VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

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HOLIDAYS

Politics affects everything, including public holidays. After a 15-year lapse, religious holidays were re-established in 1990. The following are public holidays in Vietnam: New Year's Day (Tet Duong Lich) 1 January Anniversary of the Founding of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Thanh Lap Dang CSVN) 3 February - the date the party was founded in 1930. Liberation Day (Saigon Giai Phong) 30 April - the date on which Saigon surrendered is commemorated nationwide as Liberation Day. International Workers' Day (QuocTe Lao Dong) 1 May
Ho Chi Minh's Birthday (Sinh Nhat Bac Ho) 19 May Buddha's Birthday (Phat Dan) Eighth day of the fourth moon (usually June). National Day (Quoc Khanh) 2 September-commemorates the Declaration of Independence by Ho Chi Minh in 1945.
INSURANCE
Insurance is a must for Vietnam, as the cost of major medical treatment is prohibitive. Although you may have medical insurance in your own country, it is probably not valid while you are in Vietnam. A travel insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is the best bet. There is a wide variety of policies available, so check the small print. Some insurance policies specifically exclude such 'dangerous activities' as riding motorbikes, diving and even trekking. Check that the policy covers an emergency evacuation in the event of serious injury.
INTERNET ACCESS
Today the internet is widely available throughout towns and cities in Vietnam. There is everything from trendy cybercafe’s to computer terminals in the lobbies of hotels and guesthouses, plus public internet access in 5 many Vietnamese post offices. Many of the budget and midrange hotels in major cities 3 offer free internet in the lobby. Some even 3 offer free access in the room for those travelling with a laptop. The cost of internet access generally ranges from 3000d to 20,000d per hour, depending on where you are and what the competition is like. Printing usually costs around l000d per page and scanning about 2000d a page. Wi-fi access is spreading fast. Hanoi, HCMC and other big towns have plenty of cafes and bars offering free access. Many of the leading hotels also offer wi-fi, but in keeping with the five-star tradition, it is not a free service. For laptop travellers with older machines, check out the prepaid internet-access cards that can provide you with nationwide dial up to the net. FPT is one of Vietnam's larg-est ISPs, and its internet card is sold in most cities. Remember that the power supply voltage will vary from that at home. The best investment is a universal AC adapter, which will enable you to plug it in anywhere without frying the innards of your equipment. For more information on travelling with a portable computer, see www.teleadapt.com.
LAUNDRY
It is easy to get your laundry done at guesthouses and cheaper hotels for just a few US dollars. There have, however, been a number of reports of gross overcharging at certain hotels, so make sure you check the price be forehand. Budget hotels do not have clothes dryers, as they rely on the sunshine - so allow at least a day and a half for washing and drying, especially during the wet season. You can also elect to wash your own clothes as washing powder is cheap and readily available.
LEGAL MATTERS
Civil Law
On paper it looks good, but in practice the rule of law in Vietnam is a fickle beast. Local officials interpret the law any way it suits them, often against the wishes of Hanoi. There is no independent judiciary. Not surprisingly, most legal disputes are settled out of court. In general, you can accomplish more with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of good cognac than you can with a lawyer. The drug trade has made a comeback in Vietnam. The country has a very serious problem with heroin these days and the authorities are clamping down hard, Marijuana and, in the northwest, opium are readily available, hut giving in to this temptation is a risk. There are many plain-clothes police in Vietnam and, if arrested, the result might be a large fine and/or a long prison term.
Police
Vietnamese police are the best that money can buy. Police corruption is an everyday reality and has been acknowledged in official newspapers. If something does go wrong, or if something is stolen, the police can't do much more than prepare an insurance report (or a fee (no fixed cost). Hanoi has warned all provincial governments that any police caught shaking down foreign tourists will be fired and arrested. The crackdown has dented the enthusiasm of the police to confront foreigners directly with demands for bribes, but it still happens in more out-of-the-way places.
MAPS
Most bookshops in Vietnam stock a good range of maps. A must for its detailed road maps of every province is the Viet Nam Administrative Atlas, published by Ban Do. It is perfect for cyclists or motorbikers looking for roads less travelled and costs 68,000d in softback. Ban Do also publishes reasonable tourist maps of HCMC, Hanoi, Danang, Hue and a few other cities. Unfortunately, maps of smaller towns are practically nonexistent. Most of the listings mags produced in Viet-nam have city maps of Hanoi and HCMC, and there are some good hand-drawn 3D maps of Hanoi, Hue and Sapa available from Covit, a local publisher. Vietnamese street names are preceded with the words Pho, Duong and Dai Lo - on the maps and in the text in this book, they appear respectively as P, Đ and ĐL
MONEY
The first currency of Vietnam is the dong, which is abbreviated to 'd'. Banknotes come in denominations of 500d, l000d, 2000d, 5000d, 10,000d, 20,000d, 50.000d, l00.000d, 200,000d and 500,000d. Now that Ho Chi Minh has been canonised (against his wishes), his picture is on every banknote. Coins arc also in circulation, although they arc more common in the cities, including 500d, l000d and 5000d. The second currency is the US dollar and thai needs no introduction.
