Rich in history and diverse in culture, Vietnam is incredibly scenic from its equatorial lowlands, temperate plateaus and alpine peaks, drawing multitudes of tourists to plan holidays to Vietnam.
Vietnam stretches more than 1,600 kilometres along the eastern coast of the Indochine Peninsular in Southeast Asia, surrounded by China in the north, Laos to the northwest and the South China Sea to the east.
A quick skim over the map of Vietnam shows that Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. However, the capital, Hanoi is where most of the political and cultural action takes olace. Haiphong is the Northern region’s main industrial centre and a major seaport, while Da Nang in the Vietnam’s Central region is promoted as the gateway to Indochina. Other major centres include Dalat and Kontum in the Vietnam’s Central Highlands, which are well known for their gorgeous views and cool climate.
Formerly dependent on wet rice cultivation and Bauxite mining, Vietnam’s manufacturing, information technology and high-tech industries now form a rapidly growing part of the national economy.
Vietnam People & Culture
People in Vietnam
Over 90.5 million people live in Vietnam, a population almost exclusively made of indigenous Viet (Kinh) people, with the remaining 10 percent made of 53 other ethnic groups such as the Cham, Chinese, Hmong, Tay, Nung, Muong, Khmer, Ede, and Hoa with a sprinkling of expats in urban areas.
Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are the most densely-populated but most of the population reside in rural areas.
Apart from Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, indigenous religions that emerged during the colonial period, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, have their followers. As such, Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and spirit shrines are a common sight all over Vietnam.
Languages in Vietnam
Vietnamese is the official language and most widely-spoken in Asia’s eighth most-populous country. Northern and southern dialects differ slightly and each variant is an important symbol of regional identity in social contexts, while ethnic minorities speak their own indigenous languages. English is the most commonly-learned second language.
Design & Architecture
Vietnam’s architecture reflects different phases of its history. The Citadel and other imperial structures, like the mausoleums of former emperors are remnants of the Vietnamese monarchy in the city of Hue, capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. Designated as World Heritage Sites, these have undergone extensive renovations to repair the damage received in the 1968 Tết Offensive.
A legacy of colonial architecture in public buildings and private homes was left by the French in Hanoi, Hue and Saigon during their century-long Occupation from the 1850s.
New architectural variations with American-style buildings and concrete dormitory housing have since emerged.
Vietnamese rural villages in the lowland river deltas see family compounds featuring one or more rectangular houses made of brick and mortar in clusters of nuclear or semi-nuclear settlements, mostly used for drying rice amidst agricultural fields. You might see dense stands of bamboo that demarcate boundaries between villages. Ethnic minorities in the highlands live in thatched houses or homes raised on stilts, with demarcations by age or gender. Thatched houses are also a common sight in the poorer central provinces of Nghe An and Quang Binh. In the lowlands, a variety of sacred spaces, such as Buddhist temples, spirit shrines, lineage halls and sacred spirit’s altars, can be found in villages.
Cultural & Legal Restrictions
Monuments of the war and revolution are present in nearly all lowland communities; these include cemeteries and cenotaphs in towns and villages as well.
Polite behaviour is highly valued, especially towards one’s elders and the Vietnamese use hierarchical terms of address in conversation. The common salutation, “chao”, should be first issued by younger people, who should also invite their seniors to eat before they do, ask for permission to leave the house and not speak in a domineering or confrontational manner with them.
Close physical proximity (including behaviour like hand-holding) is common between people of the same gender, but not between unmarried or unrelated males and females. Most Vietnamese avoid standing in queues, resulting in very little personal space as people jostle and press up against each other in public spaces. Modesty in terms of mannerisms and dressing is generally encouraged.
Communist paraphernalia purchased in Vietnam may be frowned upon when displayed publicly outside the country, so purchase such souvenirs at your own discretion. Sensitivity should also be exercised when talking about the Vietnam War, during which over three million Vietnamese lost their lives.
