoi to Sapa (very popular route) is 200 miles but takes 6 hours by bus.
When planning your Vietnam Itinerary, remember it can take a lot longer to travel between short and long distances than you are used to.
Think about how much time you have overall and stick to a certain region if you are limited. If you have 1 week, visit the Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay triangle. Alternatively, visit Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue. But stick to one region. Save the other regions for your next visit.
4. Cash is King – Stash the Plastic
The Vietnamese Dong (VND) is one of those currencies that will make you feel like you’ve won the lottery.
Today at the time of writing, 1 American Dollar = 23,449 VND and 1 British Pound = 28,836 VND.
So, let’s say you pay US$ 50 for a hotel room one night in Hanoi. That will set you back a whopping 1,172,460 (GBP 50 = 1,441,803 VND). Yes that is over one million dong!
Cash is king in Vietnam. Remember to always carry cash with you.
It’s important to carry US dollars as backup when traveling Vietnam. The currency is much stronger and can always be used in place of Dong in emergency. We had one such situation and luckily had dollars to make up the difference.
You will need cash to buy almost everything, with some exceptions such as upscale hotels and restaurants in major cities like Hanoi, HCMC and Da Nang.
Tour agencies will often accept credit cards and of course if you use any online booking services to book buses and trains you can use your cards. Instead of taking local taxi’s, use Grab (similar to Uber) and again you will use your debit/credit account for payments.
Credit cards are best left in your hotel safe. We never saw or heard of any pickpocketing but you won’t be able to use your cards so just leave them in the hotel safe.
You can withdraw money easily at ATM’s in Vietnam. Certain ATM’s may charge a small fee of 20,000 or 30,000 VND (around 1 US dollar) but be sure to always carry a credit card with no foreign transaction fees on withdrawals.
5. Barter for Everything
In Vietnam you have to barter for everything. And we mean everything.
Paying US$ 600 for a 3 day 2 night luxury Halong Bay cruise? Barter. Buying US$ 0.20 toothpaste at the market? Barter.
Example: Let’s say you want to buy a knockoff Fjallraven Kanken backpack in Hue’s pedestrian street shopping area. Ask a few of the owners how much they cost and you’ll be told wildly different amounts. Go back to the place offering cheapest price. Knock off a few dollars worth in dong and stick to your price. If they won’t go for it, turn around and begin to walk away. It’s likely the shop owner will run out and agree to your price.
Negotiating prices in Vietnam is a must, otherwise you will be bleeding money from your travel budget. Some people love the thrill of driving a hard bargain while others don’t much like confrontation and always overpay for things.
Another important time to negotiate is when you park a bicycle or motorbike. This is a high scam issue occurring all throughout Vietnam. The locals will try to take advantage of you. You will know when you pay 50,000 dong to park your bike and then another person right next to you barters down to 10,000 dong (yes, we are speaking from experience!).
It’s part of traveling Vietnam. Truth be told, we were so tired of having to negotiate by the end of our 30 days and could not wait to see price tags again!
It’s not about the money, it’s a principle matter. So barter and be confident!
6. Motorbikes Are the Way of Life
It is likely you will cultivate a love/hate relationship with motorbikes throughout your time in Vietnam.
You will learn to despise the sound of honking in the big cities and you will hate crossing roads.
However, when it comes time to hiring your own motorbike – in Phong Nha, Ninh Binh or to drive the Hai Van Pass between Hue and Hoi An – you will completely change your tune.
If you haven’t driven a motorbike before you arrive in Vietnam, we would advise you wait until you get to a rural town. Learning in Hanoi or HCMC could end in disaster!
Always wear a helmet. Always!
Check your motorbike thoroughly when hiring. Take photographs of the exterior so you have proof of previous scratches. Check the brakes work. Be vigilant and use your common sense.
7. Traffic is Absurd
Traffic in Vietnam can be frustrating and exhausting.
We don’t mean traffic in the sense of LA or New York where sheer volume of vehicles moving in the same direction causes huge jams.
We mean thousands of motorbikes criss-crossing in a free for all frenzy in the big cities.
There’s no order or designated road lines. There is no pedestrian safety concern! You can’t cross the road at a specified crossing with countdown timers because there are none and sidewalks are improvised motorbike parking lots.
