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Travel & Tourism . Tourist Guide to the Country

Vietnam Travel Requirements

Passports and Visas
All visitors are required to hold a passport that is valid for at least a month after the expiration of the entry visa.

To get into Vietnam, a visa is generally necessary, though it depends on your country of origin. Travelers are better off getting visas arranged by travel agents rather than tackling the Vietnamese embassies themselves.

It is important to remember that all Vietnamese visas are issued with a specified exit point. If this exit point needs to be altered, it must be done so at an immigration office or through a travel agent in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

Getting There
By Air: Vietnam's national airline, serves the Noi Bai International Airport near Hanoi and the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The most usual routes to Vietnam are from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Singapore and Paris. Most Asian carriers have flights to Vietnam, as do Qantas and Air France.

By Sea: The major ports are Ho Chi Minh City, Vung Tau, Haiphong, Da Nang and Ben Thuy. International cruise facilities are available.

By Rail: It is now possible to cross into China by rail from Lao Cai to Kunming in the Yunnan province of China or through Lang Son to Nanning.

By Road: There are routes to China through Lang Son, Cambodia through Moc Bai and also to Laos at Lao Bao and Cau Trieu.

Getting Around
By Bus: Intra-town buses, although cheap, tend to be decrepit, slow and extremely crowded. Foreigners are charged more than locals for bus tickets. Most long-distance buses leave early in the morning, so it’s a good idea to buy your ticket the night before.

A favourite alternative for tourists is to charter minibuses to popular spots. These are more expensive, but more comfortable. Budget hotels and cafes usually take bookings for charters.

Within the cities, reliable bus services are sorely lacking. Service is poor and irregular, and buses are usually jam-packed. They are useful only because they connect the far-flung bus terminals located all over town. The fares are heavily subsidized, with a flat rate regardless of the distance. Minibuses often run between tourist hotels in the major towns.

By Taxi: There are local taxi services available, some metered, some not. In Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll see white Airport Taxis and yellow Vinataxis on the street, but if time is of the essence it’s safer to book a car over the phone. In Hanoi, taxis wait outside the more upmarket hotels or you can telephone for one. No match for the modern fleets of Airport Taxis and Vinataxis in terms of comfort, but boasting bags of charm, are the colonial-era Peugeots that continue to operate around the cities. When travelling by taxi, it is advisable to note down the driver's registration number (displayed on rear side of taxi) for security reasons.

By Car: Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. Although self-drive isn’t a desirable option in Vietnam given the traffic congestion, virtually every tour agency can arrange for car rental plus driver. You might prefer this method of transportation for day-trips out of the cities as it offers greater flexibility than tours and is cheaper than using a metered taxi. Few drivers speak English, so if you want a guided tour you'll have to pay extra for the guide.

While there is a reasonable road network, the roads (especially in the north) are often in a bad state of repair and may be impassable during the rainy season. The highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is in fairly good condition, but other road connections may be quite potholed. Black market petrol is sold along most roads, but be aware that it is often mixed with kerosene. An international driving licence and a test (taken in Vietnam) are required for foreigners.

By Bicycle or Motorbike: Most locals prefer to travel by motorcycle or bicycle due to the narrow streets. Hiring a bicycle or a motorbike is about the best bet for getting around the cities. Your hotel or guesthouse may rent out bikes, or hunt out a rental outlet. You can bargain for a longer-term discount. When leaving your bike on the street, it's best to pay the minuscule charge at a supervised bike park, rather than run the risk of deflated tyres or a stolen bike. You need to be wary, though, of the scams pulled by less reputable companies, as well as the dangers of Vietnamese roads. Be vigilant at all times on the road. The same goes for bike rental - a charming way to see the city but fraught with danger if you aren’t road-aware. Foreigners don't need a licence to drive a motorcycle 100cc or under.

By Air: Vietnam Airlines (VN) operates regular services between Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue and Da Nang. Frequent services are provided between Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and other major towns. There is a departure tax of D15,000 for domestic flights.

