First published March 2022 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
As it stands, Vietnam is due to fully reopen its borders and resume international travel from 15 March, 2022. However, there are a lot of uncertainties, unanswered questions and complications: no one really knows how the reopening is going to work, or, indeed, if it will actually happen. Nevertheless, the reopening is a big deal. Vietnam’s borders have been closed for two years, international travel has been impossible, and the travel industry – although buoyed by the domestic market – has suffered enormously. Now, it seems, we are on the brink of reopening and a revival of independent travel to Vietnam. I have travelled extensively in Vietnam over the last couple of months since pandemic restrictions were eased, and I haven’t encountered many problems or inconveniences at all. Based on this recent experience and on information from domestic news sites, I’ve written about what potential travellers to Vietnam might expect for the first months after reopening.
VIETNAM REOPENS BORDERS: 15 MARCH
What to Expect as the Nation Reopens to International Travellers after 2 Years
Because of the shifting nature of the situation, I can’t (no one can) give an accurate overview or check-list of what will be required for travellers to enter and travel within Vietnam. Instead, I’ve focused on a few points of interest that are more general and might offer potential visitors some idea of what the atmosphere will be like after reopening, and why and where to travel in Vietnam at this time. Although I’ve included a section about specific travel details, such as visas, Covid-19 tests, vaccination certificates etc., this should be treated as entirely ephemeral and guaranteed to have changed by the time you read it.
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I spent much of the last two months travelling around Vietnam. It’s my opinion that the country looks, feels and smells fantastic at the moment. In this respect, at least, the nation is ready for the return of international travellers. Vietnam has so much to offer – it’s beautiful, it’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s young, it’s old – and it’s in the best possible state for travellers to return. I’m not referring to the visa situation or the pandemic or the tourism industry: I’m talking about the country. It’s fabulous, and you should definitely visit or revisit as soon as possible. My guess is that there will be a window of opportunity that’ll last for 6-9 months until the end of 2022. During this period, travellers will be able to go to the places in Vietnam that will inevitably become crowded, world-famous destinations – Hà Giang, Phong Nha, Côn Đảo, for example – and enjoy them in peace. What’s more, destinations that are already world-famous – Hội An, Hạ Long Bay, Phú Quốc, Sa Pa, for example – will be relatively quiet and in a state not experienced for at least a decade, and probably never again. But, more than that, this is an opportunity to really explore Vietnam again; to be an independent traveller, not a tourist. In my experience of being on the road extensively for the last two months, it’s like going back 10-15 years: there’s a genuine thrill to travelling around the nation, and most people I met were open and welcoming to me as a foreign traveller. My advice: get a ticket to Vietnam very soon; make sure you visit before the end of 2022. There may never be a chance like this again.
Whenever possible, try to go local during your trip to Vietnam. Stay in a few homestays or family-run guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) rather than spending all your nights in hotel chains. Eat street food, dine at local rice eateries, drink at independent coffee shops rather than only dining and drinking at recognizable chain outlets or resort restaurants. Try not to buy your daily staples – water, snacks, soda etc. – from the ubiquitous minimarts and convenience stores; instead, buy them from street vendors, family-run stores and local markets: these are the people who have really suffered over the last 2 years of the pandemic; not the big domestic and international food, drink and hospitality groups. Buying local in Vietnam is not only helpful to local people and businesses, it also offers a chance for genuine interaction with Vietnamese people. When you buy fruit at a fresh produce market or water at a family-run store, you are making real human contact with people who are in some way connected to the product they’re offering; when you buy a burger at McDonald’s or a soda from 7-Eleven the communication is scripted and robotic, designed to keep human interaction at a minimum, and the people serving have no connection to the product they’re selling. Try it for yourself: buy fruit at a local fresh market, then buy candy at a convenience store. See which one makes you feel better, more alive, satisfied; which one is an experience you will remember and which one is an anonymous encounter that would be the same anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect the environment or sustainability to be high on the agenda for most of the travel industry (or for travellers) during the first year or so of reopening. On the one hand, the priority for those in the travel industry – from small-scale to large-scale – will be the resumption of their business and bouncing back after an extremely difficult, barren two years; on the other hand, inbound tourists will be far more concerned with enjoying their freedom to travel, vacation and explore again after such a long time, than considering the impact of their travels on the environment. In both cases, I think this is entirely understandable, even if it’s not desirable. Indeed, I’ve already witnessed this happening in Vietnam after restrictions were lifted for the Tết Lunar New Year holiday in early February, 2022. Millions of people took the opportunity to travel domestically, including myself, and there was a tangible air of excitement, excess and letting go. All popular destinations were swamped, the roads jammed, the air-quality poor, the streets, beaches, forests, rivers and ocean strewn with single-use plastic, the consumption of which has soared during the last two years of the pandemic. I’m not suggesting these issues are unique to Vietnam, or that travellers shouldn’t come to Vietnam: I’m merely bringing attention to the probability that sustainability – which is the most important issue for the travel industry moving forward – is very likely to take a backseat for the initial 12 months after reopening. As a traveller, you can, of course, make certain choices that may reduce the environmental impact of your trip. I’ve written a bit more about that on this page.
