Vietnam Travel Guide

The setting of the most protested and controversial war of the second half of the 20th century, Vietnam is once again hosting thousands of Americans – but this time they’re armed with money, not guns. And they are not alone, as travellers from around the world are flocking to Vietnam. Perhaps partly due to the memory of the Vietnam War, travel in Vietnam is cheap and only just on its way into fruition.

But change seems to occur at a rapid rate in Vietnam, as the country busily promotes its palette of offerings: a culture kept bravely alive through the nation’s tumultuous past, hot white beaches, peaceful inland rainforests, picturesque rugged landscapes and, of course, a varied and delicious cuisine. In essence, Vietnam has all the delights one would expect of southeast Asia, at a better price.

Brief History

The history of Vietnam begins around 2,700 years ago. Evidence of the earliest established society other than the prehistoric Iron Age Dong Son culture in Northern Vietnam was found in Co Loa, an ancient city situated near present-day Hanoi. The traditional population of this area were Khmers and Cham. The Vietnamese arrived latter when advancing Chinese pushed them out of southern China. To this day there are Khmer and Cham populations along the western border of Vietnam.

Successive dynasties based in China ruled Vietnam directly for most of the period from 111 BC until 938 when Vietnam regained its independence. In 111 BC, Chinese troops invaded Nam Việt and established new territories but while the Chinese were governors and top officials, the original Vietnamese nobles still managed some highlands. Vietnam remained a tribute state to its larger neighbor China for much of its history but repelled invasions by the Chinese as well as three invasions by the Mongols between 1255 and 1285. Emperor Trần Nhân Tông later diplomatically submitted Vietnam to a tribute state of the Yuan Dynasty to avoid further conflicts.

The independent period temporarily ended in the middle to late 19th century, when the country was colonized by France. The French were considered brutal colonizers and subjugated the local population. At the same time left many cultural aspects such as bread, coffee and amazing fusion food. During World War II, Imperial Japan expelled the French to occupy Vietnam, though they retained French administrators during their occupation. After the war, France attempted to re-establish its colonial rule but ultimately failed in the First Indochina War. The Geneva Accords partitioned the country in two with a promise of democratic election to reunite the country.

However, rather than peaceful reunification, partition led to the Vietnam War. During this time, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union supported the North while the United States and other western countries supported the South. After millions of Vietnamese deaths, the war ended with the fall of Saigon to the North in April 1975.

The reunified Vietnam suffered further internal repression. It was isolated internationally due to the continuing Cold War and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to expel Pol Pot to end the genocide. In 1986, the Communist Party of Vietnam changed its economic policy and began reforms of the private sector similar to those in China. Since the mid-1980s, Vietnam has enjoyed substantial economic growth and some reduction in political repression, though reports of corruption have also risen.

Geography

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Vietnam is a long narrow country running along the Golf of Tonkin to the South China Sea. Vietnam shares international borders with Cambodia, Laos and China. Vietnam is located on the eastern Indochina Peninsula between latitudes 8° and 24°N, and longitudes 102° and 110°E. It covers a total area of approximately 331,210 km2 excluding the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa islands. Vietnam’s land is mostly hilly and densely forested, with level land covering no more than 20%. Mountains account for 40% of the country’s land area, and tropical forests cover around 42%.

The northern part of the country consists mostly of highlands and the Red River Delta. Phan Xi Păng, located in Lào Cai province, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, standing 3,143 metres high. Southern Vietnam is divided into coastal lowlands, the mountains of the Annamite Range, and extensive forests. Comprising five relatively flat plateaus of basalt soil, the highlands account for 16% of the country’s arable land and 22% of its total forested land. The soil in much of southern Vietnam is relatively poor in nutrients.

The Red River Delta (also known as the Sông Hồng), a flat, roughly triangular region covering 15,000 km2 is smaller but more intensely developed and more densely populated than the Mekong River Delta. Once an inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin, it has been filled in over the millennia by riverine alluvial deposits, and it advances 100 metres into the Gulf annually. The Mekong delta, covering about 40,000 km2, is a low-level plain no more than 3 metres above sea level at any point. It is criss-crossed by a maze of rivers and canals, which carry so much sediment that the delta advances 60 to 80 metres into the sea every year.

