Whilst Japan and other first world countries are presumably easier to survive in (the risk of you dying is probably minimal), it’s time to delve into Southern Vietnam and see how we can try not to get food poisoned/ hit by a car/kidnapped and have our kidneys sold.
The currency of Vietnam is the dong (which you cannot buy from Narita airport btw). This being said, it’s more than likely that most people would accept dollars or euros (perhaps even pounds) – which is rather the norm in countries which become so abundant with tourists.
There are ATM’s spread around Vietnam – including Bank of Commonwealth – which can be used. The Saigon Central Post Office (2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1) is probably your best chance to find all the available ATM’s from different banks all in one place.
If you’d rather change money at the airport, keep in mind that the bartering has already begun the moment you set your foot down. Yes, exchange rates can be negotiated. In case you’re into that.
Putting aside how horrible the Vietnamese language sounds (as I keep saying in all my posts), people here generally speak English (especially in District 1. District 8 doesn’t have that many people speaking English, but then again, you’ll most probably not find yourself in this area). However, this being said, “speaking” English should not be taken as meaning fluency.
You can communicate all the basic necessities of life but many times when you will try to explain something in more depth you might find yourself confronted with a pair of wide eyes looking at you sheepishly. They also tend to have a very unintelligible accent at times.
3. Getting around
From-to airport: There are several ways. The cheapest seems to be taking a bus which stops right in front of the Domestic Airport (which is right next door to the International one). Be warned! Many people, upon being asked, will tell you that there is no bus and that you have to take a taxi. They lie. Find someone not working in the airport and ask them (luckily I had been warned before so when this happened I just asked someone else).
You could also take a taxi. Be careful which taxi firms you take, many of them are sharks (companies trying to rip you off). You want a taxi that starts the meter instead of just telling you a price. I will also say this many a times: whenever there is no price, ask for it beforehand. Never do anything in Vietnam without asking for the price first!
The only taxi companies you should trust are: Vinasun and Mailinh (there’s also a yellow one but I can’t remember the name). These two have a built in system that will start the clock. Never accept something above the meter (even tho sometimes you can negotiate and have it under, but all this must be done beforehand).
Inside Saigon: I’ve already covered taxi cars, which are most probably the most expensive type of transport (and not even these are all that expensive if you come for a country like UK/US/Australia).
Bike taxis – Many a times you will see people with bikes asking you “taxi?” and waving at you. I personally used this constantly: it’s a great way to be part of the culture, as you shall see almost everyone has a bike. They might seem daunting to ride at first, but they are quite safe (or at least as safe as Vietnam can get). They are also cheaper than car taxi’s and many a times faster as they can just squeeze thru. If you travel within District one, a ride should be no more than 30,000-40,000 dong.
Buses – There are plenty of buses around, but I’m not quite sure how to navigate them. They will be 5,000 dong per trip and an extra 5,000 is charged if you have large luggage. Just put the money in the box and the driver will give you a ticket. Also if you tell him which stop you want to get off at he will generally let you know when the bus got there.
Rent a bike – You can do this, but I wouldn’t really go with this. Unless you know the streets of Saigon (and if you do, why are you reading this?), it might be a very bad idea. There’s a culture to riding bikes and many cultural rules to how to do so.
4. Phones and internet
Internet wise, there is a lot of wifi everywhere which you can tap into.
Phones: If you go to one of the more official offices of a phone line, you have to bring your passport with you (as you need to register your SIM with your passport). If you dont want to do this – or if you forgot your passport at your accommodation and want a SIM now – you can just buy one from street vendors. They are really cheap and you can just get 3G from this.
With abundant rumors that the Vietnamese eat anything – from beef to rats – you might need to prepare yourself to the state of hygiene in Vietnam. There is a lot of dirt everywhere and sometimes in markets (or restaurants) you might see rats. Don’t panic. It’s just a rat. It is also a widespread problem so just eat your food.
The most popular food (outside Vietnam at least) is Pho (which is actually pronounced like fah – most Vietnamese words are not pronounced in any way they are written), this being a sort of noodle soup. Is the meat raw? Again, dont panic. The beef is supposed to be a bit pink, just put your noodles over it and let it to finish in the hot soup. Pho 24 is a sort of Pho chain stores which can be found all over and where you can safely have a non-ripped off meal.
The Vietnamese also always have a lot of herbs given with most food, so go a bit wild and try some of them.
If you are vegetarian (or vegan), you might have big difficulty finding appropriate food, as mostly everything has meat in it and it’s seems difficult to explain the concept of “I don’t eat meat” in this country.
Be careful of restaurants whose menus do not have a price. Ask for the price before eating, and if it’s too high do not eat here. Many places rip off tourists.
Vietnamese coffee is really good, give it a try, but keep in mind it generally has condensed milk in it (no concept of fresh milk here, which, in a way, is reassuring. I know I wont drink bad milk).
I myself have not had any problems, but you might want to keep your wallet safe (and never show lots and lots of money). Your biggest “Security” problem might be being ripped off (which I will keep mentioning as it is a real problem), but I have heard all sorts of stories about schemes to do so. Generally, if anyone tells you they have a dying family member or invites you to their home, take it with a pinch of salt. Better safe than sorry, no?
Whilst there is this culture of ripping white people off (because, hey, they must all be uber rich), it’s mostly prevalent in tourist infested areas: as such, Disctrict 8 lacks any such intent and people are much more honest and friendly than in District 1. The more expensive places (which for us might not be all that expensive) will most generally not have Vietnamese there – except for the staff.
On the upside, money can go a long way here. Not much money either. So if you have problems, money will most likely solve it.
Vietnamese are also very into PDA (public displays of affection), and whenever you cross bridges in Saigon you will see countless couples just hugging. It also seems rather gay friendly as well, not minding it much. If you are a tourist, they will also probably not stick their noses in your business.
If you want to see my Vietnam logs: http://secretemple.com/tag/travel-vietnam/
Otherwise, Saigon logs: http://secretemple.com/tag/saigon/