- Compared to other Indochina peninsula countries, Vietnam is visibly more populated, or overpopulated, with 93 million people living in a country as big as Finland (5.5 million) and Poland (38 million).
- It is a scooter land, with enormous amount of scooters everywhere! So expect to hitchhike many scooters there.
- It is not as developed as Thailand, but the economy is growing almost twice as fast. It is however more developed than Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
- The tourism is developing fast, so expect to see as many tourists as in Thailand.
- The Vietnamese people are generally shrewd business people. Yes, they are very monetary, very realistic. You will see girls wearing T-shirts with the words’No Money No Honey’ everywhere. Of course, like every country, there are still kind people, especially the older people, but in general the Vietnamese people are rougher than the gentle Thai or Khmer people. Their biggest concern nowadays is economy and they can be very blatant about it. If you can bring money to them, you are their God. If you are going to take money from them, you are their blood enemy.
- Despite their repeated denial, Vietnam shares many similar traits with China, history, religion, people, language, food etc.. Like China, it is also a most capitalistic country with a centralized government run mainly by the Communist party, whose supremacy is guaranteed by the national constitution. Do not suppose they are sincere communists or Buddhists, although you do see some Buddhist temples from time to time. The people are in general atheists like the Chinese, but with a Buddhist flavor.
How are the roads and traffic?
As the Vietnamese government, similar as the Chinese government, is much into building infrastructure, the roads in Vietnam are OK .and some of the roads are even quite new.
Although the shape is similar with Laos, the road system of Vietnam is much more complex. Laos has basically just a couple of roads running through the whole country while the Vietnam road system is much more intricate, like dense blood vessels. However, it is quite well equipped with proper signs, so no worries.
The traffic is chaotic and there is much pollution, especially in big cities like Hanoi, but I am sure as an experienced hitchhiker who have traveled to many developing countries, it is no big deal. The pollution and chaos in Vietnam is nothing compared to India.
So, is it safe to hitchhike in Vietnam?
In general YES! It has a murder rate of 1.52/100 000 inhabitants, thus similar with France and Hungary, so no worries. Of course there are petty crimes against tourists. For example, one Australia guy had his camera with him while riding on a tuk-tuk. Some robbers on motorcycle tried to grab his camera. Again, have your camera cross-breasted instead of just hung loosely on one shoulder. Separate your money and passport and put your money deep down in your underwear or somewhere else safe.
In Vietnam the major safety challenge for hitchhiking is traffic as it is chaotic, so take extra care when you try to catch a ride on the roadside.
How easy is it to hitchhike in Vietnam?
It is OK, not as great as Myanmar, the ‘Iran of SEA (South East Asia)’ or Thailand, but it is doable and surely easier than in France, Italy or Spain. It really depends on your looks. If you are a female or a Caucasian looking person, the chance immediately rises by folds.
I have several friends who hitchhiked in Vietnam and they are all happy and alive, so do not be deterred. 🙂 Enjoy the road!
Is it common to hitchhike in Vietnam?
Nope! Hitchhiking is not a common thing in most places. Those who hitchhike are almost exclusively travelers from western countries.
How to hitchhike in Vietnam?
As there is no local hitchhiking culture like in Pakistani Kashmir, the thumbing up pose is not generally accepted. If you thumb up on the road side, drivers would think: ‘Look! That guy/girl is saying I am awesome! He gave me a thumb! Yeah!’
There are 3 ways.
- You wave to cars, like many middle eastern countries. You stretch your arm horizontally and wave it mildly, as waving down a taxi in your own country. The only difference is that once cars do stop, you go up to the driver and tell him you are hitchhiking and do not have money. This can be combined with a sign. I tried this method and it worked OK, but the 2nd way is the best for sure.
- You ask around in gas stations, parking lots or where drivers stop to eat. Since language can be a major challenge, you should really write down your destination. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so you do not want to end up somewhere 200 km away from your destination by mispronouncing it.
- You write a sign. Find a piece of cardboard or just a piece of A4 paper. Then use a big marker pen to write your destination on it. Then you stand on the road side holding your sign with a positive smile until somebody stops. I tried it and it did not work well. People basically did not care what you are doing, so not the best way.
When should I go hitchhiking in Vietnam?
Hanoi and the North: There is distinct winter and Sapa is the only place in SEA where you can find snow. May to Oct is generally hot and rainy and Nov-April is cool and dry, better for traveling.
Central Vietnam: Jan-Aug it is hot and dry, best for traveling. Sep-Nov it is very rainy and I have heard of flooding in many cities. Dec is more or less a transition month between these two seasons.
South Vietnam (including Ho Chi Minh City): Nov-April is dry and hot. May-Oct is hot and humid.
What is the biggest challenge of hitchhiking in Vietnam?
It is difficult to explain hitchhiking to people. The Thai still have a word for hitchhiking but in Vietnam there is none. The Vietnamese are also rougher so they are less likely to stop just because they think you need help like the Khmer or the Burmese. That is why it is most helpful to ask around. Have your Vietnamese friend/couchsurfing host write down for you that you want to hitchhike.
How about the language barrier?
I met many young Vietnamese who speak some English, but only some, mainly the young people. If you happen to speak Chinese, in the North it can be helpful as there are many ethnic Chinese there. Because of its colonial past, you can also find people speaking French in Vietnam. So besides Vietnamese, English, French and Chinese are the most useful foreign languages there.
How can I sleep?
Unlike Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, couchsurfing is much present and many Vietnamese youth use it as a way to meet foreigners and practice English. When I was there in 2015, there were even regular couchsurfer meetings in Ho Chi Minh City, pretty cool. Your couchsurfing host normally speaks some English and knows the way around, so that is the best choice.
Unlike Myanmar, the locals are allowed to host foreigners, so your driver might just invite you home or you can ask around on the street for a place to sleep.
Unlike all other ASEAN countries except Singapore, wild camping is difficult because of overpopulation. Wild land for camping can still be found but with some difficulty. One option is to ask people if you could camp in their yards if you end up in the countryside. Since unoccupied land was difficult to find, I attempted to camp on a graveyard, but the major challenge came when the stray dogs rushed to attack me at night…… so had to abandon the project.
There are also hostels in big cities and simple hotels in small cities.
Buddhist monasteries are a possibility but they are much less prevalent than in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
As Vietnam is a country of waterways, it is possible to hitchhike boats, especially outside touristic areas. I have personally hitchhiked a boat at a floating market far from any touristic area and the person who gave me a ride was a 6-year old little boy, so cute! 🙂
There is also much colonial hangover in Vietnam. Westerners, the whites (also Latinos) basically are all viewed as rich and powerful and they treat you as gods. However, if you happen to look Asian, especially with darker skin, they are much harsher to you. It is a sad thing but I’d better tell you now to let you get psychologically prepared than you go there unprepared and get shocked by it.