After much walking on this cool summer day in Da Lat, I am taking a rest at the Windmills Cafe, overlooking the town’s city center and market.
Today marks my 17th day in Vietnam, and as I have traveled by land some 1400 kilometers south, there is a thing or four that I have learned and hope it will help you when you are visiting this country.
Money matters: US dollars or Vietnamese Dong?
You will see some goods and services priced in US dollars, such as coffee, tour packages, massages, etc..and you will see these same things and others priced in dong. This varies city by city, but based on my experience, pay in the currency that is posted. For example, if 1kg of coffee costs $2, it will be more economical to pay that in dollars. This is because if you ask the vendor to quote you in the other currency, there will be a surcharge or poor exchange rate. In Hoi An for instance, I had dinner at a restaurant and I decided to pay with US dollars…They gave me 400,000 dong for $20, when at the time that amount yielded 448,000 dong. It is very helpful to have both currencies at hand, just make sure after bargaining you stick to the posted currency so you won’t get a bad exchange rate.
Best exchange currency locations? Plenty of options. You will surely get the best rate when you withdraw from an ATM machine. Do keep in mind, most ATMs charge a fee, personally I’ve paid 20,000 or 40,000 dong at most. I also exchanged dollars at the currency exchange office in Hanoi airport and in the city…fair exchange rates. Where I found the rates to be the lowest where outside the city centers and by small independent shops.
Count your bills, CAREFULLY. To some, all those zeros in a bill gets confusing. To others, the soft and sticky texture gets them. I lost 300,000 my first day in Hanoi, because somehow I handed 6-100,000 bills instead of 3. This tip has been repeated several times, it’s for a good reason. Be organized with your currency and take your time to make sure you hand out the correct amount.
Tours- In the most visited cities such as Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang, the abundance of tour agencies is overwhelming. The prices I must say are extremely good, but I often asked myself is it too good to be true? Not necessarily, but here are some pointers:
Read the fine print- make sure you understand all terms and conditions before you pay for a tour.
Refund policy- this one is significant specially if you plan to go to Halong Bay. As this was in my itinerary, I took the 3 hour shuttle from Hanoi only to learn that the cruise was being cancelled due to bad weather. I will write more about this in a separate post. For now, just to let you know that this does happen, especially in the months of July and August when there are heavy rains in this region. I was reimbursed 100%. Make sure you ask about the cruise or tour operator’s cancellation policy in the case of bad weather or a natural disaster.
Lunch time- banks and most attractions such as pagodas, or the cable car ride here in Dalat to go to Truc Lam Monastery are closed for lunch time. The time range is usually 11 or 11:30-1pm. Plan accordingly and keep this time block in mind.
Dress appropriately- I witnessed many people get turned away at temples and other holy sites because of their attire. The rule is no short dresses, skirts or shorts; and no sleeveless tops.
Some of these temples have signs that indicate no pictures are allowed inside. Ask if you are not sure before you enter to take pictures. In addition, all temples require you to take your shoes off before entering.
Passport and visa:
Thus far, all the hotels I have checked into here in Vietnam have a unique practice I have not experienced elsewhere, they keep your passport. They don’t ask you for a credit card or a security deposit in cash, but they keep your passport and return it when you check out. My conclusion is they keep your passport as a security deposit. I’ve read a couple of reviews where travelers are upset by this practice, and refuse to leave their passport starting a big raucous over the matter. So here are my two cents: I am giving you this information in advance so you won’t be surprised. There is no need to argue, as travelers we must respect each country’s laws and regulations. I had no issues getting my passport back when checking out or even before when I needed it to book a tour.
As far as getting a visa as an American citizen, you have two choices. You can apply at the nearest embassy, or you can go the Visa On Arrival route. Because my flight back to NY leaves from Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted the peace of mind and secure the visa before. I went to the embassy in Jakarta, paid $100(actually, they prefer the 1.3 million rupiah) and got my visa in 24 hours. The $100 seems to be the standard rate for a single entry, 1 month visa obtained at the embassy.
Be aware that it is difficult to get a price for the visa obtained at an embassy online. I tried getting this information by email and never got a response. Once I went in person to ask, the agent kept my passport and asked me to pay the fee upon picking up. I felt I had no choice but to leave my passport and not try the less expensive visa on arrival. It seems like most people pay to get a letter online and then pay the visa on arrival office at the airport they land. As a rule of thumb, obtaining the visa at an embassy is easy, secure but costs twice the price of doing it by VOA.
Thank you guys for reading my posts and following. Vietnam has been wonderful to me, and to make the most of your time here, I gladly share my stories and experiences on this my first visit in Vietnam. Wishing you a blessed day!