If you’re one of those travelers who is looking to explore a still relatively under travelled part of the world, then Vietnam must be added to your bucket list. This Southeast Asian gem holds a unique combination of astonishing natural beauty, rich culture, thriving cities, and even isolated hill tribe villages.
After major renovations and urbanization from its past years of war and rebellion, travelers are getting a chance to see the other side of this beautiful exotic country. Whether you’re traveling alone, with a group of friends, or your family, you will certainly find plenty to do in Vietnam.
What to Expect in Vietnam
Vietnam used to be a lesser-known travel destination in Southeast Asia. Taking the lead were neighboring countries like Thailand and Indonesia as most travelers’ top picks. Over the years, it has gained popularity worldwide with Hanoi being consistently included in TripAdvisor’s top 10 travel destinations.
When traveling, make sure to keep your valuables close, check on the agreed price beforehand, but most importantly enjoy the relative wilderness of this stunning country. Consider getting travel insurance, have your drivers license to be able to rent motorbikes, and enjoy exploring these fantastic places.
It’s because of its warm people and locations as one of the most beautiful countries in Asia. But before you book your tickets and pack your bags to go on an epic adventure, you should do a bit of research on where to stay, what to do, how get around and the places places to stay in this exotic country.
Vietnam’s weather is mostly hot. Although subtropical, Vietnam is a large, long mountainous coastal country with an elevation range from sea level to peaking at 3,143 meters (10,312 feet). The typical climate to note is the wet (May to October) and dry (November to April) seasons in the north and the south.
Both the north and south get hot in the summer, unless you’re escaping to the cooler breezes of higher elevation, in spots like Sapa, Ba Na Hills or Da Lat. You can certainly experience four seasons here depending on where you go and even a rare chance to see snowfall in certain norther destinations like Sapa.
Although summers are typically hot and sweaty throughout the country, Hanoi and the north’s winters are actually quite chilly. While Saigon and much of the south on the other hand stay warm throughout winter. Vietnam has different climate zones depending on the region.
North Vietnam – This part of the country has four distinct climates: spring, summer, autumn and winter. During the winter months (January – February), temperature can drop down below 15° Celsius. However, the Highlands could experience extreme temperatures and can even welcome snow in the winter months. Summer is hot and wet in Hanoi.
Central Vietnam – This region has two different weather patterns with strong winds and rains from September to February. Summer tends to be hot and dry, so it might also be difficult to travel to Central Vietnam during this time.
South Vietnam – It’s advisable to visit this part of the country from December to February when the weather is not as hot and the night’s are cooler. March to May/June are considered hot and dry months and June to November is the rain season.
Things to do
Soak up the seaside sights along Vietnam’s gorgeous beaches, or head into the highlands to cool off. From zip lines to alpine coasters, and pagodas to caves, there are a lot of things to do in this long, spectacular country. Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City are large fast growing cities full of millions of local Vietnamese living their lives.
There is so much to see and discover from the cities to the coasts and mountains in between. Caves and waterfalls are two of the exciting bucket list items that take people off the beaten bath. Vietnam is home to the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong.
When it comes to spending for tours and activities, travelers should really get a lot from their buck because most attraction spots in Vietnam are centered on amazing scenery. There’s a lot of sightseeing to do in Vietnam. Save some budgeting for big expenditures like Ha Long Bay cruises near Hanoi, which will double as your hotel room for a couple nights.
Food and dining
Vietnam is a culinary hot spot so expect to be spoiled with a lot of delicious local dishes. Whether you’re choosing a sit-down restaurant or picking out a food stall, prices come reasonably. A bowl of Pho or rice dish will only cost you a few dollars. You’ll love the local Vietnamese food and flavors.
If you’re going a little upscale, expect to spend at least $7 for a meal. Be sure to try out some of their popular dishes like Banh Mi, which is their Vietnamese version of a very good sandwich. Check out this Vietnam street food guide.
It’s much like other tourist destinations and if you want to spend money on fine food you certainly can. You can also eat with the locals and live very cheaply. If you’re staying a longer than a week and would like to cook your own meals, expect to pay about $20-50 for a week’s worth of groceries.
Overall eating out is cheaper than USA, because in addition to the menu itself being cheaper, tips are not expected and tax is less.
Events and festivals
Discover some of the historic annual events that occur around the country. The biggest annual celebration is known as Tet Holiday, which corresponds to the Lunar New Year. Locals do a lot of traveling during Tet, especially from the big cities such as Hanoi and HCMC to their more rural hometowns.
Towns and provinces
Vietnam’s towns and provinces encompass a range of size and landscapes throughout the country. Due to Vietnam’s subtropic location, the majority of the country receives warmer weather year round. Most of these towns receive visitors all year long.
