Local Laws and Customs in Vietnam: Know Before You Go

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Antiques, drugs, road rules and visas are just some of the things that can get you into trouble in Vietnam.


Traffic at Ben Thanh Market Photo © iStock/tbradford

Vietnam is so incredible that I’ve visited more than a dozen times, but to avoid catastrophe on your trip there you need to understand some of its key laws and customs.

Beware Vietnam's visa rules

Vietnam’s visa-on-arrival system for tourists is misleading and has brought many travelers unstuck. The name of this visa gives the impression that, when you arrive in Vietnam, you then apply for and receive the visa.

That is exactly how visa-on-arrival works in nearby Indonesia and Cambodia, for example. In those countries, you don’t need to complete documents before you fly in, you just arrive at the airport, pay a fee and get your visa immediately.

Vietnam’s visa-on-arrival system is convoluted, by comparison. Before you fly to Vietnam, you must do an EVisa application – either via the official Government website or a Vietnam visa agency. When this application is approved, you will be sent an official approval letter.

You have to print this letter and show it to Vietnamese immigration staff when you land, to then receive your visa on arrival. Also, you must present this letter to the airline staff at your departure point, or they won’t let you board your flight to Vietnam.

Another word of warning – do not believe the Government EVisa website when it says your application will be approved within three working days. I know someone who in early 2023 had to cancel a trip to Vietnam at the last minute because their application took four times longer than that to be processed.

Vietnam's road laws are strict

Many tourists make the mistake of assuming that, because they have a driver’s license or motorbike permit from back home, they are allowed to take to Vietnam’s roads. In nearby Thailand, for example, I have driven many times and have had Thai police check and then give the thumbs up to my International Drivers’ Permit. But in Vietnam, all motorists must have a Vietnamese license.

This leaves you with two options. Firstly, I would recommend you just use taxis, avoid motorbikes entirely, and hire a car with a local driver if you want to take lengthy day trips, or venture deep into the countryside. Secondly, and this is tricky, if you badly want to self-drive or motorbike through Vietnam, you need to go through the steps of getting a local license. That process is far too complicated for me to explain here.

If you choose to ride consider travel insurance and be sure to comply with its requirements, such as riding with a helmet and being appropriately licensed to ride in your home country at your destination.

Reject tobacco pipes

I made this mistake twice so that you don’t need to make it once. Vietnamese people are very welcoming, and it’s not uncommon for them to invite tourists to join them in smoking from a bamboo pipe. It is a popular custom across Vietnam to blaze tobacco in a Dieu Cay, a long, wide wooden device about 60cm in length.

This practice is particularly common after a meal, as some Vietnamese people believe it can aid in digesting food. I think many smokers there also appreciate the headrush that accompanies inhaling the smoke from this tobacco, which was far too potent for me.

The first time I used a Dieu Cay, the tsunami of fumes that flowed into my lungs made me keel over inside my local guide’s home, in the mountain town of Sapa. As I lay on the ground, my vision blurred and balance absent, I feared I had just been deliberately drugged.

When finally I regained my equilibrium, my guide apologized profusely and told me I’d inhaled too deeply. A few years later, after one too many beers, I again accepted a Dieu Cay offered to me in Hanoi. This time I smoked it while sitting. Even still, it caused me to fall on my side and knock over a table. Take it from me, if you’re handed a Dieu Cay, just politely decline.

Vietnam's drug laws are a minefield

In 2022, Thailand shocked the world when this famously tough-on-drugs country legalized recreational marijuana use, resulting in weed shops opening up all over the nation. Nearby Vietnam, meanwhile, has a very confusing approach to cannabis use.

In Vietnam, this drug has the same legal classification as much stronger substances such as cocaine and heroin. People caught in possession of marijuana can face lengthy prison sentences. Yet Singapore’s venerable Straits Times newspaper reported in 2022 that, in reality, police normally give warnings or fines to those they found with small quantities of cannabis.

They are not, however, anywhere near as lenient when it comes to harder drugs, such as narcotics and amphetamines. Possession of those substances will very likely land you in jail, and Vietnam even has the death penalty for serious drug offenses. In 2021, there were 93 death sentences given to drug offenders in Vietnam, according to Amnesty International. Really, it’s simple: do not touch drugs in Vietnam.

Buying antiques in Vietnam is risky

I nearly made the error of buying an antique to bring home from Vietnam. While wandering Le Cong Kieu antique street, near Ho Chi Minh City’s tourist magnet Ben Thanh Market, I saw a delicately-painted porcelain bowl that would be a perfect gift for my mother.

