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What are the common security risks in Vietnam?
As a victim of petty crime in Vietnam, I can confirm that it is something that you need to be wary of throughout the country.
In major cities and tourist destinations, bag snatching is a growing threat. When riding a sleeper train don’t leave bags unattended in your cabin, even if going to the food carriage next door. Doing so leaves you vulnerable to opportunistic thieves who poke their heads into each cabin to see if there are bags they can rifle through.
Scammers and opportunists
Aside from theft, you’ll also need to be wary of scammers and opportunities. One thing you’ll learn about Vietnam is that the nation is full of hustlers – they will sell you anything.
So, while you’ll see elderly women hopping on and off trains at every stop trying to sell rice balls, you’ll also encounter more unscrupulous individuals at major transport hubs and tourist areas.
Scams to be wary of include trying to persuade you to buy precious gemstones (which are almost always fake), telling you a train is sold out and then trying to barter you on board via the train security officers (both parties take a cut of the cash you cough up) or even offering to act as a tour guide for you.
Vietnam is currently ranked 108th out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – which isn’t great. Corruption can be a real problem in Vietnam and you shouldn’t be surprised if regional police or border crossing guards ask for a small bribe (or “administration fee”) on top of any legitimate costs you incur.
When it comes to bribery and corruption it’s best to judge each situation on its own merits. Sometimes you can stand your ground and avoid paying excess fees, but other times it might just not be possible to avoid paying ,especially at border crossings.
Driving in Vietnam is unlike anything you’re likely to have experienced before. Thousands of mopeds swarm everywhere in rush hour, driving shoulder to shoulder like some kind of petrol fuelled ballet. With so many vehicles on the road and some seriously lax rules, it’s unsurprising that Vietnam has one of the highest rates of road traffic accidents in the world.
In rural areas you’ll see a lot fewer cars and a lot more bicycles, a favourite mode of transport for both locals and foreigners. This drop in traffic may have something to do with the quality of Vietnamese roads, which are generally of quite a poor standard away from major cities. If you do end up hiring a moped or some other vehicle, be wary of potholes, dust and a lack of signs.
Travel by bicycle is common in rural areas, but roads in Vietnamese cities can be franti cand busy making them dangerous for unsuspecting travellers.
Lack of rural healthcare
Hospitals and pharmacies are like roads in Vietnam – actually pretty good in the city but under-represented elsewhere. So while you may get half decent healthcare when you arrive, you may struggle to reach a hospital in the first place.
I found this out the hard way. When travelling south of Ha long Bay, I stayed on Cat Ba island where my former partner had an accident and hurt her ankle. Now, Cat Ba island is relatively well developed but it doesn’t have any serious healthcare services (or didn’t when I was there in late 2012). This meant we had to take a 45 minute boat ride to the mainland and an hour long taxi to reach a hospital. We then wouldn’t be seen until our travel insurance had been verified!
Things worked out ok in the end and we were able to reclaim some of the costs incurred by the boat, taxi and hospital, but it’s definitely important to remain aware of how cut off you may be from reliable healthcare.
The distance doesn’t look too far, but getting back from Cat Ba island to a hospital on the mainland can take several hours.
Typhoons and storms
Monsoon season runs from May to September, so if you’re travelling in the middle of the year then prepare yourself for rain – and lots of it. Torrential storms can delay flights and transport such as buses and trains. In worst case scenarios you may experience flooding.
Regional climatic changes are normal in Vietnam, so while Monsoon season affects the North and South of the country between May and September, in the central lowlands (e.g. Da Lat), monsoon season runs between October – April, so choose when you travel carefully!
Typhoons also pose a risk and can disrupt boat trips, flights and other transport. You may also find that strong winds knock out electricity in rural areas. Unfortunately when a typhoon approaches, your best bet is to bunker down in your accommodation and trade stories or card games with fellow travellers.
Little known fact but Vietnam, especially in its northern and central regions, is actually vulnerable to earthquakes thanks to the presence of various active fault lines within its territory.
You don’t often hear about Vietnamese earthquakes or the subsequent fallout, but it’s best to be aware that you could get caught in one, rather than wake up one morning and the whole world is shaking!
Preparing to stay safe ahead of your trip
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The best prep you can do before a major trip (at least in our opinion!) is to subscribe to CloseCircle and download the app.
Once setup you’ll receive near real-time alerts about nearby hazards. You’ll also be able to send an SOS to our team in the event of a crisis (if necessary we’ll evacuate you home at no extra cost) and keep loved ones up-to-date on where you are with quick and easy check-ins.
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Learn a few basic phrases
There’s nothing worse than an obnoxious tourist whose idea of communicating is to speak English loudly and slowly. Not only does this show you’re making no effort to experience a new culture on native terms, but also flags you as a tourist. Nothing screams potential victim than an overtly obvious tourist.
Learning a few phrases makes you look much savvier and people will respond more positively to any interactions. The list below will help you get started:
- Hello = Sin chow!
- Goodbye = Bai bai (for friends) or chow! (for peers)
- Please = Lam uhhn
- Thank you = Gauhm uhhn
Injections and vaccines
As with other Southeast Asian countries, you should ensure your vaccinations are up to date when heading to Vietnam. Aside from MMR and DPT vaccines, it’s worth getting shots for both Malaria and Japanese Encephalitis, especially if you’re travelling for longer than a month and will be visiting rural areas.
With Malaria, we recommend keeping your own stock on antimalarial pills and completing the course as required.
