Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Miss.Adventure’s Guide to Living in Vietnam

As my days in Vietnam dwindle down, I wanted to include tips that I have learned from living in Vietnam for anyone who stumbles onto this blog for some help. I’ll include the disclaimer that this information is only accurate NOW (2008).

Side Note: As for posting on this blog, I have maybe a couple of posts left. I am debating whether I should visit Seoul during my layover there. If I do, I will definitely post the pictures here. After that, my trip will be over. However, I am planning a new blog based at home. I’ll share the details soon on my final post!

When to travel in Vietnam
I can only comment on my own experience. We arrived in Vietnam in February, on the first day of Tết (Vietnamese New Year). I have always wanted to go to Vietnam during Tết. What I found is that most stores and business are closed for a week. There is not much to do other than staying home with your family. As well, in February, while it is hot in southern Vietnam, it was cold in the north, and close to freezing temperature in Sapa. Just keep that in mind if you were imagining warm weather all year round throughout the country – like I did and didn’t pack the right clothing…

Train and Luggage Tickets
In Vietnam, you have to show your train tickets getting on AND off the train. I believe you get fined if you don’t. I think it’s to avoid having people cheating and buying cheaper tickets with the incorrect (shorter distance) destination. As well, when you leave the airports, they actually check that your luggage match against the luggage tags. It’s actually good when you think about it so no one can walk out with your suitcase! So be diligent in keeping ALL of your tags and tickets!

Multiple Entry Visa
After applying and paying for a multiple entry visa, I thought I had a multiple entry visa. Can you predict the rest of this story? To my surprise upon my return from the Philippines, I was told that my visa was not valid. My visa was a single entry visa even though I forked out an extra $50 for a multiple one. After being threatened by officials to be deported back to the Philippines, being reminded that entry into Vietnam was not a right but rather a privilege (yes, I understood all of that in Vietnamese!), I was able to get a new visa for double the normal fee but who is going to complain? When I asked if I could finally leave, one official even joked that I could only leave with one of them. I kept my cool and did not react. It was a nightmarish night. As The Boyfriend pointed out, I was lucky to be granted another visa and they could easily have refused me entry. Moral of the story? Check that your paperwork is what it should be.

Paying rent
My issue with rent here is that our rent was quoted in USD and The Boyfriend was paid in VND (dong). I recommend to anyone who is not being paid in USD to negotiate paying rent in VND instead. This is because we had a problem with having two different exchange rates: bank and black market rates. This is not an issue anymore as both rates are now the same but it could be an issue again with potential speculation. If you are being quoted in USD and want to pay in VND, ask that the contract specify which rate to use (bank rate is most beneficial) so no conflict occurs (as we had to deal with!); I think it’s actually illegal to use anything but the bank rate, but try to argue that with an old, stubborn Vietnamese landlady!

Exchanging money
On the topic of exchanging money, currently many banks will not exchange VND currency into any foreign currency. It varies from bank to bank. At Vietcombank, they will only allow The Boyfriend to convert his assets when he closes his account after it has been approved by the director. HSBC will allow exchanges only for their customers (who have accounts at the Vietnamese branch) if you have proof that you are leaving the country. The moral of the story is that you should not exchange more than you have to or you might get stuck with VND (or get charged a black market exchange rate as an anonymous commenter experienced).

Eating out
Two great websites that I used for restaurants in Vietnam is noodlepie and Gastronomy (yes, I’ve mentioned this site before and I’ve had the chance to spend time with the lovely Gastronomer!). They both have a pull down of Vietnamese dishes that is very helpful. Another helpful site is Chez Moz Dining Guide.

Vegetarian Eating
For vegetarians like The Boyfriend, a good tip is that on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month, Buddhists follow a vegetarian diet. It is quite easy to find vegetarian Vietnamese dishes on those days.

My favourite subject! There are good deals to be had in Vietnam and it can be overwhelming. Here are a few things I think worthwhile:

- Custom clothing: My experience with getting custom clothes sewn is limited. I would suggest that you bring your favourite piece of clothing if you want a guaranteed product because Vietnamese tailors are great at copying. I was very happy with my pants. If you do get something made from a picture, you should try it on and ask the tailor to make the necessary tweaks. The Boyfriend got pants made he felt were too tight (even though measurements were taken); luckily, the tailor left some allowance so he could loosen them. In addition, you might want to bring your own fabric. Vietnamese fabric is limited and a lot of it is the shiny synthetic material that locals prefer.