What I didn’t know was that, if I had taken that gift to the airport, it may well have been seized by Vietnam’s Customs Department. Because Vietnamese laws forbid the export of antiques that have originated in this country.

They will only allow you to leave Vietnam with antiques that were imported into Vietnam from another country. And even then, they have to be registered with the Vietnamese government to be legally exported. Long story short, forget buying any of those beautiful antiques and just browse instead.

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  • Kora said

    My boyfriend is going to Vietnam and said he would get shot for Dating me when he's there. Is that true?

  • Jimmy_Casket2.0 said

    Also, if you break a promise, you can be charged with for serious violations

  • Anon said

    I live in Nam, none of this is true except the drugs and politics thing. no you dont get shot for dating someone or breaking a promise (wtf?). Its a pretty chiled country tbh religious and political freedom exists so you can say what you want...as long as its not about the Vietnamese government then your finE!!

  • Jeff said

    Been to Vietnam 3 times - specifically Da Nang. Beautiful country, awesome people. Going back in December for work. Since I was last there, I quit smoking, but I'm using a "vape" pen. Any advice on the reaction I'll get if I vape up walking down the street?

  • Kylie said

    I wanna go to Vietnam but I'm nervous of the country, I'm only reading this so I don't get killed or get arrested.

  • Mr Gonzo said

    Been living in Vietnam for six months now and I find this place pretty safe and nice, especially the people are usually nice and friendly.

    And you can use vaporizer here, ppl do it on the streets ans restaurants.

    But ofc you should be careful in a country you don't know, learn, respect the ppl and the habits. But anyways I see Vietnam nice and pretty relaxed coutry (I'm from Europe).

  • Mr steve said

    Saigon rocks! jump on a bike and explore HCMC. I found it safe and a really nice place. I was there in 2013 and will definitely be going back!

    cheers guys and gals

  • Amanda said

    I just returned from SE Asia. Border crossings from Laos to Vietnam and from Vietnam to Cambodia were not an issue (you don't need any prior permission to cross borders). You're usually traveling by bus and everyone gets off the bus and goes through the crossing with their documentaton, getting exit stamps and then arrival stamps and returns to the bus. All you need to be worried about is having obtained your Vietnam visa ahead of time before you travel as they do not do a visa on arrival.

  • Neil said

    I thought the VOA (Visa on Arrival) could be obtained at airports but not the land borders for most citizens. Is this not true?

  • Martin said

    As an Irish citizen, I got VOA at HCMC Airport earlier this year. Had to pay a local company online for an invitation letter before going then you show this to staff at a counter in immigration, pay $25 and you get your visa. Very straightforward and lots of companies offer the service for a small fee (around $10 for mine).

  • Sabina said

    I'm a frequent visitor to Vietnam.
    Now there are many companies who help to make visa on arrival. Some take 30$ and some 200$ for helping with the same visa..
    Vistnamese people are mostly kind and helpful and the country is beautiful.
    Only the traffic and food is not very safe. Try to avoid buying fruits on Hanoi (and Sapa) because most of it comes from China full of poisoning chemicals. Also street food is not safe, not clean and you never know in what conditions it's being kept.
    Trafffic in Hanoi & HCMC is crazy and very tiring as there are millions of motorbikes on the roads (which also ride on pedestrian ways during the busy hours), many people die there at the accidents, and they usually drive when they are drunk. Always wear a helmet when you take xeom - motorbike taxi. The most safe option to move in Hanoi and Saigon is to use a car taxi. Till they will have a proper subways~

  • Tess Hamlin said

    My best friend just got back from Vietnam with her family and she loved it so much that we decided to go to Vietnam for schoolies. Is there any laws and stuff we should know about to protect ourselves from getting thrown into a foreign jail? We wouldn't be getting crazy drunk and will not be taking drugs.. at all. I just need to be familiar with the laws and religion so we don't accidentally offend somebody or break the law. Thank you in advance.

  • James said

    I have heard that in Vietnam they have normal water, just like in the US. Is that true?

    Also, does gravity work the same there?

  • J. said

    A friend of mine for a Vietnam website that is stealing books on the books website of Wattpad.com. What would happen to the people doing the act of plagiarism? As ticked off as I am *GOWL!* I don't want them to get shot! 。゚(゚´Д`゚)゚。

  • T said

    Gravity is different there. If you drop a ball it slowly raises upward.

  • Nguyen said

    This comment section is hilarious.
    Traveling to Vietnam is just the same if you travel anywhere else internationally. The only differences are the language, culture, politics and food. Of course the currency.

    Religion in Vietnam is diverse. Not everyone is a practicing Buddhist. They have beautiful cathedrals and temples there.