If you’re driving your own motorbike, just be sure to drive confidently but defensively. The locals have been doing this their whole lives and are extremely good drivers in their particular set of driving skill circumstances!
They will avoid you as long as you stay in the middle of the scale between arrogant and panicking.
8. You Have Transport Options
Getting around Vietnam is part of the adventure but it’s also a pain in the ass. Poor infrastructure, roads and facilities can lead to slow, sleepless and sometimes unsanitary travel. But you have to remember you are in a country still developing its tourist industry.
Flying in Vietnam offers excellent value, easy travel and is very accessible but requires getting from airports to your destination. At times that further transport can be hugely inconvenient. Flying is best for those on short time frames who want to see more of the country without losing too much time. We always use Skyscanner to book our flights.
Trains are cheap and can be quite comfortable if 1st class sleeper carriages are booked. Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Da Nang and Hue have train stations on the main North – South line. Onward travel must be organized to reach Sapa, Halong Bay, Phong Nha and Hoi An if traveling by train.
Buses and the notorious sleeper bus are an extremely cheap and convenient way to travel Vietnam. You sacrifice comfort for getting on, falling asleep and waking up right in town at your next destination. Sapa, Halong Bay, Phong Nha and Hoi An can all be reached by bus.
9. Hope for the Best But Prepare for the Worst
Words to live by when traveling the world in general not just Vietnam. Think ahead and always try to have backup plans ready.
Example: We visited Northern and Central Vietnam in October which is known to be a mixed bag for weather conditions. Instead of booking a few places accommodation and travel ahead from Hanoi, we knew our best bet was to wait until we arrived in Sapa to gauge the weather. Sapa was shrouded in dense cloud for 2 whole days. So we waited and did our trekking tour a day later than we wanted to, but it meant our second day was in glorious sunshine. We hoped for good weather but prepared for bad weather.
Buses and trains will not be on time. We had to wait over 3 hours for our bus from Halong Bay to Tam Coc (Ninh Binh) but it’s fine because we gave ourselves an extra day in Tam Coc just incase.
Of course, you will need the spare days for this to work and it’s the reason we only made it to Hoi An. We had initially planned to go all the way down to HCMC but didn’t want to rush the North / Center or miss out because of delays and weather.
10. Patience is a Virtue
Patience is a character trait that will serve you well in Vietnam.
It would be easy to lose your cool with traffic, scammers or punctuality (especially in heat & humidity!) but you just have to remember you’re in a country with a different culture.
Take a step back and just let things be as they are. Adapt to your environment, grab a beer and be thankful that you are in a country cheap enough that you can bail yourself out of any situation!
11. Avoid an Upset Stomach with Simple Steps
There’s nothing worse than spending days of your itinerary bed bound because of a classic case of Montezuma’s revenge. Food poisoning, sickness and diarrhea are a holiday makers worst enemy.
How many days have you lost to illness on the road? To avoid that scenario in Vietnam, follow these 3 simple rules of thumb:
1. Do not drink tap water. Use bottled water and/or filter your own water. Even when you brush your teeth.
2. Do not eat street dodgy looking street food. If you’re not confident it looks hygienic, don’t eat it.
3. Go easy on the ‘Happy Water‘ – you will know what we mean when you get there!
12. Vietnamese People Are Lovely
We met some genuinely amazing Vietnamese people throughout our month long trip.
Often in popular tourist hotspots there can be a degree of disingenuousness from hotel staff or tour guides and we certainly came across those stereotypes on a few occasions. But for the most part the locals were welcoming and sincere.
The further away from recognized tourist destinations, the nicer the people became.
13. Vietnam is CHEAP to Travel
Cheap is a broad term to use. It’s all relative to the country you originate from and we can only speak for our own cost of living in the UK and US for reference.
For us, Vietnam was extremely cheap to travel and we have over 30 other countries to compare ‘cheap’ against. We ate an incredible 3 course meal with wine at Duong’s restaurant in Hanoi for under US$ 25. The place should have a Michelin star.
Transport, food and accommodation are cheap. If you have a healthy budget, you can live a lavish lifestyle in Vietnam for the duration of your visit!
Most tours and activities are surprisingly affordable with some exceptions. We were disappointed the adventure caves of Phong Nha were (relatively) expensive because they look fantastic.
