The best place in Southeast Asia to witness the convergence of the old and new is Vietnam. Vietnam of today is a youthful nation fueled by the desire for modernization and commercialization while protective of its traditional past. In the stoic political capital of Hanoi in the north and vibrant cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City in the south, you will observe modern cities in the making, the Hong Kong’s of tomorrow.
But along small streets, like those in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, you will still find silversmiths practicing their century-old trade, far removed from the modern changes around them. The former imperial capital of Hue and the ancient port city of Hoi An offer an evocative glimpse into the country’s rich historical past. Impressive structures from the 18th century Nguyen Dynasty are a living testament to the royal legacy of Vietnam’s glorious days.
It is the contrasting characteristics of the country, from its historical past to its modern developments and its diverse landscapes and people that will leave a lasting impression.
1. ABOUT VIETNAM
A long, skinny country curled around the South China Sea, Vietnam has 3,450km of coastline and a central spine of mountains, including the highest peak in mainland Southeast Asia, Mount Fansipan.
Vietnam’s shape is often compared to two rice baskets on a shoulder pole. The narrow band of lowland deserts and steep mountains in the center give way to broad expanses of river deltas in the north and south. Having begun its journey in Tibet, the Mekong River divides into nine tributaries and feeds the agricultural region of the Mekong Delta. Meanwhile, the Red River Delta is the economic center of the northern region notably known for farming and villages specializing in producing handicrafts.
Vietnam boasts amazingly varied landscapes; from precipitous mountains to uncharted forests, from emerald terraced rice fields to deserted pristine beaches. While large resort developments are heavily concentrated along the stretch of South China Beach in Danang, there are still many parts of the country that remain untouched like the castaway islands of the Con Dao archipelago, an ideal getaway for those seeking an off the beaten path experience.
In general, Vietnam has a tropical climate with average annual temperatures ranging from 22°C (72°F) to 30°C (86°F). There are two distinct seasons: wet and dry. From April to October, most of the country is affected by south-western monsoons. The rains, which tend to be concentrated in the late afternoons, provide welcome relief to the heat. Travel to very remote areas may be affected by the rains, but overall they should not interfere with your trip.
Packing for a trip to Vietnam can be challenging, as the climate can vary depending on when and where you go. When the weather isn’t ideal in one area, it’s great in another. While Hanoi is cold enough to warrant a coat from December to February, this is an excellent time to visit Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. Although the temperatures are consistent year round, various parts of the country, at certain times of the year, can be affected by unpredictable storms which may cause flooding.
- NORTHERN VIETNAM (HANOI, HALONG BAY, SAPA)
The north is defined by four seasons with a cold winter and hot summer. The temperature can range from 5°C (41°F) in winter up to 35°C (95°F) in the summer. From April to October, it is generally warm and humid with average temperature around 31°C (90 °F) and heaviest rainfall between July and August. The average temperature during the cold season (December to February) is 20°C (68°F). However, in the mountainous regions in the far north such as Sapa, the temperature can at times drop below zero (32°F). The loveliest time of the year to visit is from September to December when there’s a good chance of clear skies and low humidity.
- CENTRAL VIETNAM (HUE, DANANG, HOI AN)
The average high temperature in the central region is 30°C (86°F). Heavy storms and highest amount of rainfall occurs from October to December and is prone to flooding. The best time to enjoy the beach weather and cultural sightseeing is between February to August.
- SOUTHERN VIETNAM (HO CHI MINH CITY, MEKONG DELTA, DALAT)
The south has a dry and rainy season. The highest amount of rainfall is from June to October with 80% average humidity. The average high temperature year round is 32°C (90°F). The central highland town of Dalat has a year-round temperate of 18°C to 21°C (64°F to 70°F) earning it the epithet “City of Eternal Spring”.
Beach destinations such as Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, and Phu Quoc Island are warm and sunny most of the year. However, the rainy season varies for each destination: Nha Trang (October to December); Phan Thiet (July to November); and Phu Quoc (June to September).
