Vietnam is a large country. Even a month won't be enough to explore all of its beauty. We spent two weeks in Vietnam and will definitely be back. We didn't want to run around like chickens without heads trying to push as much as we can into the two weeks so we focused on 3 main places in Vietnam, we started in the south (Ho Chi Minh), and made our way north through Hoi An Ancient Town and then checked out to Thailand through Hanoi. Below you will find awesome recommendations and tips, all of which we've collected first hand.
Visa: American citizens need to obtain a visa in order to enter Vietnam. While a pretty simple process, it is one of the only countries in East Asia that requires a visa and some planning in advance. You first must obtain a pre-approval visa letter from a Vietnamese agent in Vietnam, it may sound complicated but this is a very standard and straight forward process and there are many different companies that provide this service and can be found online. We used a www.vietnamvisa.com and paid $17 per person. The turn around time was 3 days and you can opt for a "rush" service at an extra cost. You will have to provide them with your nationality, full name, DOB, and passport number/expiration date, as well as purpose of visit and address of where you plan to stay. Once you get the letter in the mail they will include instructions. They also offer a service where an agent of theirs will meet you upon arrival at the airport and will help you thorough the visa obtaining process, this service is unnecessary. Make sure to print your letter and also have one passport photo available to provide the visa agent with (they do have a photo service at the airport but it is probably expansive and will be a hassle). Lastly, it is wise to carry US dollars for the visa payment as their exchange rate if paid in local currency can be poor. Now, how much do they charge for the visa? A steep $135 per person. It used to be $25 for a one month single entry visa but effective September 1st, 2016 they changed it to $135 for a one year multiple entries visa. Although you may not need this extensive option, you don't really have a choice, it is the only one at the moment. Read more about Vietnam visa policies for all nationalities here. Don't be discouraged by the airport's officers strict and cold attitude, it gets better the moment you step out of the airport.
Main international airports in Vietnam: Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Ho Chi MInh (South Vietnam), Da Nang International Airport (DAD) in Da Nang (Central Vietnam), and Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) in Hanoi (North Vietnam).
VietJet Airlines is a low cost airline in Vietnam, we used it several times and it was great. Domestic flights are around $50 each.
Best option from Airport to your hotel is probably a private car company called Songviet. Booking in advance will get you 30% discount.
Uber is operating in Vietnam.
In the big cities, do not wear any fancy jewelry or easy-to-grab bags and be careful when using your phone on the street, there are thrives on motorbikes that may try to snatch it out of your hand.
I do not reccomend renting a motorbike in the big cities. It is to busy/risky. Taxis are pretty cheap and walking around is easy.
Local currency: at the time of writing this the exchange rate for 1 USD is 22,300 VND (Vietnamese Dong). Click here for current exchange rate.
The Vietnamese 10,000 and 100,000 (LINK) bills are similar in color. We met two different people that accidentally gave a few 100,000 (about $4.5 each) bills instead of 10,000 (about 45 cents each). Unfortunately, in most cases they won't mention the mistake and will pocket the extra cash, so be sure to be careful and take your time when paying.
Getting local currency: I find it best to withdraw money from the ATM. Usually best exchange rates. Be sure to inform your bank of your travel plans.
Credit cards are widely accepted with a surcharge of 2%-4%.
Cost of living is low in comparison to what we know. We've had great meals for under $10 (for two including alcohol) and awesome accommodations for $20-$50 per night.
If you plan to exchange foreign currency at one of the counters at the airport, definitely do not settle on the first offer you get. Know the correct exchange rate in advance and negotiate to the closest rate. Jump between the counters, one of them will gives you the fair rate you deserve.
Vietnamese aren't fans of standing in lines, they will cut thorough you like thin air. Prepare to protect your spots in lines. Obviously stay positive and cool while doing so, you are on vacation. :)
They love honking in Vietnam, just get used to it.
Crossing the street can be a real challenge, the roads are very busy with hundreds of scooters and cars. There is no such a thing as courtesy to pedestrians, if you will wait for drivers to stop for you to cross a crosswalk you better be prepared to stay in the spot for the rest of your life. So how do you cross? You just do. Look both ways and then start crossing slowly and confidently while keeping your eyes at the direction of traffic and on the drivers. It will feel like crossing through a huge pack of salmon in a gushy river, but you miraculously make it to the other side every time. Once you start crossing, never step backwards.
While many know this city as "Saigon", its official name since 1975 is Ho Chi Minh City. "Saigon" is still widely used though.
Fun fact: Vietnamese are big on karaoke!
We started in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), from there we flew to Da Nang and stayed in Hoi An (40 minutes car ride from Da Nang). We then flew to Hanoi, stayed in Hanoi's old quarter for a few days, took and awesome two day, one night trip to Halong Bay, and lastly went back to Hanoi for a couple of more days before flying out to Thailand. I am currently writing this sitting on a flight to Bangkok.