What to take
Traveling light & layered
As a general rule, we recommend traveling light. Vietnam is a fairly relaxed and informal country, and unless you are attending a very formal event then casual clothes as you would wear at home are your best bet and likely all you will need. Even in the top hotels and restaurants smart casual is fine.
Most of the time and in most places it is hot, so lightweight, loose-fitting clothes in fabrics such as cotton, modern outdoor clothing materials that wick water & sweat away, linen and silk will keep you cool and are relatively easy to wash and dry.
Long sleeves and long pants are wise choices for sun and mosquito protection (and protection while riding a motorbike), and cool sundresses with a shoulder-covering shawl are lightweight, versatile, invaluable items for women.
Shorts & T-shirts are generally OK too, and you’ll see some of the locals dressed this way — although even in the heat, long pants are still much more common.
Note that outside beach resorts, wearing flip-flops, swimmers, singlets and other skimpy clothing will be considered disrespectful, a bit clueless, mark you as a ‘backpacker foreigner’, especially in the North, and may result in you being refused entry. Definitely uncool. Skimpy clothing is also forbidden in temples and many other places.
Just don’t do it.
If traveling in the mountains in cooler weather, layering is the best approach – layers of mix-and-match lightweight warmth, plus a wind and waterproof jacket (and waterproof pants if you are motorbiking or trekking), are better and more flexible than bulky cool weather items.
Most hotels and lodges in major cities and the larger towns provide a laundry service (although in the countryside this can be basic), and even in smaller places something can usually be done, so traveling light with 2 – 3 changes of easily washed casual clothes is generally practical even on an extended trip.
We travel this way ourselves.
Of course when traveling by motorbike, space in panniers is limited and traveling light is essential rather than an option. Click here for more information on packing for a motorbike trip.
Traveling light also means much easier luggage handling — especially in remote Vietnam where hotels might not have lifts, or where bungalows might involve walking some distance from the reception area. Lugging heavy bags is no fun in Vietnam’s humid heat.
Baggage allowances on domestic flights, particularly to smaller airports, are generally less than on overseas legs and extra baggage tariffs can be quite high. Taking less luggage and using lighter soft shell bags can help avoid the nasty surprise of additional baggage fees!
In short — travel light and layered!
Clothing, luggage & other stuff
Clothing to pack: details
The clothes you should pack depend, of course, on which part of Vietnam you plan to visit, what types of activities you plan on doing and when you plan to go. While it’s hot in the South year round, the North has a 4-season climate and it can very cold, even freezing, at higher elevations, particularly in the Northern mountains from Sapa to Dong Van (see here for more information on weather, seasons and when to go).
Here are some observations drawn from our own experiences of touring by car, motorbiking and trekking throughout Vietnam.
Modern travel/outdoors clothing using moisture-wicking materials — shirts, pants, skirts, dresses — is great for all types of travel throughout Vietnam.
Fashions range from hiking to chic, and materials are lightweight, hard-wearing, easy to launder, are often minimal-iron, offer good protection from sun and UV, and pack small. We might pack a cotton top and cotton/elastine bottom for some casual comfort, but on the road modern materials are our mainstay.
Lightweight fiber or puffer jackets are warm, thin, good for layering over travel shirts, and crushable which makes for easy packing.
Combine with a fine merino wool or polypro base layer, a beanie and some lightweight fiber gloves and you have a perfect solution for traveling in the North Vietnam winter, where your clothes might need to handle both moderate temperatures in the lowlands and freezing cold weather in the mountains.
Even Hanoi can be cold in December and January — locals wear puffer jackets and scarves, as well as windproof gloves to keep hands warm when on a motorbike.
A rain jacket with a hood is a must — useful for all regions and times of the year, regardless of your itinerary.
Jackets based on materials like Gore-Tex or equivalent fabrics are windproof, waterproof and breathable, important in Vietnam’s humid climate – it’s worth paying the higher price to get a jacket that is breathable. These days such jackets come in lightweight versions that can pack into a small bag.
Also useful and readily available anywhere in Vietnam is a lightweight rain poncho, which provides more cover for the legs than a rain jacket. The poncho is additional to and not a replacement for the jacket — especially if you are trekking or motorbike riding, you will still need a waterproof jacket for prolonged rain.