Vietnam’s cultural makeup is as diverse as its topography. The population of some 86 million is made up of 54 ethnic groups, most of them concentrated in the central and northern highlands. The Kinh ethnic majority, who comprise 86 percent of the population, is largely found in the lowlands. Kinh or Viet culture arose in Vietnam’s northern Red River delta, where people’s way of life revolved around the cultivation of wet rice. Other major ethnic groups include the Cham, founders of the Indianized Kingdom of Champa in what is now central Vietnam. The Cham people have retained their own religion, customs and handicrafts, including the weaving of colorful brocade cloth.
The best place to appreciate Vietnam’s stunning cultural diversity is in its mountainous northeast. Highland markets draw people from dozens of ethnic groups including the H’mong, Dao and Thai, who continue to produce and wear traditional clothing decorated with embroidery, batik-prints, and beads. Having had minimal contact with the outside world, these people speak their own languages, observe their own religious festivals, and live much as they have done for generations.
Most Vietnamese people observe a form of Buddhism that incorporates Confucianism and Taoism. About eight percent of the population is Catholic.
In 938 A.D. the Vietnamese put an end to China’s occupation of the Red River Delta, bringing to end a rule that had started in the first century B.C. That the Vietnamese managed to cling to their cultural identity during a thousand years of occupation says much about their tenacity—a lesson that has been re-taught in more recent times.
From their cradle in the northern Red River Delta the Viet moved south, absorbing the Kingdom of Champa in what is now central Vietnam in the 15th century. The official founding of Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) took place only some three centuries ago.
French forces imposed colonial rule on Vietnam in 1883, starting an era of anti-colonial resistance that would span the next eight decades. Having fought the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during WWII, the Viet Minh, led by President Ho Chi Minh, declared the nation independent when the War ended. The French rejected Vietnam’s independence and tried to regain control, leading to open warfare that ended with the Viet Minh’s astonishing victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.
The Geneva Accords of mid-1954 temporarily divided the country. When the southern regime refused to hold elections in 1956, Vietnam fell into a civil war. The United States, which supported the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, sent its first combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. In 1973 the Americans withdrew; their former allies were forced to surrender on April 30th, 1975, at which time the nation was reunified under Communist rule.
A period of economic and political isolation from much of the capitalist world followed. In the late 1980s the Vietnamese Government eased restrictions on foreigners wishing to travel and invest in Vietnam. Diplomatic relations with the United States were resumed in 1995. Vietnam was granted membership to the World Trade Organization in 2007 and has opened up trade to a large number of countries since then. Hanoi celebrated its 1000 year anniversary in 2010, a major milestone for the city and a proud moment for the Vietnamese to celebrate.
Vietnam operates on Greenwich meantime +7 hours. Vietnam does not observe daylight saving hours.
Vietnam’s country code is + 84
Your guide can assist you to purchase a local SIM card and/or hand set at any mobile phone shop. ‘Top up’ credit vouchers are available at most phone shops, particularly ones displaying the network logo, or local post offices. You can place international phone calls and send faxes at post offices or at most hotels, although hotels often charge extra fees.
Wireless (wi-fi) Internet access is available in most hotels throughout Vietnam and free wifi is available in many restaurants, cafes and bars. Be careful to not save your password or sensitive information on public computer terminals.
Most of the electrical current in Vietnam is 220V, 50Hz. Round two-plug pins are more common although some places use flat pins or three-pronged pins. Adaptors are sold in local markets and usually available from your hotel. Protect you sensitive electronic equipment like laptops from power fluctuations by using a surge-protector.
2. CITY HIGHLIGHTS
The capital Hanoi, located in Vietnam’s north, is the second most populous city in the country with approximately 6,3 million people. Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is more traditional and refined. Today it is best known for its thriving contemporary arts scene and French architecture, visible by the many colonial villas scattered throughout the city. While it is rapidly developing, the city has retained many of its cultural traditions. Observe elderly people practicing Tai Chi by the lake or witness traditional festivals during the Lunar New Year. Hanoi has a vibrant “street culture” where daily activities, such as hair cutting and eating at food stalls, take place on cramped sidewalks. As Hanoi is becoming more populated with people and automobiles, the city is experiencing more traffic congestion, particularly in the Old Quarter.
