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Once synonymous with tragedy and conflict, Vietnam is experiencing a rebirth. Now decades after the U.S. pullout from South Vietnam, the country shows few remaining scars from that conflict or the protracted War of Independence from France that preceded it. Many historical sites have been fully restored, the country’s economy is booming and the infrastructure for tourism is developing rapidly.
Visitors no longer worry about staying in contact with home—Internet cafes are everywhere. The ancient and modern coexist: Cell phones and gleaming motorbikes are ubiquitous in the towns and villages, but people still till the rice fields with the help of bullock plows.
The country’s history of conflict—both internal and with others—could lead you to conclude that the Vietnamese thrive on a certain degree of contentiousness. That’s just not the case. Although older Vietnamese may find the pace of change somewhat dizzying, there is overwhelming support for the advances the country is making. Tourism is helping Vietnam ride the crest of that wave, and the country has become one of the best travel bargains in Asia.
The terrain of Vietnam consists of four main regions.
In the northeast, the Red River delta is low and flat. The northwest part of the country, which borders China, is rugged and mountainous. The narrow central region contains a long chain of mountain peaks (the Central Highlands) to the West, and a broad agricultural plain of rice fields and vegetable farms stretching eastward toward the sea. The Mekong delta, in the south, is a tropical lowland laced with scores of rivers and canals. The winding coastline threads its way around 1,860 mi/3,000 km of headlands, beaches, swamps and sand dunes.
Vietnam’s recorded history begins in 111 BC, when the Chinese conquered the northern part of the region and ruled for more than 1,000 years. For the next 700 years, Vietnam was a collection of small, competing kingdoms (the northern and southern portions of the country vied for control even then).
The Nguyen Dynasty took power in 1802 and ostensibly ruled most of Vietnam until 1954, but the Nguyen emperors were largely controlled by the French after 1887. During World War II, the Japanese invaded. After the war, the French attempted to retain Vietnam as a colony.
The Viet Minh, a coalition of communist and nationalist groups, forced the French out in 1954 (you can still see reminders from the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu), and the country was temporarily divided along the 17th parallel. The North consolidated under Communist leadership, and the South went to the nationalists. An election was scheduled, but the South, suspecting that the North would win, refused to participate. A few months later, the South declared independence.
The two sides sought to undermine each other’s governments from the start. The North consolidated power under popular leader Ho Chi Minh. In 1963, North Vietnamese troops openly crossed the border, and the Vietnam War began in earnest. Despite support from the U.S. and a handful of other countries, the South was unable to defend itself. North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon in 1975 and ended the war.
Though it initially took a hard-line communist approach, Vietnam later began liberalizing certain segments of its economy and in 1983 announced an open-door trade policy with the rest of the world. The government maintained strict control over exchange rates, however, which helped it get through the Asian economic crisis of 1997.
Today, Vietnam seems full of contradictions: It still subscribes to Marxist principles and is controlled by the party, but it is embracing capitalism and all its benefits. Although the country is gaining prosperity, it hasn’t forgotten its past—the government has erected heroic war memorials and billboards that extol the virtues of the collective state.
Vietnam’s main attractions are beautiful scenery, rich culture, beaches, delightful cuisine, courteous people, Vietnam War sites, hill-tribe cultures and ancient temples, courts and pagodas illustrating Vietnam’s shifting dominant cultures throughout its 4,000-year history.
Vietnam will appeal to adventurous travelers who are interested in Southeast Asian culture and who can maintain a flexible attitude within Vietnam’s still-emerging tourism industry. A handful of luxury resorts have been built around Vietnam’s major tourist destinations, offering relaxation without worry to those who desire to be indulged and pampered on their holidays.
Dragonfruit, which grows on a type of cactus plant, is found throughout Southeast Asia, but there is an abundance of it in Vietnam. The fruit has brilliant pink skin with overlapping scales tipped in lime green, and the melonlike shocking-pink or white flesh is decorated with edible black seeds.
Vietnam is the largest exporter of cashews in the world, as well as the second-largest exporter of rice and coffee.