    Vietnam is a communist country. They don't kill you for having different beliefs nor do they care. Just be respectful. Especially, around any political official or building. Don't believe in their political stance, it's fine. Just agreed to disagreed.

    Currency in Vietnam. Look it up. I may be wrong.
    10,000 dong-¢50 USA
    20,000 dong-$1 USA
    50,000 dong-$2.50 USA
    100,000 dong-$5 USA
    200,000 dong-$10 USA
    1,000,000 dong-$50 USA

    Don't drink the tap water. Number 1 rule. Anywhere. I don't even drink tap in America. Look at what happen to Michigan. What a shame. Buy bottle water. Don't eat or drink with ice.

    Food in Vietnam is delicious but expect diarrhea sometimes. You might find a dead fly or hair strand once or twice. Pretty normal. You still got to pay. Don't worry, tipping in Vietnam is not customary. You can't sue either. Trust your judgement.

    Honestly, If I eat meat there I eat chicken or duck. Typically raw vegan. Plants on the ground in the middle of the road. A lot of restaurants on the street in Hanoi and Saigon (HCMC) sell dog and rat meat. No it isn't disgusting and common. It is life. They usually post it on the menu or sign. Learn to read and speak Vietnamese. That will help.

    Entertainment. Bringing Porn into Vietnam is illegal. Why would you, in the first place. Just get a message. You can get legit message in places offering happy endings. Not all cosmetologist in Vietnam is a slut or home wrecker. Just girls trying to make a living. I love getting haircuts and facials in Vietnam. They are super cheap and 100x worth it. I tipped my stylist or esthetician. Usually $1-10 USA, 100% more than the bill because it is that good.

    Professional pictures in Vietnam are highly recommended. These folks are highly skilled at photography and photo shop.

    Drugs. Don't even think about it. It is 100% illegal unless you have a prescription with it. Stay away from hooka too. Two bad experience each time. Laced with opium/herion or bad weed.

    Karaoke and bar hopping is fun. Just stick to beer. Cheap vodka and liquor in Vietnam are is nasty. The real deal is expensive. District 1 in HCMC is expensive for drinking and over rated.

    Traffic. Worst than traffic in Washington, New York. and Chicago. The city is control be traffic lights and signs but not all drivers listen to them. So good luck.
    I see four years old riding adults bikes standing up a crossing the streets. If toddlers can do it you can too. If you drive and get hit. 50% they will run. 100% the cops will come and confiscate the motorcycle. Majority of the time the person that hit you don't have money to pay for medical bills.
    Get traveler insurance.

    Vietnam is not a racist country at all compared to the United States. You might get stares but that is just from curiosity.
    Trust me, even Vietnamese that wasn't born in Vietnam get crap too. They call us viet-kieus. We get over charge too. It's life.

    Be smart and get a visa before arrival. Or a letter from a visa agency when you arrived. You can get it online. If you don't know if you can trust them. Call and see if they pick up. Ask for someone that speak English or your langauage. Call three different places. It should cost anywhere from $10 to $100. USA. It should not cost more than that for an individual. If it does you are getting ripped off. Try another company. Even for last minute visas. You will either get a confirmation and letter email or letter sent to your home.

    I know this from experience. My personal experiences. My first time to Vietnam sucked. I went again and I loved it. It is better to go to Vietnam with someone who speaks Vietnam.

  • Jeni said

    Didn't know any of this when I went to Vietnam in Feb 2017, didn't get arrested or in trouble. Common sense. The Vietnamese people are beautiful souls and as tourism is one of their highest earning industries they will do anything to help tourists. I absolutely loved it, never once felt unsafe or in danger even in the busiest urban areas!

  • Beth said

    Are there parts of the country that are off limits to foreigners? If so, is there a way to find out if it is possible to visit the place I wish to?

  • Shane said

    Just some questions:

    Are you allowed to carry a small pocket knife in Vietnam?
    Any issues with access to social media networks in Vietnam?

  • JP said

    What could happen if i wont have a seal enetering in vietnam? they could put me on jail?
    they sent me at home , i have to pay fine?

  • Mel said

    I am heading to Sa Dec (South Vietnam) and I am planning to take 2-3 day long trips in the area. Are there group tours? Any advice? Thank you! :)

  • Laura said

    Just returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia planned by Exotic Voyages (exoticvoyages.com). I traveled with two friends (all women) and we were thrilled with the hotels, activities, and local guides they booked for us. The agent was responsive about working with us to design the vacation we wanted. It was absolutely a five-star experience of personalized travel, I don’t know if I will ever go back to the DIY approach lol

  • minesh said

    hello. i want to know one law of Vietnam. please suggest me. if any Vietnamese lady did car accident. and in that car accident no any people was die. but other party car is damaged. and when Vietnamese police investigated. that lady had no driving licence. and she had little drunk. so as per Vietnamese law. what is punishment. now that lady is in prison. so when will she come out from prison? please help me to suggest this matter. thank you.

