With its long and sinuous shape, like a giant seahorse perched on the edge of the Southeast Asian mainland, Vietnam harbors a wealth of diverse landscapes, climates, people and cultures, making it a must-see destination for anyone with an adventurous spirit. Brought to the world’s attention in the late 20th century due to the tragic war with the USA that dragged the country to its knees, Vietnam now resembles a Phoenix arisen from the ashes, and the Vietnamese people can now add characteristics like hospitality, happiness and optimism to their well-earned reputation for resilience.
The country is usually divided for convenience into three regions – north, central and south – and while it’s possible to see something of everywhere on a two-week, whirlwind tour, visitors are much more likely to get a stronger sense of what Vietnam is all about by choosing a single region and exploring some of its attractions.
The star attraction in the north is, of course, 1000-year-old Hanoi. Few Asian cities can compete with Hanoi for its heady mix of historic and modern architecture, its relaxing lakes and cool cafes, its bustling streetlife and its throbbing nightlife. In the hills around Hanoi are several places worth checking out, including the Perfume Pagoda, the Thay and Tay Phuong Pagodas, craft villages such as Bac Trang, and idyllic views on the river around Ninh Binh.
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There’s much more to North Vietnam, however, including the stunning sights of limestone pinnacles in Ha Long Bay and nearby Bai Tu Long Bay. Many visitors leave this highlight till the end of their tour, and spend their last few days afloat in a wonderland.
Adventure awaits in the hills of North Vietnam, in the form of sensational views and brightly dressed ethnic minority groups who inhabit the region. Sapa is famed for its thick mists that engulf the town without notice, while Mai Chau presents a bucolic scene of stilted houses, rice paddies and steep mountains. In Ha Giang Province, the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark is the north’s newest must-see spot for its sensational karst landscapes.
The central region of the country contains three significant cities and towns – Hue, Hoi An and Danang – as well as some wonders of nature such as the world’s biggest cave in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Hue served as the country’s capital from 1802-1945, Hoi An is a splendidly preserved ancient town and Da Nang is a booming urban conurbation.
The south of Vietnam includes three distinct regions – the Central Highlands, the Southern Coast and the Mekong Delta – as well as the country’s biggest city, Saigon (or if you prefer, Ho Chi Minh City). Many visitors begin their exploration of Vietnam here, and get swept up in the city’s relentless bustle. When it’s time to move on, nearby options are boat rides and markets in the Mekong Delta, uncrowded beaches along the Southern Coast, or off-the-tourist-radar villages in the Central Highlands. Ho Chi Minh City is also just an hour’s flight from two of Vietnam’s offshore gems Phu Quoc Island and the Con Dao archipelago.
To explore all the country would take several months, but for various reasons, most visitors are limited to a few weeks, for which it makes sense to choose one region of the country and explore it closely, rather than rush around to get a taste of everywhere.
The ‘Southeast Asian Loop’ is a popular route these days, especially for gap-year students and backpackers with time on their hands. This involves travelling north through Thailand from Bangkok, then east through Laos to Hanoi, down the Vietnamese coast to Ho Chi Minh City, then back to Bangkok via Cambodia.
Though individual itineraries will vary depending on interests, it would easy to spend a month here, with a week in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, a week in the Central or Northern Highlands, a week on the beach, and a few days cruising round Ha Long Bay.
The most popular times for international visitors are March-May and October-December, and at these times hotel rates rise and availability of accommodation decreases. Since the climate is so variable, it’s often worth taking a chance on low season, when room rates are cheaper, tourist sites are less crowded and it’s easy to get tickets for transport.
As Vietnam lies completely within the tropics, any time is OK to visit the country, though there are local variations in climate that should be kept in mind, depending which part of the country you intend to visit. For example, the northern mountains can be very chilly in winter (Dec-Feb), when there is a possibility of ground frost and even snow on the peaks. Hanoi is best in Spring (March-April) and Fall (Sept-Oct), although it is fun throughout the year.
The central region is also fine throughout the year, although the northeast monsoon often brings typhoons and hurricanes between August and November, so this is not the best time to hit the beaches around Da Nang or Nha Trang. The Central Highlands are also fine for most of the year, though heavy rains can wash out roads between May and November.
