Some countries evoke mental images at the sound of their name, and Vietnam is one of these. Far-reaching rice fields, men and women in straw hats, and the beeping sounds from scooters in hectic cities. Even if you’ve never been to Vietnam, you’ve surely gotten a feeling of what this is like from the numerous movies depicting the Vietnam War.
The days when Vietnam was famous for its conflict with the United States have long passed. This lengthy land in the east has instead become a popular tourist destination due to its wide range of sights and attractions. Vietnam offers everything from chaotic metropolises to beautiful beaches and great nature experiences. The country has one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia, a rich and evocative history, and food so distinct it can be the highlight of any trip. Further, Vietnam’s infrastructure is well built out, which makes it easy for tourists to travel throughout the country.
Places to visit
Halong Bay – Declared as a UNESCO World Heratige Site, Halong Bay includes 1 600 islands rising from clear emerald water, forming a seascape of limestole karst pillars. Halong Bay is an amazing natural wonder and one of Vietnam’s most prized treasures. Abundant scenic beauty, geological and archeological importance, plenty of possibilities for adventure and fresh seafood. All these things make Halong Bay one of the most visited tourist destinations in Vietnam.
The most popular way to experience Halong Bay is by an overnight cruise, which is basically an up-scale hotel on water. Offering everything from mid-range to 5-star luxury cruises, this is the one place you really should consider spoiling yourself.
Ho Chi Minh City – Formerly named, and still referred to as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most chaotic city in Vietnam. Motorbikes, cars and rickshaws are everywhere, and you have to be really careful when crossing the street. Haggle for bargains in Ben Thanh Market and sample the street food. Experience architecture and history from when Vietnam was a French colony up until the Vietnam war, sing karaoke or just relax with some local beers on a sidewalk. If flying into SGN airport it is definitely worth spending a few days exploring this city.
Hoi An– A UNESCO World Heritage site. Relatively inaccessible to cars and trucks, Hoi An is the perfect tonic to the chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Spending time by the river, strolling through old town, visiting markets and seeing the clash of old and new in terms of architecture and history will keep your inner photographer busy for days. Hoi An is relatively cheap compared to other tourist destinations in Vietnam. It is particularly popular for buying hand-made clothing.
Hanoi – The capital of Vietnam and the second largest city. Largely unscathed from the many years of war, Hanoi is a rapidly developing city currently going through a building boom. The city has a number of parks and museums that give visitors an insight in Vietnam’s history of revolution, art and war. Although Hanoi is no longer occupied by the French, the french culinary culture is still embraced. The people of Hanoi are considered the friendliest and most approachable in the country. This all makes Hanoi a good start off point for further trips to Halong Bay and Sapa.
Nha Trang – A coastal city well known for its white sandy beaches and clear waters with abundant marine life, making it ideal for scuba diving. Nha Trang attracts large numbers of backpackers, and has developed into a popular destination for international tourists. The many bars along a beautiful beach give you the opportunity to party, enjoy seafood or just relax while watching the sunset over the East Sea.
Sapa – A town in the mountains that was originally a retreat for French colonialists trying to escape the scorching heat and humidity of Vietnam. Today Sapa is popular among travelers due to its natural beauty, abundant opportunities for treks and adventures, and panoramic views that will leave you speechless and regretting you didn’t bring a better camera.
Accommodation in Vietnam generally has a high standard and excellent service. There is a construction boom and competition is fierce. This benefits travelers through low prices and a large selection, with little need for making reservations in advance. If you can resist the urge to pre-book and organize everything before arriving to Vietnam, you will not only increase your flexibility, but also most likely save money through good last-minute deals. You will generally pay more for Western hotels than the local and boutique hotels.
The cheapest form of accommodations are hostel dorms, where a bed runs from about 6 USD and upwards. The simplest private rooms in hostels or guesthouses start around 10-15 US. Mid-range hotels range between 35 – 80 USD. Vietnam has some magnificent luxury accommodations, such as the idyllic seaside Sheraton Hotel and Spa in Nha Trang, and the colonial gem Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi. The high end luxury hotels start around 150 – 200 USD per night.
For short distances you should consider taking metered taxis, which are cheap by international standard. You can even consider motorbike taxis (called xe om, which means motorbike hug – so you get the picture). You can also rent a scooter for more freedom to explore different areas.
When traveling longer distances you should consider either bus, train or plane. Buses are cheap and a breeze as long as it is with a reputable company. You should buy the ticket on your point of departure, and not the bus, to avoid getting overcharged. Consider airplane as an alternative to long bus or train rides. They can be relatively cheap when booked in advance.
Baolau is useful when planning a trip. It lets you compare cost and schedules of plane, bus and train travel between cities in Vietnam.
When to go – The best time to visit Vietnam is February to April (spring) and August to October (autumn). This is because temperatures are more moderate and rainfall is lighter. Generally, the weather in Vietnam is split by region. In Hanoi and North Vietnam it is hot and humid between May and October, with rainfall at its highest. November to April is the cool and dry season with temperatures averaging about 17 – 22 Celcius. In Central Vietnam January to August marks the hot, dry weather. The highest levels of rainfall are in September, October and November. Southern Vietnam is generally hot and dry from November to April, and warm and wet from May to October.
Costs – It is relatively cheap to both travel to and live in Vietnam. A low range budget starts around 25 USD per day, while a mid-range budget is approximately 40 – 100 USD. You can find ATMs throughout the country, even in small towns. Although many hotels accept credit cards, you should still always carry cash.
Tipping – Tips are generally not required. Locals don’t tip. The exception is a few dollars for guides and 5 – 10 % in fancy restaurants if you’re very satisfied.
Food – Food is at the heart of Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese cuisine is popular all over the world as it mixes together a range of tastes and flavors. Make sure you try Pho (noodle soup), Bahn mi, Goi cuon, Bun cha, Oc, Com Tam and Banh xeo. Drink fresh coconut, fruit smoothie, herbal tea, sugar cane juice, sticky rice wine. Also try something from the local beer selection. A typical, and somewhat strange, beer snack is deep fried, crispy crickets.
Culture – Vietnamese life revolves around the family. It is not uncommon for three generations to be living under one roof. As with many Asian nations, the concept of face (one’s reputation, dignity and prestige) is extremely important to the Vietnamese. Some tips when traveling to Vietnam is to dress respectfully at all times (shoulders covered, shorts below the knees), pass items with both hands, point with your hand rather than finger, and avoid public display of affection. Finally, there can be quite severe air pollution in bigger cities, so face masks are commonplace among locals.
Language – The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. It is one of the few languages in Asia that use the Latin alphabet. This makes things like interpreting street signs a lot easier. Further, many Vietnamese, especially young people, have a good grasp of English. Most will readily help if you are lost. Some will also be keen on speaking to you as a way of improving their proficiency in English.
Currency – Vietnam’s official currency is the Vietnamese dong (VND). 1 US Dollar is approximately 23 000 VND. It is common to use US Dollars in Vietnam. Expect many tourist related activities to be quoted in US Dollars.