The long, wiggling backbone of Indochina is a seriously fascinating corner of Asia. You’ve got old Japanese trading towns in Hoi An to explore. There are shimmering beaches in Phu Quoc. There are paddy-clad mountains woven with walking trails in Sa Pa. And that’s just scratching the surface. But what are the things to avoid in Vietnam?
That’s precisely what we focus on here, in this guide to 13 things we think travelers should be sure to dodge in the land of steaming pho noodles and banh mi baguettes. Don’t worry, this is generally seen as a very safe corner of the globe, and it gets upwards of 18 million visitors in any normal year, so you’re bound to be in good company when you jet in.
But there sure are certain things that you certainly should steer clear of. From the pitfalls of the uber-spicy street food to the common scams that plague Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we’ve got the lowdown on the lot right here…
Some street food
Vietnamese street food is some of the best in the world. It’s delicious, budget-friendly, and easily one of the country’s highlights. We’re talking bubbling pho broths, noodles doused in tangy soy-honey mixes, and BBQ kebab skewers scented with ginger and peanut.
And on the whole, it is safe and hygienic, but there are a few things to look out for if you want to avoid getting ill:
- Wash your hands – Vietnam’s towns and cities are pretty hectic affairs. You’ll pick up dirt and microbes just walking around. So, be sure to sanitize your hands before eating anything!
- Stalls that aren’t busy – Food spoils quickly in Vietnam’s hot climate, so you want to avoid food that has been sitting out for a long time. Look for carts with high turnover.
- Raw food – Cooking and serving food at hot temperatures reduces the risk of harmful germs and bacteria, so avoid raw dishes or food that has been allowed to go cold.
- Pre-peeled fruit – Unpeeled fruits are generally safer because you know that the bit you eat hasn’t been exposed to the hot air and the flies.
- Avoid cheap coffee vendors – Coffee is a competitive business in Vietnam, and some unscrupulous roadside sellers mix it with harmful chemical fillers to stretch their profits. Pay a little extra and go to a real cafe.
- Risky foods (like, really risky foods!) – Raw blood pudding, pufferfish, and toad are all served in Vietnam. Each can be excellent if made properly, but equally, each can cause sickness and even fatalities if poorly prepared. Don’t risk it unless in a very reputable establishment.
The tap water
It’s best to avoid tap water in Vietnam. It contains harmful bacteria that can make you sick and quickly ruin your vacation. Choose bottled water instead, and always check that the seal on the bottle is intact before you drink. Some places do refill bottles with tap water and resell them, so don’t get caught out!
Alternatively, since buying endless plastic bottles is not ideal, consider refilling a bottle with purified water from your accommodation. It’s also possible to use a refillable water bottle with a water filtration system. Many hotels and restaurants can now offer a reup on your H2O for free. Just ask. The worst they can say is no.
Generally speaking, the tap water in the cities in Vietnam is of much better quality. There’s more risk out in rural areas that don’t have the proper infrastructure and piping. Still, tap water is one of the things to avoid in Vietnam wherever you are. You want to be wandering Buddhist temples, not laid up drinking isotonic drinks with tummy cramps!
Being surprised in the loo
Although western toilets are common across Vietnam, especially in the cities, you still might find that they’re not quite the same as back at home. Many will simply have no toilet paper whatsoever. That’s because Vietnam, like Thailand and Cambodia before it, is a firm follower of the water hose method. Yep, that hose next to the bowl is the thing you’re supposed to use. But you might want to carry some paper with you to solve that problem.
The other issue is that public toilets aren’t very widespread once you’re outside of the cities. Usually, you’ll need to dip into a hotel or a restaurant to do your business, and unscrupulous owners might just demand some dollar bills for the privilege. Try to make a habit of going before leaving your accommodation, especially if you’re taking longer trips.
Taking photos without permission
The Vietnamese people are just that: People! They aren’t fodder for your Instagram feed; filler for your Facebook profile. If you want to take a photo of a market trader or villager, it’s really important that you ask for permission first.
