How safe is Vietnam?
To many, the mention of Vietnam conjures up images of war, a strict socialist government and pickpockets targeting Western tourists. While all of these images do relate to Vietnam, they are somewhat outdated.
Vietnam is as safe (if not more so) as any Western country. The war is a very real part of Vietnamese history, but it is seldom referred to. The government is strict, but this applies more to Vietnamese citizens than foreigners. While pickpocketing does happen it is mainly in the tourist centres. Vietnam is a friendly and exciting place, and while it is necessary to take some precautions it is still possible to fully immerse oneself in Vietnamese life.
Is it necessary to learn Vietnamese?
No, but out of all the Asian languages Vietnamese is probably the most accessible to Westerners because it uses a Western alphabet. Some basic Vietnamese will be helpful in everyday interactions, but it's quite easy to get by without any knowledge of the language. There are distinct advantages to learning Vietnamese though – locals respect foreigners who at least make an attempt to speak their language, and this can go a long way towards making friends and easing integration into the local populace.
Does the socialist government influence day-to-day living?
Occasionally the government will ban certain websites or limit access to news sites that have a potentially negative opinion of the country. However, this type of censorship has become rarer.
Is it easy to drive on Vietnamese streets?
Vietnamese roads are hair-raising at the best of times. Crossing the street on foot is a nerve-wracking experience and climbing onto the back of a xe om (motorbike taxi) and being whizzed through the traffic is both scary and exhilarating.
Many expats prefer to hire a driver who is familiar with the unpredictable rules of the road; however, it is possible to drive. Smaller vehicles tend to be a lot more effective than larger ones, particularly during peak traffic. Often bicycles are the fastest form of transport during rush hour, followed by motorbikes.