Vietnam Travel Guide For First Time Visitors

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So, you’re thinking of visiting Vietnam? Excellent choice. It was one of the first trips I took to South East Asia, combined with Cambodia and I loved it so much, I went back and spent a few months there. Whether you want to explore the colonial architecture, historic monuments, beaches, floating markets and Vietnamese food or take the famous reunification express train from the top to the bottom of the country, you’re in for a treat. In this guide I’ll share my travel tips for visiting Vietnam. If by the end I’ve not covered something, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

You might also like my Vietnam destination guides:

Choosing a travel direction – North or South

Due to the long, thin shape of Vietnam, the country lends itself very well to a north-south or south-north route. Even better, there are major airport in both the south (Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC) and north (Hanoi) to use as a natural starting point. On both visits, I took a south-north route because I flew into HCMC. This seems to be the direction of travel that most people take so keep that in mind if you’re looking to make friends along the way.

Vietnam Coastlin hai van pass

Suggested itineraries for Vietnam

It’s really tricky to suggest itineraries because everyone’s interests, travel speeds and budget will be different. But I know how helpful suggested itineraries are, especially if you’ve never visited to a place and don’t know the distances or desirability of each place. So, I’ll give it a go – feedback is most definitely welcome.

Getting around: I cover transport in more detail below but there are trains that cover the length of the country (buses too but I strongly advise you to avoid them). I’ve assumed you will be travellingby night transport, which is the most popular way to get around.

However, it’s also possible to get fairly cheap internal flights and this might be a good idea if you’re heading from HCMC direct to Hoi An (fly into Danang, which is about 40 minutes away from Hoi An and is pretty affordable by taxi). Although you will gain back some of your nights, just factor in that you largely lose 3/4 of a day when you travel by air.

Tips for visiting Halong Bay: as the tours to the bay start early, it’s pretty difficult without your own transport to travel to Halong Bay over night and take a tour that day because you’ll get in too late. This makes an overnight stay in Hanoi kind of unavoidable so just keep this in mind when planning your itinerary.

Vietnam travel itinerary for Beach Bums

HCMC (2 nights + 1 night transport) – Nha Trang (3 nights + 1 night transport) – Hoi An (3 nights + 1 night transport) – Halong Bay (1 night in Hanoi pre-trip, 1 night in Halong Bay) – Hanoi (1 night)

Vietnam travel itinerary for City Slickers and History Fans

HCMC (3 nights + 1 night transport) – Hue (2 nights + 1 night transport) – Hoi An (3 nights + 1 night transport) – Halong Bay (1 night in Hanoi pre-trip, 1 night in Halong Bay) – Hanoi (1 night)

Vietnam travel itinerary for Nature Lovers

HCMC (1 nights) – Mekong Delta (2 nights + 1 night transport) – Hoi An (3 nights + 1 night transport) – Halong Bay (1 night in Hanoi pre-trip, 1 night in Halong Bay + 1 night transport to Sapa) – Sapa (2 nights + 1 night transport back to Hanoi for a late departure)

Best tours

If all this planning sounds a bit much, you might want to join a tour. My first trip to Vietnam was entirely guided by Intrepid Travel . I really like this company – they guide small groups only and generally have a nice combination of people – of all ages from singles to couples to families. You tend to do more local and socially responsible trips and there isn’t an umbrella wielding guide in sight!

I combined their 10-day Vietnam Express Northbound Trip with their 3-day Secrets of Ankor trip through Siem Reap. Together, both tours were a perfect combination for a two-week break in Vietnam.

Of course, it just got me hooked and I later returned to Vietnam for a month-long sojourn, exploring the country independently.

How to Get a Visa

Vietnam visa in passport

I’ve written a more details article about applying for a Vietnam visa here – this is includes the e-visa application.

With a small handful of exceptions, Vietnam is one of those countries where you need a visa to enter. There are two ways you can get a visa

i) The traditional slow and expensive way (sending your passport off to the embassy); and

ii) and the fast and cheaper way (applying online for a visa approval or eVisa).

I’m not surprised that so many people still use the traditional method of visa application to get their stamp into Vietnam because the online application process doesn’t inspire a whole heap of confidence. In fact, travel forums are full of questions about whether the Visa on Arrival system is legit and people are genuinely worried they will land in Vietnam and be promptly turned back.

I understand – I had the same fears.

The first time I visited Vietnam, I travelled from London, booked my trip enough in advance and only had the traditional application process as an option, so that’s how I acquired my visa. For my most recent trip, however, the online application process had been implemented. With a lot of research and hesitation, I decided to give it a try and I can confirm that it worked.

How it works: part of the concern with the online approach is that you don’t actually apply for a visa online, you apply for an Visa Approval Letter. Doesn’t sound too official, does it? However, it works and the process is completed on arrival when the visa is placed in you passport.

In payment terms, the visa on arrival system is cheaper. Working from memory (which can be sketchy), the visa fee for a one-month, single-entry visa getting it from the embassy was around £60/$100 plus a fee to post my passport to the embassy and have it returned.

