The three letters that define much of the world's wireless capabilities are GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), a big, seamless network that makes for easy cross-border cellphone use throughout Europe and dozens of other countries worldwide. In the U.S., T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless, and Cingular use this quasi-universal system; in Canada, Microcell and some Rogers customers are GSM, and all Europeans and most Australians use GSM. GSM phones function with a removable plastic SIM card, encoded with your phone number and account information. If your cellphone is on a GSM system and you have a world-capable multiband phone such as many Sony Ericsson, Motorola, or Samsung models, you can make and receive calls across civilized areas around much of the globe. Just call your wireless operator and ask for "international roaming" to be activated on your account. Unfortunately, per-minute charges can be high -- usually $1 to $1.50 in western Europe and up to $5 in places like Russia and Indonesia.
The best way to get connected with your own hand-phone in Vietnam is to buy an affordable GSM phone and set up a simple prepaid account. Local calls are less than 10¢ per minute, and incoming calls are free.
Most cellphone operators in the West sell "locked" phones that restrict you from using any other removable computer memory phone chip card (called a SIM card) other than the ones they supply. Buy an unlocked phone that accepts a prepaid SIM card (found at a local retailer for as little as $40) that gives you a new account and phone number and can be exchanged for a new card in your next destination (like nearby Cambodia or Thailand). Buy new and reconditioned mobile phones at local department stores in the major cities or in any of the small storefront vendors popping up everywhere. When signing up for a local calling plan (for as little as $20, including a first batch of anytime minutes) you will get a local phone number and the staff can help you set it up (be sure to ask for help getting the phone set to "English," or tien Anh, if searching the LCD monitor yourself). In Vietnam, service providers include Vinaphone, with main offices at 1-3 Nguyen Van Binh in Ho Chi Minh (tel. 08/3823-9001), and cards are sold at retailers around the city. Mobiphone is a similar service and is best for good service in urban areas, but not as effective as Vinaphone out in the provinces. Retailers for these popular providers are just about anywhere, and at any post office in the country.
Note: Phone rental is unavailable in Vietnam; buying a phone and setting up a prepaid account is the way to go.
Internet & E-Mail
Without Your Own Computer -- Internet cafes are just about anywhere in Vietnam -- I've even been to an Internet cafe with a thatched roof in a rural hamlet. The quality of connections varies. In big cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you can find fast, affordable ADSL service for as low as 4,000 VND per hour. The Internet is controlled by the government post office in any town, and most post offices now have adjoining cybercafes that are a good bet for fast, affordable service. In rural areas, it can get frustrating; the good ADSL line that starts at the post office gets split and spliced in its path to rural parts, creating patchy service or, if someone's been digging in the wrong place, unavailable service. The other drawback is that these places are often smoky and very crowded with screaming kids playing online shoot-'em-up games. Inquire at any hotel front desk to find an Internet cafe.
To find cybercafes in your destination, check www.cybercaptive.com and www.cybercafe.com.
Most major airports have Internet kiosks that provide basic Web access for a per-minute fee that's usually higher than cybercafe prices.
With Your Own Computer -- Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) is the buzzword in computer access, and many of the larger high-end hotels in Vietnam are signing on as wireless "hotspots" from where you can get high-speed connection without cable wires, networking hardware, or a phone line . You can get Wi-Fi connection one of several ways. Many laptops sold in the last few years have built-in Wi-Fi capability (an 802.11b wireless Ethernet connection). Mac owners have their own networking technology, called Apple AirPort. For those with older computers, an 802.11b/Wi-Fi card (around $50) can be plugged into your laptop. Many of Vietnam's wireless hotspots, in cafes or major hotels, are available for free. Prepaid plans are likely to follow.
Most business-class hotels in Vietnam offer dataports for laptop modems and increasingly offer high-speed Internet access using an Ethernet network cable or in-room Wi-Fi. You can bring your own cables, but most hotels will gladly loan them. A number of hotels in Vietnam offer free in-room Internet service.
Wherever you go, bring a connection kit of power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable (some of the better city hotels can provide what you need). The current in Vietnam is 220V. Most laptops can plug directly into Vietnamese outlets, but bring a three-prong-to-two-prong adapter and a surge protector.