Lightweight travel pants, the type where the lower leg below the knee can be zippered off to produce shorts, are great. They are cool in the heat, provide excellent sun protection, are great for walking around a village market or trekking, are good for motorbiking in hot weather, and wash and dry easily — we always take them with us when venturing into the countryside.
Hats are pretty much essential, especially for trekking; even when it’s cloudy UV levels can be high.
Sunglasses are another must have — the sun is often intense. Of course knock-off brands of sunglasses are readily available in Vietnam for a minimal cost, but they generally offer little, if any, UV protection.
Almost any tour of Vietnam involves a significant amount of walking, so good footwear is essential.
Lightweight hiking shoes or sneakers with good cushioning and adequate ankle support are a good choice for trekking shoes, and also work well for general touring and exploring cities.
You might also want a pair of casual shoes for bars and restaurants in major cities, but fancy shoes or heels are generally overkill unless you are spending time in very high end hotels, resorts and restaurants.
Open shoes such as sandals can be handy for the beach and will help to beat the heat, but are not great for hiking in Vietnam’s humidity and wet, and are not suitable for motorbike riding.
Given that most of the time it’s hot, feet tend to swell a little – so bring shoes that are a comfortable rather than snug fit. In cold weather in the mountains, we just add thicker socks.
Hiking trails can sometimes be muddy and rocks wet and slippery with tropical moss and lichens, so soles that grip well in such conditions make sense – note that many outdoor shoes with hard soles designed for drier trails often don’t work so well. It’s definitely worth getting this right!
On a lot of trails, you are likely at some stage to go through water or wet undergrowth, and even in the cities you are likely to get caught in the rain at some stage, so shoes that are waterproof but breathable, and can expel moisture, are a good idea. We do not recommend leather hiking boots or similar.
In both Hanoi and Saigon there are many small stores selling clothing and equipment for trekking, such as jackets and backpacks. Many carry well-known brands boasting modern materials such as Gore-Tex.
Sadly, even though in some cases the genuine items are manufactured in Vietnam, most of the stuff being sold cheaply in the stores are fakes. They are fine for light use or soft rain, but you are better off bringing the genuine thing from home.
If you are planning a motorbike tour in Vietnam, there are a few other things to consider.
Most motorbike touring by tourists in Vietnam, including rural touring, is on relatively small bikes and at relatively slow speeds: typically 40 – 70 km/hr (twisting backroads don’t really support faster speeds; and in any event we think going slower and seeing more is the point).
Slower, careful riding pretty much removes the need for heavy, hot, cumbersome higher speed protective gear. Dressing like the locals — long sleeve shirts, long pants / jeans and covered shoes; light weight rain gear in the wet — will keep you protected from the sun’s UV rays, offer reasonable protection from falls and grazes, and keep you reasonably dry.
Of course a good helmet with a full visor and protective gloves are essential. Elbow and shin/knee pads are good to have too. Gloves and pads can be purchased or rented easily in Vietnam, but we recommend bringing your own helmet from home if possible, as it can be difficult to find a proper, safety-certified helmet that will properly fit your head.
Riding on larger, faster bikes and off-road dirt demands greater protection from possible tumbles and accidents. In addition to the above, a sturdy outer jacket, stronger gloves and sturdy riding shoes/boots are needed — same as you would wear back home.
Contact us for more details on what is needed for our Other Path Travel motorbike tours, and click here to read in more detail about what to pack when traveling on a motorbike in Vietnam.
Buying clothing in Vietnam: ready-made and made to order
We have mixed views on buying clothing in Vietnam as an alternative to packing from home, or simply to take back home at the end of your trip.
Certainly, Vietnam can be a good place to buy clothing. Prices are low. But you will have to shop carefully to find as good a quality as you might be used to at home. And top quality costs just about what you would pay at home.
Reasonable to good quality at good but not bargain prices seems to the be the sweet spot.
If you are a smallish to medium sized person (by Western standards), you are likely to find some sizes that fit off the shelf. However, if you are an average-to-big sized person, chances are the clothes and shoes in the shops will be too small for you.