What’s the difference between a pagoda and a temple? Pagodas (chua) are dedicated to Buddha and, often, to various Hindu gods and avatars. Temples (den) are built to memorialize historical figures, especially kings, emperors and victorious generals. They are frequently built next to or inside pagodas. Prayers and incense are offered at pagodas, but not at temples.
You’re more likely now to see it on female hotel staffers than on the street, but many older Vietnamese women still wear the traditional ao dai to festive events. It is an ankle-length, embroidered silk robe slit up both sides and worn over loose pants. White wedding dresses and elaborate, handmade evening dresses are more popular with younger women.
The Vietnamese refer to the Vietnam War as the American War.
Try to see a water-puppet show during your visit to Hanoi. This art form is unique to Northern Vietnam and is not for children.
It is against the law to put your hands in your pockets when visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
There is a two-tiered price structure in Vietnam, with a tourist price and a lower Vietnamese price. You will be paying the tourist price. This is only fair, as the median wage in Vietnam is US$49 a month, while US$90 a month is considered positively middle-class.
An estimated 3 million motorbikes crowd the streets of Hanoi, small potatoes compared to Ho Chi Minh City’s 6.5 million. The most frequently replaced part of a motorbike, in both cities, is the horn.
Nearly all Vietnamese practice ancestor worship, and most homes, businesses and restaurants have a small altar at the front where incense, prayers and gifts are offered daily to keep the ancestors comfortable in the spectral world. The gifts are determined by the deceased’s preferences while in the world of the living and may include glasses of whiskey, cigarettes, candy, flowers and fruit.
Gay and lesbian travelers have no trouble in Vietnam, as the Vietnamese exercise a tolerance toward all genders, religions and sects.
Many of the sights to see in Vietnam are religious or spiritual ones, in keeping with the country’s long traditions of honoring multiple religions, and some of the names of places to see will be familiar to Americans. But, increasingly, the Vietnamese also enjoy visits to more modern attractions, such as theme parks and casinos. There are plenty of choices for visitors, so you can sample in several categories.
Casinos are heavily regulated by the government and open to foreigners only. New casinos must be approved directly from the prime minister’s office. Hotels rated four stars or higher are allowed to operate casinos in Vietnam, but again only for foreign guests.
Despite the restrictions, many locals like to gamble, and there are many illegal casinos and gambling dens across the country. Gambling on dominoes and cock fighting is also very popular.
The state-run lottery is also extremely popular with locals.
Notable casinos include the Hai Ninh Loi Lai Casino in Mong Cai Town, in the Hai Ninh District of Loi Lai; Ha Long City Royal International Gaming Club (http://royal-gaming.com) in Bai Chay Beach in Ha Long City; and Aristo International Hotel in Lao Cai (phone 020-382-6668; http://www.aristohotel.com.vn).
The historical landmarks available to visitors to modern Vietnam range from the tomb complex of an early 19th-century emperor to the prison that Americans in the late 20th century called the Hanoi Hilton. Around the town of Hue are several impressive tombs of emperors who ruled during the Nguyen Dynasty 1802-1945. Two of the most outstanding are the Tomb of Khai Dinh and the Tomb of Minh Mang.
The Cu Chi tunnels, 25 mi/40 km from Ho Chi Minh City, are an extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the U.S. war with Vietnam. The system stretches from Ho Chi Minh to the border with Cambodia, and a few sections of the tunnels, in Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, are open to the public.
The Hai Van Pass, or Sea Cloud Pass, is a highway that crosses the Truong Son Mountain Range, a peninsula between Da Nang and Hue. Part of the highway 19 mi/30 km north of Da Nang climbs to 1,640 ft/500 m and offers spectacular views of the terrain. When buses or cars take a break at the peak, persistent vendors descend on travelers. There’s also a railway line with its many tunnels that follows the beautiful shoreline of the peninsula. A few years ago, the impressive 4-mi/6-km Hai Van Tunnel bypassed the mountain route and took an hour off the journey between Da Nang and Hue, but the Hai Van Pass is worth taking for the view.
Vietnam is home to several stunning parks and natural wonders. Limestone rock formations on the coast, vibrant green rice paddies, winding rivers and wildlife make for incredible experiences throughout the country.