14. Be Respectful
This is an obvious one and goes for all countries.
Please respect Vietnamese traditions when you have the opportunity:
-Remove your shoes and wear appropriate clothing in temples and houses. Be sure to wear a T-shirt and shorts/dresses that come to at least the knee.
-It’s rude to point your finger in Vietnam so don’t be that person! If you need to point to something, use your whole hand.
-Bargain with others but know when to accept the lowest price.
-Do not point your feet at any sacred object.
-Be sure to ask permission before taking a photo of anyone.
-Smile as much as possible. This is the universal symbol of happiness after all.
-Be aware of what your arms and hands are doing. Do not put your hands on your hips. Do not cross your arms over your chest. Lastly, do not pass anything over someone’s head.
15. Vietnamese Coffee is Awesome
Vietnam is the second highest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. A great fact that not many people know! Vietnam grows the Robusta coffee bean and accounts for 40% of the worlds production of Robusta.
Coffee shops and cafes are very popular in Vietnam, particularly where the French had most influence around Hanoi and Hoi An. Drinking coffee is a very Parisian thing to do in the ‘Paris of the East’.
Don’t miss out on trying egg coffee prepared with egg yolks and condensed milk! We recommend either Hanoi or Hoi An for the classiest and most authentic experience.
16. The Early Bird Catches the Worm
Getting up early is underestimated in the world of tourism. The amount of times we’ve had a place to ourselves at 6am – that goes on to be packed by 9am – is astonishing!
If you want the best chance of seeing a popular tourist attraction without hordes of people, the only way to successfully achieve this is by dragging yourself out of bed before sunrise and getting a wiggle on.
Vietnam is no different. Wake up early and see Hoi An ancient town with only locals sweeping the sidewalks outside their shops for company. Arrive at Mua Cave Viewpoint trail (Ninh Binh) at 6am and enjoy the summit in solitude. Another added bonus is the cooler weather in the early morning!
17. Tours Can Offer Surprisingly Good Value
Tours can offer great value for money in Vietnam as long as you do your research. Backpackers will often overlook tours in favor of visiting independently because surely that will be cheaper, right?
We originally thought this too, but this is not always the case in Vietnam.
Transport to/from along with having a guide seriously boosts convenience with a tour option. You will find prices to be similar as it would be to go it alone so unless you’re the super independent type, we recommend just checking out your options.
Checking tour options also gives you a benchmark for prices. After your research, you will have a better idea about your overall budget for Vietnam. We always have a quick flick through tours to build up an idea of prices and use them as reference points for booking tours in country.
18. Extra Copies of Your Passport Are Useful
Another one that applies to anytime you travel anywhere. Always take copies of your passports. Take backups of backups! You never know when you are going to need them.
Hotels will of course need your original copy to register you as a guest. It has been known in certain parts of Vietnam for the owners to keep hold of your passports as collateral. Leaving your passport is never a good idea so use passport and visa photocopies and suggest you will pay upfront for all your nights. That way there’s no need for collateral.
Another useful occasion to have passport copies is when you hire a motorbike at a rental place. Again, it’s not a good idea to leave your physical passport but usually they will accept photocopies.
Instances of vendors requesting to hold onto passports are becoming less frequent as tourism in Vietnam increases exponentially.
19. WiFi Signal is Surprisingly Strong in Vietnam
We hoped for good WiFi but expected poor connections and signal strength. On this occasion, Vietnam came through!
There wasn’t a single hotel we stayed at where we couldn’t access the internet. As long as you’re not downloading movies you should be fine. Coffee shops in Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue had ample speed for us to work on this website.
There are options for those who need to guarantee internet connections for business. You can pick up a 4G SIM card as you arrive into any of the major airports or pre purchase a pocket WiFi hub device. Both are very affordable options and leave nothing to chance.
If you find yourself desperate for access, just beeline for a coffee shop!
20. Travel Insurance is Vital
Traveling without insurance is never a smart idea. It’s always that classic case of Sod’s law (Murphy’s law) – that one time you don’t get travel insurance is the one time something happens and you lose a lot of money!
Some countries are safer to visit than others for various reasons. Vietnam doesn’t pose many natural disaster or terrorism issues but it does have the occasional theft and transport accident problem.