Sights and Activities

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is located in the north of the country, along the coastline east of Hanoi. It is world famous for its spectacular scenery of grottoes and caves, forms the central zone of Halong Bay, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. One activity recommended here is kayaking. One can visit Halong Bay by booking a one or multi-day tour in Hanoi. However, a better option for the independent traveler might be to get a bus and ferry to Cat Ba Island and then take a cruise of the bay from Cat Ba.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located near the town with the same name, about 40 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City. It is a large underground community made up of 250 kilometres of tunnels and chambers below the city. Although they were used extensively during the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century to provide refuge and a defensive advantage over the American soldiers, the original tunnels were already being made during the French occupation about 30 years earlier.

Beachlife

Vietnam, especially the southern half, has some very fine beach resorts but along the entire coast you can find some perfect kilometers long white beaches, fringed with palms and the warm waters are pleasant to have a swim or at some cases go snorkelling and diving. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are just a few options you can choose from. Con Dao Island and Phu Quoc Island south of Vietnam are perfect with nice beaches and coral reefs. Nha Trang is THE place for partying and a great place to unwind as per of a trip around Vietnam.

Sapa

Sapa in the extreme north of the country, towards the border with China there are some great mountain landscapes to explore near Sapa. The scenery is outstanding with rice terraces clinging to the hills and with several minorities to be visited as well. Sapa itself is a picturesque village that lies on the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Ethnic minorities to be visited in and around Sapa are Hmong and Dao to name just a few.

Hoi An

Hoi An is located on the coast in Central Vietnam. It is well known for its excellent tailors, its art galleries, and its narrow streets crammed with tiny wooden cafes serving steaming coffee. There is a noticeable Chinese influence in Hoi An. Centuries ago Chinese traders came to offer their goods here and the charm of the town is still completely undeniable. There’s plenty to do in Hoi An, from visiting the historic temple complex of My Son, to relaxing on the beach, or you could even try your hand at some traditional Vietnamese cooking.

Hue

Hue is the ancient royal capital of Vietnam and is rich in culture. Things to do in Hue include; a cruise down the Perfume River and visits to historic sights and monuments such as the Imperial Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda and the Palace of Supreme Peace. Hue is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Phu Quoc Island

Phu Quoc Island is Vietnam’s biggest island and is located closer to Cambodia (only about 15 kilometres) than Vietnam. It is gaining popularity among travellers as a favorite spot for beaches, relaxing and aquatic activities.

Phong Nha National Park

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Bố Trạch and Minh Hóa districts of central Quảng Bình Province in the North Central Coast region, about 500 kilometres south of Hanoi. The park derives it name from Phong Nha Cave, containing many fascinating rock formations, and Kẻ Bàng forest. The plateau on which the park is situated is probably one of the finest and most distinctive examples of a complex karst landform in Southeast Asia. This national park was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2003 for its geological values. In April 2009, the world’s largest cave, was re-discovered by a team of British cave explorers of the British Caving Association led by a local farmer named Ho Khanh.

The Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta produces one of Vietnam’s most important exports – rice, and thus acts as the backbone of Southern Vietnam’s economy. You can take a boat trip down the Mekong, where you will pass the colourful floating markets of Cai Rang and Cai Be among others. Here, vendors will offer their wares from their boats jammed with produce, dangling their goods in the air from a long pole.

Other sights

Cao Dai Temple, near Tay Ninh.
Central Highlands offers rough mountain scenery and minority people near Kontum.
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a former border area of north and south Vietnam.
Motorbike Tour of Dalat – Located in the hills west of Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat is a pleasant city and the local Easy Riders offer great motorbike tours in the countryside allowing an amazing glimpse into the everyday life of the local Vietnamese.