Most of the off-the-shelf clothing is aimed at city fashion and not all that suitable for touring and exploring Vietnam. But if you are smallish to medium then with a little effort you should be able to find cotton and cotton / synthetic shirts, pants, t-shirts and other general wear suitable for traveling light.
In Hanoi this would be in the Old Quarter and around the central market of Dong Xuan. You can also find travel clothing made from modern moisture-wicking fabrics at cheap outdoors / trekking stores, but, as noted above, stay away from branded materials like Gore-Tex which are likely to be fake.
So how about getting clothes made to take home at the end of your trip? Hoi An in particular is known for its good tailoring, with shops lining the cobblestone streets. Vendors will vie for your business, but be careful of scams. Figure out what you want before you leave home — materials, style, quality etc — and how to judge quality. If possible, bring photos of what you want made.
Don’t be pressured or rushed. Ensure you have at least two fittings. Read TripAdvisor reviews with a skeptical eye — most travelers seems to know very little about quality tailoring.
There are (some) good tailors in both Hanoi and Saigon as well, but prices are higher. A bit of homework before you leave home will save you a lot of time finding the better tailors in Hanoi and Saigon.
Most tailors tend to focus on fashion and business wear – and silk, which is a Vietnamese specialty.
They won’t necessarily be familiar with the Western style you want, but they are very good at copying, and if you have a an item from home you would like duplicated (cotton, linen, silk, wool) bring it and they will copy and tailor it to size.
Note that for men, it’s not worth trying to have full canvas suit jackets made — they are too hot for Vietnam and most tailors simply don’t make them.
It should take around 2 – 4 days to make depending on the item, including a second sitting where necessary. So if you are having clothes made you need to allow time in your schedule for the tailoring process. Avoid tailors who insist it can all be done in 24 hours.
If you are visiting the countryside, then a compact LED head torch is a good idea and essential for home stays.
You might also consider a lightweight sleeping pad to put on top of the extremely hard mattresses that are common in smaller, countryside hotels.
We reckon it makes a big difference to a good night’s sleep.
Modern inflatable sleeping pads from good outdoors firms using lightweight materials are incredibly light and compact: good brands include Thermarest, Exped, Sea to Summit, REI. Brand pads can be expensive – eBay has cheaper generics, but watch their weight (should be no more than about 16oz or about 450gm) and packed dimensions. Make sure you get a repair kit too.
Traveling light and using soft shell (wheeled or un-wheeled) bags rather than hard shell bags makes life easier when it comes to transport.
Buses and trains generally have limited luggage compartments or racks, and small to medium sized soft bags and duffel bags are likely to fit better and be easier to handle.
Even with private cars and vans, luggage space is limited and traveling light will make things easier and provide more room and comfort for passengers.
A moderate size, lightweight, robust day pack (about 30+ liters) should also be in your packing list — for short excursions, day trips and treks, for carrying a rainproof jacket, perhaps a lightweight thermal layer, water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and insect repellent, and of course a camera if you are taking one.
If you are motorbike touring, then you will also need a soft drawstring cotton bag to put your helmet in if and when you are traveling by bus (with the bike and the helmet in the luggage hold below) – to protect the helmet and its visor from scratches and dings.
It can also be handy to have a modest sized, lightweight (and lockable with a padlock) duffel bag – for example, to leave items at a hotel in Hanoi while you take a tour into the countryside by car; or to strap onto the back luggage rack of a motorbike (for this, you should also pack a rain cover for the duffel bag).
Medicine & toiletries
If you are visiting remote parts of Vietnam and especially if you are planning on trekking or motorbike riding, you should bring a basic first aid kit with you (on Other Path Travel tours, we will bring a group medical kit but you should bring a personal one as well).
In addition to SP30+ sunscreen and lip balm, your kit should include: any personal medications; sufficient DEET-based spray or roll-on mosquito repellent to last your trip; a small supply of Band-Aids and blister items; a compression bandage for knee and another for ankle; Betadine or similar; some ear plugs; general medicines for headache, upset stomach & travelers’ diarrhea; a small travel sewing kit with buttons; a Swiss army knife or similar.
Everyone in Vietnam drinks bottled water – there is no need for purification tablets, unless you are doing extended multi-day hikes in remote areas.
A lot of common medicines can be bought along the way.