Popular destinations include the major cities of Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang. Coastal beach getaways are common too, to places like Hoi An, Mui Ne and Nha Trang. There are also mountainous regions such as Sapa and Da Lat.
Hotels and Lodging
The good thing about Vietnam is that there are a countless places where travelers can stay depending on their budget and needs. Hostels in particular are very popular among solo backpackers and those who are traveling on a budget. There are some hostels that offer as low as $5 per night, which allows you to really stretch your travel money.
Private apartments can be found for around $20 per night and up, which is of course a lot more comfortable since you will have more space and privacy. Most hostels and hotels offer complimentary WiFi, breakfast and while some even offer free beers.
Traveling within Vietnam also comes very cheap. There’s many transportation methods on how to get from one place to another. Bus rides usually cost quarter of a dollar per ride. Overnight buses and trains can take you to any point in the country and should cost between $1 and $33, depending on where you want to go.
To give an example, a bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia costs just about $15. Another alternative is booking low-cost plane rides if time is an issue. There are airlines that offer trips for as low as $18 one way.
Where to Go and What to Do
Undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s world class destinations that is often frequented by locals and foreigners. It has more than 3,000 islands for guests to sightsee and explore. Visitors usually spend 3-5 days touring Halong Bay, making sure that they’ve seen and done most of what its emerald green water has to offer.
The picturesque city is filled with traces of French colonial architectures mixed with Asian influences. You can simply wander on the streets of Old Quarter and admire the old buildings and establishments that have stood the test of war and time. Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam.
Visit the Pagodas
One of Vietnam’s finest architectures are their pagodas which can be seen everywhere. These are used as temples and shrines by Vietnamese people and considered one of the many treasures of the Southeast Asian country.
Adventure in Sapa
This northern area is very popular among travelers because of beautiful and relaxed atmosphere. Famous for its hills, mountains, and terraces, it’s many foreigners’ favorite spot in the North. Sapa such a tranquil place to settle for a week whether you want to explore or de-stress.
Discover Ho Chi Minh City
It’s Vietnam’s largest city which is why it’s definitely worth exploring. The Ben Thanh Market is good places to go to if you’re looking for great food and activities you might want to do. Ho Chi Minh City is also very much alive at night so a perfect destination for those who are looking to party.
Scuba dive spots in Nha Trang
Apart from their beaches and water attractions, Nha Trang is also a famous destination for those who want to go diving. There are different packages offered by many businesses like Open Water certification that should cost around $400.
Biggest Cities in Vietnam
With nearly 100 million people, Vietnam has its fair share of large cities. Both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are around 9 million and will surely work their way past 10 million in years to come. Here’s a look at the other top ten larges cities by population.
1. Ho Chi Minh City
Formerly known as Saigon, its name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the “Fall of Saigon” that took place in 1975. This is to honor the first leader in Northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. It’s also considered the largest city in the country and perceived as the economic center of Vietnam.
The city has been the capital of Vietnam since the unification of the North and the South in 1976. The city lies on the bank of the Red River and used to be the capital of Northern Vietnam. After the North’s victory in the historical Vietnam War, Hanoi was declared the seat of government of the Southeast Asian country.
3. Hai Phong
This is the third largest city in terms of urban population located at the northern part of Vietnam. Hai Phong is also known as “The City of Flame Flowers” as flame flower trees line its streets, adding more beauty to the colonial look of the city.
4. Cần Thơ
Located a few hours south of HCMC is the city of Can Tho, with a population of 1.3 million.
5. Biên Hòa
This city is Saigon’s neighbor and very large in size. Bien Hoa boasts more than 1.2 million people.
6. Da Nang
It’s considered the most important city in the Central Coast of Vietnam and home to My Son Sanctuary which is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. Da Nang is also where you can find the Marble Mountain or the “Five Elements Mountain” that never fails to impress its guests of its history and picturesque beauty.
7. Nha Trang
This coastal city in the South Central Coast of Vietnam is famous for their beaches. Nha Trang has earned the interest of many foreign and local tourists because of its tropical holiday feel which has greatly helped in boosting the tourism industry in the area. The Nha Trang Beach in particular is very popular among foreign visitors because of its blissful nature and touristy appeal.
8. Buôn Ma Thuột
The capital city of the Dak Lake Province, Buon Ma Thuot is located in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. People have called it the “coffee capital” and it boasts around 500,000 people.
Beautiful secluded Hue receives far less tourists than its nearby cities of Da Nang and Hoi An. Those that venture up here are mesmerized by the Perfume River, Imperial City and charming streets of Hue.
