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Vietnam: Tour or on my own?

A little background: Me, 57 yr old female, and my 27 yr old daughter, want to go to Vietnam in November or December of 2019. Just started looking into it now, and came here because this forum was enormously helpful when we went to Italy a few years ago. My daughter can only get 2 weeks off work, so I'm looking into a 10 night trip (plus travel time we're at 12 nights, and we'd both could use a couple days to re cooperate before going back to work).

I'd love to do this without going on a tour, but am I over my head? My main concerns would be safety and transportation. We're both fairly adventurous (her more than me), and aren't really interested in staying in 4 (or 3 or 2) star hotels, just as long as it's in a safe neighborhood is fine. I'd be afraid to drive, but my daughter, who wanted very badly to rent a motorbike in Rome, would be thrilled to.

Could anyone share any tips they have for doing it on our own? Thank you, in advance!

Posted by
6858 posts

I have not been to Vietnam but have a friend who lived and worked there for a few years (through the State Department). She was a solo female and did not report any problems getting around or with safety issues. She had a wonderful experience there and travelled very inexpensively and easily throughout Vietnam and to other countries like Laos, Cambodia, etc. Your mention of your young daughter driving in an unfamiliar environment full of scooters and the like is the biggest safety flag I can see - as usual, something as mundane as driving is always the biggest risk. Since you have a year plus to plan for this, that's ample time to do the research to make this a successful independent trip. That's what I would do (caveat: I have a bias toward do-it-yourself trips and wouldn't have any issues planning a trip to Vietnam). Of course, if you prefer a more structured and comfortable travel method, then a tour is certainly a good alternative.

You probably feel like you may be "over your head" but that's probably only because you're at the very early planning stages; as you do more research, you'll likely feel a lot more confident. Good luck!

Posted by
5429 posts

Disclaimer: have not been to Vietnam yet, but have traveled very extensively in neighboring countries.

I'd echo - and greatly amplify - what Agnes said above. No way I'd consider for a moment driving (in a car or most of all on a scooter) in this region - and I'm a pretty adventurous driver (no qualms about driving in Morocco, Japan, Mexico, anyplace in Europe including wrong-side places which I've done many times).

I'd anticipate zero safety issues there as long as you have even just a tiny grain of common sense.

One issue I'd flag, though: "two weeks off work" is quite short for a trip like this. You're allowing just one day each way for travel, but in practice it's going to take longer than that - considerably more for you flying from the US midwest. Figure a minimum of two days each way, not counting "recovery time" upon arrival/return. 14 days - 4 days for flights starts to leave a relatively short time there. My suggestions are to 1) try very hard to find some way to carve out at least a few more days for your trip, and 2) keep the scope limited.

This caught my eye:

aren't really interested in staying in 4 (or 3 or 2) star hotels...

While you can certainly survive for a while on cheap places to stay, I would not subject myself or anyone I wanted to stay friends with to a steady diet of "one star" hotels. In this corner of the world, that could easily be a lot more basic than you expect. On the road in a strange land, a little comfort is well appreciated (and if you've never been to Asia before the whole experience might feel shockingly strange). Hopefully you do OK in very high heat & humidity? Keep in mind that in places like Vietnam, hotel costs are surprisingly cheap (sometimes stunningly so), and the price difference between a "one star" dirt-cheap place and something quite a bit nicer and with a lot more comfort could be the cost of a couple bowls of noodles (which are also amazingly cheap if you're used to Rome).

Posted by
116 posts

Edith, I was in Vietnam about a dozen years ago. You will need to apply for visas months in advance. Do not put that off.
I would NOT drive there. Many local drivers, especially those on motorbikes (there are millions, as many cannot afford cars), but even some on bicycles are very impatient, aggressive and reckless. Many considered stop lights as pause & go signals. There was constant jockeying for first position cutting in front of other vehicles at stop lights to the point lead vehicles would be in the middle of the intersection before light turned green. I have never seen such dangerous driving anywhere before or since. Roads outside the major cities (and many inside the city but outside the center) can be bad, with no shoulder and deep ditches. Taxis were cheap, fortunately; prices are no doubt higher now, but likely still cheap by our standards.
It will be HOT in the south (Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City) even in winter (I was there in early February - it was as hot as Texas in August) but moderate in the north (Hanoi). Also, some hotels will turn off the AC in your room when they see you leave the hotel and you will have to ask them to turn it back on when you return. Each time. That was my only complaint about the room; it was a decent, clean, safe hotel, but I have no idea of its "star" rating.

The food was great. Drink only unopened bottled drinks. Keep your purse and/or bag on the side of you away from the street to prevent snatchers on bikes. Read the State Department webpage on Vietnam. Check the CDC website for necessary vaccinations and other recommendations.
You can have a very enjoyable, memorable, and safe visit in Vietnam, but information gathering and planning are essential.