Pharmacy regulations in Vietnam are often less strict than in most other countries and over-the-counter medicines are both cheap and readily available.
Brand name medicines are quite expensive, but their generic counterparts are very inexpensive.
Some people urge caution, claiming medicines purchased in developing countries might not always be what they claim to be. However, provided you are careful to ensure you are buying what you want, we have found Vietnamese pharmacy medicines to be as effective as medicines sold back home, well packaged and labelled, and inexpensive; and pharmacy staff to be very helpful.
It’s a good idea to take photos with your phone of the medicines you use at home and might want to purchase in Vietnam – including active ingredients and dosages — you can show these to the pharmacist: it makes pharmacy purchases a lot easier.
If you have a preference for a certain brand of medicine, or a less mainstream type of medication, it is best to play it safe and bring it with you.
Most hotels outside the top tier, and nearly all hotels in the countryside, have poor bathroom toiletries – hair wash / shampoo; toothpaste; cosmetics. Better to bring your own. To keep it light, we decant our shampoo into smaller plastic bottles.
Bringing a small quantity of laundry powder / liquid soap is a good idea too, so that you can wash clothes in your bathroom if there is no alternative.
It’s also worth keeping some toilet paper handy while traveling, especially on long haul bus rides. Most hotels and restaurants in the city have conventional toilets, and mostly they have toilet paper — although sometimes you might have to ask for some (“giấy vệ sinh: pronounced “zay vay sing”). It’s easier to just have your own.
While it’s improving, in more remote areas many on-the-road bus stop bathrooms still have old style squat toilets without toilet paper. Having your own roll is essential! Bringing along some wet wipes to wash your hands is also a good idea.
Women be advised that female sanitary napkins are easy to find here but tampons are not. In the cities, most of the mini-marts that cater to Western clients will carry them, but in the country side it is virtually impossible to find them. Stock up before you come.
Phones, computers & cameras
Phones & phone cards
Mobile reception, 3G and 4G, (and hopefully soon 5G!) is good in Vietnam, including in remote areas – particularly with Viettel, which is the major national telecommunications company.
Prepaid SIMs and 1-month plans which include voice, text and data are inexpensive and very good value, and can be topped up if needed at small stores throughout the country.
We recommend getting a SIM at one of the larger Viettel stores in Saigon or Hanoi where there is likely to be some English spoken. Make sure they get the SIM configured and working on voice, text and data (including the internet access point name) before you leave the store.
If you are on an Other Path Travel tour, we can help with SIM cards. Note that Vietnam is on 220V 50Hz AC so make sure you have a compatible charger (and note: there are still a few places that have 110V – so check before you plug things in). You should bring enough adapters for your all your electronic gear.
Google maps is very good throughout Vietnam, with excellent detail both in cities and the countryside, and even in (most) remote areas – but – it’s not 100% correct, so you need to use common sense too.
It’s easy to download offline maps for the area you are interested in and then use your smartphone with the Viettel SIM to navigate. Check that you have the latest version of Google maps which can download offline maps.
Indispensable for motorbike riding, exploring smaller roads in the countryside and trekking. It’s probably a good idea to download all the maps you think you might need using your home wifi before you leave.
Using your phone as a mobile hot spot, or Google maps to navigate (even with offline maps), chews through your phone battery, so it is worth bringing a portable battery charger/pack of at least 6,000 mAh.
Internet and wifi access are widespread. In the major cities it is everywhere: hotels, cafes, larger stores. Even in the mid-size towns many hotels and cafes will have reasonable wifi.
Speeds within Vietnam are good (there is fiber optic cable to many city buildings), but speeds to the external world are modest – although certainly sufficient for web browsing, Facebook and email. In remote areas with no wifi access, we use our mobile phones on 3G/4G (and as a mobile hot spot if required).
If you love your music, and find Vietnam pop or karaoke doesn’t do it for you, then don’t forget to bring your earphones or a portable mini-bluetooth speaker (the smaller the better) and use your phone, SIM card & wifi/3G.
But keep the volume down – it is very uncool to irritate others or be loud in the midst of remote rice fields in the countryside.
