Iran Diary #1: OverviewPosted: February 22, 2019
When I first announced my intention of traveling to Iran – alone, no less (my friend from the Cuba trip last year couldn’t accompany me), I was met with a lot of concern – “Is it safe?” was the question most frequently asked, even though Iran doesn’t have a particularly bad rep in Vietnam as it does in Western countries. But I had read that it’s actually very safe – certainly the safest in the Middle East – and my dad, who has been there a few times for work, raved about it. Plus, any country that has a visa-on-arrival policy can’t be that bad in my book, so I was determined to go.
And I’m glad that I went. Iran is completely different from any place I’ve been to, yet there is something familiar about its busy cities, its mixture of modern and traditional architecture, the wild beauty of its landscape, and most of all, its friendly people. Don’t believe the media; go now if you have a chance!
Iran is growing in popularity as a travel destination, but people still know quite little about it, so I’m going to share with you some practical tips that I’ve learned from my trip.
If you are a US, British, or Canadian citizen, you have to join a tour and apply for a visa through that. Most other countries, including Vietnam, are eligible to apply for a visa-on-arrival in Iran, meaning you can get a visa at the airport. To save money and waiting time, though, I applied for an electronic visa and picked it up from the embassy in Hanoi. It was very simple.
The money in Iran is called the rial, but everybody uses the old name, “toman”, instead. 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning when something costs 17.000 toman, it actually costs 170.000 rials. More confusingly, since there are so many zeros, people may leave out the “thousand” part altogether and just say “17”. When you’re not sure, always ask if the price is in toman or rial.
The inflation in Iran is quite bad, so the exchange rate changes every day. The “official” rate when I went there was about 40.000 rials = $1, but the actual rate was closer to 100.000 rials = $1. So definitely ask around first before you exchange any money. Most hostels/hotels and taxi drivers (especially for long trips) do accept euros/dollars.
Alternatively, you can also get a Mah Card, which is like a debit card that you can top up. Everywhere in Iran takes card – even street vendors! – so it can save you from carrying around wads and wads of cash. I didn’t, but some travelers I met had the card and said it was very useful.
Iran isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, especially when you count all the admission/entrance fees, which add up very quickly. My budget came out to about $50/day, but if I was traveling with a friend, I could’ve easily gotten away with $30 or even $25/day.
There are plenty of hostels and hotels in any of the main tourist destinations in Iran – in the individual post about each city, I will talk more about the hostel I stayed in. Since they can’t accept international credit cards, the easiest way to reserve a room is to email the hostel itself (which is what I did). Of course, it means you will have to carry extra money with you to pay them once you get there. There are some websites that allow you to book a room beforehand (1st Quest, Apochi), and some hostels can even be found on hostelworld.com.
As for prices, it depends on the kind of room you want. I stayed in private rooms in hostels (I’m at that age now where I can’t handle dorm rooms anymore), which average at about $20/night, with breakfast included.
– Getting around:
Iran has a pretty good public transport system. During my 10 days there, I used a combination of public buses and private taxis to get between the cities (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz), plus one domestic flight (Shiraz – Tehran). The flight I booked beforehand via 1st Quest, while the bus tickets could be bought at the station. In each city, I mostly walked, except for Tehran, where I used the subway, and in Isfahan, where I used Snapp (an app similar to Uber/Grab/Lyft), both of which are very cheap and easy to use. Again, more details will come in the individual posts.
Iranian food is good and cheap and the portion is huge – seriously, look at this kebab sandwich (with my sunglasses for scale). It’s as big as my head! The breakfasts at hostels are also huge, with bread, butter, jam, soft cheese, tea, and sometimes bean porridge and other traditional Persian food as well.
Also, get ready to drink a lot of tea – Iranians love their tea, and there are usually sticks of crystallized sugar to stir in it. Just don’t forget and leave it in too long, or you’ll end up with more sugar than tea!
Certain websites are blocked in Iran (Facebook, most social media sites except for Instagram, international new sites, etc.) but you can easily get around it by using a VPN. Being cheap, I used a free one (Hotspot Shield), which works fine for browsing Facebook and Tumblr, but if you want more security, you can pay for a premium one.
– Dress code:
This is one of the things that put people off visiting Iran, but I think that’s just silly. It’s no big deal to put on a scarf to cover your head and wear a longer shirt – because that’s all there is, really: no short sleeves, no short pants (this goes for guys as well), a headscarf, and shirts that cover your butt. I will also talk more about it in my packing post.
– Other tidbits:
You can find English speakers, but it can be difficult. I mostly relied on body language and Google Translate to communicate. I did learn the Farsi numbers, though, so I could read the prices of things.
Much more to come in the individual posts, so stay tuned!