  • Jeffrey said

    The Vietnamese people are beautiful people and there culture shows respect to each other.
    They are also family people and care a lot for there children and there elderly.
    These people work hard and are very talented in many ways just look through there shops and you will see it.
    Please be a where not to take photos of government places and if unsure please ask them.
    I care a lot about these people and have been here only for a short time and I try to always show them respect as this is don’t even for the people they work for and also lending a hand to there neighbours is done with a open heart.

  • Arianna Valentini said


    I am traveling to Vietnam with a family member that has to take antiretroviral medication every day. He will be travelling with all the pills for our 8 day trip. I have been reading different things about drugs (intended as medication) and I was wondering whether we need to have a doctor's note with these pills. Also note we come from Latin America and the note would be in Spanish it's really complicated to get one in English let alone in Vietnamese. Please let me know if you have any advice on this.

  • Craig said

    “Buy bottle water” - shame on you. Don’t buy bottled water, seek out water filters. Most accommodation have them, even in places like Tam Coc. Download the RefillMyBottle app too for help where to find refills when out and about.

    Bottled water should be your last resort for safe drinking water. Travel sustainably or don’t travel at all!

  • Shane Tarr said

    Vietnam is a great place to travel in, indeed to live and work in but advice proffered by readers is important to heed as follows:

    POLITICS: North of Quang Tri Province or talking to older Vietnamese it is useful to refer not to the Vietnam War but the American War. I understand this. It was the Americans that escalated what was already a armed conflict in Vietnam. Referring to the American War enables one to more critically engage with at least some Vietnamese. However, south of Quang Tri one has to allow for some anti Hanoi sentiments (such as 70% of land in Ho Chi Minh aka Saigon is now owned by people originally from Hanoi). Probably best to have another Bia Saigon and avoid such contentious issues.

    CENTRAL HIGHLANDS: Great place to travel and meet interesting ethnic minority groups such as the Ede, Jarai and Bana but best to avoid discussions on religion and other divisive issues such as demonstrations in the past over the political allegiances of such groups. The Vietnamese do have a point that "missionaries" in the past have tried to turn these groups against both local authorities and central government. It is also useful to bear in mind that Vietnam treats its ethnic minority groups far better than its neighboring countries.

    BORDERS: Well anything goes sometimes. Without being explicit it really is best to "see nothing and say nothing" in the "public domain" and border control officials are legally able according to Vietnam's public security laws detain those they suspect of getting up to mischief. Innocents they might quickly release but if they suspect otherwise (such as photographing sawn timber crossing the border from the Lao PDR) they can and will detain you.

    RELIGION: Okay insofar as one does not seek out "zealots" (not that there are many) opposed to the Government. One might find it strange that Christian churches are "closed" for the most part when there are no religious services. Also, pays to be careful with "Protestant" religions. Catholics seem to get by with little trouble. But useful to remember that the State controls the clergy via strategic appointments.

    HAPPY ENDINGS AND SO ON: Hate to use the term prostitution and prefer to use the term "provision of paid services of a sexual nature". Yes, such services are freely available in most cities and many district towns. And yes Vietnamese men (not all it may be noted) use such services. Massage shops and karaoke bars are the most common venues. The provision of such optional extras are "illegal" but authorities mostly turn a blind eye. At another level non-Vietnamese men or women are not supposed to have Vietnamese of the opposite sex in their actual hotel room and especially overnight. However, there are ways-and-means to get around this that are not legal and one can be busted. It might be okay for the foreigner but the local Vietnamese "offender" can be named and shamed in their home village or residential ward. If "sex work" were to be decriminalized in Vietnam - as indeed anywhere - that would be different but this is unlikely to happen any time soon

    BELONGING TO LGBT COMMUNITY: Cambodia and Thailand are more progressive than Vietnam but Vietnam runs rings around China. So, all is not grim. Probably best to be a little restrained in public: that's all.

    I hope the above adds some value or at least corroborates whay others have said.

  • Caleb Watson said

    The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a communist nation in Southeast Asia previously part of Indochina. Vietnam borders China, Cambodia, Laos, and the Pacific Ocean. The capital of Vietnam is Hanoi.

    Its climate is warm with bugs, and its temperature rarely drops below freezing.

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