If you are going to be traveling outside of the major cities and tourist spots, then it may be worth re-considering bringing your expensive laptop. Many hotels in smaller towns don’t have safes; packing and keeping a laptop dry on a motorbike can be done but is a pain.
Bringing an inexpensive tablet & keyboard is easier to pack, will suffice for most tasks like email or browsing or keeping a diary, and in the unlikely event it is stolen is not such an expensive loss.
On an Other Path Tour with a car & driver, we can secure the laptop in the car, so it is not such an issue (for motorbike, contact us). You may also consider products like those of PacSafe which provide a way of securing valuables in places that do not have safes.
Vietnam is a photographer’s paradise, so pack your camera.
For many travelers, a smartphone or compact camera is sufficient – traveling light with these is easy.
Traveling with larger cameras & lenses and keeping them dry & secure, and dealing with humidity & image processing, on a tour that might involve car or motorbike or trekking is more of a challenge.
However, we are camera enthusiasts and do it all the time with full frame DSLRs and various lenses, with the help of some specialist bags and travel equipment – please contact us to discuss.
Vietnam is also a fantastic place for drone photography — the landscapes are stunning. There are a growing number of drone photographers in Vietnam, but the potential of the country is still largely untapped. Contact us to discuss.
Travel documents & money
In addition to originals, it is wise to keep photocopies and/or scanned copies of your passport and visa, carried separately from your passport, in case the originals get lost – it seems obvious but gets neglected all too often.
If you travel in remote areas, particularly near the borders, you will need your passport with visa at every hotel you stay in, and many city hotels will ask for it as well, so some kind of pouch or small bag to keep your passport in is a good idea.
Travel insurance & other documents
Keep a copy of your travel insurance plan with you and keep any originals somewhere safe.
Write emergency contact numbers on the copy, as well as your blood type, allergies to medicines etc – there is very little English spoken in Vietnam generally and in the countryside especially, and it’s just easier if the critical information is written down and can be shown to relevant people.
Inform your insurance company of your upcoming trip, and verify that you are covered in Vietnam on your insurance plan.
In remote Vietnam local ambulances are likely to be the only practical means of getting to medical assistance if it is needed, and they might need to travel a long way to the nearest hospital. Make sure you are covered for this.
If you are going to be riding a motorbike while in Vietnam, as a tourist you need to have an international motorbike license in order to be covered on most insurance plans in case of an accident (or a Vietnamese motorbike license – but this is complex to get and generally requires at least a 3-month visa); contact us if you plan to be in Vietnam for 3 months or more.
Check your travel insurance before you leave – and make the effort to get the international motorbike license if you can. Scan the license and keep the copy separate from the original. See here for more information on riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
If you are on an Other Path Travel tour, we hold copies of passports / visas, insurance cover and licenses for safekeeping.
Cash & cards
Vietnam is still very much a cash based society, although credit & debit cards are becoming more accepted – but mostly in the cities, and even then many local stores and restaurants will not accept them.
Of course, the bigger hotels and restaurants will likely accept your plastic but they will often add a surcharge of 2-3%, which is on top of the international transaction fees that you will incur.
In the countryside, cash is still king and you need to carry enough to last between ATM withdrawals – in remote areas of Vietnam ATMs can be few and far between, so carry plenty of cash.
Urban centers and bigger rural towns tend to have at least several ATMs these days, and you can get cash in Dong (Vietnam’s currency) from most of them using VISA or MasterCard.
Bank branches have popped up like mushrooms in the past few years and you can generally exchange US dollars (Vietnam’s effective second currency) for Dong there; you are likely to need your passport / visa.
You should scan your cards and keep the scan separately from the cards themselves – this will make life a lot easier dealing with your bank if you lose your wallet. Once again, obvious but too often forgotten.
You can also get US dollars changed to Dong at money changers, especially around tourist haunts, and goldsmiths & jewelry shops in the major towns at close to the same rate as the banks offer, but you may need to bargain a little (you can use the website of Vietcombank to see the daily exchange rate).
We tend to travel using Dong cash, topped up by ATM withdrawals at major towns, with some US dollars as backup in case an ATM is not working or the hotel or other merchant actually wants US dollars and is prepared to offer a better price.
For more information on money, ATMs, credit cards and costs in Vietnam, click here.