Vietnam Travel Guide: Overview
Vietnam is a long, thin strip of land in Southeast Asia hugged by the South China Sea to its east, cut by the zigzagging arteries of the Mekong Delta in its south and carved by the rugged peaks that serve as a border between its western neighbors, Laos and Cambodia, and its northern neighbor, China. Inside this breadth of natural diversity and jaw-dropping beauty, there are bustling cities, remote hillside villages, centuries-old Buddhist temples and skyscraping corporate headquarters. Vietnam’s rich and tumultuous past of colonialism, communism and war is readily apparent in its architecture, culture and cuisine. The vastness of Vietnam means the possibilities are truly endless in this vibrant Southeast Asian country.
Vietnam’s history is a long and taxing story of occupation, war and internal division—a history that belies the peaceful and vibrant Vietnam of the 21st century. Beginning with almost a millennium of Chinese occupation and short-lived periods of independence interwoven throughout, Vietnam was largely a tributary state to China until the 19th century. This was when the French began to exert colonial authority under the guise of intervening to protect the persecution of Christians.
The French occupied most of Vietnam right up until World War II, when Japanese invaders briefly replaced them. In response, the Indochinese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh, formed a resistance force called the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh mounted a successful attack in 1945, throwing the Japanese out and resulting in the first long-standing independence for Vietnam.
The French, managing to hang on to several isolated Vietnamese outposts throughout the war, attacked the Viet Minh in 1946 in an attempt to regain control of the region. This ignited yet another war of resistance known as the French Indochina War. This time, the Viet Minh’s goal was to end French colonial rule once and for all.
In 1954, the Viet Minh officially defeated the French, and peace talks began in Geneva. The resulting Geneva Accord, as it was called, divided Vietnam into a Communist north and anti-Communist south. Over the next few years, tensions grew between North and South Vietnam, and this pressure eventually escalated into full-scale war in 1964. This was the start of the eight-year Vietnam War, or what many Vietnamese call the American War.
Already involved in South Vietnam’s conflict with the north, the United States deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam over the course of the Vietnam War.
In 1973, a cease-fire was declared, allowing US troops to withdraw. Two years later, in 1975, the southern capital of Saigon fell to the Communist north, and in 1976, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s known today. This victory by the Communist north prompted a mass exodus from Vietnam as political repression took hold throughout the country.
Just a few years later in 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. In response, China attempted to invade Vietnam but was unsuccessful in the face of the strong Vietnamese forces.
In 1986, the tides began to turn for Vietnam with the election of the liberal Nguyen Van Linh. In 1989, Vietnam officially withdrew its troops from Cambodia, and in 1992, after the end of the Cold War, a new constitution was adopted that allowed for certain economic freedoms. However, the Communist Party continued to be the leading force in Vietnamese society.
Around this time, many Western powers reestablished diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam, with the United States being the last country to do so in 1995. This marked the end of a 30-year trade embargo.
Today, Vietnam is an emerging and progressively thriving center of tourism. Thanks to its natural beauty and phenomenal culinary scene, Vietnam consistently appears in the must-visit nations of travel guide after travel guide.
After millennia of occupation by foreign powers, it should come as no surprise that Vietnamese culture is a complex blend of Chinese, French and American influence. While Chinese Confucianism colors society and spiritual life throughout the country, the tree-lined boulevards, grand state buildings and the Vietnamese people’s affinity for coffee and baguettes are an imprint only the French could leave behind. American influence is most noticeable along the south and central coastline in the form of glass and steel corporate buildings and a distinctly Western business-first mind-set.
In every province of Vietnam, you’ll find the pyramidal-shaped Buddhist pagoda, a symbol of the human desire to bridge the gap between earthly existence and heaven.
Also very Vietnamese are the beautiful woodcuts, paintings, block prints and lacquer art that comprise Vietnamese folk art, as well as the entertaining and distinctly Vietnamese water puppet shows.
Good to Know
When traveling in Vietnam, keep some of the following in mind:
Vietnam uses the dong. ATMs are readily available throughout the country, even in small towns, and credit cards are accepted at most shops and tourist establishments. In most cases, though, cash is preferable.
Tipping is not expected in Vietnam, and locals almost never do it. However, if you’re satisfied with your experience at a restaurant or hotel, tipping 5 to 10 percent is more than welcome.
There are a few social taboos to be aware of while traveling in Vietnam, the first being public displays of affection. In general, unless you’re in one of the major cities, such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, even a peck or a hug with your partner is generally frowned upon. To greet a member of the opposite sex, it’s safest to bow or to nod your head. In some circumstances, especially in the bigger cities, a handshake is also OK. Avoid pointing with your finger or feet, touching anyone on the shoulder or head or passing anything over someone’s head. All these actions can be construed as disrespectful. Additionally, it’s customary to use both hands when passing any item, including cash when making purchases. In general, the farther north you go in Vietnam, the more necessary it is to be aware of these social taboos.
The volt electricity throughout Vietnam is 220V with a frequency of 50Hz. If a US-made laptop doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary. Additionally, Vietnam uses the plug types A, C and F, meaning you should plan to bring a travel adapter.
