When I moved to Vietnam in January 2018, I was absolutely terrified. Not only did I arrive completely alone, knowing absolutely no one in the country, but I was also excruciatingly aware that I’d signed up for a minimum of 7 months in South East Asia. This was a pretty scary thought for a lonely 22-year old, and the minute I arrived I started to regret my decision to relocate.
However, just one week after I’d landed in Hanoi (and had made it through no less than 10 panic attacks in my hotel), I knew I’d made the best decision ever. Vietnam is an incredible country, and I now feel homesick for the place every single day.
One of the reasons why it’s such an amazing place is that there’s adventure to be found in every corner of the country. It truly is one of the greatest places to simply rock up and explore, paving your own path as you go. Nevertheless, there are a few things to know before you go:
Vietnam is extremely patriotic
Vietnam is so wonderfully patriotic that you can’t help but fall in love with the country the minute you arrive. The country’s iconic red flag can be found on almost every street, and framed pictures of Ho Chi Minh (the country’s former Prime Minister and a hugely important historic figure) are in every house, shop and classroom you go in. It’s a truly incredible country with a fascinating history, so you can see why people are so proud to be Vietnamese!
Pho is the cheapest – and best – meal in the world
Before you head to Vietnam, prepare yourself to eat *a lot* of noodles. There are noodle-based dishes everywhere, but none quite as delicious as pho, the country’s national dish. When trying pho for the first time, expect a truly flavoursome bowl of garlicky broth, rice noodles, meat (if you opt for chicken, pork or beef), and greens. Pop a few dried chillies into your broth and you’ve got the perfect combination of sweet and spicy. I never paid more than £1 for a bowl of pho, and in fact my favourite vendor in Hai Phong sold the most incredible bowls for just 30p!
City traffic is pretty crazy
If there’s one thing I remember the most clearly about Vietnam, it’s the sound of horns beeping manically as hundreds of motorbikes weave through pedestrians, cars and buildings, everyone trying to let their fellow road users know they’re coming through. Crossing the road in Vietnam can take some getting used to, but in the first few days of living there I was told to just step out into the road, walk in a straight line, and maintain a steady pace. The drivers will predict how much space they need to leave around you, so if you walk erratically you’ll make this much more difficult for them. This can be a little scary at first, but it’s just one of the things that makes Vietnam so unique.
Sleeper buses will become your best friend
There are so many incredible places to visit in Vietnam, and not all of them close to each other. If you want to make the most of the country on your trip, the chances are you’ll try to explore the north and the south – and who could blame you? However, unless you’ve got the money to fly everywhere, you’ll need to take advantage of sleeper buses and trains. While these may sound like your worst nightmare, they’re really not that bad! You’ll get your own bed to sleep on and, unless you’re really unlucky, a toilet at the back of the bus, too. They’re generally quiet and ventilated, not to mention cheap, so if you’re on a budget these are likely your best bet.
It’s not always sunny…
Maybe I’m just extremely optimistic everywhere I go, but I assumed Vietnam would be sunny and warm all year around. In fact, I was so convinced it would be permanent beach weather that I only packed one jumper for the entire 7 months. As I landed in Hanoi in the middle of winter, I quickly realised this was a big, big mistake. It’s true that in Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of the south, you’ll enjoy high temperatures as a result of being so close to the equator. However, if you’re spending time in the north, make sure you’re prepared for chilly evenings and rainfall during the winter months.
Vietnamese coffee is world famous
While there are many wonderful culinary delights to experience in Vietnam, no blog would be quite complete without mention of its coffee. Rich, chocolatey and aromatic, Vietnamese coffee is like no other. There’s a reason why my boyfriend still imports it now! Coconut coffee was my personal favourite, although many of my friends swore that egg coffee was much tastier. My boyfriend’s top choice was the classic cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee mixed with condensed milk) – a national favourite.
The language is difficult to learn – but don’t let that put you off!
Even after seven months of living, working and travelling through Vietnam, I’m sorry to say that I arrived back in England speaking very little Vietnamese. That’s not to say I didn’t try – I even had weekly lessons in order to learn, and kept pestering my lovely friends/pupils to help me out with pronunciation – but Vietnamese truly is a challenging language to grasp. This is partly because there are many different ways of pronouncing each vowel, and partly because I’d never been exposed to the language before arriving in Hanoi.
Despite this, I’d urge everyone visiting to practise a few phrases before you visit, as a little language will go a long way. Phrases such as hello, how much, thank you and goodbye will really help you out, so make sure you learn these before you go.
The landscape varies dramatically
One of the things I absolutely love about Vietnam is that everywhere you go is vastly different. You can be walking through the bustling streets of Hanoi’s Old Town one day, and sailing through the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay the next. You can hike through the verdant hills of Mai Chau in the north, and sunbathe on the golden beaches of Phu Quoc in the south. Whatever your expectations of Vietnam, throw them out the window before you go!
There are more motorbikes than cars
It’s no exaggeration to say that motorbikes are everywhere in Vietnam – no matter where you go! You may be tempted to rent or buy one while you’re there, but think carefully before you do so. My boyfriend and I had a fantastic time on his bike (I was far too scared to drive more than a couple of times) but we did come close to having an accident more than a couple of times. I certainly saw some pretty awful accidents, which is no surprise considering the vast number of vehicles on the road. If you do ride, make sure you invest in a sturdy helmet and cover up in thick clothes.
Hotels will help you with anything you need
In every hotel I stayed in, I was met by the friendliest and most hospitable staff, all willing to go above and beyond during my time there. From preparing delicious vegan meals to waking up at 4am to drive me to the airport personally, there was no end to the kindness I received in Vietnam. Hotels will also have their own set of contacts and will likely be able to help you book transport, excursions and much more, so don’t be afraid to ask!