Essential Guide to Vietnam

Introduction to Vietnam

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the 8th most populated country in Asia with over 90 million inhabitants.  Its neighboring countries are China, Laos and Cambodia.  Since 1986, the Communist government has introduced economic and political reforms that have seen international reintegration and one of the world’s highest rates of economic growth.

 

Gay Rights

There are no laws against homosexuality in Vietnam, however there are no laws to prevent discrimination.  Same-sex marriages or civil partnerships are not permitted.  Overseas same-sex marriages are not recognized.   In this socially conservative country, coming out to one’s own family or work colleagues as being gay is particularly difficult.  Consequently, the vast majority of gay people don’t ever ‘come out’.

However, there are welcomed signs of a change of attitude towards gay people with mainstream media promoting the view that being gay is normal.

 

Gay Scene

The gay scene is very small compared with other countries in Asia, and it is unlikely to be the main focus on your trip to the country.  However, there are a number of gay bars and other gay businesses – although these do tend to keep a low profile.

 

Online services such as Fridae.com, Grindr, etc. are the best way to ‘meet the locals’ particularly outside of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh.  Be aware that Facebook is blocked in Vietnam (as at March 2012).

 

Climate

The geography of Vietnam means that it has very diverse seasons.  In central Vietnam, tropical monsoons can occur from October to April.  In the north and south, the monsoon season is May to September.  The north can experience cold and damp winters (Dec – Feb) whilst at the same time the south (Ho Chi Minh) can be experiencing temperatures up to 40c.  The best advice is to carefully research your specific destinations.

 

Immigration

Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway passport holders can enter Vietnam for a limited period without a visa (for either 15 or 30 days).  Everyone else needs a visa.

 

Vietnam operates a ‘visa on arrival’ scheme – however, you still need to obtain an approval letter before actually arriving in the country.  An approval letter can be obtained online from various agents – for a fee.  Travel Gay Asia used http://www.myvietnamvisa.com/ on a recent trip (2012) and found the service to be fast and efficient.  Check their website for the most up-to-date information.  Remember that you need a passport-sized photo and US25$ to pay a further fee on arrival in Vietnam (in addition to the online service fee).

 

Shopping

Don’t expect to find the sort of mega shopping malls that dominate cities like Bangkok or Hong Kong and just a few larger department stores.  Shopping is on a much smaller scale.   Most shops in tourist area will accept Visa, MasterCard, Vietnamese Dong and US dollars.

 

Hanoi has a particularly impressive number of boutique art gallerias in and around the edge of the Old Quarter near the lake, selling fabulous lacquered art, paintings and silk work.  All but the largest shops will expect some form of bargaining over price.  For the best price, take cash.

 

Banking

We found that mainstream banks offered much better exchange rates than tourist exchange booths.  Other than US dollars, take large denomination notes (50 euro / £50).  ATM’s are widely available. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted in most shops.  Larger hotels will accept American Express.

 

Traffic

All travellers to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh will have to re-learn how to cross the road.  The amount of traffic, particularly motorcycles on the roads, is unbelievable.  To cross the road, you just have to walk at a steady pace and trust that the cars and motorcycles will not hit you.  If in doubt, find and follow a local.  This time lapse video of Ho Chi Minh city illustrates the point!

 

Needless to say, make sure you have adequate travel insurance.  Hospital treatment is not free.