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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Jessica Hayward gives us the lowdown on how to make sure you ride motorbikes legally and safely in Vietnam.
Jase Wilson shares the pros and cons of traveling during high and low season, plus a few festivals to check out throughout the year.
Ready to explore Vietnam? We can help with travel insurance plans that have optional extras.
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