A visit to the north is not complete without experiencing the spectacular views of more than 3,000 limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, Ha Long Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the karsts hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves, and hidden lagoons that may only be reached by chinks in the cliffs that are revealed at low tide.
Getting here: A 3,5 hour drive from Hanoi through urbanized areas. You’ll transfer to the docking station, since this is a popular destination, expect bustling scenes of boats and large crowds. All this will be left behind once you sail away to a more serene environment.
Nestled in a valley amongst verdant hills in the northwestern highlands, Mai Chau’s stunning scenery offers excellent opportunities for trekking and mountain biking while providing a glimpse into the village life of the H’mong and White Thai ethnic hill tribes.
Getting here: Mai Chau is a 4 hour drive from Hanoi. Although the drive can be strenuous due to the mountainous roads, it does offer a good view of the countryside
Set high in Vietnam’s northeast mountains, the hamlet of Sapa offers spectacular views of jagged mountain ridges, terraced rice paddies and green valleys inhabited by people of various ethnic minority groups, most of whom congregate in Sapa’s colorful market. Each group has its own distinctive style of dress. From early childhood, girls learn to grow and weave hemp, to dye cloth with indigo, to sew the family’s clothes, and to decorate items with traditional embroidery motifs. Sapa is becoming more and more popular with tourists. Many local people have limited income, therefore selling souvenir items can often be seen as another way to earn money. Expect hilltribe vendors to follow you and to be persistent in persuading you to buy their handicrafts. If you’re not interested, just say ‘no’ and ask your guide to walk you away.
Getting here: The best way to get to Sapa is to take a 10-hour overnight train from Hanoi. Departing at night you wake up refreshed the next morning in Sapa ready to begin your adventure. Visiting a more remote hill tribe market requires a 2,5 to 3,5 hour drive on partly bumpy dirt roads through mountains. The trip is for the adventurous; otherwise enjoy your time in nearby hill tribe villages.
Set near the coast in central Vietnam, from the 16th to 19th centuries the riverside town of Hoi An once drew merchants from as far as Japan, India, Indonesia and Europe who bought the area’s silk, spices and porcelain. Hoi An still retains remnants of its trading days as evident in the bustling market and abundance of souvenir and tailor shops. What makes Hoi An remarkable today is that its Old Quarter has been beautifully preserved, the streets still lined with old tile-roofed shop houses, shady pagodas and colorful communal halls earning it the status as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Hoi An is surrounded by attractive countryside where you can observe the traditional way of life of farmers and fishermen.
Getting here: Hoi An is a 30 minute drive from Danang International Airport in the Central part.
While imperial rule ended more than six decades ago, the central city of Hue still bears the marks of its royal past. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was home to 13 Nguyen emperors, whose palaces and tombs provide fascinating glimpses into the luxurious and secretive world of the court. During this period, the Imperial City was built according to the practices of Feng shui that dictates the location and shape of spaces in harmony with both the physical and spiritual. Visitors may explore the red-lacquered pavilions of the Citadel, wander through ancient garden houses, or feast on delicacies once served in the royal palaces.
Getting here: Hue has a small domestic airport. It is a 1 hour flight from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Quy Nhon is a coastal city in the Binh Dinh province of central Vietnam and once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Champa in the 11th century and was an important US naval and military base during the Vietnam War. Today Quy Nhon is a port city with a population of a quarter of a million and is becoming better known for its secluded beaches. A recently-built international hotel offers the possibility of a relaxing break well away from other more traveled paths.