The dong has experienced its ups ami downs. The late 1990s Asian economic crisis which wreaked severe havoc on the regional currencies, caused the dong to lose about 15% of its US-dollar value. Since then the don’t has stabilised at around 16,000d to the US dollar. Where prices are quoted in dong, we quote them in this book in dong. Likewise, when prices are quoted in dollars, we follow suit While this may seem inconsistent, this is the way it's done in Vietnam and the sooner you get used to thinking comparatively in dong and dollars, the easier your travels will be. For a smattering of exchange rates at the time of going to print, see the Quick Reference section on the inside front cover of this book.
ATMs
It used to be just a couple of foreign banks in Hanoi and HCMC that offered ATMs. but Vietnamese banks have now got into this game in a big way. Vietcombank has the best network in the country, including most of the major tourist destinations and all the big cities. Every branch stocks a useful leaflet with a list of their nationwide ATMs. Withdrawals are issued in dong, and there is a single with-drawal limit of 2,000,000d (about US$125). However, you can do multiple withdrawals until you hit your own account limit. ANZ offers 4,000,000d withdrawals per transaction. Most banks charge 20,000d per transaction. Cash advances for larger amounts of dong, as well as US dollars, can be arranged over the counter during office hours.
Black Market
The black market is Vietnam's unofficial banking system that is almost everywhere and operates quite openly. Private individuals and some shops and restaurants will exchange US dollars for dong and vice versa. While the practice is technically illegal, law enforcement is virtually nonexistent. Ironically, black market exchange rates are usually worse than the official exchange rates, so the only advantage is the convenience of changing money when and where you like. If people approach you on the street with offers to change money at rates better than the official one, you can rest assured that you arc being set up for a rip-off. Fake notes or too few notes, they will get you somehow. Don't even think about trying it! Remember, if an offer seems too good to be true, that's because it probably is.
Cash
Most major currencies can be exchanged at leading banks in Vietnam, but away from the tourist centres the US dollar remains king. Viet-combank is the most organised of the local banks for changing cash and can deal with euros, pounds and pretty much anything else you are packing. The US dollar exchange rate worsens the further you get from the tourist trail, so stock up on dong if you are heading into remote areas. In small towns it can be difficult to get change for the larger notes, so keep a stack of smaller bills handy. Changing US$100 will make you an instant millionaire! It's a good idea to check that any big dollar bills you take do not have any small tears or look too tatty, as no-one will want to touch them in Vietnam. You cannot legally take the dong out of Vietnam but you can reconvert reasonable amounts of it into US$ dollars on departure.
Credit Cards
Visa, MasterCard and JCB cards are now widely acceptable in all major cities and many tourist centres. However, a 3% commission charge on every transaction is pretty common; check first, as some charge higher commissions than others. Some merchants also accept Amex, but the surcharge is typically 4%. Better hotels and restaurants do not usually slap on an additional charge. Getting a cash advance from Visa, Mastei Card and JCB is possible at Vietcombank in most cities, as well as at some foreign banks in HCMC and Hanoi. Banks generally charge a 3% commission for this service. This is handy if you want to get out large sums, as the ATMs have low daily limits.
Tipping
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam, but it is enormously appreciated. For a person who earns US$100 per month, a US$1 tip is significant. Upmarket hotels and some restaurants 33 may levy a 5% service charge, but this may not make it to the staff. If you stay a couple of days in the same hotel, try and remember to tip the staff who clean your room. You should also consider tipping drivers and guides - after all, the time they spend on the road with you means time away from home and family. Typically, travellers on minibus tours will pool together to collect a communal tip to be split between the guide and driver. It is considered proper to make a small donation at the end of a visit to a pagoda, especially if a monk has shown you around; most pagodas have contribution boxes for this purpose.
Travellers deques
It is wise not to rely entirely on travellers cheques by keeping a reasonable stash of US dollars to hand. Travellers cheques can only be exchanged at authorised foreign-exchange banks, but these aren't found throughout Vietnam. Strangely, there are no banks at most of the land border crossings. The only way to change money at these places is on the black market. If you only have travellers cheques, stock up on US dollars at a bank, which will usually charge anywhere from 0.5% to 2% commission to change them into cash. Vietcombank charges no commission for exchanging Amex travellers cheques; a reasonable 0.5% for other types. If your travellers cheques are in currencies other than US dollars, they may be useless beyond the major cities. Hefty commissions are the norm if they can be exchanged at all.