Ba Be National Park lies 155 mi/250 km from Hanoi in Bac Kan Province. This area of outstanding natural beauty in northeast Vietnam encompasses a trio of linked lakes (ba be) 5 mi/8 km in length and 1,312 ft/400 m wide. The park plays an important role in wetland biodiversity and habitat conservation, especially for freshwater fish. More than 50 species of freshwater fish have been recorded there. The geology of the area is limestone with strong topography and many high mountain peaks, steep slopes, caves and valleys, and pristine rivers and streams. The surrounding forest is also an important conservation area and is home to many rare and endangered species. Guides are available in the park, and visitors can enjoy boat tours of the lakes, trekking and trips to local villages. Accommodations also include guesthouses and home stay. There are also restaurants, leisure facilities and an ecological research station. The full boat tour takes an entire day, and prices are modest. Shorter tours are available.
Cuc Phuong National Park, 75 mi/120 km southwest of Hanoi, is another Vietnamese treasure. The inspiring landscape at Cuc Phuong is defined by karst rock formations, rice-paddy terraces and dense forest cover inhabited by rare animals and birds. It is also home to hill tribes living in traditional houses, and its outstanding biodiversity attracts researchers, conservationists and ecotourists. Popular activities within the park include bird-watching, cycling and trekking. The park service also offers night-watch excursions into the forest and tours of 43 biodiversity hotspots. Visitors have the chance to see flying squirrels, samba deer, loris and much more. Bike hire, tours and accommodations are available at the park headquarters. Phone 303-848-018. http://www.cucphuongtourism.com.
WINERIES, BREWERIES & DISTILLERIES
The history of wine production in Vietnam dates from the late 19th century when the French planted vines in the highland areas north of Hanoi. Because of the high humidity, however, the early attempts at viticulture met with limited success as the vines were prone to mold. Today, with new strains of vines more suited to the climate and modern technology, results are more positive.
Vang Dalat Vineyard currently produces 1.5 million liters of wine a year, but the quality is considered to be poor compared with Western standards. Wines include Superior Red and Strong Red. It also bottles Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot blend produced by Chateau Bouscaillous in France. Near Dalat City, Lam Dong Province. http://www.dalatwine.com.
Breweries have a somewhat better time of it in Vietnam, and there are many producing local beers, as well as some foreign brands produced under license. There are also several microbreweries and beer houses in the larger cities. Most breweries do not allow visitors on the premises.
Most Vietnamese beers are light lager-type brews. The Huong Sen Brewery in Thai Binh City is one of a few that brews a dark beer, called Dai Viet Bia Den. One of the largest breweries is the Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corp., producer of the popular Saigon Beer.
The Hue Brewery is partly owned by the Danish brewer Carlsberg and produces Huda Beer, the most popular brand in central Vietnam. It also produces Hue Beer, which is now exported. 333, or Ba Ba Ba as it is known in Vietnam, is produced by the Saigon Brewery using German manufacturing equipment, Australian hops and malt. The popular beer is now widely exported.
Hoa Vien Brauhaus in Ho Chi Minh City is a Czech microbrewery and beer hall serving a range of excellent beers. It was the first of its kind in Vietnam (http://www.hoavien.vn). Also in Ho Chi Minh City is the Nguyen Du Brauhof Restaurant & Beer Garden, a microbrewery that produces German-style beers.
Beaches, bicycling and birding are among the prime recreational attractions in Vietnam. Long stretches of tropical white-sand beaches should satisfy any beachcomber’s heart, and the more adventurous may want to put in some scuba time. The country has fewer sports that require fixed infrastructure, such as golf, although there are some courses available.
Vietnam’s best-known beaches are white-sand Cua Dai Beach, which runs the 18 mi/30 km between Da Nang and Hoi An; Nha Trang Beach, 6 mi/8 km of coconut palms and powder sand edging the town of the same name; and the 7 mi/11 km of tropical perfection between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet in the south. Phan Thiet itself is a 13 mi/20 km stretch of beach popular with locals and expats as a weekend escape; there are plenty of resorts, restaurants and bars in the area.
Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular around the islands off Nha Trang, and several PADI- or SSI-certified dive shops there offer scuba instruction. Pleasure-boating and fishing are not popular, as most Vietnamese associate the sea with food and hard work, but kiteboarding and windsurfing equipment and instruction are available in Mui Ne.
