In this Vietnam travel tips collage, a man wearing a hat and a backpack looks one way while a motorbike rides in the opposite direction

Going places

Vietnam travel tips: Here’s what to know before you go

If you have five minutes and a fondness for fish sauce, this crash course on traveling in Vietnam is for you. All tips and takeaways are sourced firsthand from an EF tour.

Travel prep isn’t just about securing a passport and packing light. It’s also about understanding the culture you want to connect with and the environment that’s awaiting you—especially when you’re leading or participating in an educational tour to a different part of the world. The internet is your friend if you’re looking for a quick “Vietnam travel tips” fix, but gathering insights direct from an experienced traveler, a local, or an expert on the destination is usually (always) better. That’s why I traveled on EF’s Discover Vietnam itinerary before sitting down to write this article.

So, what can you expect on a student trip through Hanoi, Ha Long, Hôi An, and Hô Chi Minh City? Vietnam is a country full of contrasts, to be sure. It has a complex past and a rapidly evolving future. You’ll see flat-bottomed boats, bikes of all types, smiling strangers, and otherworldly beauty, too. Keep reading for a few more things you should know before you go.

This collage supports our first Vietnam travel tip; images include a photo of our author on the back of a motorbike in 2018, a street crowded with bikes and a single car, and an illustration of a rice bowl with the text

On transportation

Most residents travel on two wheels

Spend any amount of time in Vietnam, and the first thing that will greet you is the relentless hum of millions of motorbikes, mopeds, and scooters. Nimble vehicles rule the roads here, which makes for some dizzying traffic patterns. During our group’s first city stay, the advice we got from our Tour Director was simple: “Make like sticky rice when crossing the street.” Enter the traffic stream slow and steady as a unit, and it’s more likely that motorists will notice your presence and navigate around you.

Another of our Vietnam travel tips has to do with the skinny

On architecture

A tall tale about tube houses

One architectural anomaly you’re sure to notice in the streets of Hanoi and Hô Chi Minh City is the plethora of wafer-thin buildings packed together like pastel sardines. What these kaleidoscopic “tube houses” lack in width (they can be less than 10 feet across), they make up for in depth, height, and history. It’s believed that real estate in 19th-century Vietnam was taxed by street frontage only, so the skinny residences may have been a way of subverting that system. A typical tube house is several stories high and over five times as long as it is wide, so it still provides plenty of space for the multi-generational living that’s so common in this culture. As you tour different cities, see how many types of tube houses you can spot, from Chinese-style pagodas to French colonial construction.

The tiny plastic furniture seen in this image is very common in local dining spots, per this Vietnam travel tip; an illustration also features a Vietnamese banknote

On culture

You will stoop for soup

We can’t talk Vietnam travel tips without touching upon the outstanding street food that awaits you there. But what’s up with the child-size tables and stools at the local dining establishments? Maybe it’s a holdover from Vietnam’s Subsidy Period (1976–1986) when citizens weren’t allowed to own property and accumulate personal wealth. Perhaps people want the convenience of being able to relocate their businesses on a whim. (It’s rare for any street corner, teeming with pop-up restaurants and fresh-as-it-can-get stalls, to stay the same for long.) In one of the few communist states in the world, residents are decidedly entrepreneurial. And while Vietnam’s street food scene may be ephemeral, the tiny plastic furniture is here to stay. So, if you want to experience life from another point of view, get low like the locals do.

Photo of Ha Long Bay with an illustration of a dragon layered on top of it to represent this Vietnam travel tip

On history

The arc of history is looooooooooooong in Vietnam

Have you heard the story surrounding Ha Long Bay? Legend contends that dragons, summoned to defend Vietnam from invaders, spewed mouthfuls of emerald and jade upon the bay—giving way to the breathtaking limestone cliffs dotting the Gulf of Tonkin today. It’s probably not the history lesson you’d expect to get on a journey through Vietnam, but the country has been inhabited since the Paleolithic age. And the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese sometimes call it, the American War) is just a fraction of their story. Remember that as you tour the many museums dedicated to the conflict, and especially as you hear varied perspectives on the nation’s more recent past.

A line illustration of plane seating with seat
On language

Where the “F” do you sit in the air?

Board a domestic flight within Vietnam, and you’ll notice the DEF side of the aisle skips straight to G. That’s because there’s no F in the Vietnamese alphabet (or J, W, and Z, for that matter). With a booming tourism industry—sightseers skyrocketed from under 2 million a year in the 1990s to over 18 million in 2019—you won’t have trouble finding locals and vendors who speak English in the major cities you visit. But some baseline knowledge about the language will make the learning curve as a traveler a little less steep.

For our Vietnam travel tip about coffee, pictured are an image of iced coffee with condensed milk and an image of a coffee with whipped egg topping
On food

The best time to be adventurous is at breakfast

We say this not because Vietnamese breakfast is superior to other meals, but because trying something new is the greatest way to start your day in an unfamiliar place. It’s not uncommon to see a bánh mì or a bowl of pho on the menu bright and early (yes, noodles for breakfast is normal!). And to pair with those dishes, there’s another famous delicacy of bold, espresso-like coffee—or cà phê—served in one of two ways:

  • Over ice: Locals like to mix their coffee with sweetened condensed milk, an ingredient that grew in popularity during French colonization in the 1800s when fresh milk was scarce.
  • Under eggs: It may sound odd, but raw yolk whipped to a creamy consistency and combined with condensed milk makes the frothiest coffee topping.

While this final piece of advice applies to Vietnam, it extends to all of Southeast Asia. If you’re eager to see what the breakfast buffets hold in Thailand or Cambodia, we have a tour for that, too.

Image of a Japanese fishing boat and a large net in this final Vietnam travel tips nod to an EF student travel itinerary

Want to put these Vietnam travel tips to good use?

Check out everything our Discover Vietnam student tour has to offer.

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Kim Hart

Kim is a writer and an associate creative director at EF. In a past life, she wrote about everything from online poker to deodorant. (She likes writing about educational travel better.) When not at work, you can most likely find Kim on the internet or eating cheese.

Vietnam travel tips source: Kim traveled on Discover Vietnam in 2018. If you have different takeaways from a trip to this country, or better yet, another place entirely, submit them at [email protected].