Before any major trip it’s definitely worthwhile working out what you want to do and where you want to go. Having an agenda or itinerary is a cost-effective way of travelling as you can book trips and travel ahead of time. It also gives you the opportunity to check out any potential hazards that may be present in the area and give yourself time to prepare for them.
Having an itinerary is also a handy way of letting people know you’re safe. Leave a plan of your route with loved ones and they’ll have a rough estimation of where you should be. Even if you’re not checking in too regularly, having something that states where you are will be a great source of relief for those back home.
Make colour copies of your passport, flight tickets and other important documents before you leave home. Take a set of spares with you and keep them buried in your bag, separate from the originals, so if your valuables are stolen then you still have the spares.
You should leave a second set of duplicates at home with your loved ones too. This gives you another backup in case your bag or belongings go missing (fingers crossed – but it’s better to be safe than sorry!).
It can also be worthwhile backing up your documents digitally and keeping copies in your email inbox in case you need them at some point. Keeping documents stored digitally means that you can print them out as and when needed too.
Have you read my story about healthcare on Cat Ba above? If not, go and read it and you’ll see why sorting out health insurance is essential!
Health insurance cover you in case of an emergency and means that you can claim back any medical expenses you incur later on.
Check the time of year
Cross check your travel plans with monsoon season, typhoon season and whether it’s an El Nino or La Nina year. Doing so will help you to clarify whether you’re travelling in perpetual rain and storms or not!
Staying safe in Vietnam
Finding safe accommodation
There’s a number of ways for you to find safe accommodation in Vietnam. First of all there’s the TripAdvisor website, which lets people rate and review places they’ve stayed in or visited. This should be your first port of call as the reviews are generally fair and may bring to light locations you might not have previously considered. Your second avenue is AirBnB, which can help you find a room to stay in with a local family.
Finally, your third option is to talk with other travellers you meet on your trip. Ask them where they’ve stayed, what they thought of it, and whether their experience was good or bad? The backpacker network really is one of your best resources when travelling abroad.
If you’re a female traveller, you could ask your hostel or hotel whether they have a female only floor or dorm, as this may make you feel more secure.
Talk to travellers you meet on your trip and ask for them for their recommended restaurants, hotels, hostels and places to visit.
Keep your valuables hidden
Petty crime isn’t endemic but you should take the same precautions as in any other developing country – keep your valuables hidden and secure in a bumbag or money-belt and don’t let your rucksack or suitcase out of your sight either. You could lso keep valuables in a zip-up backpack and wear this on your front, keeping valuables safe yet discreet.
Alternatively, if you feel comfortable doing so, you could store your valuables in your hotel’s or hostel’s safe.
Wear your bag on both shoulders
In urban areas of Vietnam bag snatching is becoming a more common crime, with individuals hanging off the back of mopeds to grab bags from unsuspecting passers by. To cut the risk of getting robbed, wear your rucksack on both shoulders, rather than on just one. Likewise, if you’re carrying a handbag, tote bag or a single strap bag, wear it across your body so that it can’t be grabbed off your shoulder.
Buy tickets through official channels
To avoid overspending or to avoid getting scammed when booking yourself a seat on a train/bus/boat, always buy your travel tickets through legitimate enterprises, including bus depots, train stations and tour guides.
Ignore the individuals hanging around docks, depots and stations trying to sell you discounted or exclusive seats. If something sounds too good to be true – it often is!
Always look both ways (and then look again!)
This is a valuable piece of advice for anyone travelling in Vietnam. As I mentioned above, the roads in Vietnam’s major cities are crazy busy, which means you need to be extra careful when crossing them.
Too many times I’ve seen fellow tourists look both ways, start crossing and then frantically dodge several honking mopeds as they fly past. The rules of the road are much more lax in Vietnam, so keep looking both ways when you cross the road!
If you’re not one of the travellers on foot trying to dodge mopeds, then you may be one of the drivers instead! Take it steady in the bigger cities because even though the roads are of a good quality, you may find it overwhelming driving in such dense traffic.
If you hire a vehicle in more remote areas, don’t drive too fast as the roads are generally poor and riddled with potholes. The last thing you want is to accelerate too quickly and either injure yourself or damage the vehicle – both of which could cost you millions of dong (hundred of dollars/pounds).
Stay aware of the weather and other threats
Use local news sources and weather apps to stay alert to potential storms and other extreme weather. Use this information to inform your travelling decisions – if a typhoon is approaching then it’s probably not the best idea to get on a boat and travel to Cat Ba island or through Halong Bay – you’ll just be forced back to the mainland and will have wasted your money.
Vietnam’s climate can vary wildly, so keep yourself informed and travel smart. When it comes to typhoons and other extreme weather events, your best bet is to bunker down in your accommodation and wait for the storm to pass. If possible head in-land away from the coast where storm surges can lead to powerful waves and flooding.
For more advice on coping with dangerous situations and keeping yourself out of harm’s way, read our ultimate guide to staying safe while travelling now.
Conclusion: Safe Travels in Vietnam
While you’ll probably be more interested in sampling the local delicacies, bartering for goods or floating on a junk through the limestone karsts of Vietnam’s northern coat, it’s important for you to always stay aware of the hazards around you.
Try to take the same precautions in Vietnam as you would in any other Southeast Asian country – keep your valuables close and your tone polite. Unless you go out of your way to get into compromising situations, you shouldn’t face too many difficulties outside of your control when travelling through Vietnam.
However, if you do find yourself in a crisis and require travel advice, contact the CloseCircle team today..
You can read more about the benefits of becoming a CloseCircle member here.