Bicycling is easy along the flat, paved roads of Vietnam’s coastal agricultural plain, though no tourist industry has developed around this pursuit. In the countryside, a bicycle is still the most common form of transportation, and adventurous bikers will find a warm welcome and expert bike repair all along the road.
Bicycles can be hired in most towns and cities in Vietnam and are the ideal way to explore the country. Make sure you get an early start and return by noon, as the temperatures can be extremely high in the afternoon.
A few tour companies (Intrepid Travel is one of the oldest; http://www.intrepidtravel.com) organize guided bike tours of the rugged Central Highlands, with overnight stops at guesthouses or in homestays with ethnic minority villagers. These are designed for experienced bike-riders in excellent physical condition.
Bangkok-based specialist cycle travel company Spice Roads runs several regular tours of Vietnam. The well-respected company has itineraries that range from a three-day off-road ride north of Hanoi to a fabulous 17-day tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. There is also a Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok tour. The company employs local Vietnamese guides. Phone 660-2381-7490. http://www.spiceroads.com.
Spectacular birding can be had in Vietnam’s national parks, especially at higher-altitude Cuc Phuong National Park near Ninh Binh and Bach Na Park just south of Hue. In the hot, humid summer months, birds from the lowlands go to the mountains to enjoy the cool forests and cascading mountain streams. Bird-watching is best in July and August, but visitors should go prepared for hot weather, heavy rains and insect-rife jungle conditions. In May and June, masses of butterflies completely fill the air at Cuc Phuong National Park.
Vietnam Birding is a specialist company that offers bird-watching adventures and escorted small-group birding tours in Vietnam and beyond. Based in Ho Chi Minh City, the company is regarded for its expertise and local knowledge and has more than 15 years of experience arranging travel in Vietnam. It is run by expat birding enthusiast Richard Craik and uses skilled local guides to lead tours. Custom tours ranging from a few days to three weeks are available in some of Vietnam’s most scenic areas. http://www.vietnambirding.com.
BOATING & SAILING
Vietnam’s long and picturesque coastline makes it a haven for sailors and boating enthusiasts. One of the most popular areas is Nha Trang, an area of outstanding beauty with many limestone islands, secluded bays and deserted beaches. Several specialist tour companies in Vietnam offer yacht charter, bareboat hire, junk tours and kayaking ranging from short trips to three-day live-aboard excursions. http://www.kayakingvietnam.com.
Several of the sights around Hue, including Thien Mu Pagoda, can be reached by a boat trip along the Perfume River. Boats can be hired for 60,000 VND per hour. Hotels and guesthouses offer excursions, but you can also negotiate directly with boatmen at jetties along the riverside.
Vietnam’s many fabulous championship golf courses draw enthusiasts from around the world, and the country is overtaking Thailand as Southeast Asia’s top golfing-holiday destination.
The top-rated golf course in Vietnam is the Dalat Palace Golf Club, located in the Central Highlands of Dalat (http://www.dalatpalacegolf.vn). Established in 1922, it is the oldest golf course in Vietnam and is recognized as one of the finest courses in Asia. Another notable course is the Ocean Dunes Golf Club (http://www.oceandunesgolf.vn), beside the beaches of Phan Thiet. Both courses are around 185 mi/300 km from Ho Chi Minh City.
Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club is slightly more than an hour’s drive from Hanoi. The club offers two 18-hole golf courses, a five-star hotel, 300 villas and a wide range of sporting and recreational facilities. http://www.chilinhstargolf.com.vn.
HIKING & WALKING
The hills and valleys around Sapa are the country’s main destination for trekking and experiencing colorful hill tribes. Treks and overnight stays in villages are offered by many hotels in Sapa. We recommend opting for a company that uses a hill-tribe guide. The terrain can be steep and challenging, so it’s important to be physically fit and take suitable footwear. Popular hikes from Sapa include the 2-mi/3-km trek to Cat Cat village and the 6-mi/10-km trek to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin. Many villages charge an admission fee.
