What it’s like to visit Vietnam right now
The ‘land of the ascending dragon’ is ready for tourism to take flight, no pre-arrival testing required.
Walking around Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, one of the Vietnamese capital’s most famous sights, there’s a moment that stops me in my tracks.
After two years of closed international borders and social distancing, a multi-discipline street dance festival is unfolding on the road just ahead.
Gathered around 10 energetic hip-hop performers is a crowd numbering in the hundreds, all packed shoulder-to-shoulder to get the clearest view. The majority of them wear masks, a notable few do not.
It’s been far too long since I’ve been part of a scene like this. The energy is infectious.
Looking around the throng of onlookers and nearby troupes doing last-minute rehearsal before taking the stage – the ‘bad boys’ in leather jackets, the ruby-skirted flamenco dancers – it feels like the last two years haven’t happened, that life in Vietnam has simply continued on as it always has.
But that wasn’t the case, with strict lockdowns touching every corner of the country. Vietnam has since reopened to international tourists. It's also dropped pre-arrival testing requirements as of May 15, though Smartraveller advises some airlines may still insist on a negative test.
I’ve been in Vietnam for a few days now, after flying Vietnamese carrier Bamboo Airways from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City, and then onwards to ancient Hanoi in the country’s north. I’m relishing the opportunity to be back at last.
Having fallen in love with Vietnam, its food and people on previous trips, I’d been curious what it would be like post-pandemic. Would the relentless hum of scooters and packed markets that engulfed your senses remain, or would it be a shadow of itself, forever changed?
My questions were answered minutes after stepping outside Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Thick and tropical heat, a cacophony of car horns and scooters, and that unmistakable aroma of Southeast Asia slapped me out of my travel daze. It was glorious.
Exploring on foot, it felt as if life had indeed returned to normal, with some slight changes.
Face masks are the new norm
Once only worn when sick or riding a scooter (exhaust fumes are nobody’s friend), face masks are currently mandated to be worn whenever out in public. This includes visiting markets and on public transport. However, penalties are no longer applied if you're not wearing them.
That said, the majority of people still firmly adhere to the rule. It's become a habit for many now, with locals often reminding travellers to put their mask on. It's polite to do so.
New starts and a life on hold
In the tourist mecca of Halong City – gateway to UNESCO listed Halong Bay – in the far north, it was much the same, though it was clear not everything had emerged unscathed.
The hundreds of overnight junk cruises that once departed and returned each day are mostly dormant, moored at the harbours waiting for the day they can splutter back into life.
Vinayak ‘Vinny’ Razdan is the Hotel Manager of FLC Grand Halong Bay, a colossal five star hotel and golf course perched on a hill overlooking the region’s famous islands. When it was forced to close in March 2020, many of its 750 staff were suddenly without jobs or security.
FLC Hotels and Resorts is part of the FLC Group, the parent company of Bamboo Airways.
“People did what they had to survive at the time,” Razdan explains. “Many staff returned to their hometowns, they became fishermen or they worked with their families in the field; others became delivery drivers for businesses offering takeaway food only.”
Razdan remained at the hotel, with an eventual rebound in domestic tourism allowing many staff to slip back into their previous roles. Some chose to remain on their newfound career paths.
Now, as international visitors slowly trickle in, Razdan and the community are hoping the worst days are now behind them, with the country at last able to rebuild its battered tourism industry.
The roads less travelled are in
Vietnam is home to more than 96 million people, with an estimated 18 million overseas tourists visiting annually pre-pandemic. Tourism accounted for almost 10 percent of its GDP in 2019.
Western travellers are currently few and far between, yet those who are here feel incredibly fortunate.
After two years considering our impact on the planet, many feel there’s now a chance to ‘do things differently’ this time around, to give back to the locals more than we take, and to fully immerse ourselves in and embrace the culture, not impose our own.
There’s also a call to share the love in an effort to limit the effects of over tourism, visiting destinations beyond the classic meccas of Halong Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.
Quy Nhon in Binh Dinh Province – midway between the tourist draw cards of Nha Trang and Da Nang – is one of the lesser-known cities hoping to capitalise on that mindset, particularly with direct flights from the international hubs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Dating from the 11th century, the city was built on fishing and agriculture (the fleet of vibrant, circular fishing baskets is a captivating sight to behold) although it was briefly used as an American Air Force base, with the former runway now incorporated into the main street.