Mostly, it’s tourists who are a danger to themselves in Vietnam! If you plan to hire motorbikes at any point – definitely have insurance, just in case. Riding your first motorbike in Southeast Asia is like a rite of passage but be careful!
At times we weren’t sure if we missed the memo of dressing up as ancient Egyptians for a reenactment with all the most famous mummies walking around town. It did seem to be worse in Thailand but there were still a few bandaged up from head to toe in Vietnam. Common sense always prevails when you travel.
If you take a sleeper bus and leave your shiny MacBook Pro out on display when you fall asleep, you only have yourself to blame if it isn’t there when you wake up! But again, insurance will have you covered for any slip ups or genuine loss of valuables.
We had a 500,000 VND note stolen from one of our hotel rooms which is only US$ 20, but if it had been more, at least we would have had insurance to cover our losses.
World Nomads offers the best travel insurance in the business. Everyone uses them for a reason.
21. Save the Beaches for Thailand and the Philippines
When you plan your Vietnam Itinerary, leave out beach destinations. There are too many awesome places inland waiting to be discovered to waste days on the beach! And Vietnam’s beaches pale in comparison to other parts of Southeast Asia anyway.
If you’re desperate for a day off and love the beach, add a relaxing day in Hoi An to soak up the sun. Hoi An has a number of beaches just a few miles from its ancient town. Another option is Phu Quoc. This is an island very close to the Cambodian islands and the beaches down that way are much more appealing.
Use your time in Vietnam for landscapes and activities. Save the beaches for Thailand (like these beaches on Koh Lipe), Philippines, Malaysia and the Cambodian islands.
22. You Only Need 2 Days in Hanoi
If you find yourself on a tight timeframe in Vietnam, do not spend any more than 2 days in Hanoi. Save your days for more beautiful parts of the country.
Hanoi is definitely worth visiting but it’s more of a ‘coffee shop and watch the world go by’ type of city. The frantic buzz is electric at first but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
Hanoi is the perfect hub for a short Northern Vietnam visit including Sapa, Ninh Binh and Halong Bay.
23. Allow a Fudge Day in Sapa
Sapa is one of the most sought after tourist destinations in Vietnam. The majority of visitors to the mountainous region have one thing on their minds: Trekking with ethnic minorities and spending a night in a homestay.
Trekking among vast green valleys of rice terraces is fantastic but there is more to do in Sapa than just the hiking.
The town is a little strange but it’s also endearing. Don’t miss the cable car to the top of Fansipan – the highest peak in Indochina at 3,143 meters.
The reason we suggest adding in a fudge day is because the weather is unpredictable and changeable. We had to add in an extra day ourselves as the town was covered in cloud for 2 full days. Trekking in clouds of water vapor isn’t much fun!
24. Halong Bay is Over … Priced
Halong Bay is the bucket list destination everyone dreams of in Vietnam. The best way to see it is by spending a night or two on a cruise, gliding through limestone rocks that burst out of the South China Sea.
The scenery is undoubtably beautiful and unique but high demand has allowed cruise companies to increase their price tags.
There are luxury Halong Bay cruises that can charge up to US$ 600 per night. For the overwhelming majority of tourists, those figures are far too high. Conversely, you find budget package deals with perfectly adequate facilities offering the same or similar activities for US$200 per night.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site. There is no denying it is stunning. However, if you take that US$200 (the cheapest cruises) and look at hotels in Hanoi for 1 night at that price bracket, you’re looking at some seriously swanky suites.
Our opinion is that Halong Bay is not overrated, but it is overpriced. Especially for backpackers.
25. Save Your One Big Splurge For an Adventure Cave in Phong Nha
If you are fortunate enough to have a lump sum of money sat waiting patiently for the perfect time to be withdrawn, there’s no better time in Vietnam than Phong Nha.
Instead of splashing out US$ 300-600 on a Halong Bay Cruise, save a few hundred and then splurge on a multi day cave exploration adventure such as the 3 day / 2 night Tu Lan Cave system tour.
Prices range from less than US$ 100 for a single day taster to US$ 3000 to explore the world’s largest cave: Son Doong.