Hiking is most pleasant in the national parks in the cooler, drier winter months of January-March. Both the Northern Highlands and the Central Highlands are cold (sometimes below freezing), drizzly and foggy during those months, and trekking there is far more rewarding late March-May. South of Nha Trang, the mountains become covered with scrub and offer little of interest to birders or hikers.
The northwest of Vietnam is a mountainous area that has become popular for trekking and adventure travel. It is possible to plan a circuit of the region passing through Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau and Sapa. Many companies in the towns offer guided treks into the mountains. The big attractions are the stunning scenery and the vibrant hill tribes. The best times to visit this particular area are March-May and September to mid-December .
If you’re looking for a more leisurely walk in Hanoi, the narrow streets of the city’s Old Quarter are best explored on foot. Beginning at Ngoc Son Temple at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, your route can take in colorful markets, craft workshops and boutiques before ending at the Pho Bao Khanh bar area. Allow at least three hours for the 2-mi/3.5-km walk. Your hotel should be able to supply a map.
Several of Vietnam’s popular beaches have horseback riding for children. In the town of Cao Son in the country’s far north, the Cao Son Eco-Lodge offers treks through the beautiful countryside on sturdy Hmong hill-tribe horses. Phone 84-9122-52990.
SPAS AND HEALTH CLUBS
If you want to stay in shape while in Vietnam, head for a five-star hotel—most of them have well-equipped gyms. In Hanoi, popular health clubs are at the Sofitel Metropole, Hotel Nikko Hanoi and Hanoi Daewoo Hotel. The Health Club and Fitness Center at the Sunway Hotel Hanoi also offers treadmills, stair-steppers, isotonic weights, sauna, massage and personalized fitness trainers.
Vietnam has become a popular destination for motorcyclists. The long, winding roads and stunning scenery in the north make for a memorable ride. Organized tours are available through several companies, including the pioneers of motorcycle travel in Vietnam, Explore Indochina. http://exploreindochina.com.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the French colonial-era racetrack of Phu Tho is still in use and draws large crowds. Built in the 1930s with art-deco style buildings, Phu Tho is in the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. Races are held Saturday and Sunday 12:30-4 pm at Phu Tho Sports Club. 2 Le Dai Hanh, District 11. Phone 84-9036-6433.
From Sapa in the north to Can Tho in the south, shopping in Vietnam is an exhilarating experience. Prices for luxury goods such as silks are absurdly low, and the range of high-quality handmade goods is huge.
Bargaining is an essential skill for everything from heavy teak-wood furniture to a pack of gum. Usually, it’s a good-natured negotiation in which you will end up slightly higher than halfway between the original asking price and what you offered: Keep that in mind when establishing your opening bid.
Vietnamese shop owners are far more skilled at the intricacies of bargaining than the average Western tourist. Avoid being persuaded to spend more by an argument that plays upon your sympathies. Don’t be pushed into a pace that is faster than you can think. Remember that it’s your money. Be willing to walk away. Carry a hand-held calculator for quick monetary conversions, and piece of paper or a notebook and pen, so you can do your negotiating in writing. It will slow the pace and ensure that you are both agreeing to the same number.
At the end of a successful negotiation, the shopkeeper will generally display disappointment at the low price or congratulate you on driving a hard bargain: It’s all part of the script. End the session with a smile and a “thank you,” which will be returned.
To discourage street peddlers, the gesture for “no, go away” is a flat hand moved back and forth in a sharp cutting motion at waist level. Don’t even glance at their wares unless you want to endure a long siege.
Sapa is the place to shop for handwork made by ethnic minority craftspeople, who walk sometimes for hours to reach the daily market. Weaving, carving, basketry and clothing are all laid out for inspection. Manymontagnards (hill people) don’t speak English, so take your pen and paper for some low-key haggling. Sapa is such a popular tourist market, though, that the purchasing price is often very close to the original asking price.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer endless possibilities for shoppers, with vibrant markets and chic boutiques. The Hanoi Gallery, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, is actually more of a street stall. It sells original or reproduction propaganda posters from the 1960s-70s during the U.S. war with Vietnam, and posters from the 1980s, as the Communist government encouraged people to put the war behind them and work to rebuild Vietnam. Also in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is Dong Xuan Market. The three-story market is a fascinating place to explore, and it is home to hundreds of stalls selling anything from fabric to electronic goods, household items and flowers. There’s also a large area where food is sold.