When to go & Weather

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Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate dominated by south to southeasterly winds from May until September and northerly to northeasterly winds between October and April. But there are differences between north and south. Also coastal areas compared to mountainous areas have huge differences, not only regarding temperature but also regarding rainfall. During the latter period (October to April) rainfall is infrequent and light. Annual rainfall is almost everywhere above 1,000 mm and rises to between 2,000 mm and 2,500 mm, especially the areas that are facing the sea.

On the coast and in those parts of the central highlands that face northeast, the season of maximum rainfall is between September and January. This area often receives heavy rain from typhoons and there is also much cloud and frequent drizzle. In the north of Vietnam there are more cloudy days with occasional light rain during the period of the northeast monsoon. The south of the country is more likely to be dry and sunny at this time.

In the southern and central parts of Vietnam temperatures remain high around the year, but in the north there is a definite cooler season as the north monsoon brings colder air from central China from time to time. Temperatures in Hanoi can sometimes be rather chilly, although averages are quite pleasant, between 20 °C and 23 °C during the day. Most rain here falls from June to September when temperatures can reach well over 35 °C. Although the rainfall applies to Ho Chi Minh City as well, temperatures are high year round, 31 °C during the day, 23 °C at night. The best time for visiting most of the country are February and March, avoiding most of the wet weather in the country and temperatures being pleasant as well. Only in the north you can have some cooler days and colder nights.

Red Tape

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Visitors from the following countries do not require a visa and can stay for the following number of days:

14 days – Brunei, Myanmar
15 days – Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Russia
21 days – Philippines
30 days – Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia

All other nationalities are required to obtain a tourist visa, which are generally valid for 30 days. Visas can be obtained from Vietnamese Embassies and Consulates abroad. Costs of tourist visa vary from one Vietnamese Embassy to another. When your passport is returned to you from the Vietnamese embassy, one application form with a photo will be returned along with it. Keep the form, as you will be required to hand it to the immigration upon arrival in Vietnam. If you misplaced this form, you can complete a new form upon arrival – there are photo booths at the airport. Passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the end of the trip.

For the adventurous travellers that do the crossing from Cambodia, visa support is provided very cheaply from the myriad of guesthouses in Phnom Penh. The processing time takes about three days or less.

Visa are available on arrival, but only if you have approval first via a ‘confirmation letter’ given to you by the Vietnam immigration. You can get this from an online agency, they charge around US$10-20 and accept credit cards, Paypal etc and you can pay in different currencies. They will email you the approval letter which you print out and take to the airport. At the airport you pay $45 (2014) and need 1 photo.

Many travellers try to board their flights with no visa or ‘confirmation letter’ and are refused. Ensure that you have a visa or have applied online for a confirmation letter, and received it before your flight. Your confirmation letter should have your exact information as per your passport or once again you will be refused entry to Vietnam or not allowed to board your flight.

Vietnamese cuisine

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Vietnamese cuisine varies slightly from region to region, with many regions having their own specialties. Generally, northern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being bland, central Vietnamese cuisine is knowing for being spicy, while southern Vietnamese cuisine is known for being sweet.

Many Vietnamese dishes are flavoured with fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells and tastes like anchovies (quite salty and fishy) straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. (Try taking home a bottle of fish sauce, and using it instead of salt in almost any savoury dish — you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.) Fish sauce is also mixed with lime juice, sugar, water, and spices to form a tasty dip/condiment called nước chấm, served on the table with most meals. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander or cilantro (rau mùi or rau ngò), mint (rau răm) and basil (rau húng), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter and more aromatic than the cuisine of its neighbouring countries, especially China.

Vietnam’s national dish is phở (pronounced like the fu- in funny, but with tone), a broth soup with beef or chicken and rice noodles (a form of rice linguine or fettuccine). Phở is normally served with plates of fresh herbs (usually including Asian basil), cut limes, hot chilies and scalded bean sprouts which you can add according to your taste, along with chilli paste, chilli sauce, and sweet soybean sauce. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is the original Vietnamese fast food, which locals grab for a quick meal.

Vietnam Travel Guide
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