Posted by
54 posts

You guys are making me feel like I can do this! Thanks for the encouragement!!

@Agnus - I also have a bias towards do it your self trips! I think you're right, it's overwhelming in the early stages.

@David - I wish my daughter could get more time, but her job is pretty rigid with time off and it won't be possible for her to get more. I agree, I think I underestimated travel time (min flight is 25 hours, inc layovers). I was very surprised by hotel costs and will look into upgrading. I like to save money on accommodations to put towards experiences, but heat & humidity are tough on me.

And I think I'll veto her driving (again, like I did in Rome). Kids are just so fearless, whereas the older I get the more I think about what can go wrong.

Very much appreciate all your support!

Posted by
2545 posts

I’ve not been to Vietnam but the strong argument for going on a tour is the very short time you have. Unless you want to just visit Saigon and Hanoi, you’ll likely see more on a tour and not have to worry about transportation hiccups and shoddy hotels.

Posted by
3665 posts

The key is to limit your ambitions. Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, maybe one other destination. Air travel is easy, especially on the national Vietnam airline. Ground transport is slow. Pick out a couple of day tours from each city. Hotels are very cheap; $60 or so US will buy a very nice boutique hotel. Use their reception's travel advice. Do some on-line research about visas; many agencies will arrange a visa-on-arrival, which means the visa is waiting for you when you land. However this situation is in flux so I strongly suggest more research. Once you have chosen a hotel at your arrival port, ask them to arrange a car to pick you up; just as cheap as a taxi and more reliable since you are likely to arrive in the middle of the night. Do not drive. In the big cities you will barely be able to cross the street for the dense scooter traffic. Vietnam's version of adventure travel is crossing a thoroughfare, which essentially requires looking for a slight break in traffic and then marching firmly into the turmoil. They will avoid you. It is far less scary than it sounds (except after spending time in a brewpub.) Take culinary classes and tours; Vietnamese culture is expressed through food. The people are hospitable, even the scammers, who are easily evaded with a little common sense. Go!

Posted by
7508 posts

If you need any help in booking anything in Vietnam use Tonkin Travel. They are very reliable. We used them for airport pickups and a few excursions. We loved Vietname and agree with not deiving. Wait until you see the motor scooters on the roads!

Posted by
1633 posts

It used to be against the law to drive in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license; now it appears you can if you have an IDP and local (Vietnamese) insurance. Never in a million years would I drive there - absolute mayhem, even as a pedestrian the cars and scooters are everywhere. It is inexpensive to hire a driver - I did so twice, and also hired a motorcycle driver in Hue and had a blast. More details here: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/transport/getting-around/car-and-motorcycle

I took a tour in Vietnam. Personally, I wanted someone to deal with the logistics in a very different travel environment than I am used to, plus dealing with language barrier (there is one!). I wasn't thrilled with my tour company, but there are plenty of other options. That said, it is possible to arrange on your own and have very comfortable accommodations - I just checked one of the business style hotels I stayed in and an upgraded/fancy room is $85 per night, even in high season (when you are going).

I understand your travel time limit problem, so I would pick one or two places max. FWIW, I enjoyed Hoi An and Hue much more than Ho Chi Minh CIty - they were just prettier and less chaotic. Remember you lose an entire day on the way - factor that in to your date counting. My jet lag on return was 10 times worse than returning from Europe, so factoring in recovery days is a good idea, though that really crimps your time in Asia.

I also second the strong advice to get your visa plenty of time ahead of departure. Double and triple check the dates - you can only enter/exit within the window of dates printed on the visa. If you're outside of those, you're going to have a very expensive problem (one of my tourmates experienced this first hand, I don't recommend it).

Good luck with your decision!

Posted by
2091 posts

Agree with other posters. There is no way I would drive there and I’m pretty fearless. I just did all the driving, even on the other side, on our month long trip in Europe. The driving with the scooters and cars in Asia is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even as a passenger it will freak you out!

Posted by
9 posts

I just spent 5 days in Hanoi, including a day to Halong Bay. In your situation, definitely do not drive, and I also personally would suggest you go on tour:

  • Vietnam is chaotic. Traffic in Hanoi was overwhelming for me, and I have been to 45 countries. Every single road is filled with millions of scooters trying to squeeze through every little crack between cars like an army of ants while completely ignoring pedestrians. Walking from my airbnb to the old quarter in Hanoi was like playing 20 real life games of frogger, one for each street crossing
  • Vendors can be aggressive. I've had people physically grab me while trying to get me to go into their restaurants or take their scooter
  • English proficiency is very low outside of the tourism industry

It's one of the few countries I've been to where the prospect of stepping out of my Airbnb was stressing me out. If you're fine with navigating your way through constant chaos and sensory overload, then it's fine to travel there by yourself. I did the trip by myself and I survived. Although certain attractions, like Halong Bay, for all practical purposes you can only go see as part of a tour.