Don’t be offended if someone asks for money in exchange for posing for your shot. They’re perfectly within their rights to do so, especially in touristy areas where they must get asked over and over again, day in, day out. If you’re happy to pay, agree on an amount in advance. If not, politely decline and move on.
There are also a couple of places in Vietnam where it’s generally considered a little disrespectful to do photo shoots. They include cemeteries, religious sites, Buddhist shrines, some churches, and on the beach when there are people around without too many clothes on. It’s kinda’ common sense stuff but important to remember when you’re snappy happy on holiday.
Here’s a pretty big one!
Vietnam is home to scams of all shapes and sizes, but most can be avoided if you keep your wits about you, practice politely but firmly saying no, and do your research beforehand.
Here are some of the more common ones to be aware of.
- Nothing is free – Not the bowls of popcorn that keep appearing next to your drinks and not the ‘free’ samples given out by street vendors. Trust us, they will be on the bill at the end.
- The shoe shine scam – Shoeshiners will often not wait for agreement before going to work on your shoes and then expecting payment. And if you do agree on a price? It was only for one shoe! Prepare for it to double.
- The copy-cat hustle – That famous restaurant or five-star tour you read about? There will be at least five copy-cat businesses with extremely similar names operating out of the same street. Ensure you’ve got the correct website, address, and contact details for the original business.
- Paying for a photo prop – If a friendly local offers you their conical hat, street cart, or other ‘authentic’ prop for a photo, expect to pay heavily for the privilege.
- The packaging scam – At market stalls, authentic goods are often switched for lesser quality items while they’re being packaged up for you. Always check what you’re actually leaving with.
- Counterfeit goods – There are a lot of counterfeit luxury goods for sale in Vietnam. If you want the real thing, research reputable shops beforehand.
Being scammed in a Taxi
There are so many ways that taxis in Vietnam will try to fleece you that they got their own scams section on our list! Some of the hustles are relatively harmless, such as taking you to a friend’s restaurant instead of the one you wanted to go to. Some are expensive, like taking the extra-long route or using a modified meter. Then there are the ones that are downright dangerous, like taking you to the middle of nowhere and demanding large sums of money.
To avoid any taxi-related drama, opt only for respectable taxi companies. Vinasun and Mai Linh are the most honest, however, it can be difficult to tell them apart from the many cars masquerading as them. Your best bet will be to ask your accommodation to book a good company or use a ride app like Grab or Uber to avoid the risk.
Also, motorcycle taxis are fantastic ways to get around the cities, but they tend to be driven by nefarious characters. Don’t be surprised if your driver offers to sell you drugs along with your ride. And they’re notorious masters of the bill switch – where the large denomination note you just gave them is swapped with a small one in the blink of an eye.
Scams and taxi dramas aside, the main crime that tourists need to watch out for is pickpocketing and bag snatching. This is, unfortunately, quite common in the bigger cities of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Hue, Ha Long), and the only way to avoid it is to be vigilant.
Limit the number of expensive items you take with you, and, if possible, leave valuables and travel documents locked away in your hotel. Don’t flash your precious goods or your cash when you’re out, and be aware of your surroundings when using phones or cameras.
When it comes to bag snatching, it often happens on motorcycles. The thief zips past you, grabs your bag, and races away, leaving you with no chance of catching up with them. To avoid it, wear rucksacks or crossbody bags. Keep your bag on the side of your body away from the street, and if you sit at pavement cafes or bars, hook your bag strap around your ankle or the leg of your chair.
Overpacking the itinerary
Vietnam is an amazingly varied place filled with breathtaking sights and incredible experiences. The country has over 3,000 kilometers of coastline, plenty of beautiful beaches, and over 40 islands. There are cities of all shapes and sizes, from fast-paced Ho Chi Minh to elegant Hanoi and ancient Hoi An. On top of that, there are simply stunning natural wonders, like the majestic Ha Long Bay, the Mekong Delta, and the Hai Van Pass.
There is just too much to see on one trip, so don’t try to do it all. Don’t overfill your itinerary, and be sure to include travel and rest days. Focus your full attention on a couple of well-chosen spots, and remember that just ticking sights off a list is not always the best way to experience a country to the full.
