It is important to visit a doctor or specialist travel clinic as early as possible (preferably two months) before departure to allow time for the recommended courses of vaccinations. This is particularly important if you suffer from any medical condition and/or are travelling with young children.
At the time of writing, no vaccinations are required for Vietnam (with the exception of yellow fever if you are travelling directly from an area where the disease is endemic). However, typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations are normally recommended, and it’s worth checking that you are up to date with boosters for tetanus, polio etc. Other injections to consider, depending on the season and risk of exposure, are hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis and rabies. It is best to discuss these with your doctor.
There is obviously a lot that you can do to protect yourself by taking a few common-sense precautions. In tropical climates it’s easy to get run down, so one of the keys is to keep your resistance high by getting plenty of rest and allowing time to acclimatise to the heat, humidity and unfamiliar diet. It’s important to eat well, especially peeled fresh fruits, and to keep up the intake of liquids - bottled water is readily available and hot tea is offered at the drop of a hat.
Personal hygiene is also crucial. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating, and clean all cuts, scratches and bites carefully. Note that tap water may be infected, especially during floods, so use an antiseptic spray on open wounds after washing.
Malaria is present in Vietnam. However, at the time of writing both Hanoi and HCMC have very low incidences, while the northern delta and coastal regions of the south and centre are also considered relatively safe. The main danger areas are the highlands and the rural areas, where Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous strain of malaria, is prevalent. Your doctor will advise on which, if any, anti-malaria tablets you should take.
Again you can help yourself considerably by not getting bitten in the first place. (Other mosquito-borne diseases include dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.) Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, when you should wear long sleeves, trousers and socks, avoid dark colours and perfumes (which apparently attract mosquitoes), and apply repellent to any exposed skin. Sprays or lotions containing around 40% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are the most effective, but it is toxic - keep it away from the eyes and open wounds - and not recommended for young children. Other, less worrying alternatives are Mosi-Guard Natural, X-Gnat or Gurkha repellents. Most hotels provide mosquito nets where necessary; make sure you tuck the edges in well and check for holes in the mesh. Air conditioning and fans also help keep the little blighters at bay.
When it comes to eating, the most important thing is to choose places that are busy and look well-scrubbed, and to stick to fresh, thoroughly cooked foods. Despite appearances, often the small local restaurants with a high turnover of just one or two dishes are safer than expensive, Western-style places. Restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you - for example, steaming bowls of pho soup at a street stall - are usually a good bet, as well as being lots of fun. However, steer clear of shellfish, peeled fruit, salads and raw vegetables. On the other hand, yoghurt and ice cream from reputable outlets in the main cities shouldn’t cause problems.
Bottled and canned drinks, such as Coke, 7UP, Fanta and beer, are widely available even in the countryside. Bottled water is also plentiful and very cheap, though check the seal before you buy and if the water looks at all cloudy, give it a miss. It’s not a good idea to have ice in your drinks and never drink water from the tap.
If you do fall ill, pharmacies in Hanoi and HCMC stock a decent range of imported medicines (check they are not past their “use-by” date). Both these cities also now have good, international-class medical facilities. Elsewhere, local hospitals will be able to treat minor ailments, but for anything more serious head back to Hanoi or HCMC.
Finally, don’t get paranoid! By coming prepared and taking a few simple precautions, you’re unlikely to come down with anything worse than a cold or a quick dose of travellers’diarrhea.