Posted by
49 posts

Sorry if repeating a bit:

We went to Vietnam for 10 days last Christmas. I planned the whole trip without a tour by taking a tour company's timeline on their website. We did not drive anywhere. We had people pick us up. At every hotel we stayed at, we asked them to get us a driver and they were able to do it. It was very cheap to do (for example: car and driver for 6 hours for less than $80). We went from Ha Noi to Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City. It was a lot of traveling, so I would perhaps only recommend two of the places in 10 days. It was a fun trip. I think it is definitely possible to go without a tour, but I would definitely not drive.

Posted by
14792 posts

I was in Vietnam in January this year on my own (retired woman). With 10 days, I'd choose 2 cities. Fly between them - there are cheap flights on perfectly acceptable airlines and fly open-jaw, into one and out of the other. Once you see the traffic, you will understand why everyone says do not rent a car. Riding a motorcycle is completely unsafe without a passenger, way too suicidal with one. Sometimes I felt like I was living dangerously just crossing a busy street. The best way to do it is to adhere to a local. Do not trust traffic lights, apparently they do not apply to the myriad motor scooters and are often just a suggestion for car drivers.

I stayed in "old town" central locations in both Hanoi and Saigon and never felt unsafe. There are lots of locals out and about until the late hours. I stayed at the Boss Legend in Hanoi, on the edge of the Old Quarter, very interesting area, walking distance to many sights. It's modern and very comfortable ($75/night, good breakfast). In Saigon, I stayed at the Papaya Saigon Central (double room for $75/night, lousy breakfast but who cares at that price), about a block from the night market and walking distance to many sights. Staff at both hotels were very helpful.

I got a VOA (visa on arrival) very easily. I used this service. Here's how it works. You get a "visa approval" letter by email and print it out. (I got mine in 2 days). Also print out the visa request form (don't remember where I found it online - maybe that website) and fill it out. You can get forms at the airport, but it slows you down. When you land at the airport, you take the letter, the completed form and passport photos and your passport to the desk. When your visa is ready (15-30 minutes usually), they call out your name (often mispronounced) but also your photo and name appear on an overhead screen. Then you pay - it was $25 then, must have cash dollars. And you're done! Caveat. This may not work well if you are flying into Saigon, since it's a very big, busy airport and lines for the VOA can be long. I flew into Hanoi and it took me less than 1/2 hour.

While the cities are very interesting, my best days were those I spent away from them. From Hanoi I took a 2-night trip to Halong Bay (there are also 1-nighters) that can be arranged at low cost from local tour operators. In Saigon I took one day trip down the river to the Mangrove Preserve. In the past, I'd taken a day trip by boat to the Mekong Delta.

To get around the cities, either walk or use Grab (it's just like Uber). I didn't have a smart phone with me, but the few times I needed a ride, my hotel or the restaurant I was at called one for me.

If you have any questions, please feel free to PM me if I don't respond to your thread.

Posted by
503 posts

Google Imprint Tours. Two of Rick Steves tour guides lead tours to Vietnam, Thailand and other places during the winter months when the RS tours are not operating in Europe. We are signed up the the Vietnam/Cambodia tour for this February. The itinerary is quite impressive and I'm not sure I could have planned it own my own.

Posted by
1607 posts

I would suggest taking a look at Scenic USA tours of the Mekong. This is partly a land tour and partly a river cruise. It is all inclusive including the excursions, meals, alcohol. The price usually includes the airfare. We did this last spring. Absolutely fabulous! The ship was amazing. You can google it for photos. It is absolutely as gorgeous as the pictures. The hotels are very high end. Although the ship hold 100 passengers, they break the groups up into 25 or less for the bus rides and excursions. The guides are great. I would also tell you that our guides mentioned how many fatal traffic accidents there are in that region. I would not suggest driving yourself. Also be very careful crossing the streets. One of our fellow tour members was struck by a motorbike (hit and run) in Hanoi and spent a night in the hospital at the outset of the tour.

Posted by
685 posts

Hi Edith,

I am about your age and have traveled three-times to Vietnam in the last 10 years for work, most recently 3 years ago. I took a few extra days each time to tour the countryside, mainly around Hanoi. I found Vietnam safe and Hanoi relatively easy to navigate (once you get a good reputable taxi company from your hotel). For Halong Bay and a cooking class in the countryside, I arranged a guide through the hotel. It is very cost effective to do so. Halong Bay really needs at least one night, don’t just do a day trip. As for riding a Motorbike—no way. Traffic is way to hectic and too dangerous for a non-local person.

I agree with the other recommendations: choose only two cities and fly between. If I were to travel for several weeks, I would look at a small tour, just to maximize your time and minimize the hassles associated with language barriers.

I love Vietnam and I hope you enjoy your trip.

Sandy