Public restrooms are somewhat scarce in Vietnam but can often be found at major tourist sites. Though many restrooms do include toilet paper, it’s best to carry some with you at all times. Be prepared for squat toilets in some public places, especially in the countryside. It’s also common to pay a few dong to use a public toilet.
It’s best to stick to bottled water, which is available nearly everywhere. Ice is generally safe in the cities and resorts and is often added to drinks and coffee, but when outside these places, be aware the ice might be made with contaminated water. Just say “Dung bo da, cam on” (“No ice, thanks”) when in these areas.
In general, Vietnam is warm and humid throughout. However, due to the country’s north–south length and topography, weather can vary drastically between regions. To describe Vietnam’s climate, it’s best to break it down by region. Both northern and central Vietnam experience a distinct winter and summer season, while the south experiences a wet and a dry season and steadily warm temperatures throughout the year. Monsoon rains strike the north hardest from May through August, central Vietnam from October through November and southern Vietnam from May to October. The central coastline is also susceptible to typhoons (torrential rain and hurricane-force winds) between August and November.
When To Visit
With such a diversity of weather across Vietnamese regions throughout the year, there isn’t really a best time to visit. In general, though, September to December and March to April are the most favorable months for a cross-country visit as these are typically the shoulder seasons to the more extreme weather. The only months to use caution are May to August. That’s when monsoon rains wreak havoc on the low-lying deltas in both the north and south. Otherwise, monsoon season usually just equates to regular afternoon downpours—nothing that will severely deter your experience.
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- Vietnam’s flag is a golden star over a red background. The five points of the star represent farmers, workers, intellectuals, youth and soldiers. The red represents the lives lost and bloodshed of the country’s war-torn past.
- Tet, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is the most important festival in Vietnam. It takes place in either January or February and represents both a fresh start and the first day of spring.
- The national condiment of Vietnam is nuoc mam, a fermented fish sauce. You’ll find it served with nearly every meal.
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Regions and Cities
Travel from north to south in Vietnam, and you’ll find the culture, climate and topography change with you.
The north of Vietnam is where you go to enjoy rugged alpine peaks, limestone karsts, enchanting seascapes and the rural calm of Vietnam’s hill-tribe cultures.
Hanoi: With its tree-lined boulevards, parks and French colonial architecture, the capital of Vietnam is a spectacular place to start or to end your trip. The motorbike traffic here is legendary, but rather than being off-putting, it quickly becomes an endearing aspect of a visit to Hanoi.
Halong Bay: Dotted with more than a thousand dramatic limestone islands, Halong Bay is best enjoyed by boat. Swim and explore its stalagmite-coated caves and secluded grottos.
Sapa: Whether you venture to Sapa for its scenic rice terraces, proximity to indigenous hill tribes or Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak, Sapa makes the trip to Vietnam’s northern border worth it.
Tam Coc: Known as the “Halong Bay on land,” Tam Coc is marked by towering limestone islands, endless rice paddies, riverside caves and temples best enjoyed aboard a foot-paddled boat.
Haiphong: As one of Vietnam’s most developed coastal cities, Haiphong has still managed to maintain its colonial charm and heritage. Leafy boulevards give way to colonial-era landmarks, including the Du Hang Pagoda and the neoclassical Haiphong Opera House.
The center of Vietnam is also the heart of the country’s ancient past and relics. Amid the temples, tombs and citadels, there’s jaw-dropping nature, including the world’s largest cave, golden sand beaches and river islets.
Hué: Once the capital of imperial Vietnam, Hué is home to the 19th-century citadel of the same name, as well as important Vietnam War sites.
Danang: This coastal city is a popular base for exploring the Bà Nà hills west of town. The limestone ridges feature hilltop pagodas and caves filled with Buddhist shrines.
Hoi An: What was once an ancient trading town and site of intense conflict during the Vietnam War is today a riverside jewel—especially for cyclists looking to explore its vast network of river islands and islets.
Nha Trang: A popular coastal resort city, Nha Trang boasts six miles of sandy coastline, thriving reef-filled seas and verdant pagoda-capped hills nearby.
With warm, tropical temperatures year-round, it’s no wonder southern Vietnam is notoriously more laid back than its northern counterpart. Though bustling Ho Chi Minh City does lie within this region, there also exists the gentle and meandering Mekong Delta, as well as some pretty idyllic beaches.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon): Between the high-rises and corporate headquarters, you’ll find impressive colonial-era and Vietnam War–era history, most of which is easily accessible on foot in a day.
Sa Đéc: Located in the Mekong Delta, this bustling port city is usually abuzz with activity by the docks, where flowers from the Sa Dec nurseries are loaded aboard riverboats by the bushel.
Cái Bè: Best known for its floating market, this riverside town in the Mekong Delta is one of Vietnam’s most important agricultural distribution centers, especially for tropical fruits.
Cần Thơ: The largest city in the Mekong Delta, Cần Thơ boasts exotic fruits, local crafts and the Cai Rang Floating Market, the largest of its kind in Vietnam.
