Traveling to Vietnam: tips and tricks that worked

After planning and preparing for this trip to Vietnam for months, I thought it might be useful to share what worked well for me with planning and arrival at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi:

1. Internal flights can be much cheaper when booked directly on the airline website. For example, I purchased my flight from Hanoi to Hue on Vietnam Airlines’ website for US$33, while it was $169 on Kayak.

2. “Poor” person’s first-class: of course a truly poor person would not likely be able to fly internationally, but relatively speaking, rather than paying the extra $2,000 for a first-class seat, you could try to get more space by:
A) Reserving a seat that’s more likely to have an empty one next to it. Researching a few blogs by people who travel a lot, an aisle or window seat with an empty middle seat in the back of economy or economy plus sections are the least likely to have the middle seat filled unless the flight is completely packed. By strategically choosing seats this way, I was able to have an empty seat next to me for 3 out of the 4 flights I flew solo on this trip, and the 4th one was packed.
B) If there are empty rows or pairs of seats elsewhere in the same class, ask to move into them. Usually you have to wait till after the flight takes off, but I generally have been able to get a whole row or at least an empty seat next to me this way.

3. Vietnam visa-on-arrival: this worked well for me. There are many visa services online, and I used …., which was recommended by a number of guidebooks and travel websites. I got a confidential/individual letter ($31) so my passport info would not be shared with other people I don’t know.  Within 24 hours, I received an emailed visa letter that I printed out and a blank visa form I filled out and brought with me to be signed and submitted with US$25 cash at the visa-on-arrival counter when I arrived in Hanoi. Upon arrival, I quickly made my way to the visa counter, which is to the left when entering the immigration area, and with only one couple ahead of me, I was able to get my visa within 10 minutes. The line got longer afterward but seemed to move at a reasonable pace. Since I didn’t have checked baggage, I was able to get through the visa, immigration and custom lines within 30 minutes of landing.
Here’s what the letter looks like:
Sophy's visa on arrival example

4. SIM cards: are super easy and widely available at Hanoi and Da Nang airports (and I imagine even more so at Ho Chi Minh City). Just make sure that your phone is unlocked and can take GSM SIM cards. I got a Mobiphone nano SIM card for my iPhone 6 for US$9, which included 90 minutes of phone time, 9GB of 3G data and unlimited lower speed data after the 9GB is used up. This SIM card worked beautifully for me, and I was even able to do video calls with my family back in the US on the 3G service.  It was very cool to be able to show my toddler son the sights and sounds of where I was wandering in Vietnam through FaceTime. It was also very useful to be able to communicate with my traveling companions and call hotels, restaurants and shops while on the road.

5. ATMs: this is by far the easiest way to get foreign currency at a good exchange rate while traveling. I looked for ATMs with the “Visa Plus” symbol, as my bank prefers those, and I find them to be more reliable. I also avoided stand-alone machines in super chaotic/crowded areas where there may be more risk for identity theft. In Vietnam, I used the Techcom, Vietin, and Vietcom ATMs with good rates. The withdrawal limits are quite small (1.5 to 2 million VND). I also asked my hotel which ATMs they think are trustworthy and recommend using.