Vietnam travel guide – Need to know
Government offices and museums open early, around 8am, and close between 4pm and 5pm. Avoid doing business from 11.30am to 2pm, when people are either at lunch or napping.
Hotels and Accommodation
There is a wide range of accommodation available in Vietnam’s major cities. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city feature a choice of five-star hotels, while guesthouses and mini-hotels offer no-frills rooms for around $10.
While Vietnam is one of the safest countries in Asia, you should take care with your own possessions. Secure your valuables, documents, and credit card in safe. Beware of pockets, purse-snatchers, and mobile thieves, especially in HCMC. If you choose to drive a motorbike or ride a bicycle, always wear helmet.
Tourist visas are generally valid for 30 days. You should wish to extend your visa, go to the immigration office at 40 Hang Bai Street, Hanoi.
Things you should know
The most important thing is to make sure your Vietnam visa is stamped with the correct dates and the correct entry and exit points. The standard Vietnam tourist visa is valid for a period of up to 30 days. If you’re going for less than 30 days you can either specify the exact dates, but it is probably best to ask for the maximum period to give yourself more flexibility. Processing normally takes between a week and ten days (some embassies offer an express service for an extra fee), but longer for overseas Vietnamese. To be on the safe side, allow several weeks as mistakes are common and inexplicable delays often occur.
When applying for a Vietnam visa, in general you have to fill in two application forms and provide two passport photos. One of these forms, with photo attached, will be returned to you with your visa. For some odd reason many people throw this form away. Don’t, because you’ll be asked to hand it in at immigration on arrival. If you don't have it with you, blank copies are available at immigration. If you’ve got a spare photo, all well and good. If not, you’ll have to engage the services of a handy airport photographer for the princely sum of $2-5.
If you need to extend your stay for any reason, it is relatively easy to apply for a visa renewal at present. Again this is handled by tour agents. The first renewal costs around $25-30 (including a handling fee) and takes three working days to process (please note that government offices are only open Monday to Friday). The maximum period you can ask for is 30 days and it costs the same whether you ask for 1 day or 30 days. A second 10-day extension is possible at a cost of around $35-40. For this second extension you will be asked to show an air ticket dated after the expiry of your visa.
Visas for those entering or exiting other than the airport
The standard entry and exit point is “Noi Bai/Tan Son Nhat”, ie. you can enter and depart via either Hanoi or HCMC airports. If you plan to enter via one of the land border crossings, then you should specify the name of the crossing when you apply for your visa. Check what you eventually get because some Vietnamese embassies seem reluctant to issue anything other than the standard entry/exit points. If you can’t persuade the embassy to give you the entry point you need, you could try getting it changed in the neighboring country. If that fails and you turn up at the border with the wrong entry point, you’ll either get sent back, or - more likely - asked to pay a “fine” of maybe $40-50.
The same applies for exit points, though this is less of a problem as it’s fairly easily to get them changed in Hanoi or HCMC. Most registered travel agents, including the popular “travellers’ cafés”, can handle this for you - you can't go to the immigration police in person. Rates vary (US$15-25), so shop around. It should take three or four days to process.
Are there any other entry formalities?
On the plane you’ll be given an Arrival/Departure Card and a Baggage Declaration form.
Hand in the completed Arrival/Departure Card with your passport and duplicate visa application form at immigration in Vietnam. The Departure Card will be returned to you. Keep this safely. You usually have to show it when checking into hotels and will be asked for it in when you finally leave Vietnam.
You should list all valuable items on the Baggage Declaration form, such as video cameras, portable computers and expensive jewellery. The duty-free allowance is 200 cigarettes, 2 litres of alcohol plus perfume and jewellery for personal use. You can take up to US $7000 into Vietnam in cash or travellers’ cheques; anything in excess of this sum has to be declared.
Hand the completed Baggage Declaration form to the customs official checking your baggage, who will give you the yellow duplicate - again, keep this carefully as it is required on final departure. (NB. You have to show your baggage check when reclaiming your luggage at the airport on arrival; the stub should be attached to either your airline ticket or boarding pass.)
Finally, it’s a good idea to make photocopies of your Departure Card and Baggage Declaration form at your hotel and keep them separately, just in case you lose the originals. They won’t be accepted in place of the real thing, but may make things slightly easier.
Vietnam has a particularly complicated climate and, like elsewhere in the world, weather patterns have been changing over recent years. The situation described below is therefore only an indication of the type of weather you can expect.
Northern Vietnam Climate
Starting in the north, autumn (September to December) is undoubtedly the most pleasant season. At this time of year it’s generally warm (average temps above 20°C), dry and sunny in the delta, though you’ll need warm clothes up in the mountains and on the waters of Ha Long Bay. Winter (December to February) can be surprisingly bitter as cold air sweeps south from China bringing fine, persistent mists and temperatures as low as 10°C. Things begin to warm up again in March, which ushers in a period of good, spring weather before the summer heat begins in earnest in May, closely followed by the rainy season in June. This combination makes for hot, sticky weather which takes many people by surprise. Temperatures, which can occasionally reach 40°C, average 30°C, while humidity hovers around 70-75%. The rain comes in heavy downpours, causing frequent flooding in Hanoi and the delta. By mid September, however, the rains are petering out, and from October onwards it’s perfect sightseeing weather.
Central Coast Vietnam Climate
The coastal region from Hanoi south to Hué lies in the typhoon belt. Around Hué, typhoons seem most prevalent in April and May, while further north the season generally lasts from July to November. However, typhoons are incredibly difficult to predict and it really is a matter of luck - or bad luck, rather - if you are caught. Flights are usually only disrupted for a matter of hours, but in recent years the main road and rail routes heading south have been cut by floods at least once during the typhoon season. The good news is that they usually get everything moving again incredibly quickly - within four or five days, depending on the severity of the damage.
The central region of Vietnam has a notoriously wet climate, particularly around Hué, where the annual average rainfall is a generous 3m. The so-called “dry” season lasts from February to May, though you’ll need an umbrella even then. After this it gets wetter and hotter (av temps 30°C) until the rainy season begins in earnest in September, gradually easing off from November through January. Winter temperatures average a pleasant 20°C or above.
Southern Vietnam Climate
Southern Vietnam is blessed with a more equitable - and predictable - climate. Here the dry season lasts from December to late April/May, and the rains from May through November. Most of the rain falls in brief afternoon downpours, so you can still get out and about, though flooding can be a problem in the delta. Daytime temperatures rarely fall below 20°C, occasionally reaching 40°C in the hottest months (March to May). Once the rains start, humidity climbs to an enervating 80%.
Central Highland of Vietnam Climate
The central highlands follow roughly the same weather pattern as the southern delta. In the rainy season (May-November) roads are regularly washed out, but it can also be very beautiful at this time, with tumbling rivers, waterfalls and misty landscapes. You just have to build a bit more flexibility into your schedule.