Getting here: Quy Nhon has a small basic domestic airport. It is a 1hr 45minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City and 1h4 40minute flight from Hanoi
Located in central Vietnam, the sun-washed town of Nha Trang hugs a seven-km-long stretch of golden sand, making this the perfect place to get a dose of sun, surf and fresh seafood.
Clear blue seas dotted with offshore islands offer excellent opportunities for diving, fishing and snorkeling, while the town itself is home to some interesting sites, including a massive white Buddha statue and a cluster of Cham towers built between the 7th and 12th centuries. For a truly dirty pleasure try the mineral mud baths warmed by natural hot springs.
Getting here: A 45 minute drive from the international airport located in Cam Ranh. It is a 1 hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City and 1hr 40min from Hanoi.
Located on an arm of the South China Sea, Phan Thiet is a large fishing village best known locally for its fish sauce production. Phan Thiet is also a gateway to nearby beaches which are popular for both local and tourists alike. Mui Ne, a nearby resort town, has 21 km stretch of sandy beaches lined with hotels, resorts, restaurants, and nightclubs. Mui Ne is subject to onshore winds from the South China Sea and is especially breezy from November to May, which may not be ideal for swimming but is popular for wind and kite surfing. Other attractions in the area include the white and red sand dunes, Po Klong Garai Cham tower, and Ocean Dune’s Golf Club, a 6746-yard par 72 course designed by Nick Faldo.
Getting here: Phan Thiet is a 4.5 hr drive or a 5-hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City.
Set in Vietnam’s picturesque Central Highlands, this former French hill-station boasts cool mountain air, some of the best-preserved French colonial architecture in Indochina, and stunning natural beauty. Year-round, the temperature hovers around 20°C (68°F), making this a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Mountain bikers and hikers will delight in the area’s trails, as well as in views of pine-covered hills, organic farms and lush tea and coffee plantations. Dalat hosts a flower festival every other year which normally takes place in mid-December for one week and features a flower exhibition and a flower parade around Xuan Huong lake.
Getting here: Dalat has a small domestic airport. It is a 45-minute flight or a six hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. From Hanoi the flight takes 1hr 40 minute.
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam, is a sprawling metropolis of approximately 10 million people. Formerly known as “Saigon” prior to 1975, today the city is Vietnam’s commercial center. The city’s dynamic energy is apparent in the bustling street scenes with thousands of people on motorbikes constantly on the move. Although Saigon has rapidly developed into a modern city with skyscrapers and shopping centers, there are still remnants of its past visible in the historic landmarks and beautiful French colonial buildings dotted throughout the city. You’ll find great nightlife and a palpable energy in this fast-changing city which is home to people from all aspect of Vietnamese society. You’ll see women dressed in Vietnam’s traditional ao dai tunic stroll past modern trendy boutiques and crowded cafes. You’ll see newly wealthy entrepreneurs in their luxury cars driving past shoe-shine boys on the street side. From Saigon you can make a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai Holy See temple.
Getting here: Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport is the gateway to most domestic destinations.
Life continues in Vietnam’s agrarian heartland much as it has done for centuries. Farmers cultivate paddy fields, tend their orchards of tropical fruit and fish in the rivers and canals that criss-cross this fertile plain. Offering an ideal opportunity to adopt the pace of local life, choose to slow down and cycle along the flat roads of the Delta, the region in southwestern Vietnam. You may also choose to visit a farmer’s home, try your hand at fruit picking or explore the myriad waterways on a typical small (but loud) boat as used by locals for their daily transportation.
Located 1,5 hours from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho/Ben Tre is the gateway to the Delta and is ideal for those who are seeking a glimpse of agrarian river life. Traveling 0,5 hour further south, you reach Cai Be, best known for its trading activities at the floating market and traditional craft villages. A 4-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, you reach Can Tho, the heartland of the Delta. Can Tho is famous for its floating market, the largest in the Delta, and its numerous fruit orchards.