If you want to see silk being woven and to buy items at the source, head to Van Phuc Silk Village, 6 mi/10 km from Hanoi. Skilled weavers have been producing high-quality silk there for hundreds of years.
Halong Bay is famous for pearls from its managed oyster beds, and both Halong City and Cat Ba Island are rife with shops and vendors selling necklaces, bracelets and earrings made from the local product. The pearls are genuine, and the prices are incredibly low. Individual strings fetch the asking price, but successful negotiations can be made on larger purchases.
Near Ninh Binh, Tam Coc is the center of a small hand-embroidery industry where the work is generally of exceptional quality.
Hoi An has hundreds of stores selling woodcarvings, silk-covered bamboo and wood-framed lanterns in many colors and styles, plus a dizzying variety of sophisticated shoes. The town also has an extraordinary number of tailor shops, from the small backstreet workshop to large and professional-looking outlets targeting tour groups. You can usually get measured up and return the next day for a finished suit, blouse or dress.
Every town has a market where local people go to purchase necessities from food to automobile parts at small stalls, usually arranged around a central area where prepared food is sold and consumed. Many of these markets have been operating for more than 100 years. They are often crammed with people, and the maze of aisles and shops can be disorienting. The market is the place to buy T-shirts, smaller gifts and clothing. Sharpen up your elbows, take a deep breath and join the throng. Since the shopping-stall tenants have less overhead than store owners, bargaining in the markets can be very satisfying.
There are some talented contemporary artists at work in most towns, but especially around Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang. Ho Chi Minh City has more than its fair share of galleries, several of which are located near the Fine Arts Museum and Dong Khoi Street. Look for original work displayed in hotels and restaurants, as well. There will often be a business card with their address and phone number, or you can ask the staff how to contact them.
Shopping Hours: Generally, daily 8 am-8 pm.
Vietnamese cuisine is superb, as you would expect from a country that learned to combine the best of East and West. Eating out is very inexpensive, with an array of dishes to choose from. The national dish is pho, a spicy noodle soup served with chicken or beef. Its less-spicy cousin is listed on menus as bun. Nearly every city has its own specialty, such as cao lau (thick noodles in gravy, garnished with pork cracklings) and delectable White Rose dumplings filled with shrimp or pork in Hoi An, or ultrafresh seafood in Nha Trang and Mui Ne.
No trip to Hanoi would be complete without sampling cha ca, bite-sized pieces of fish grilled at your table and served with rice noodles and various spices. Lau is a tasty hot pot cooked at your table (every restaurant seems to have a different recipe for this dish). All over the country, ice cream is a staple: You’ll find it in interesting flavors, from coconut to lemongrass.
Crusty baguettes are available everywhere and are usually served with breakfast or any meal that doesn’t involve rice. Street vendors sell sandwiches made with baguettes, tomatoes, cucumbers and either meat or cheese: Available ingredients will be displayed on a shelf behind the food cart’s glass front. Traditional Vietnamese streetfront restaurants have pots of various stews and vegetables set out for inspection. The food is often quite tasty, and if it smells good it’s probably safe to eat. One problem for Westerners, though, is that the plastic chairs and tables in those cafes are very short, similar to ones found in a primary school, so taller visitors will have to fold themselves up quite a bit.
Vietnam is also a coffee-lover’s dream. It seems like every street cafe sells the thick coffee preferred by locals. The typical southern drink is cafe sua-da—sweetened condensed milk and strong coffee. Black coffee, whether hot or on ice, drips slowly from a special steel filter placed directly on the glass, and its slowness is a reminder to take life at a leisurely, contemplative pace.
Fresh fruit is available everywhere. Watermelons, oranges, pineapples and bananas are cheap and plentiful. Try some of the more unusual offerings such as lychees with their spiky red coats, jackfruit (also spiky, but larger and green), tamarind (long, lumpy brown pods) and dragonfruit (hot pink with lime-green trim).