The area around Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta is hot year-round, though temperatures and humidity decrease notably during the so-called ‘cool season’ (Dec-Feb). This is also the time of least rainfall in the south.
There are several national holidays in Vietnam, which it pays to be aware of, as these are times of mass migrations of the Vietnamese, and tickets for planes, trains and buses are in short supply. The mother of all Vietnamese holidays is Tet, the new year (usually in late Jan-early Feb), when everything closes down for a week. That’s fine if you just want to lounge on a beach, but don’t plan to travel during this time. Some other significant national holidays are as follows:
Jan 1 – New Year’s Day
April 30 – Liberation Day
May 1 – International Workers’ Day
September 2 – National Day
Vietnam is in the Indochina Time Zone, which is seven hours ahead of London, eleven hours ahead of New York and fourteen hours ahead of Los Angeles.
What to wear
You’ll need nothing more than shorts and T-shirt for most of the time in Vietnam. Exceptions are in early morning and evening in areas of mosquito activity, when it’s best to wear long sleeves and pants, and if you’re heading for the northern hills, you’ll need warm clothing (jacket and sweater) as well as waterproofs if you plan to trek.
What to pack
‘As little as possible’ is the best answer to this question, partly because you’ll only need a few, light clothes in most parts of the country, and partly because you can buy anything you need in the markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City at much cheaper prices than more or less anywhere else on the planet.
Vietnam is cheap, which is one of the main attractions of visiting the country. You’ll find that things like room rates in hotels, food prices in restaurants and transport costs are generally much less than you would pay at home, allowing you to splash out once in a while on a luxury room or gourmet meal.
At the budget end, it’s quite possible to get by on $20 a day, by staying in hostels, dormitories or cheap hotels, eating from street kitchens and travelling by local transport. By contrast, for a budget of $100 a day, you can stay in some of the best hotels, eat out regularly in classy restaurants and take a cab when you feel like it.
$ = less than 50,000d
$$ = 50,000-100,000d
$$$ = over 100,000d
$ = under $20
$$ = $20-$50
$$$ = over $50
$ = under $5
$$ = $5-$10
$$$ = over $10
You’ll find that in general more expensive items such as hotel rooms and silk dresses are priced in dollars, while budget hotels and cheap souvenirs are usually tagged with a price in dong (usually written as ‘d’ or ‘VND’). The simple advice is to pay in whatever currency is quoted, or the vendor is likely to use an exchange rate that’s favourable to him or herself. This means that you need to carry both currencies at all times, which isn’t too difficult as long as you have two sections to your purse/wallet. Just keep around $20 value in dong and the rest in dollars. There are a few coins of value 200d-5000d, though these are rarely seen.
Some people get confused by the exchange rate, which is approximately $1 to 20,000 dong. However, there are plenty of big denomination bills, and when you exchange just $50, you’re suddenly a dong millionaire!
Tipping is not generally a part of Vietnamese culture, although staff in restaurants and tour guides will gladly accept your appreciation of a job well done. However, there’s no need to apply a percentage figure here—just leave the change from dinner or a cab fare, or add a few dollars to the costs of a tour.
As the number of visitors to Vietnam steadily increases, so more and more international flights go there directly. Most flights arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, some arrive in Hanoi, and even a few in Da Nang. However, many visitors find cheaper flights that include a stopover in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong.
In recent years many border crossings have opened up between Vietnam and its neighboring countries—Cambodia, Laos and China. This makes it easy and tempting to include a visit to Vietnam with an exploration of other Southeast Asian countries. Don’t forget to obtain valid visas for each country before heading to the border as these posts do not have facilities to issue visas.
Though traveling round the country by bus or train allows you to see the countryside and have encounters with locals, the extensive and cheap network of domestic flights means there’s always the option of hopping over large chunks of the country. Vietnam Airlines flies to many of the country’s bigger towns, and budget carriers Jetstar and Vietjet also cover many routes at amazingly cheap prices.
The Reunification Express, which runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, taking around 30-40 hours, is the classic rail trip in Vietnam, but many visitors choose to cover shorter trips, such as from Da Nang to Hue, or Hanoi to Sa Pa, for a memorable experience. The line continues north from Hanoi, and visitors heading to China can go there by train.