Getting here: A 2 hour 10 minute flight to Can Tho from Hanoi
PHU QUOC ISLAND
Located off the tip of Vietnam’s south coast, Phu Quoc is a haven for nature and sea lovers looking for a place to unwind. The island is considered “off the beaten track” as it remains remarkably undeveloped. Phu Quoc’s virgin forests and pristine white sand beaches make this an ideal place for trekking, diving, and snorkeling. The infrastructure remains basic with dirt roads and a small number of four-star properties. If you’re looking for a relaxing beach getaway without any distractions or a noisy nightlife then Phu Quoc is the ideal place to visit.
Getting here: A 20 minute flight from Rach Gia (Mekong Delta) or 50 minute flight from HCM City.
CON DAO ISLANDS
Con Dao, an archipelago in southeastern Vietnam, is possibly the best kept secret in Vietnam. Currently virtually undiscovered, Con Dao offers stunning virgin forest, deserted tropical beaches, unique sea life, forgotten prisons being consumed by the jungle, and the possibility to experience a castaway lifestyle without any of the pains normally associated with life 180 kilometers from land. The Con Dao archipelago is an ideal place for nature lovers and an opportunity to visit unspoiled tropical islands before they become developed.
Getting here: Con Dao has a small modern domestic airport. It is a 50-minute flight from HCM City and 55-minute flight from Can Tho.
Motor vehicles are well equipped with air conditioning although it is limited to 2002-2008 range. Luxury cars such as Mercedes or limousine are available for hire but incur an extra charge. Wearing a seatbelt in Vietnam is still not common practice – be aware that the vehicles in which you travel may not be fitted with seatbelts in accordance with the current convention.
4. EATING & DRINKING
Talking about Vietnamese cuisine, many people immediately think about Pho, rice noodle soup, and Cha Gio, deep-fried spring rolls, which have become famous throughout the world. Vietnam provides the curious palate with a cornucopia of tastes in three regional traditions: savory in the north, spicy in the central region and sweet in the south. Food is usually served with the ubiquitous fish sauce.
Drinking tap water is not advisable. Bottled drinking water is widely available for a reasonable price. The majority of hotels and restaurants will use hygienic ice, however, if eating at a market or on the street it may be best to avoid ice.
Vietnam is still developing, and so local sellers can sometimes be very persistent when trying to make money, especially around tourists whom they perceive as very wealthy. Vendors will probably overcharge you, but rather than becoming irritated, join the game and bargain with a smile! It is also recommended to check prices of the same items in the neighborhood before reaching a deal, especially for more expensive items.
If you being followed by street vendors and do not wish to make a purchase, often the best course of action is to say “no” firmly and politely, and continue on your way. Do not hesitate or linger, as this will encourage the seller to try and engage you further.
If you choose to ship items home, we highly recommend that you buy shipping insurance and check the policy details. As shops are not responsible for damages incurred en route, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Trails of Indochina and our guides cannot accept responsibility for any misrepresented or faulty goods. We do not take responsibility for following up on merchandise that you choose to ship home. Our guides only make suggestions, not guarantees.
6. CULTURAL ETIQUETTE
- In Vietnam, revealing clothing is unacceptable off the beach. Shorts are generally fine – as long as they aren’t too short.
- When visiting pagodas, temples or Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in Hanoi, shorts and tank-tops are unacceptable (no cameras allowed inside HCM Mausoleum). Your knees and shoulders must be covered. Footwear and socks must be removed in pagodas. Shoes are usually removed upon entering private homes too.
- Upon meeting someone new, people may simply nod to each other or may shake hands. Using both hands to shake someone’s hand is a warm gesture of respect.
- Beckoning someone by crooking your finger is considered rude. The correct way to call someone over is to extend your hand with the palm down and flap your fingers towards your wrist. To ask for the bill in a restaurant or shop, extend one hand in front of you with the palm raised and pretend to write on your palm with the other hand.
In general, Vietnam is very safe for travelers. Violent attacks are rare, although petty theft is a problem in big cities. Where possible, secure your valuables in the hotel safe. Remember to record your traveler’s cheque numbers and credit card information—just in case.
