How to travel in Vietnam safely- Advice for Travelers
Safety Concerns in Vietnam
When some of my friends and family heard that I wanted to move to Southeast Asia, the question about whether or not it was actually safe for me to do so often came up in conversation. “You’re a woman traveling alone, aren’t you afraid of something going wrong or that people will try to hurt you?” “Are you sure you want to go there by yourself? I’ve heard that’s not a safe part of the world to go to on your own!” It came up so often, in fact, that I began to question whether or not I was making the right decision by moving here. Thankfully I didn’t change my mind because I’ve ended up really enjoying my time in Ho Chi Minh City and beyond. However, I do see their point to some degree. To be frank, life out here is absolutely more hazardous than what I’m used to back home (but not to a level that’s unmanageable). This article aims to elaborate on some of the reasons why this is so you can be more prepared for your experiences here.
The Traffic: How to Cross the Street in Vietnam
Much to my surprise, I’ve actually come to enjoy adrenaline rush that comes with jaywalking into a stream of motorbikes and taxis in the middle of district 1 in Ho Chi Minh City. I must admit, I had some bad first experiences with the traffic here (involving a hit-and-run and a broken shoulder, to be more specific). I knew, however, that I would eventually need to conquer my fear of getting around on foot around here if I wanted to teach English in this city. Thus, I set my mind to crossing the busy streets and the high traffic rotaries to get as much practice as possible.
There is absolutely a technique to crossing the street here, which you can and should learn by observing some of the locals. Bottom line: you cannot hesitate. You cannot backtrack. Your motions and pace need to be predictable the entire time you’re crossing the street. You cannot run across because you’ll mess up the mental calculations the motorbikers are making in order to not hit you. DO NOT trust the cars around here, especially not the taxis (I learned this the hard way). Wait until you only have motorbikes coming across the street, as they are able to steer around you (unlike the cars). First, focus on getting to the middle of the street and wait there until you have enough time to cross to the other side. I can’t sugarcoat it, it will be terrifying. You can literally feel the heat from the cars and motorbikes on both sides of you and you’ll question whether or not you made a terrible mistake getting stuck in the middle of the road. A hard truth for you: there will never be enough of a gap for you to cross the street all at once (unless you’re walking late at night or in the early morning hours). Don’t bother waiting for the perfect one- you’ll end up waiting on the side of the road for a very, very long time if you do so. Crosswalks basically mean nothing here. Where I come from, pedestrians have the right of way but that concept simply doesn’t exist out here. I recommend that you manage your expectations accordingly. Stoplights are a rarity and many people pay them no mind anyway so, again, manage your expectations. Once you accept and internalize these unspoken rules and trust yourself to make quick decisions, you really will be fine. Until then, however, you’re really a liability to yourself and to others so try to contain your fear and just wait for a local to cross so you can tag along with them. They know what they’re doing and you have a lot to learn from them.
How to Avoid Getting Robbed in Vietnam
If you’ve talked to people who have traveled around Vietnam before or if you’ve perused a website like the US State Department’s, you may be concerned about pickpocketing and petty theft. I’m being real here, this is a problem in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia in general. Thankfully there are some steps you can take to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you. First off, don’t get too drunk while you’re out and about (I know this is a buzzkill for some of you, but please hear me out). When you don’t have all of your senses, you aren’t as aware of your surroundings and your belongings which makes you a prime target for petty theft. You probably stand out to the locals for being a foreigner already which can make you an easy mark to begin with. When you add another layer onto that, you really are setting yourself up to be in an unpleasant situation. Obviously you’re able to make these decisions for yourself but just know that you’re absolutely increasing your chances of getting screwed over if you don’t keep a (relatively) clear head.
Please NEVER lose sight of your belongings, under any circumstances. For those who carry bags, keep them on your lap, even if you’re with friends. I was out with a couple of travelers on my first night in Ho Chi Minh City and one of them lost her purse (with her credit cards, ID, cash, and phone inside). She had two people sitting with her- one across from her and one next to her and somehow this still managed to occur. Travelers have also reported that motorbikers have cut their bag straps to quickly steal their belongings away. If you have a bag, hold the strap in the front for extra security. Always be vigilant of motorbikers who are driving close the curb- there’s a very real chance that they’ll try to rob you. I’ve been scolded literally countless times in multiple countries for carrying a crossbody bag rather than wearing a moneybelt. Full disclosure, I’m a vain idiot and I haven’t purchased one of these yet- judge me all you like. If you’re smart, you won’t follow my example and you’ll look extra chunky but be very secure by wearing a moneybelt/fanny pack. I’m bound to get screwed over one of these days and I’ll infinitely regret my negligence on this (but that day has yet to come, thankfully).
