Here’s how to be a tourist in Vietnam, an ever-trending travel destination, without falling into too many tourist traps.
People sit along a waterfront as residential and commercial buildings stand in the background in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photographer: Lin Luong Thai/Bloomberg
Vietnam derives about 6% of its GDP from tourism and any deplaning passenger can tell foreign inbound travel has reached at least that percentage. European backpackers fill airport immigration lines and you hear a lot of Mandarin Chinese, evidence that China became Vietnam’s top source of foreign tourism last year and claimed responsibility for 2.2 million arrivals from January to July this year.
The Southeast Asian country draws those people because of its French-style urban architecture, tropical beaches, hill tribe treks and Communist kitsch for sale. But with so many arrivals, you won’t have much of a story to tell back home if you just follow conventional guidebook formulas. Here are five other ways to see Vietnam.
1. Get a visa on arrival
Vietnam gives visas to deplaning passengers as long as they arrange ahead through a travel agency such as vn or Vietnamvisa.org.vn. The agent charges a fee of $15 to $20. Just print out the confirmation they send ahead of the trip. Also bring a passport-sized photo and another fee of about the same amount to the airport. The online agency will tell you how much that is.
This process saves tourists the trouble of an in-person visit to a Vietnamese consulate overseas, which was the only thing a lot of foreigners could do until a couple of years ago.
Passengers stand in line while waiting to check in for flights at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Vietnam will continue to see a double-digit gain in passenger numbers in the next decade, after annual growth of 17 percent in the past decade, according to ACB Securities JSC in Dec. 2016. Photographer: Linh Luong Thai/Bloomberg
Beware still that waiting for the visa at the airport can take a while if a lot of people are sitting around for the same reason. Then you turn around and wait in the normal immigration line to get it stamped.
2. Don’t reserve a hotel in off-peak seasons
If you have time, go hotel window-shopping in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the two major urban centers. Hotels run so thick that some blocks have three or four if not seven or eight. You’ll find vacancies unless tourists are flooding in for a holiday such as Lunar New Year, the major Chinese vacation season.
A hotel might come with something extra such as a rooftop bar but lack internet presence. Booking ahead locks you in to just one high-profile hotel, while one next door may be newer, nicer, cheaper or all three.
3. Shop outside tourist districts
Coffee, restaurants, beer and souvenirs are concentrated into the French quarters of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi’s historic Lake of the Returned Sword turns up in the same part of town. In Ho Chi Minh City, the War Remnants Museum and Notre Dame Cathedral sit in easy reach of District 1’s numerous hotels and major tourist marketplace.
Notre Dame Cathedral on January 10, 2012 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
But restaurants of the same caliber occur off the tourist tracks. They usually charge lower, locals’ prices. Market stalls in other parts of these cities sell the sacks of coffee everyone wants for less than you pay in the tourist districts. You can get the colorful clothes found in tourist areas, again at lower prices. Locals in these less-traveled sections of town may check you out, reminds you that this trip is truly taking place in a new country.
4. Search clubs for locals
Research on travel websites such as Tripadvisor.com reveal jazz bars and sing-along clubs where common Vietnamese go to relax as the middle class expands on the back of jobs created by foreign investment.
They may appear on the side streets of the financial center Ho Chi Minh City, meaning the conventional tourist will miss them. A night in some of those clubs will give you more to write to friends back home (for reasons we won’t go into here) than a pack full of souvenirs. Some websites let you find a friend locally to show you around, which might be wise as a lot of tourists are now recommending this not-so-local jazz bar.
5. Drink craft beers
American expatriate John Reid founded Pasteur Street Brewing Co. three years ago in Ho Chi Minh City because he wanted to drink something better than cheap Asian lagers, which were about all you could get before. The 33-year-old F&B veteran brought on other brewing experts to improve formulas.
Now the craft brewery pours 12 kinds of beer, such as passion fruit and jasmine-flavored ales, at two (back-to-back) taprooms in Ho Chi Minh City plus one in Hanoi. Pasteur Street exports some beer to the United States while generating a following in beer-thirsty Vietnam strong enough to find five to 10 new distribution points per month.
Other local brewers are following Reid’s upmarket move. Without them, you’ll be stuck drinking ordinary lagers, which anyone can do anywhere in Asia.