It’s not finished yet, but work is going ahead apace on the construction of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh Metro systems, and the first lines should be open by 2017. When complete (in around 2020), the result should be beneficial for both cities’ horrendous traffic and will certainly be useful for tourists, though in the meantime, road works are causing long delays.
In the bigger cities and towns, taxis are an affordable and comfortable way of getting around, especially compared to the complexities of local bus systems. However, taxi drivers are known for running scams of one sort or another, so it’s advisable to negotiate through a Vietnamese friend or hotel staff member. Not all drivers are keen to switch on the meter, in which case agree on a fee before setting out.
By motorbike taxi
If you’re alone, and need to get somewhere fast, this is the quickest and cheapest way. Called ‘xe om’, they are popular among locals, but you need to agree on a fare first, wear a helmet and hope you’ve picked a rider who doesn’t drive dangerously.
Once the most typical forms of Vietnamese transport is the cyclo (a three-wheeled bicycle with a covered seat for passengers in front). Though you’ll see locals heading home from the market in one piled high with produce, they are also available for hire on an hourly basis for sightseeing. If you want to try one out, arrange it through your hotel as few riders speak English, and disputes over misunderstood rates are frequent. Bear in mind that cyclos are banned from many city streets and often need to take a circuitous route to get where they’re heading.
By rented car, motorbike or bicycle
Self-drive cars are not available, but daily rates for a car with driver are not extortionate; ask for info at your hotel desk. Motorbike rental can be as cheap as $5 a day and can be a good way of exploring the country independently, once you escape the endless suburbs of the major cities. Bicycles can be rented locally and are a good way to explore towns like Hue, Nha Trang and Da Nang. These days several bike tour companies offer itineraries ranging from a few days to a few weeks and from simple, lowland trails to extremely challenging routes in the highlands.
Fortunately many town and city centers are concentrated in relatively small areas, making them easy to explore on foot. A couple of obvious examples are the Old Quarter in Hanoi and Dong Khoi, the main street in Ho Chi Minh City. There are no particular dangers to walking in Vietnam, apart from the universal need to stay alert to the possibility of pick-pockets (especially in crowded markets) and bag snatchers on the street.
Since its capital (Hanoi) is over a thousand years old, you might think that Vietnam is a country with LOTS of history, and you’d be right. Suffice it to say that 20th-century conflicts with France and the USA form just the tip of the iceberg. For around a thousand years, the country was a vassal to China, and even when the Vietnamese achieved independence, they had to face internal conflicts with the Cham and Khmer people, who now occupy much of Central and South Vietnam.
If you’re eager to delve into the complexities of Vietnamese history, a trip to the National Museum of History in Hanoi or the History Museum in Saigon is highly recommended, not only for the wealth of exhibits on show, but also for the eye-catching buildings in which they are housed.
The most significant date in recent Vietnamese history is April 30, 1975, when the forces of the Northern Vietnamese Army charged through the gates of the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace) in Saigon, to reunite the country. This date and the next (May 1—International Workers’ Day) is a time of much partying in Vietnam.
The great majority of Vietnamese are Buddhists, though many worship the tam giao, or three teachings—those of Buddha, Confucius and the Tao. This they would do in a temple, which may also be dedicated to other local deities, while a pagoda is dedicated exclusively to Buddha. There’s a large contingent of Christians here too, as well as a smattering of Moslems and Hindus.
On arrival in Vietnam, especially from other Asian countries, you might be pleased to see what looks like a decipherable script. Called quoc ngu, this Romanized script was invented by Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century, but there are lots of tone marks and other puzzling squiggles added that make most words sound nothing like they look to the eye of a native English speaker. Nevertheless, any efforts you make to use a few words are likely to be rewarded by a beaming smile on the face of any Vietnamese in earshot.