Phong Nha was one of our favorite places in Vietnam. The town is small, quaint and rural. Surrounding the town is emerald green Phong Nha Ke Bang national park. It’s the perfect place to rent a motorbike and drive around the empty roads taking in gorgeous scenery.
If you can’t afford the big adventure caves (don’t feel bad, we couldn’t either), there are several alternative cheaper options to give you a starter taste to the caving world.
Phong Nha is a dead cert for your trip to Vietnam.
26. Do Not Miss Tam Coc (Ninh Binh Province)
Tam Coc is a wonderful tiny town in Ninh Binh province around 100km (62 miles) South of Hanoi. You could visit on a day trip from Hanoi but we highly recommend you spend a minimum of 2 full days in Tam Coc if possible.
There are 3 major tourist sites around Tam Coc: Trang An Boat Tour, Mua Cave Viewpoint and Bich Dong Pagoda. All are worth the visit alone which make the other two options a great big bonus!
The rural area has a pretty laid back atmosphere, the locals are super friendly and facilities have greatly improved over recent years thanks to a tourist boom. Just a few years back, Tam Coc was regarded as Vietnam’s ‘hidden gem’. Both the famous UNESCO designation and the movie Kong: Skull Island, Tam Coc is now flourishing.
27. Go Rogue – Check Out the Abandoned Water Park in Hue
Hue’s abandoned water park was one of the attractions we were looking forward to most to on our whole Vietnam Itinerary. Let’s just say it did not disappoint! This is one thing you have to do when you visit Hue.
Accessing the park is frowned upon and you will need to work out a way to ‘illicitly’ gain entry. It was once easy to pay off the guards but you might need to get a bit more creative nowadays.
It’s worth the effort once you get inside to see how eerie the once thriving water park has become. There’s a huge dragon centerpiece with an observation platform in its mouth, a creepy abandoned amphitheater and perhaps most poignantly – 3 colorful water slides shrouded in overgrown vegetation with reflections in murky water below.
Check it out!
28. Be Brave – Drive the Hai Van Pass by Motorbike
If there is one time you are going to brave driving a motorbike in Vietnam, make it the Hai Van Pass scenic road as you travel between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An.
Hopefully you will already have built up some experience in much quieter Ninh Binh or Phong Nha. Either way, we recommend you book a tour guide to lead your journey.
It makes life much easier having an experienced local who knows the best roads and shortcuts plus the most beautiful stops along the way.
The Hai Van Pass is only a 21km (13 miles) stretch out of a total distance of 160km (100 miles) from Hue to Hoi An but the rest of the journey is awesome. We were admittedly a little nervous before we started but it was fantastic and we highly recommend.
29. Hoi An is the Most Attractive Stop on Your Vietnam Itinerary
Charming Hoi An was mostly spared in the Vietnam / American war. It is a beautiful town with a wonderful atmosphere, you can’t help but want to stay longer.
Canary-yellow brushed houses, wooden structures and colorful lanterns set the tone for Hoi An’s chilled vibe and tourists go mad for it.
Hoi An has it all: beaches, countryside, restaurants, shopping, ancient town and loads to do. If there’s one place you want to relax and enjoy the coffee culture, save it for Hoi An.
30. Know What to Expect
Here are a few pointers to help you keep on top of your budget and stay safe in Vietnam:
- Keep your valuables out of sight, especially on any form of transportation.
- Do not forget to take toilet roll and hand sanitizer on buses and trains.
- Beware of scams and always remember to negotiate for parking.
- In the off season, hotels can be cheaper by negotiating in person rather than booking online.
- Always carry details of your hotel in both English and Vietnamese.
- Make sure you have travel insurance before you visit Vietnam.
- Use Grab over Taxi’s. If you have no choice, use Mai Linh green taxi.
- Always research multiple options for hotels, tours and transport to get best prices.
- Food in Vietnam is delicious and affordable, but be careful where and what you eat.
- Check motorbikes thoroughly and ensure you photograph dents/scratches before leaving.
- Always wear a helmet when you do drive a motorbike, it’s a legal requirement.
- The weather will not always be perfect, plan in fudge days in case you need them.
- Take care when paying with VND as large numbers can be confusing.
- Always carry US dollars as backup, you never know when you might need it.
And that’s everything you need to know about Vietnam!
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