By Sea: Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Ben Thuy, Vung Tau and Haiphong are Vietnam’s major ports. It is possible to catch boats between these ports and some of the offshore islands, but schedules change frequently and you may have to wait till there are enough passengers to fill the boat. You can also travel through the Mekong Delta by ferry. River boats are also available for hire at river ports for reasonable prices. Cruise facilities are available. Pass by the Passengers Quay of Ho Chi Minh City, opposite the end of Ham Nghi on Ton Duc Thang, and you’re bound to be harangued by people offering trips along the Saigon River and its canals. Take it - only if you want to cruise along a truly filthy and squalid stretch of water. A far more pleasant journey would be to take a dinner cruise along the Saigon River on one of the floating restaurants moored beside the Floating Hotel.

By Rail: Trains are much more comfortable on long distance trips than buses, but can be slower. There are daily trains from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and other Southern localities, and vice versa. These trains are equipped with soft seats, or sleeping berths, which are arranged in a compartment for 4 people. Visitors may also use the rail transport system independently or as part of a rail tour. Long-distance trains are more expensive but are faster, more reliable and more comfortable. Considering the slowness of train travel in Vietnam, the hard seat class, while the cheapest, is not recommended for any but the shortest trips. Although a few carriages now have air-conditioning, facilities are still short of international standards. Hold on to your ticket or you may be charged again when you disembark. Foreigners pay quite a high surcharge on all train tickets. Keep an eye on your belongings as petty theft is not uncommon on trains and at stations. Train windows usually have a steel mesh layer or even a solid steel layer for the protection of passengers.

By Cyclo: Given the relatively high cost of taxis and the dearth of reliable bus services, the mode of transport you’re likely to get most use out of in Vietnam is the cyclo (motorbike or cycle rickshaws). With over fifty thousand cyclos operating in Ho Chi Minh City alone, hailing one is never a problem, though it pays to be choosy - some of the cyclo drivers who congregate downtown were soldiers in the Southern Army, and their smattering of English makes life much easier. The Vietnamese government has announced plans to phase out cyclos in a cosmetic bid to improve Vietnam's image. Hanoi cyclos are wider than the Ho Chi Minh City version, so it can take two people at a squeeze.

Others: The two-wheeled motorbike taxi or Honda om is a faster alternative to the cyclo. Translated, it means "Honda embrace": passengers ride pillion on a motorbike, hanging on for dear life. Honda oms are nowhere near as prevalent as cyclos, though if you ask around, there’s sure to be someone who’ll be glad to oblige and pocket some extra money. Prices are slightly lower, obviously they’re a lot quicker, but they’re nowhere near as enjoyable. Xe lams - three-wheeler buggies whose drivers pack in more passengers than you’d imagine possible - function as mini-buses around the city. They're slightly less expensive than buses, but you’ll often be in for a memorable ride.

Money Matters
The Vietnamese currency is Dong, and is abbreviated as "d" or VND. Bank notes in domination of 100d, 200d, 500d, 1,000d, 2,000d 5,000d, 10,000d, 20,000d and 50,000d are presently in circulation. There are no coins.

Traveller's cheques, especially in USD and the Pound Sterling, are widely accepted but there is limited acceptance to Visa and Mastercard. Banking hours are from 0800 to 1630, Monday to Friday and 0800 to 1200 on Saturday.

The import and export of local currency is prohibited. Import and export of foreign currency over US$7000 is subject to declaration. Proof of all expenses should be kept.

In the past it was usual practice to use US dollars as a sort of second currency, but it is now illegal to pay for goods and services in dollars. It is, however, still easy to exchange dollars for piles of dongs. The low value of the currency means that you need to be prepared to carry wads of notes around with you. Apart from the black market, which is not recommended as many tourists have been ripped off, banks offer the best rates in exchanging foreign currency. Exchange bureaus and some hotels also change money, but the rates are sometimes quite high. Make sure you change enough money in the larger centres to see you through as smaller towns will probably not have exchange facilities.

While some hotels and restaurants automatically add 10% to the bill, tipping is usually not expected. It is however greatly appreciated; you may also wish to make a donation to pagodas you visit.

There is an airport tax of US10 (or its Dong equivalent) for international flights and VND 15,000 for domestic flights. Children under 2 are exempted.


Acknowledgements: ASIATRAVELMART.COM

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