Apparently, Vietnam is among the most searched for tourist destinations on Google in the first quarter of 2022. I expect Vietnam’s reopening to be accompanied by a deluge of online articles, blog posts, ‘listicles’, ‘top-5s’, ‘must-sees’, ‘ultimate guides’ and general click-bait about travel to the nation. I think, as we enter the first few weeks of reopening, social media will be littered with these kind of posts and links. A lot of it will be low-quality, regurgitated, google-searched, algorithm-based content and poorly researched. However, no doubt several reputable travel blogs, guides and publications will be in there too, doing the proper work. (In fact, I know of a few who are doing that right now.) The trick will be separate the crap from the quality, especially bearing in mind that not much research will have been done on the ground for at least a year. A good way to assess the quality of such posts is to look at the images used in the article: if they are obviously stock photos taken from the net, then the post is almost certainly just click-bait – based solely on scouring the internet for other people’s content and then repackaging it on their own site: very doubtful that any on-the-ground research has been done.
In the case of my own website, you can check the top of every guide, article or review for the date of latest update, and check the bottom of every post for any updates that readers have kindly written. In addition, I have been researching, writing and publishing new content every week throughout the last two years of the pandemic, even as Vietnam has been closed to international travel. Check my Homepage for all the most recently published and updated content.
Covid-19 Situation Now:
It’s pointless to go into the situation in any depth because everything changes so quickly. But, as it stands right now, Omicron cases are soaring far beyond daily record numbers: on the day I’m writing this there were over a quarter of a million new cases. However, the vaccination rate is very high and the death rate is very low. Most places are open and operating as usual, except for some localities with particularly high infections. Vietnam is probably in the middle of the same Omicron wave that Europe and America experienced a few months ago. And, just like in those countries, the infection rate will likely fall dramatically within a month.
Entry & Travel Details:
The situation being as it currently is in Vietnam, it would be silly for anyone to make assertions about what the conditions of entry and travel will be. Therefore, all I’m going to do is list some general expectations based on what has already been ‘proposed’ so far by various government ministries and the like. However, the situation is in a constant state of flux, so I would suggest anyone who wants/needs to follow the developments to regularly check the front page articles on VnExpress International English-language website.
Visas: There are strong calls for visa waivers for more nationalities and for longer periods of time. Such is everyone’s desire to kick-start tourism again that I would expect this to happen very soon after reopening. But, before that happens, the visa situation will likely be as it was prior to the pandemic, in 2019.
Tests, Vaccinations & Apps: It will probably be the case that in order to fly and to enter Vietnam, you’ll need proof of a negative test and proof of double-vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll also probably be required to test negative on arrival, spend the first 24 hours in your accommodation and test negative again before being able to travel freely around the country. Travellers will need to download the government Covid-19 travel app, too. I would imagine this might cause long queues at airports and land borders, and also some confusion at hotels and resorts. But after 2-4 weeks of the borders being open, I’m sure it will all become much more streamlined and hassle-free.
Covid-19 Protocols: Although many restrictions and protocols are being phased out now, some are deeply ingrained and therefore unlikely to disappear any time soon, even if no longer mandated. Chief among these is mask wearing. In all likelihood, wearing a mask will not be required in most situations by the time borders reopen, but I expect many people in Vietnam will continue to wear them anyway. An example of typical mask-wearing contexts when travelling might be at a buffet breakfast or in an elevator.
Independent Travel: In theory, travellers will be allowed to go wherever they like. Certainly it’s been like that domestically over the last couple of months that I’ve been travelling around the nation. That would mean you could go on independent motorbike roads trips, get off the beaten track, camp and explore as much as you like. This would, of course, be wonderful. But, again, I don’t think anyone will really know until a couple of weeks after reopening.
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