Additionally, do NOT walk around with your credit/debit cards or passport unless absolutely necessary. You’re taking a risk every time you do this so keep this to an absolute minimum. Don’t carry a lot of cash on you- take only what you think you’ll need for the day. I met a traveler recently who lost over 2,000 USD (?!?!) because he left his bag lying around at work and someone took ALL of his money. I really have no idea why he had so much cash on him in the first place- it seems rather excessive to me. Regardless, he still had to deal with the consequences. By all means, take out extra cash to avoid frequent ATM fees but do yourself a favor and store it in your hostel locker rather than keeping all of it in your wallet.
If you report something to the police here, know that many of them don’t speak English and that you’re not really a priority to begin with. You’re a guest in Vietnam and it’s likely that they will never be able to track down the culprit anyway so reporting stolen cash, cards, phones, etc., is really nothing more than a formality. You should still do this, of course, but don’t expect much to come of it. One situation where you absolutely should contact the police is if your passport is stolen. I recently met a female traveler whose passport was swiped while she was asleep on a bus (yeah, it happens…). Unfortunately for her, there is no Irish embassy in Ho Chi Minh City- the only facility is in Hanoi. Obviously you can’t fly in Vietnam (even for internal flights) without a passport and she, very understandably, didn’t want to make the 30+ hour journey to Hanoi by bus. After she reported the incident to the local police, she was able to get a special permission to fly to Hanoi because of the circumstances. I highly recommend having a picture of the photopage of your passport and of your Vietnamese visa so you can keep track of this information easily. Even better, have a printed page of these items or email it to yourself in case you lose your phone, too.
If you do end up losing your phone, it’s yet another tricky situation. Even if you’re able to track where the phone is (i.e. if you can locate your android with google services or whatever the equivalent is for iPhones), there’s literally no guarantee that the authorities will actually help you retrieve it or hold the thief accountable. I met one traveler who received a ransom message from the person who stole her phone requesting that she pay a large sum of money to have it returned. I have no idea if she actually went through with it but she was… less than pleased about it. She attempted to go to the police but they didn’t assist her in retrieving her phone, even though she knew where it was. Bottom line: do not expect accountability or justice to be served for lost or stolen property the way that you might expect it in your home country- you’ll probably end up severely disappointed. So how can you prevent your phone from being taken? To start, try not to stare at your phone while using google maps. You’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing and this obviously makes you an easy target. Additionally, travelers have reported that their phones were grabbed from their hands by motorbikers while they were standing near the road. Maintain a firm grip while you’re holding your phone and better yet, turn your back to the street when you’re looking at it. Also, don’t leave your phone on the table while you’re in a restaurant or bar. I’ve met a few travelers who lost their belongings in this way. You never really know when someone might try to grab it so it’s best to not put yourself in that situation at all.
Traveling Alone as a Woman
I’ve lived in Boston and in the surrounding areas for 8 years so I can make some generalizations about what it’s like to live there. There absolutely is a problem with street harassment depending on where you are (and regardless of how conservative your clothing is). It’s usually nothing more than whistles or offhand comments, although I have been stalked while grocery shopping, grabbed in public places, and- on one occasion- someone I didn’t know actually followed me back to my apartment in broad daylight. If you’re a woman, this has probably happened to you in some form or another and, if you’re like me, it may be a relatively normal part of your daily life (as depressing at that may sound). You might be wondering how this type of behavior will play out in Vietnam, as this is generally a concern for women in any environment.
I’ve found my experiences here to be quite tame compared to what I’m used to. You’re going to attract some attention for being a foreigner- there’s no way of getting around that. However, it’s been limited to smiles, greetings in English, questions about where I’m from, blowing kisses, and complements so far. No one has ever followed me or done anything that was remotely threatening to me during my time here. I actually feel safer walking around in Ho Chi Minh City at night by myself than I ever did in various parts of Boston (minus the traffic issue, of course). Naturally I stick to well-lit streets whenever possible and I try to be vigilant of my surroundings. I’m careful to not appear like I don’t know where I’m going (i.e. I don’t walk around staring at my phone. If you must use your GPS, glance at the map quickly and put your phone away as much as possible). As I mentioned in a different article, the police presence is quite visible here so if you feel targeted, you can simply ask for help from one of the many officials walking around in uniform. This trick might be old news to you but if you don’t feel safe (and there’s no officers around to help you), I sometimes just pick up a big rock and carry it around with me (trade secret, haha). Pepper spray is illegal in Vietnam but there are local alternatives such as dầu xanh (medicated green oil), which can be poured into a mini sprayer like a perfume sample bottle. Per a reddit forum, a reliable brand is “Eagle Brand” (made in Singapore) which is sold in many stores around Vietnam. This will have a similar effect to pepper spray and it’s completely legal here so you’re in the clear if you do decide to go this route.
