For Vietnam Travelers
Take loads of medicines and first-aid stuff, and leave behind what you do not need. The country is in great need of many "essential items;" and a large jar of aspirin, anti-gungal ointments, etc., is greatly appreciated whether you leave them at a visited clinic or orphanage or give them to individuals. On your last night, leave everything you possibly can - the hotel maid will get everything into the local economy.
Take a laxative as well as an anti-diarrheal.
Help your travel companions be "good" rather than "ugly Americans" by teaching them Vietnamese for "please," "hello," and "thank you." Help them abandon any negative US tourist standards and expectations; and put up with delays, anti-deluvian bathroom facilities, and creaky air conditioners.
Help Vietnamese correspond by mail with their families, with you, and with other travellers they meet. Offer to take unstamped letters back to the US with you, where you can affix US postage and mail them. Mailing rates are *extremely* expensive to a Vietnamese - nearly $1 for one onion-skin letter.
Give a couple of International Reply Coupons to any Vietnamese you expect to write to you. They cost 95 cents at any post office, and can be redeemed abroad for local postage for one international letter. When you return to the US and correspond with the Vietnamese you met, always include a new IRC in your letter.
Take packets of US first-class stamps to give to Vietnamese you meet. This will let them hand letters, addressed to family and friends in the US, to the *next* American visitor they meet, without the embarrassment of asking that visitor to pay the postage.
Be patient, friendly, and polite, even when things go awry. This will be a new experience for some vets...and a healthy one. Defer to older Vietnamese; and, of course, follow their lead in the what-do-I-do-now social department.
Take gifts for the Vietnamese you meet: college medallions, T-shirts, and caps. Baseball caps with American company logos are status symbols. They also like logos from sports teams, colleges, etc.
No extra-large T-shirts.
Do *not* wear a T-shirt when doing any semi-official visit to organizations, schools, the people's committees, orphanages...it's insulting. No shorts on such visits either. Cotton pants and short sleeve shirts are OK.
Ask permission before taking pictures. Some people in Hanoi think every camera is a Polaroid and will want to swap their permission for your first print. You might take a Polaroid for this purpose.
Control your fear of being a "ripped off" tourist. If the cyclo driver is asking twice the going rate - hey, you can afford it - they need it. A little bargaining is good, but lighten up. (One traveller I went with offended locals, and me, and got himself cranky over the extra 50 cents one driver insisted on.)
If you inquire about human rights, the status of women or other sensitive matters, be pleasant - and be prepared for the occasional Vietnamese who has something strong to say about US policies.
Be nice to the kids who harass you to buy sodas and gum - and be thankful that your own children do not have to do that to support you or themselves. Some of these kids work the 7 am to 11 pm shift when school is out. And they *pay* to go to school, so leave Scrooge at home.
Always have more bottled water with you than you think you might need, and drink more than you are thirsty for.
Say at least once in Hanoi: "Stephen was right - the food here is wonderful!"
If there are vegetarians among you, expect confusion when the waiter claims to know what you mean. Write down the word "vegetarian" in Vietnamese - there are several ways. (Some hotels were unable to provide much to the vegetarians in my group.)
Tim Trask (a fellow Vietnam traveler) is right - keep a complete journal.
Take business cards - it is socially essential and the *only* way to get your address understood. Have some cards printed with a little Vietnamese on them: maybe your organization name or your title, maybe a slogan.
You can have such cards printed quickly in HCMC or Hanoi, but why waste the time locating the place?
Take books as gifts for people you meet, especially those you know you will meet (e.g. the head of a clinic). The Vietnamese especially prize books on learning English, on business, on law. Don't take poorly written old textbooks.
Take a handful of the $4.95 paperback of the US Constitution. The Vietnamese are debating these issues. Let's win some hearts and minds at this critical moment.
Buy maps at the stalls - a couple of dollars each - to help you remember where you were and to show to future travellers you might advise.
Be mellow, enjoy the sights, like the people. Many of our good friends died thinking that they were running that risk for the benefit of the Vietnamese. Many of their survivors can accept their loss only because they believe that those lost were trying to help these people. Richard White might disagree with me; but if we maintain hostility and ill wishes towards the people of Viet Nam, we are, IMHO, cheapening the sacrifices.
Enjoy your trip!