Vũng Tàu: Popular with the locals as a weekend getaway spot, Vũng Tàu is a former French colonial town turned popular seaside resort. It’s located on a spectacular peninsula with sea on three sides.
Worth a Visit
Ba Be National Park
For a tranquil escape into nature intermixed with some excellent hikes and cave exploring, Ba Be National Park is the place.
Cu Chi Tunnels
For those who don’t mind tight spaces, the Cu Chi Tunnels offer a glimpse into the extensive tunnel network constructed and used by the Viet Cong troops during the wars against the French and Americans.
Phong Nha-KeBang National Park
Home to mountains formed 400 million years ago and the world’s largest caves, this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains some of the oldest karst mountains in all of Asia.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Vietnam
US citizens do need a visa or preapproval for a visa on arrival (VOA) to enter Vietnam. A 30-day or three-month visa can be arranged at your nearest Vietnamese embassy or consulate or via the e-visa system. Keep in mind that e-visas are 30-day, single-entry visas and cannot be extended. Processing takes three to five days. For VOAs, you’ll need preapproval from an authorized travel agency or business. You’ll then use this letter to purchase a VOA. If you plan to travel by land to Laos from Vietnam, you should request an adhesive visa instead of the detachable one. Failing to do this could result in Lao officials sending you back to Vietnam for proof of departure.
A US citizen will need a passport to enter Vietnam. Your passport must be valid at the time of entry and should have at least six months of validity remaining beyond your planned stay. It should also have at least one blank page for the visa.
When entering Vietnam by air, you’ll most likely arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (HCMC) or Noi Bai Airport (Hanoi). These are the main international travel hubs in Vietnam. There’s also Danang International Airport (Danang) that handles flights arriving from other points in Asia.
For those not on motorbikes, locals prefer buses as their main means of transport. However, trains, planes and automobiles are also viable transportation options.
Virtually no car rental agency in Vietnam will rent a foreigner a car without including a driver. For the rough roads of Vietnam, be sure to request a vehicle with four-wheel drive. Motorbikes can also be rented from pretty much anywhere in Vietnam, including from hotels, travel agencies and even some cafes.
Though the highly tonal and inflected language of Vietnamese is what you’ll hear among locals, English is also widely spoken, especially in the major tourist spots.
However, you can still try your hand at some of these simple Vietnamese phrases:
- Yes: Vang (vung, north); Da (yeah, south)
- No: Khong (khome)
- Thank you: Cám ơn (gahm un)
- Hello: Xin chào (sin chow)
- Good-bye: Tạm biệt (tam bee it)
- Nice to meet you: Rất vui được gặp bạn (rut vooey dook gup ban)
Food and Drink
Because of its diverse colonial past, Vietnamese cuisine is heavily influenced by the national cuisines of France and China. You’ll also see Vietnam’s geography play a role in the food you find in markets and on menus, including everything from a variety of indigenous tropical fruits shipped in from the jungle-dense Mekong to the deliciously fresh seafood of the South China Sea.
Vietnamese cuisine itself is subtle in flavor, highly innovative and typically flavored with a variety of fresh herbs and seasonings, including basil, chili, coriander, ginger, laksa leaf, lemongrass, lime, mint, parsley and saffron. Some of the most popular dishes include the following:
Pho: a quintessential Vietnamese soup made with broth, rice noodles, herbs and usually chicken or beef.
Com: Any sort of rice dish. Hue is best known for their com hen, which is rice served with clams.
Nem: spring rolls with noodles, eggs, mushrooms and either pork, crab or shrimp all wrapped in rice paper.
Banh bao: a steamed dumpling stuffed with onions, pork and some other ingredients.
Banh xeo: a fried rice pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and egg, wrapped in rice paper with greens and, finally, dunked in a spicy sauce.
Lau: Essentially a Vietnamese hot pot where you cook slivers of beef or prawns in a simmering soup that’s either sitting over live coals or on an electric hot plate.
Cha ca: white fish sautéed in butter with dill and spring onions and served with rice noodles and a sprinkling of peanuts.
As far as Vietnamese beverages go, the must-try options are the following:
Green tea: this is actually Vietnam’s national drink and is typically enjoyed after a meal.
Coffee: Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. They usually serve theirs on ice with condensed milk.
Bia hoi: served cold in most local bars, this locally produced draught beer might taste weak, but it actually clocks in at 4 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
Food in Vietnam: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Overall, Vietnam is a relatively safe country in which to travel. Reports of muggings, robberies, assaults and violent crime are rare. However, scams, hassles and petty crimes can be part of Vietnam travel. These are particularly likely to occur in the major cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang. When going out, keep your valuables safely tucked away in a money belt or back in the hotel safe, and be aware of your wallet and phone when in crowded areas and on public transport.
The biggest safety hazard in Vietnam is usually road travel. Traffic accident rates are high, and the driving practices are poor by Western standards. (They are, however, quite entertaining to witness!)
Undetonated explosives do still pose a threat in some rural areas, mostly in the Demilitarized Zone. Stick to the well-trodden paths, never hike off trail, and avoid picking up any questionable metal chunks.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Vietnam adventure!