The Visa on Arrival comes in much cheaper at around $10 for the approval letter and a $45 stamping fee on arrival. I used Vietnam Visa Pro and found them efficient, hassle free and fast. They did submit a bulk application so my name, date of birth and passport number appeared publicly on a letter they sent out to around 10 other applicants, but otherwise, I would recommend the company.

Lonely Planet recommends: .

It’s also worth knowing that you need to submit your exact travel dates and that you cannot extend them (absent a quest for a rubber stamp and handing over a fee). Whatever you do, don’t turn up without either a visa or Visa Approval Letter. I met an English guy who did this and although there is very little in Vietnam that can’t be solved by handing over some dollars, fixing his non-visa issue ran to the tune of $200. Ouch!

Best Guide Books

I used the Vietnam Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as local maps. If you prefer something more visual, check out the DK Eyewitness Guide for Vietnam which has great their images and 3D guides to major sites.

If you’re taking a more substantial trip through Asia, the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring will be invaluable.

How to Get Around Vietnam (safely)

Nightbus in Vietnam with disco lights and flat beds

The good news is that Vietnam has great transport connections. The terrible news is that the cheapest and most convenient of these (the buses) are death traps. Tourist buses run regularly and usually overnight between most of the places that visitors are likely to frequent. They are very affordable and, unlike the trains, often depart from the centre of the town/city, making them incredibly appealing for travellers.I took a bunch of these buses and if I can ask you to do one thing in Vietnam, it’s to steer well clear of the buses.

Not easily frightened, the night buses in Vietnam scared the holy crap out of me and not without reason. In a country where there is a death on the road every minute (scary statistic) and buses commonly dive over cliffs, there is a real safety risk that comes with this mode of transport in Vietnam. Drivers are young, inexperienced (one driver had huge difficulty shifting up through the gears and kept stalling the bus going uphill) and they drive recklessly (there was at least one near head-on collision on a bus I was on and the buses are driven so erratically, they constantly wobble and threaten to topple).

Vietnamese lady sleeping on floor of bus in Vietnam

Add to that the more minor but not insignificant points that the beds/seats are crammed in (I’m 5ft and couldn’t fit properly and on one bus 5 of us shared the same bed space), there are locals lying all over the floor (picture above), the horn beeps all night (that’s how drivers indicate anything on the roads in Vietnam), the drivers are abusively rude and you may not be allowed off the bus to use the bathroom, and the question is: why would you want to use the buses?

Ok, they are faster and cheaper and more convenient than the trains, but the train is a much better alternative…even if the stations are out of town and may require a taxi to get to. As mentioned above, internal flights can be pretty affordable and motorbikes are another great way to get around but do make sure you’re proficient because of the risks of being on Vietnam’s roads.


There are no mandatory vaccinations for Vietnam and there is no risk of Yellow Fever and therefore no Yellow Fever certificate of vaccination is required.

Some vaccines are recommended: Diphtheria; Tetanus. And if you’re being extra cautious and depending on your itinerary in Vietnam, you may want to consider Hepatitis A; Hepatitis B; Rabies; Typhoid. The two best resources for travel vaccination requirements are: Fit for Travel (UK NHS) and CDC (USA). Otherwise check your own country’s advice.

Malaria and Dengue Fever

There is ‘low to no’ risk of Malaria in Vietnam so antimalarial pills are not usually advised for vacations/holiday travel to tourist locations. Find out more about the malaria risk in Vietnam.

What is a risk is dengue fever – another virus caused by mosquito bites, except dengue fever can be deadly and has no treatment. As someone who has had dengue fever, I’d give it 0 out of 5 stars, not recommended. Don’t worry, there’s a quick and easy fix – mosquito repellent. I’ve written a few relevant guides on this topic:

Tips for eating out in Vietnam

Vietnamese lady selling fruit from hanging baskets

What to eat merits a whole post of its own. In the meantime, check out CNN’s list of 40 delicious Vietnamese Dishes. As for some eating out tips:

– don’t be afraid of the street food and small food shacks – it’s one of the best ways to eat in Vietnam and also one of the cleanest. Did you know that the chefs in Vietnam shop twice a day to serve the freshest herbs and spices.

– if a plastic wrapped napkin is brought to your table, don’t assume it’s free . Most of the time there will be a small charge. It’s only around 25 cents, but still.. (and think of the environment). Instead, pack your own small bottle of hand sanitiser.

– food is another item that might mysteriously appears on your table and again is not free. If you want to try it, check the price before you bite into it. Also check what it is. After dipping some pastries into my ice-cream, I was surprised to learn that they contained spicy beef, not apple like I’d assumed! Not a winning combo!

– take your own chopsticks – you’ll be using a chopsticks a lot in Vietnam so it’s worth carrying your own to avoid wasting dozens of sets of wooden disposable ones. I have a set that comes with a small carrying case, making for clean carrying.

Packing Lists

I’ve written a few packing lists that should help you with your trip planning for Vietnam:

Useful Information

Some frequently asked questions that should help you along the way on your trip to Vietnam.

What is the capital of Vietnam?

This is one you’re likely to get wrong on a pub quiz. The capital of Vietnam is actually Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. Not the more well-known city of Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon, as many people assume.

So, that’s my Vietnam travel guide. Hope it’s left you better prepared and excited for your trip. Got any questions? Let me know in the comments below.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.