- Bootleg DVD’s from China: You can buy the latest movies (that are still in the theatre) for 15,000 VND (about 1 USD). You can also buy TV shows on DVD’s. I just bought all 7 seasons of Sex and the City for 150,000 VND. The only caveat is that the quality is inconsistent. We’ve watched good quality movies and TV shows but some will freeze or you’ll see someone walking in front of the camera.

- Custom Paintings: There are many shops that do custom paintings. They offer everything from cheesy paintings to any replicas you'd like. If you want a picture of your family or dog painted on canvas at a good price, this is your chance. They are good at copying.

60cm x 80 cm painting for my sister for 550,000 VND.

- Eyewear: Forget about Lens Crafters. Eyewear is ridiculously affordable here. I got a pair of glasses made for 450,000 VND and it only took a day to get them. The frame I picked did say CK and I ended up with a pair of D&G, but at that price who can complain? So bring your prescription with you!

I can’t think of anything else. If I do, I will simply add on to this page.


Gastronomer said...

Here's another tip - Don't eat or buy fruit any where near Ben Thanh Market. It will cost you an arm and a leg ;-) There's one exception to this rule - if you have a "package" from your former employer, it's okay to eat and buy fruit by Ben Thanh Market.

Anonymous said...

Tip for those who have too much of VN dong at the end of your trip: go to Le Loi street, between REX hotel and the old Continental Hotel, looking for those foreign exchange kiosk, use your VN dong to buy Japanese Yen or Singapore dollar (not other currencies, they are not that popular in North America) then once you’re back to your home town, re-exchange them to your own currency at your bank or preferable in your Chinatown, they usually have a better rate. You may have to pay twice the exchange fee but it’s better than keep milion and million dong for souvenirs!

Anonymous said...

If you do a stopover in Seoul. Dongdaemun market is good for clothes. Only problem is that it is LARGE. You almost have to know where what you want is available. But it is the center of the Korean fashion industry. Namdaemun is touristy, and most of the clothes are golf type clothing, though you can also pick up the requisite steel chopsticks. A trip through the palace downtown is also well worth the price of admission. You can enter from the folk museum side, and you ticket used to be good for the palace as well. The Choeson dining hall and the King's pagoda on the small artificial lake are great places for a shot, as is the area between the main gate and palace. You can easily get to the palace by bus from several stops in Itaewon, though the subway requires several changes. Either bus or subway still leaves you with a walk of some distance. Insadong is great in the early evening, and there are some reasonably priced traditional Korean restaurants there. Off of the main street in Itaewon, over near Queen Min's club, is an alley where there is a green tea cooked rice restaurant. Try it. They also have a rice wine aged in bamboo available. The meal should run you about 12,000 won, and the wine 7 to 8,000 won. You can reach insa-dong via bus or subway, but make sure you write down all the directions before you go. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, Itaewon is hopping. Gekko's garden at the intersection is popular with the young and middle aged crowd, and there are a couple of places in the alley behind the Hamilton hotel that might be hopping. Thursday nights in the Three Alley Pub are quiz nights, and the place is standing room only unless you get there in time for a seat. Used to have really decent German and Aussie tucker, and a good variety of beer to include North Korean beer. Mid September to Mid-October is usually the best time to see Seoul, as the summer heat has gone and the skies are crystal clear. If you are in for more than a few days, get up to Namsan mountain and take in the views. Also available by bus, though your concierge may have to map it out for you. At the west end of namsan park, there is an old observatory, the "Patriot Ahn" shrine (a beautiful Korean style building), and a sidewalk cafe/cum Mom and Pop shop where you can buy coffee, soft drinks, beer, etc, and enjoy the view. If you go, I hope you enjoy your stay. Korea is much more expensive that Vietnam, but a bit cheaper than the U.S. for drinks and food, though not in hotels. Oh, buses run from the airport downtown to the major hotels, and their cost is $14.00 or so. You pick up the bus ticket from one of several booths in the airport, and simply catch the bus at the curb outside designated gates. Not a bad price for an hours drive, and the buses have water available.

D. said...

Hey good tips - I got a long winded one on my blog too, the short version being: collect a extra (or three) white customs declaration form when you are on the inbound flight to Vietnam.

That's one way to get around some of the duties hassles at the airport.