Things to Do In Vietnam
Shopping in Vietnam
Vietnam is a shopper’s paradise with its variety of quality goods at tempting prices, which are open to further bargaining at shops, stalls and shopping arcades everywhere. Take home a wide variety of handicrafts, including lacquerware, mother-of-pearl inlay, ceramics, bamboo products, jewellery, silk goods, intricately carved statues and paintings. Bespoke tailoring in quality silk and textiles is popular too, with many requests for the national dress ao dai.
Two popular Hanoi shopping areas are Hang Gai Street and Hang Bong Street, known for tailored garments, embroidered tablecloths, traditional hand-painted silk greeting cards, water puppets and antiques at a steal. Dong Xuan, Hanoi’s largest covered market, stocks three stories of t-shirts, trinkets and bags with Vietnamese snacks and desserts sold at its hawker stalls.
For shopping in Saigon, head down to Ben Thanh Market on Le Loi Street, the biggest and oldest market in Ho Chi Minh City with over 3000 stalls. Vietnamese arts and crafts on Dong Khoi Street are sold alongside a good mix of local boutiques and international brands which are also available at Windsor Plaza.
Places to Visit in Vietnam
A popular Vietnamese natural attraction is Son Doong (Mountain River) Cave, claimed to be the world’s largest cave. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s mountains are perfect for climbing and exploration, containing Vietnamese archaeological and historical relics.
Halong Bay, the imperial city of Hué, the ancient quarter of Hoi An and the My Son Sanctuary, the TrangAn landscape complex, central sector of Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Ha Noi and citadel of the Ho Dynasty are other UNESCO-recognised sites.
Ha Long Bay, another UNESCO site, is the top tourist attraction in north Vietnam, Each of its thousands of islands along a 120 kilometer coastline is topped with thick jungle vegetation, resulting in a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Some of Halong Bay’s islands support floating villages, while others are hollow caves you can explore. Hoi An is an idyllic fishing village that’s also known as the “Venice of Vietnam” because of the narrow canals that cut through it.
40 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels tours offer a history lesson about the Vietnam War. Visitors can crawl around in the safer parts of this immense network of connecting underground tunnels, which was used by Viet Cong guerillas and served as a base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
Sa Pa’s rice terraces offer a glimpse into the lives of the local mountain people. The Hmong, Giay, Dao, Tay and Giay grow rice, corn and vegetables the Muong Hoa Valley in this northwestern town.
Beach lovers can visit Vietnam’s Phu Quoc by the Cambodian coast, for its untouched coral reefs and sandy beaches. Nha Trang, the scuba diving centre of Vietnam, is a seemingly endless stretch of sugary sands and azure waters, making it Vietnam’s most popular seaside resort town.
Diving & Snorkeling in Vietnam
There are a multitude of Vietnam dive sites along its eastern coastline. From gentle sloping coral reefs rich in biodiversity to vertical dropoffs 50 metres deep, the coastal waters off Vietnam are great for diving trips.
Nha Trang is the starting point for many snorkel and dive sites in Vietnam’s side of the South China Sea. Expect a more temperate climate there. Southern Vietnam‘s tropical climate offers slightly warmer water temperatures with the Con Dao Islands and Phu Quoc Island as up and coming snorkeling destinations.
Con Dao, a group of islands and islets off Vietnam’s southeastern coast protected by Con Dao National Park, is the only snorkeling location where you can dive Vietnam’s waters with rays, turtles and dugongs, also called sea cows. Rare species of colourful coral and fish such as frogfish, paperfish and cowfish will also make your Con Dao dive trip worthwhile.
Nearly 500 traditional Vietnamese dishes are recognised, ranging from exotic meats such as bat and cobra, to a variety of fish, vegetables, spices and sauces. Central Vietnamese food is spicy, while the Northern Vietnamese cuisine is milder; the Southern Vietnamese favour a peppery flavour to their dishes, with Vietnam being the world’s largest producer of the spice. Be sure to try the ubiquitous pho in Vietnam, a rice noodle dish served in a rich broth made of sliced pork, beef or chicken.
