things to know before coming to vietnam

Things to Know before Coming to Vietnam

So, you’re coming to Vietnam. There’s probably a lot you’re wondering, and I would imagine a certain number of concerns as well. Here’s what I think you need to know before coming to Vietnam!

Everything covered here:
Toilet paper
Tap water
Western comforts
Street Food

Cultural Differences

You will be a millionaire here

Sounds exciting until you realize that a 100,000 note is about $4! Seriously though, $1 is about 23k Vietnamese dong. The highest note is 500k, and the lowest I’ve seen is 500 but those are pretty few and far between. The maximum on ATMs is usually about 5,000,000 dong. Also, they only use paper currency (no coins!) which I love.

You can’t flush toilet paper!

Yeah, you really can’t unless you want a huge mess. I know, it sounds weird – but you get used to it! Instead of flushing toilet paper, every single toilet you find has a little bin. You throw the paper in there. 

Ladies, I recommend always carrying some spare toilet paper with you. 

Sometimes… you can’t even flush

Western toilets? Not always an option. A lot of the time, there’s a hole in the ground with some foot grips for you. There’s a bucket of water with a little bowl you fill with water and pour down the hole to “flush.” It’s simple, yet effective!

You can’t drink tap water

Unfortunately, water filtration hasn’t made its way to Vietnam, which means you can’t drink the water from the tap. You can buy filtered water very easily. My apartment building has those big 19L jugs on the ground floor, and I can just grab one of those whenever necessary. For cooking, I try to clean my vegetables with some filtered water because I don’t want any risk of contamination. The locals don’t even drink the tap water, so you can be assured that most things are pretty unlikely to be contaminated. 

I personally brush my teeth with the water, but I’m extra careful to not swallow anything while I brush!
Note: boiling tap water only removes bacteria and things that will make your stomach upset, but it doesn’t remove the metals. If you plan to drink or consume the water you’re boiling, it’s best to use filtered water. 

Recycling isn’t really a thing here

Environmental consciousness is not something that has made its way to Vietnam, either; there is definitely no recycling. There are men and women who dig through trash bags for cans and bottles and what they do with them, I’m not really sure. I separate my cans and plastics and my maid will collect them separately. It isn’t ideal, but this country doesn’t even have clean drinking water yet – there are, unfortunately, other priorities. 

If you’re moving here, ask your landlord what he or she does or if it’s beneficial for you to separate your cans. You might be doing someone a favor!

Western comforts are available in cities but definitely not rural provinces

Yes, you will be able to find your favorite things here, but they might cost you. I spent about $6 on a bag of Tostitos chips with a hint of lime (sue me ok I MADE GUAC) when that might’ve got a dollar or two less back at home in the States. I got it at an “expat” grocery store. They also have Cheetos, peanut butter, Mac and Cheese, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Ladies – pads and tampons exist here. However, a lot of the tampons don’t have applicators from what I’ve seen. You can find normal tampons, but again, at a cost.
The same goes for western restaurants – you will find good pizza, burgers, pasta, cheeses, wings, BBQ, pretty much anything you can think of! Again, it will cost you more than a bowl of Pho for sure. Most of the time, when you go out to a western-style restaurant, you’ll still be paying significantly less than back home, but you’re paying a lot for Vietnam. 

Vietnam is a cash-based economy

Beyond accommodation and stores in malls, nowhere is going to accept your credit card. If they do, there will most likely be a fee. Using cash is just a hell of a lot easier for everyone! 

Scams exist.. but not everyone is trying to scam you 

Listen – scams are not a native thing to Vietnam. I hate nothing more than generalizing an entire culture. I’ve experienced scams in Europe, and I’m sure you can get scammed in the States a whole bunch too. There are scams all over the entire world, and Vietnam is not immune to it – sometimes, people are going to try to manipulate you. The only difference for Asia is that tourists often stand out. You might look different, and that makes you a bit more of a target. 

Be smart, watch your money, do your research, and don’t pay $5 for bananas. I buy my bananas in Vietnam for 10k per bunch ($0.43) – so when a lady tries to charge you 5x that, you should be concerned!
Not everyone is trying to scam you, though – go with your instinct. When I was in Saigon, I was walking along and a few friendly older men started saying “hello!” and waving me over. It was about 10am and they were just hanging out and drinking some beer over Tet holiday (the lunar new year). I could have assumed they were going to try to take advantage of me in some way, but they didn’t – I sat down with them, they opened a beer for me, tried to warn me of the motorbike drivers who snatch phones out of your hand, and we took some happy photos together to commemorate the time. Vietnamese people can be extremely friendly and hospitable. Please don’t think the worst. 