Prices in Vietnam can be a little confusing to Western visitors. That’s because vendors often quote in US dollars instead of Vietnamese dong, the local currency. Others will write their prices without all of the zeros. So 20 could easily mean $20 or 20,000 dong (0.90$). And the difference between spending 500,000 ($21) or 5,000,000 ($210) can really mess up that budgeting for a shoestring backpacker.
This is not (always) done intentionally to fleece you, but it can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Double-check the prices and exchange rates and get vendors to write down or type the price into a calculator so you can be sure of all the zeros.
Also, don’t be afraid to haggle for a better price. It is generally expected and acceptable so long as you’re friendly and reasonable. Normally, knocking 10-30% off the price of an item is normal with haggling.
Always dress appropriately when visiting sacred places, temples, or pagodas. This generally means covering yourself from shoulders to knees in loose-fitting clothing. It goes for all of the various religious shrines of Vietnam, no matter if it’s a Buddhist shrine or a Christian church. We’d also say air on the side of caution if you’re planning to visit burial areas, cemeteries, or anywhere where monks gather to pray and meditate.
When it comes to beachwear, Vietnam is nowhere near as strict as other places in Asia. However, it’s always wise to respect the more conservative side of the local population by not donning skimpy bikinis or budgie smugglers while walking around, even if you’re in a beach town.
Pointing your feet at people
Think on this: Directing the soles of your feet at something is the Vietnamese equivalent of the middle finger. Yep, it’s one of the rudest gestures you can possibly muster in the country, so folks certainly wont take kindly to a sighting of your toes and nails, no matter how good a tan you’ve managed to gather on the beaches of Phu Quoc.
What’s especially important is that you keep the bottoms of those feet away from religious images. Pointing them at an image or icon of the Buddha is like a whole other world of bad. It’s considered highly disrespectful and dismissive of the national religion.
While we’re talking about shoes and feet and whatnot, it’s important to remember to remove your footwear when you enter religious sanctuaries, temples, and shrines. Also, you should always take off your shoes when visiting someone’s home, preferably before you cross over the threshold of the door.
Traveling without insurance
We hope your vacation goes off without a hitch, but it’s important to have travel insurance in case it doesn’t. Insurance will give you options if flights or bookings get canceled. It’ll help if luggage, valuables, or documents go missing. And most importantly, it will cover you if you get sick or injured while away. Medical care abroad can get very expensive, especially if you need to be flown home for treatment.
Also, and we cannot stress this enough, if you’re going to ride scooters in Vietnam, get insurance! It is not (always) just a scam for the vendor to get more money out of you. If your vehicle gets stolen or if you get into an accident and you’re uninsured, it can end up costing you thousands of dollars plus plenty of hassle and foreign bureaucracy. And the way they drive in Vietnam, accidents are likely! Take the insurance!
Driving a bike without the proper license
We’ve all heard the tales of bucket-list motorbike odysseys through Vietnam from north to south. We’ve all seen myriad backpackers on two wheels cruising through towns like Hoi An and Sa Pa. Whether legal or no, the fact remains that renting a motorized bike and taking to the road is just the done thing in these parts.
But here’s the truth: It really isn’t legal without the right documentation and reports are that Vietnamese police are now knuckling down on that detail in earnest. Yep, anyone who gets in the saddle here better be in possession of a Vietnamese motorcycle license (which you can get on a temporary basis) or an International Driving Permit from your own country of residence. Otherwise, you’re risking hefty fines and – if an accident happens to occur – much more than that!
It’s also probably worth saying something about the nature of driving in Vietnam. It’s no walk in the park. In fact, places like Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi are notorious for their ceaseless streams of traffic.
So there we go, hopefully, our tales of bag snatching, fake taxis, and offensive behavior haven’t put you off a trip to Vietnam. Because generally, this country is a friendly and welcoming place. And if you use your common sense and follow our list of things to avoid, you will have an amazing time in Vietnam!