Traveling as a Person of Color
As I’m an exceptionally pale white woman, my experience in Vietnam is obviously quite different than what non-Asian backpackers of color might experience. Per some conversations I’ve had with fellow backpackers, I can try to comment on what they’ve been through to shed some light on this subject. Travelers who have darker skin tones will most likely be stared at by locals in public spaces. Most people will leave it at that, but unfortunately others may try to touch your hair or your skin. Know that this behavior usually comes from a place of genuine curiosity rather than something more nefarious. However, the intent obviously doesn’t justify the behavior, and it can (very understandably) make you feel very singled out and violated. I recently met a darker-skinned couple from England who were taken aside and thoroughly questioned as they tried to cross the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. Their white female companion, however, proceeded to go through the border gate with no trouble. When I expressed surprise and frustration while listening to them recount their story, the couple made it clear that they weren’t even fazed by it due to their past life experiences. It was their fellow white traveler who was left shocked and enraged after seeing this occur.
I’ve mentioned a very visible police presence in Vietnam before, and I recognize that this might carry different connotations for some people of color. This environment might be intimidating, and I wish I could offer some advice on how to make your experience in Vietnam easier. Unfortunately the situation is the way it is and it probably won’t change anytime soon. I can, however, recommend an excellent YouTube vlog hosted by an African American English Language teacher living in Ho Chi Minh City. Her channel is called “Charlycheer” and I would highly recommend that everyone check it out- she has some great videos on a variety of subjects about life in Vietnam. She touches on this topic in several of her videos and she has a great deal of insight to share with her viewers. She can also comment on what it’s like to date someone of the same sex while living here. Being openly gay in Vietnam is definitely not easy, but I’ll let her tell you about it rather than assuming I fully understand the experience.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, your experience in Vietnam may differ greatly than mine if you’re have a darker complexion. You will face challenges that aren’t even on the radar of white/many Asian travelers. I hope that this won’t hold you back from exploring this part of the world, but you may feel singled out in a way that your non-POC friends don’t. It’s best to go into the situation aware of what might occur, so doing your research on this subject is a big part of getting the most out of your time here. There are numerous resources available online that can describe this much better than I can articulate and I encourage you to seek these resources out when possible.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out another article I wrote here about health and safety precautions you should take if you’re planning on visiting Vietnam: https://vietnamguidehome.com/things-to-do-in-vietnam/health-concerns-to-consider-before-you-visit-vietnam.html. This should tell you what you need to know to get the basics of what you should and shouldn’t eat or drink.
Credit Card Theft
Oh joy- this is an issue in Vietnam, as well. Credit card skimming occurs when you “slide your credit or debit card into a compromised machine…the card skimmer reads the magnetic strip on your card and stores the card number. Your PIN can be captured, too, if a fake keypad was placed over the real one. Later, a thief scoops up the information and either sells it or uses it himself” (Source: https://www.lifelock.com/education/how-to-avoid-credit-card-skimming/). There are some measures you can take to prevent this kind of activity, however. If you have the option of going inside a bank to get money out of your account, do that rather than using an ATM on the street. If you don’t have that option (which is going to be much of the time), just cave and go to an outside ATM. Before you insert your card, check to make sure nothing looks suspicious (i.e. a camera that can see you enter your pin). You’ve been told a million times before to cover the keypad as you enter your pin- keep doing that! Make sure the card reader can’t be pulled out of the slot and that the color matches with the rest of the ATM. As an extra measure, regularly monitor your bank account and remember when you last withdrew money/how much money you took out. Have a backup debit card in case you lose your first one or you need to shut down your account in the event that your data is compromised. I also have a credit card with me just in case I need an additional backup, although this really is a cash economy. Make sure that you can easily transfer money between accounts (i.e. if the accounts are at different banks, set up a system to transfer funds before you begin your trip). Even if you follow all of these precautions, however, there’s still a chance that your information can be stolen. Give yourself fallback options in case this does occur- you absolutely won’t regret it.
So, now that you’ve heard about many things that can go wrong during your stay in Vietnam, let me now try to convince you that it really is worth the trouble. As I’ve iterated many times before, I highly recommend coming and seeing this part of the world if you have a chance. Yes, there are some setbacks you might face but I would advise you to think beyond these and realize that you’re a bit more educated on the subject now. Wherever you go, you will come across challenges such as the ones I’ve mentioned above to varying degrees. I’ve had my credit card information stolen in the US multiple times. Petty theft is a problem in many parts of the world- it’s obviously not limited to Southeast Asia. As for the traffic situation here, think of it as “leveling up” in life. See it as a way of making yourself more self-sufficient, as it’s an excellent way to learn to adapt in new surroundings and to take yourself out of your comfort zone. It will be intimidating at first but once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll feel damn near invincible. What once felt like a near death experience is now an exhilarating adrenaline rush for me. You know you’ve “made it” when you can keep up with the likes of the locals- it will feel DAMN good when you get there! Anyway, here are the facts, although this is by no means a comprehensive list. I’ll leave the decision up to you as to whether or not you feel you can handle these challenges. Consider yourself warned and informed. Safe travels!
About the author:
I’m an American backpacker who has been traveling in South East Asia for the past 3 months. I left a job in finance to see more of the world and to teach English abroad. I’ve loved my experience in HCMC and beyond and I hope to share some of my experiences with prospective and fellow travelers.
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