On another note, if you’re visiting Saigon, it’s well known that there are men who ride around on motorbikes and are looking for unguarded phones to snatch. Sometimes, right out of your hand. Keep your phone down or away when you walk. It can happen in Hanoi, but it usually only happens in the Old Quarter (and other tourist areas).

Grab (Asian Uber) exists and it is awesome 

Download the app and register your phone number before you go, especially if you don’t intend on getting a SIM card with a phone number. Grab is super cheap, and you can book both taxis and motorbike taxis with the app. You can also use “Be” or “GoViet” for some cheaper options, but they are “less” available than Grab. 

On the topic of SIM cards…

Data is available and super cheap

If your phone is unlocked, you’re golden. Make sure you don’t lose your home SIM if you plan on going back. When you buy a SIM in Vietnam, the people at the airport/phone store will set it up for you. If you buy a SIM at the airport, though, they usually only offer data services (no calling) but make sure you double-check! I personally use Viettel and pay about $8 per month for 8GB of data, and I usually buy a little bit of calling services.

Most places have WiFi (in cities)

Cafes, restaurants, bars – everywhere in a big city is going to offer WiFi; sometimes you have to ask for it, but it’s otherwise usually written on the wall somewhere. Once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll notice that a lot of the WiFi passwords are similar.

Street food is cheap and delicious

Street food is abundant; if you’re worried about getting sick, go to places that are super busy and crowded with locals because that means 2 things; it’s tasty and it’s safe. I personally haven’t gotten sick from Vietnamese street food, but I have gotten sick in other countries. Some street food can be as little as $1 for a full meal, but sometimes it adds up to $2 or $3.

If you’re in Hanoi, Bia Hoi is super cheap and watery beer. They run around 5k dong ($.20) and should never be more than 10k if you’re in the Old Quarter.

Motorbikes are everywhere, and traffic is crazy

If you’ve never been on a motorbike, get ready for your first time! Motorbikes are everywhere and are just the fastest and cheapest mode of transportation. Grab taxis are cheap as well, but they can add up a whole lot faster than Grab bikes (motorbike taxi!). You can trust that most Grab bike drivers have been driving for a really long time and know what they’re doing. 

In general, traffic in Vietnam is going to be unlike anything you have seen. It is very organized chaos, and you have to be hyperaware of your surroundings. Most of the time, people don’t look before they turn corners and motorbikes/cars will just cut across traffic. Red lights are ran constantly and no one gets into trouble. 

Tipping isn’t expected, but it can be appreciated 

Vietnam is not a tip based culture; no one is expecting you to tip. Sometimes, VAT is included in your bill in big restaurants; if you have some small bills (1k-5k notes) or change, you can leave that as a tip. I’m the type of person who is nearly always inclined to tip; I’ve had barely anyone refuse my tip, and Grab has recently added a tipping function. 

I personally tip the women who do my nails and eyelashes because I see them regularly, and they are always very appreciative. 

You will have to accept the cultural differences 

If you are the type of person who struggles with cultural differences and gets frustrated at people who are simply living their lives as they always have, then you probably shouldn’t be traveling. I wanted to make a separate part of this post regarding cultural differences; there are quite a few, but I’ll try to keep it short. 

Vietnamese people can be extremely honest and it might come off as a bit rude. If you look like shit, they might tell you! If you have some extra weight on you, they might point it out. It isn’t them trying to be rude or mean, they’re just observant and say what’s on your mind. Don’t be offended. 

Vietnamese people are very curious, but not judgmental. When I first got to Vietnam, I was with one of my Vietnamese friends, eating some street food. I commented that people are probably looking at me like I’m an idiot because I can barely use chopsticks correctly (I’ve improved since then lol). She explained to me that if they’re staring, it’s only because they’re curious; she explained that their level of thinking doesn’t really reach mockery or judgment in that sense. It’s reassuring! 

Another note on curiosity – Vietnamese people love to ask questions! It can be quite fun. If you look “different” aka not Asian, people will be very curious. Don’t be offended or concerned if they ask you how old you are, where you’re from, whether you’re married, etc. They’re just curious! 

People will spit, pick their noses, hock up shit from their lungs, trim their toenails in the street – you get the point. It might not be something you’re used to seeing, but it’s just what happens! You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. I’ve been nearly spat on (accidentally), I’ve seen people blow snot rockets into the street, go to TOWN picking their noses, and people love to trim their nails and do other personal-hygiene things out in the open. Get used to it! They’re not changing for anybody. Who gives a shit? Join in. Pick your nose. 

Is there anything you have specific questions about? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them. 

Until next time,

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