Modern Vietnamese artists paint in oil, acrylic and watercolor, and take inspiration not only from traditional techniques, but also from international movements such as cubism. In small souvenir shops, local artists sell eye-catching renditions of everyday life, while the work of artists like Nguyen Thanh Binh, who combines classical and minimalist styles, and Bui Huu Hung, famed for his lacquer portraits, sell for thousands of dollars in art galleries in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
One form of art that is particularly popular these days is silk painting, in which artists embroider a canvas with silk threads of various colors. Silk paintings usually portray typical Vietnamese scenes and make great souvenirs, as do other local crafts like ceramics and lacquerware.
Vietnam has a rich variety of musical forms that reveal influences from China and India, but which have been adapted to be purely Vietnamese. The various types of music—court, chamber, religious, folk and opera—employ several unique instruments, including gongs, drums, lutes and flutes. The best known is the dan bau, a one-stringed instrument that is plucked with a wooden pick and renders a haunting sound like a wailing human voice.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (1 week)
Ease yourself into Vietnam gently by spending a few days exploring 1000-year-old Hanoi; don’t miss the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Indulge in the city’s atmospheric restaurants and bars, and relax in some excellent-value lodgings. Take a day trip to Tam Coc (near Ninh Binh), the Perfume Pagoda, or the ceramics village at Bat Trang. Finally, treat yourself to a couple of days doing nothing but gazing at the karst pinnacles in Ha Long Bay, a dreamy way to end your stay.
Saigon and the Mekong Delta (1 week)
Hit Ho Chi Minh City head on with a stroll down Dong Khoi from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Saigon River, stopping to look at sights like the Opera House and window shopping at exclusive fashion and art outlets. Go up to the Saigon Skydeck and see how many buildings you recognize. Savour the city’s gastronomic offerings and listen to live bands in sophisticated clubs. Sign up for a boat tour of the Mekong Delta, passing floating markets and fruit orchards, and if you have a couple of days to spare, hop over to Phu Quoc Island and sun yourself on Long Beach.
World Heritage Tour (2 weeks)
Take in all of Vietnam’s eight World Heritage Sites, ranging from the center to the north of the country. Start in Hoi An, strolling down its traffic-free streets and enjoying delicious local cuisine, before taking a day trip to My Son to see the complex of Cham temples, some over 1000 years old. Head on up to the Imperial City of Hue with its fabulous architecture, then delve into some of the world’s biggest caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Swing by the walls of the Ho Citadel en route to the Trang An Landscape Complex, where a boat ride reveals beautiful vistas. In Hanoi visit the Citadel, only opened to the public a few years ago, and sign off this heritage tour in Ha Long Bay, surrounded by the other-worldly shapes of karst rocks.
Beach crawl (2 weeks)
If boozers can go on pub crawls, then surely beach bums can go on beach crawls. Pack your sunscreen and shades and hop on a hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. The beach here is not great but it’s packed with Saigonese at weekends and there’s an imposing Jesus statue on the hill. Head up the coast to Ho Coc Beach, where on a weekday you’ll have the place to yourself. Next stop is Mui Ne, Vietnam’s windsurfing and kitesurfing capital, so prepare to take to the air. Nha Trang is party town, and apart from sprawling on the beach and drinking in the bars, boat trips to nearby islands are a big pull. North of Nha Trang, Quy Nhon is a laid-back town with a wide sweep of sand and few foreign visitors. Finally, a short way north of Da Nang, Lang Co Beach is still wonderfully undiscovered, though one five-star resort has already grabbed a slice of this paradise.
Highland fling (2 weeks)
The northern mountains exert a strong appeal to adventurous travellers, and a romp around its rugged peaks makes for a memorable journey. Head from Hanoi to Mai Chau and spend your first night in a stilted house watching a White Thai dance. Move on to Dien Bien Phu, scene of the historic victory over the French in 1954, before spending a couple of days in Sa Pa, the most touristy town in the north. Cross the Red River at Lao Cai and climb up to Bac Ha for a glimpse at the flamboyant Flower Hmong, then keep heading east to Ha Giang. Here you can pick up your permit to visit the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, where you’ll run into some jaw-dropping views. Pass through Dong Van and Meo Vac, then through Bao Lac on the way to Ba Be Lake, a tranquil and restful body of water. If you’re not completely exhausted by now, Cao Bang makes for an interesting diversion, with more jaw-dropping landscapes and minority villages; otherwise just head on back to Hanoi.