With many Buddhist monks following the Mahayana tradition in Vietnam, there are also many vegetarian-friendly dishes containing tofu, mushrooms and raw, cooked and fermented vegetables. Vietnam’s selection of fresh, exotic local fruit which include green dragon fruit, jujube, longan, pomelo, three-seed cherry and water apple, is a definitely something you should try.
Nightlife in Vietnam
The night scene in Vietnam is evolving. The major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi now boast a host of pubs, clubs and bars – the same goes for many tourist destinations such as Balong Bay, Phan Thiet and Mui Ne.
A night out in Vietnam is not particularly expensive; for a laidback experience, you can simply enjoy a Bia Hoi or affordable local draft beer at a roadside bar.
Nightlife in Vietnam is not limited to alcoholic drinks. There are also many beautiful cultural performances that showcase Vietnamese culture, like traditional dances and the famous Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre.
Essential Travel Tips for Vietnam
Going to Vietnam
Flights to Vietnam are served by most major airlines and land at the international airports at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. Tan Son Nhat in Ho Chi Minh City is the nation’s largest airport, which handles 75% of international passenger traffic. Vietnam Airlines is the state-owned airline.
Entering Vietnam by land via Cambodia, China and Laos is easily done via overnight train or bus. These methods are inexpensive and comfortable. Boats can be taken from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border town of Chau Doc.
Accommodation in Vietnam
There are enough Vietnam accommodation choices to suit all budgets. Dormitory options in backpacking hostels, world-class resorts and hotels in Vietnam are found in large cities and popular coastal and rural areas. Homestays with Vietnamese families can even be arranged via tour operators.
Backpackers’ lodgings in Vietnam are basic but cleaner than those in neighbouring countries. Cheap hotels in Vietnam often provide enough basic amenities for a comfortable stay. You can expect more, like a private bathroom, television and air-conditioning, if you pay just a few dollars extra. Family-friendly hostels in Vietnam, with larger rooms and more beds for kids are also getting more popular.
With eco-tourism on the rise, more Vietnamese hotels are adopting environmentally friendly practices. Eco-friendly hotels can be found in northern mountainous areas, as well as some lodges in the Mekong Delta region.
Getting Around Vietnam
Taxi cabs are a convenient way to get around in Saigon, Hano and most major Vietnamese cities. Be sure to check if they run by meter, or prepare to bargain with the driver. You are advised to avoid travelling by car in the major cities during peak hour, unless absolutely necessary – or risk getting stuck in one of Vietnam’s formidable traffic congestions. Visitors can also hire cyclos or pedicabs for convenient transport in Vietnam.
Renting a motorcycle would allow you to travel the way the Vietnamese locals do, but the scooter traffic on the roads can be overwhelming at first. If you’re travelling on foot, be sure to cross the street carefully. Ease slowly and calmly into the steady by slow stream of traffic, allowing it to meander around you.
The currency in use is the Vietnamese dong. The US dollar is widely accepted too. More establishments are accepting most major credit cards and traveler’s cheques are easily exchangeable in banks.
Vietnam Entry Requirements
All visitors to Malaysia require a valid passport/travel document with minimum validity of six months beyond the period of intended stay. Visa requirements vary for different countries of origin so be sure to check.
Climate & Weather in Vietnam
There are three climatic zones in Vietnam, with temperatures ranging from 22oC to 27oC. The October to March period is the best time to visit North Vietnam. Central Vietname is protected by the Hai Van Pass Mountains, so temperatures are visitor-friendly all year round. In Southern Vietnam, March, April and May are the hottest months. Pack warm clothing during winter season between November to April if you choose to holiday in North Vietnam and in the highlands.