There are two FLC hotels in the city – the impressive 1,008-room FLC Grand Quy Nhon and FLC City Beach Quy Nhon – both focused on domestic guests at present, yet hoping curious Westerners will also be drawn to its beautiful beaches and bustling marketplaces.
Other noted destinations include Ninh Binh, home to soaring limestone mountains (much like those found in Halong Bay) jutting out of lush, green rice fields below; and Da Lat, described as ‘a little slice of Paris’ and home to a myriad of stunning waterfalls and lakes.
With an extensive airline network throughout the country, it’s easy to venture out and explore.
A moment on the lips worth travelling for
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, life continues to flow like the traffic that fills its streets – it’s both organised yet chaotic, a well-oiled machine that has weathered countless storms over the centuries. The pandemic was just a blip, and it’s already putting those days behind it.
Shopping and street food have long been its most alluring drawcards, together with the French Colonial architecture like Ho Chi Minh City Post Office and Cathedral. That hasn’t changed.
Ubiquitous stainless steel trolleys can still be found lining the streets, all dishing up abundant bánh mì, mouth-watering pho bò (beef pho) and delicious goi cuon (fresh springs rolls).
Above all, it’s the locals who remain Vietnam’s greatest treasure.
Just like the rest of the world, they’ve all done it tough in recent years, but they’re still smiling, still warm and inviting, always eager to share their culture. And, they’re ready to welcome us back – right now.
The author travelled as a guest of Bamboo Airways.
Hi Guest, join in the discussion on What it’s like to visit Vietnam right now
Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club
20 Apr 2015
Total posts 32
I'll be in HCM and Danang for work and leisure at the end of June. Can't wait!
05 Oct 2017
Total posts 531
I'm not sure face mask rules have officially been eased otherwise the VN news would have mentioned it.
I understand that both the indoor and outdoor mandate officially remain in place but there are no longer penalties applied for not adhering to it. However, in crowded areas and especially indoors and on public transport - masks continue to remain mandatory. You might find yourself booted from a supermarket, mall or other setting without a mask on or told to put one on.
Exceptions to this are resort areas such as Mui Ne, where it's now OK to go around completely maskless as it's a tourist area, and outdoor areas throughout the country where social distancing is possible.
Officially, Vietnam will move towards making mask wearing voluntary, but I think this will take another couple of months. It is however likely that outdoor mask wearing will officially be scrapped in the coming weeks.
07 Feb 2022
Total posts 11
Thanks for the feedback. I have updated the article.
05 Oct 2017
Total posts 531
You're welcome. I think by July or August, you'll find mask wearing to be almost completely gone. It's just that for now, it continues to remain mandatory but penalties are no longer levied. Therefore, for those of us who want to experience things the way they used to be pre-Covid, a little extra patience is needed. If you visit a resort area now, there's little mask wearing, but you'll probably still be required to don a mask on a bus or train ride to get to your destination (unless eating, drinking or sitting in a private cabin) but can take it off once there.
Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer
03 Sep 2015
Total posts 2
Is there any news on when VietJet will start the direct BNE flights to Vietnam?
Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus
15 Jan 2013
Total posts 451
A much overlooked destination.I suggest to anyone who will be 18 at time of graduating school this year book yourself any kind of group tour there even with the help of parents to pay for it and has been working since they were 15.You might have studied about it in high school at say a 10th or 11th grade level but nothing beats seeing Vietnam for real in person.If only I could thank my high school teacher almost three decades on in the history classes in the nineties to this day and telling the old scholars association about my visits there.
05 Oct 2017
Total posts 531
Indeed, it's an amazing place. With mask wearing about to disappear (as the article implies, outdoors at least, it's already starting to), visiting Vietnam will soon resemble the pre-Covid experience. As of right now, with entry restrictions completely scrapped (though entry by land from China may not yet be possible), things are better now than they've been in well over 2 years.
30 Jul 2019
Total posts 19
I am here in HCM CITY now preparing for my customers visits starting in June and July and it is mandatory you wear a mask which is fine as before covid i always had a mask on due to the pollution from the bikes buses etc.
We have only come back now and its been 2 years since we were last here but we had family looking after our house whilst away and everyone is happy as the business side of things has improved dramatically.
Vietnam is a great country cheap and full of historic sites to visit along with the great food they offer.
Next week back to Singapore which is now really open you actually have to wait to get into restaurants that's how busy they are.
05 Oct 2017
Total posts 531
Correct. However, I think they will loosen the mask wearing rules by July or August.