This is another coastal capital city and the largest town in Nghe An. Vinh has a lot to see and do and makes a great base for exploring the natural landscapes of northern Vietnam.
Vietnam Travel Tips
Visas for entering Vietnam
Citizens of Australia, Canada and the United States need to apply for visa before arrival. These come in a range of lengths, including both personal and business. You can choose from single entry or multiple entry, in terms of 30 days, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year for U.S. tourist visas.
The business visa has an option up to 3 years. The basic is the 30-days single entry visa.
For citizens of Southeast Asia, Western Europe and Scandinavia, they get to visit Vietnam visa free for 15 days. Please check your country’s embassy for the correct and most current visa information.
Tourist Bus long distances
Contrary to other countries, it’s way cheaper to take the “tourist” bus in Vietnam rather than taking the local bus. Tourists actually get a discount price in fares. For example, it costs just around $50 to travel to one end of the country to the other end.
Late night sleeper bus
Traveling at night can save you some money because you don’t have to spend on accommodation. There are many sleeper buses that you can book which will take you to your next destination without wasting more time and money by staying overnight at one place.
Skip SIM Card
Another good thing about Vietnam is that you can connect to WiFi at almost every hotel, restaurant and shops for free. Since you won’t be spending a lot of time online anyway, you can skip getting a SIM card.
But if you need to be connected to the internet all the time, you can get one but make sure that your phone supports it. Or buy a cheap hone ($50) and cheap data plan ($5 lasts a month). You can still use WhatsApp and Zalo with wifi only for local messaging.
Locals usually charge a lot more when they realize you’re a tourist. Whether you’re buying from a food stall or a souvenir shop, haggle twice as you normally would. Also, don’t feel bad about walking away when you feel like they’re charging way more than you’re willing to pay. The best thing to do is negotiate your “final price” to come to an agreement.
You can get a lot of solid information from hotel and hostel staffs where you’re staying. The locals know a lot of things that will be useful for your trip. You can ask the best places to eat, costs of transportation and other services. Vietnamese people friendly and would be more than willing to help you out.
The official language is Vietnamese with some variations in dialect depending on region, most noticeable difference between north and south. English is spoken by enough locals in the big cities to get around fine for an English-only speaker. If you have the time, it’s always rewarding to learn a few Vietnamese words and interact in the native tongue.
Vietnam History and Culture
Located on the South China Sea, Vietnam is famous for its many historical attractions, pagodas, Buddhist temples, and its natural sceneries. According to the United Nations Population Division, Vietnam has a population of 95.5 million as of 2017, higher than that of Germany and United Kingdom.
20th century wars
Vietnam has fought many battles over the centuries starting in 939 A.D. when an independent Vietnamese group was formed. Back then, the northern region of Vietnam was part of Imperial China. Several imperial dynasties grew politically and geographically until the country was colonized by the French in the 19th century.
Here’s a look at the wars from the twentieth century:
- Franco-Japanese Border War (1940)
- First Indochina War (1945-1954)
- Second Indochina War (1956-1975)
- American-Vietnamese War (1956-1975)
- Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975)
- Third Indochina War (1977-1991)
- Cambodia-Vietnamese War (1977-1991)
- Sino-Vietnam War (1979)
In 1954, the Japanese won the First Indochina War against the French that caused the division of the country into two rival states: North Vietnam or the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and South Vietnam or the Republic of Vietnam.The conflict between two groups led to what the world knows as the Vietnam War, which had heavy intervention from the United States from 1965 to 1973.
The battle ended in 1975 with North Vietnam’s victory, ending the nearly 20 year war. Southern Vietnam’s President General Duong Van Minh surrendered to the Communist forces unconditionally in Independence Palace, Saigon.
Finally in 1986, the Vietnamese government had a series of political and economic reforms that paved the way for the country to carve its name in the world’s economic map. By 2000, Vietnam was able to achieve its status of having one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
The culture in Vietnam is heavily influenced by Southern China because of long and several periods of Chinese occupation. Their language also includes several borrowed words from Chinese.
Most people in the country are ethnic Vietnamese or Kinhs, but there are also ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City who are descendants from immigrants that arrived in Northern Vietnam from Guangdong province.
There are over 85% of Vietnamese who identify themselves as Buddhist followed by Catholics. Meanwhile, others share religions such as Christianity and Islam.
A diverse country, there are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. Indigenous tribes speak a multitude of languages and dialects.
Vietnam is a destination with many different flavors. Its exotic beauty will surely captivate any visitor that sets foot on its shores. Remember to take the time to discover some of the lesser traveled spots.