Vietnam is not the safest place in the world to travel. Potential dangers include disease, accidents and crime; although, not necessarily in that order. Then again, it's not nearly as dangerous as you might think! With a few precautions, the casual traveler will encounter few if any problems.
Avian Flu (H5N1)
Avian Flu is a common disease affecting birds (thus the nickname "bird flu"). It first appeared in humans in 1997 when 18 people were diagnosed with the strain in Hong Kong. The disease is believed to be spread from direct contact with poultry.Vietnam first reported cases of human Avian Flu infection in early 2004. Of the 100 plus cases reported about half have been fatal. For details on Avian Flu, we recommend visiting the World Health Organization's Web Site.
The annual per capita expenditure for healthcare in Vietnam is about $100. Not surprisingly, most folks haven't had a Tetanus booster lately! Many of the diseases here we've never even heard of; others we thought were erradicated decades ago, including Polio. For a thorough summary of potential bugs, suggested innoculations and other precautions, visit the Centers For Disease Control's Web site.
Now that you're convinced you'll catch the plague and die in Vietnam, read this: fewer than 1% of all overseas traveler deaths are caused by disease. Want to guess the leading cause of death? Try motor vehicle accidents! Funny how some things never change. So while you're getting poked and jabbed and popping those Lariam tablets, read on.
Surface transportation is downright dangerous in Vietnam. Whether you are an operator or a passenger, the risks are great. Fortunately there are some ways to minimize those risks.
First, choose your transportation carefully. By far the safest means of transport is private car. They are usually well-maintained, late model Japanes cars, like Toyota Corollas, and you have the added advantage of having some degree of control over how your driver operates the vehicle. If a car is not in your budget, the next best bet is minibus. Japanese-built and often brand new, the only negative is the drivers are usually intent upon breaking all previous land speed records. Motorcycle is a good option for experienced riders; although, finding a big bike can be a challenge. Personally the only use we've found for public buses in Vietnam is as mile markers - there's one broken down every other mile.
Whatever transportation you choose, you'll have the privilege of sharing the road with bicycles, pedestrians, oxen, water buffalo and trucks straight out of a Mad Max film. Road conditions vary from poor to unbelievable. That's the good news. The bad news is all the other obstacles you must contend with. I once showed a friend a picture of children playing. He asked me where the park was - You should have seen his face when I told him it was called National Highway 1!
If you spend any time here at all, you will witness accidents. With a little luck you won't be in one. If your luck runs out, you'll be wanting the best medical care available - read that as it's time to leave Vietnam! Many credit card companies provide emergency referrals and guarantee payments for medical bills for their Gold cardholders. Better yet, consider medical evacuation insurance. These plans provide assistance in getting to a hospital or doctor, including emergency evacuation out of the country if necessary. They also provide consultation and referrals to local doctors. Coverage typically costs a few dollars per day and can be purchased for a couple of weeks or an entire year.
Crime is frankly more a nuisance than a danger, as violent crime is rare in Vietnam. The terminally paranoid may want to check the US State Department's travel warnings and consular information sheets. Otherwise watch your wallet or your purse when around "tourist" places, such as museums, parks and riverfronts, especially after dark. Never leave a bicycle or motorbike unlocked or unguarded. Almost every establishment offers an attended parking area where you can safely park your bike. Beware of xichlo drivers after dark. Stick to the ones you know or take a taxi.
Overall, we feel safer in Vietnam than most large cities in the United States or Europe, and certainly much safer than in Thailand or Mexico. Watch what you drink, hang on to your purse, drive safely and don't sweat it!
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