Those travelling from the US will need to get a special visa to visit. All you do is fill out the form (available from the State Department’s website) and send it in with a cashier’s check for $75(?), photo, and a copy of your passport to the Vietnam Embassy. The entire process is fairly quick and was done in less than two weeks.
Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) is a bustling city that is about as chaotic as they come. People clearly do NOT have the right of way anywhere, including the sidewalk, so make sure you keep your head on a swivel. Of course the pho was a must and eateries are all over the place. I also checked out a fairly known banh mi sandwich shop. The food is fantastic and incredibly cheap so it’s pretty easy to feast like a king for very little. Although I’m glad I went, I don’t feel the need to go back anytime soon.
Hanoi on the other is a beautiful town with enough chaos that it isn’t overwhelming or distracting. Tons of small mom and pop eateries will crowd the sidewalks and you can buy any knockoff item under the sun. To be central to everything, I’d recommend staying in the Old quarter as it’s right in the heart of the action and everything is within walking distance. Go to a cafe, order an egg coffee, and walk around until you see something good to eat.
Hanoi is also a great place to start any trip to Halong Bay but it isn’t a quick trip. It takes about four hours each way so a day trip will really only give you about two hours to sail around the bay before heading back. I did a two day/one night cruise which was about the perfect amount of time. If you go at the right time of year, you can also try your luck at squid fishing at night.
Visas on arrival are also available but only at certain airports and land crossings so if you plan on getting it there, make sure the service is available there. Also, although those crossing are supposedly cheaper, I’ve heard bribery is fairly rampant as well as scammers so beware.
Taxis will try to scam you as well. My advice is to only use the green Mai Linh taxi cabs. They’re clean and plentiful throughout the city. Not once did I ever have to ask for them to turn on the meter and if I didn’t have the proper cash, they all had credit card services available. If you’re ever on a street where you can’t flag down a taxi, go to the nearest hotel or mall and there is always a taxi que.