- Do not leave your wallet or mobile phone in the back pocket of your pants or anywhere else that’s easily reached (like an outer zip-up compartment on a backpack). Be especially vigilant in markets and other crowded places like ports and train stations.
- Pick-pocketing and purse snatching are more of a problem in Ho Chi Minh City than smaller towns or cities. Some thieves approach on motorcycles, grab your belongings and race off before you’ve realized what’s happened. If you ride in a cyclo (pedicab), it is advisable not to carry or wear things of personal value (i.e, jewelry, lots of money). Wearing a money belt or something that can be easily tucked away is considered safer.
- Use common sense and don’t walk alone after dark. You’re always better off avoiding cyclos or motorbike taxis at night; ask your hotel or restaurant to call a reputable taxi firm. If confronted by a mugger, do not resist.
- Traffic is chaotic, if you choose to ride a motorcycle; you must have an international driver’s license and wear a helmet. Please note that you may not be covered by your travel insurance if you have an accident on a motorcycle, whether you are the driver or passenger.
- When crossing the street on foot, move at a slow and steady pace. Fight the urge to weave and run! Walk slowly, looking up and meeting the driver’s eyes, and the traffic will flow around you. For best results, follow a local.
- Passport – Ensure that it is valid and in good condition with empty pages available. Make a photocopy as well
- Copy of visa approval letter (if visa is to be obtained on arrival)
- Insurance – Ensure that it will be valid for the whole journey
- Passport Photos – Will invariably be needed for identification passes and certain overseas visas
- Emergency contact numbers: Trails of Indochina, Insurance company, friends and family.
- Debit/credit card cancellation numbers
- Air tickets and Itinerary
- Money belt – Ensure that it is discrete and comfortable to wear
- First Aid kit – Basic travel kit to cover basic mishaps which may occur along the way
- Personal Medication –with international doctors’ note to ensure easy passage of medication across international borders
- Sun block – High UVA protection ideally
- Sunglasses & sunhat
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Mosquito spray & insect repellent
- Long sleeve top and trousers – Useful to protect against mosquitoes at dawn and dusk and the sun through the day
- Camera & battery
- Security code pad lock
- A small amount of currency in USD small notes
What you take will naturally depend upon where you are traveling, and it can often be difficult to decide what to pack, nevertheless the following should act as a useful checklist of essential items worth thinking about taking.
If your trip to Vietnam includes stops at beaches and mountainous areas, you will need clothes for all temperatures. A swimsuit, sunglasses, a hat, t-shirts, shorts that are not too revealing, long trousers, some light-weight, long-sleeved tops and a light jacket that is wind and rain-resistant will get you through most trips. If you plan to visit northern Vietnam in the winter, you’ll need a warm coat. Mountainous areas can get chilly; choose clothes you can layer.
If trekking is on your agenda, you will need sturdy footwear with traction—plus lots of socks. Slip-on shoes or sandals are useful for visits to pagodas or people’s houses, as you’ll save time taking your shoes on and off.
Larger cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi offer upscale bars and restaurants, so be sure to pack some clothes and shoes for a nice evening out. It’s not advisable to bring your flashy jewelry.
TOILETRIES & MEDICATION
While imported beauty products are readily available in major cities, you’d be wise to pack staples like sunscreen, contact lens solution, tampons and mosquito repellent. It is advised that your prescription medication is in its original box with the label along with the prescription to avoid any complications that may arise at Customs. Many medicines are available in Southeast Asia without prescriptions. If you plan to purchase medication, choose a reputable supplier and read the labels carefully, particularly paying attention to expiration date.
Bring a money-belt to safely carry your travel documents and cash, and ensure that your luggage has a lock. Bring photo-copies of your passport and visa, plus some extra passport-sized photos if you’re applying for on-arrival visa (just in case). When flying into or within Vietnam, you will probably be given baggage claim tags (they might be stuck to the back of your ticket). Keep these, as you will need to show them when leaving the airport.