Despite having a history synonymous with war and conflict, little evidence exists today of any of this. Much has changed in the last couple of decades and now this remarkable country welcomes western visitors in their thousands every year.
Bordering with China, Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam has become one of South-East Asia’s number one destinations with backpackers over the last decade. Both countries’ landscapes are very similar but Vietnam hasn’t become as commercialised as Thailand yet, meaning less crowds and more relaxation.
Officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the country has a population of over 74 million people. Vietnamese make up 85% of the population with Chinese, Cambodian and other Asian people making up the rest. There are approximately 50 Vietnamese minority groups living in the highlands which include Muong, Sedong and Tai.
Family life is very important to Vietnamese, and once you understand this you will understand their culture more. Finding three generations from the one family all under the one roof is quite common.
The majority of the country’s population live around the two main delta’s – the Red and the Mekong. Both are among the best rice growing regions in the world, which incidentally plays a major part in the country’s economy
The phrase ‘spoiled for choice’ really plays it part in Vietnam when it comes to eating as there over 500 native dishes. As you would expect with a country with some of the biggest rice growing regions in the world, the vast majority of meals includes the white fluffy ingredient.
While many of the country’s traditional dishes are very similar to other Asian countries’ cuisines, Vietnamese food is that little bit different in that a lot of food is boiled or steamed as opposed to fried. There aren’t as may spices either, in many instances. Due to both deltas, seafood and fish also feature prominently in many meals.
If you are on a tight budget, food served in what are known as ‘street kitchens’ are the best value. These consist of both street stalls and outdoor restaurants. Restaurants are more expensive, but still excellent value when compared main courses in Western countries.
The best range of eateries can be found in the bigger towns and cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. If your taste buds can’t take any more spices, you should be able to find European and Mediterranean restaurants in these cities.
If you haven’t had enough spices and want to indulge in some national treats you could try one of the country’s best known meals Cha Gio (spring rolls). To try some of the more unusual delicacies try Jellyfish Salad for starter and possibly some Tai Heo Ngam Chua (pickled pigs’ ear) for main course.
Vietnam has three international airports. These can be found in Ho Chi Minh which is the busiest, Hanoi and Danang, which is the quietest of the three. Most flights to Vietnam arrive from other Asian cities but others come fly in from Australia, America and occasionally Europe.
Vietnam is also accessible on overland routes through Cambodia, Laos and China.
Trains connect the major cities, although they can sometimes be slow. The other option is to use Vietnam’s public buses which also connect all major towns and cities but these can get quite packed sometimes. Private mini-bus companies compete with the public companies and, unfortunately, can get just as packed as the public trains.
If you are in the position where you can splash out, internal flights operate between the airports.
A good place to start your holiday in Vietnam is at one of the country’s two deltas. The Red River Delta in the north is at the country’s second largest river after the Mekong in the south. It originates in Yunnan, a mountainous region in the south of China and finally dies in Ha Long Bay. This bay in itself is a reason to visit North Vietnam with over 3,000 isles, inlets and reefs. The name Ha Long means site of the Descending Dragon – according to legend a dragon descended there to tame the currents. It was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994.
The country’s other delta is at the Mekong River, the country’s biggest in the south of the country. One fifth of the country’s population lives here in the nine provinces it is divided into. Floating markets, stilt houses and rice paddies can all be seen in this part of the country.
Vietnam isn’t all cultivated land and river deltas. There are three cities full of hustle and bustle. Hanoi in the northern region is quiet even though it is the country’s capital. Some of the architecture in the country’s premier city dates as far back as the eleventh century. Ho Chi Minh (still widely known as Saigon) on the other hand is a lot busier fuses old and new traditions.
If you go to Vietnam to relax on beaches, you won’t be wasting your time as there are numerous places on the east coast which are perfect for lazing in the sun. Resorts range from the extremely popular with Nha Trang to the quieter beaches such as Non Nuoc near Danang.
After reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975 ballrooms and discos were closed by the government. Since 1990 they have reopened again but they are still monitored by the authorities to ensure no ‘raunchy’ dancing takes place such as salsa or the lambada as these are technically banned!
Outside the country’s big cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh the chances of discovering nightclubs becomes a lot slimmer. But if you are in either of those cities you won’t have too many problems finding some after dark hot spots. Pop music is extremely popular in the majority of Asia and this is what the big nightclubs play although in more recent years dance music has made its way into some of the clubs.
As in the whole of Asia, the bar scene in Vietnam is dominated by karaoke bars. Nearly every bar has a karaoke machine. If the thought of listening to middle-aged Vietnamese men singing their versions of “I Will Survive” isn’t your cup of tea, the number of western-style bars is steadily increasing.
A trip backpacking around Vietnam is guaranteed to be an unforgettable one but visit during one of the country’s festivals will make it that little bit more special. The biggest of all festivals is Tet Nguyen Dan (Festival of the First Day) which takes place any time between 19th January and 20th February.
You must have a valid passport and tourist visa to enter Vietnam. Tourist visas are valid for a 30-day period from the day you enter and you should be able to get one at your local travel agent.
If you are travelling through Asia the easiest place to get a visa is in Bangkok, although you should be able to get one in any of Vietnam’s neighbouring countries. If, once you reach Vietnam, you decide you wish to stay longer than a holiday permits you (30 days) you can get 30-day extensions in most big cities.
The currency used in Vietnam is the “Dong”. When written it is abbreviated to a ‘d’ following the amount. Banknotes come in denominations of 200d, 500d, 1000d, 2000d, 5000d and 10,000d. The currency has no coins.
Vietnamese is Vietnam’s official language. There are different dialects spoken throughout the country. The country’s ethnic minorities speak various languages also.
Due to it’s geography, Vietnam’s climate varies greatly in different regions throughout the country, particularly north and south. The whole country is in the tropics and subtropics with the monsoons occurring between May and October.
Make sure to check your travel insurance to see if you are covered medically in Vietnam. Any medical cover you have in your own country probably won’t be valid.
Vietnam is five hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and twelve hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Perth is one hour behind while Sydney is three behind (this varies between seasons).
Business opening hours are between 7.30am-12pm and 1.30pm-4.00pm. Vietnamese stick to these hours very strictly.
There are tourist offices in all the main cities, big towns and main tourist destinations. Vietnamese tourist offices are different to other countries’ offices. Instead of information centres with free glossy brochures to pick up they are more like travel agents with everything depending on sales. Even the brochures are for sale!
VAT (value added tax) was brought into practice in 1999 adding 10% on to your bill.
The best place to exchange your currency is in banks which are open on Mon-Fri between 8am-11.30am and 1pm-4pm. If you are travelling direct to Vietnam the best way to bring money is in US dollar traveller’s cheques.
Electricity in Vietnam is 220V at 50Hz. You may find in some cases that it is 110V at 50Hz.
When ringing overseas from Vietnam, dial 00 plus the international code of the country you are calling.
Ringing Vietnam from a foreign country, their international access code is +84.
It won’t be hard posting mail from Vietnam as opening hours are long (6am-8pm, 7 days a week) and stamps are extremely cheap.
Some restaurants charge 5% service charge, but this should be stated on their bill. Drivers and guides are usually tipped also.
Vietnam’s public holidays are 1st Jan (New Years Day), late Jan-Feb (dates vary – Tet festival), 3rd Feb (founding of Vietnamese Communist Party), 30th April (Liberation of Saigon, 1975), 1st May (International Labour Day), 19th May (Ho Chi Minh’s Birthday), June’s eighth day of the fourth moon (birthday of Buddha), 2nd September (National Day) and 25th December (Christmas Day).