Most tourists avoid the dreaded durian (sau rieng in Vietnamese), and most hotels and buses do not allow durian to be brought in or carried onboard. There’s no sitting on the fence with this rather curious fruit—you’ll either love it or hate its pungent smell. The large spiky fruit, in season September-November, is difficult to open, and skilled durian sellers carefully pry open the fruit with a machete. The durian splits into three to five segments with each segment containing a soft, creamy, yellow pillow of fruit.
Durian is best eaten when it is slightly soft. Its smell, taste and texture are like no other fruit—it is adored by most Asians, who think its taste is delicious, and despised by many Westerners, to whom it smells like a dead mouse in a sewer pipe.
You will come across dog meat, or thit cho, in both restaurants and markets. (There is actually a big trade in dogs coming from Thailand and Laos.) You shouldn’t worry about being served dog meat without knowing it: It’s a costly Vietnamese delicacy that no cook would waste.
- Mango Mango is my personal favorite.
- Red Bean
- Excellent traditional Banh Mi sandwiches!
- The Happy Buffalo
Vietnamese culture is conservative compared to that of the West, and showing affection in public is much less common. Vietnamese people dress modestly and you should respect this, particularly when visiting a temple or someone’s home. Ensure that you are covered to below the knee and across the shoulders. Shoes should also be removed before entering a temple or home. As in many Asian cultures, it is considered rude to point or touch anything with your feet.
When meeting somebody, the traditional Vietnamese greeting is to press the hands together in front of the body like a prayer gesture and take a slight bow, but shaking hands is now more commonplace. You may find that a Vietnamese woman will simply bow her head slightly and not shake hands.
Vietnamese people are usually punctual and it is rude to be late for a meeting. In a business meeting, cards are exchanged. Offer your card using both hands and receive a card in the same way. Smart-casual attire is appropriate for a business meeting.
Gift giving, such as fruit and flowers, is common in Vietnam, but don’t be surprised if the recipient doesn’t open your gift in front of you. It is considered polite to open it later.
In general, Vietnam is a fairly safe country, and the vast majority of Vietnamese are scrupulously honest. Street crime—pickpocketing and purse- and camera-snatching—does occur in the bigger cities, most often along major roads and around tourist hotels. If you’re riding in a cyclo (tricycle rickshaw), it’s wise to keep your purse tucked away behind you, because purse snatchers have been known to whiz past on motorcycles. If you’re the one on a motorbike, put your purse and valuables between you and the driver, or ask him to put it on the floor between his feet.
It’s been more than 30 years since the fall of Saigon, and Vietnam has worked hard to clear the land of unexploded ordnance, especially near tourist areas. Unless you are hiking in extremely remote regions, it is unlikely to be a problem.
Ho Chi Minh City has a bad reputation for muggings, so be extremely careful there. Do not wear jewelry or keep cell phones in back pockets, and do not drape your camera or handbag over one shoulder. Carrying your camera and valuables in a double plastic shopping bag held firmly in hand will keep them out of view. Purses should be worn around the neck and under one arm, with a protective hand firmly gripping the strap.
Hanoi has a well-earned reputation for imaginative fraud schemes, but they occur in other towns as well. Travelers should be wary of too-good-to-be-true offers. Your hotel will be able to advise you on proposals for tours or “special promotions” from restaurants.
Women traveling solo report moving through Vietnam without problem, though the young and lovely receive their share of romantic overtures. None are harmful or threatening.
In case of an emergency, call 113 for the police, 114 for the fire department and 115 for an ambulance. Be aware that police typically do nothing in response to a street theft, and they may even demand payment in order to file a claim.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City all have full-scale, modern medical facilities. Health clinics in every town can handle first-aid and minor injuries, and they will refer you to the larger centers if necessary. Medicines are often free, but donations are encouraged. There are state and private hospitals, which can provide good standard care.
Sanitary conditions throughout the country can cause problems for some visitors.
Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe, but peel fresh fruits and raw vegetables, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly and never drink the tap water. Stick with bottled water, soft drinks and, of course, beer. Wine, both imported and domestic, is widely available in Vietnam (another legacy from the days of French rule). These precautions should also help prevent diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which have been reported in Vietnam.
Malaria is present in most rural areas of the country, so see your doctor about obtaining malaria suppressants. Dengue fever is becoming more prevalent, and you should remember to liberally cover all exposed areas with deet-based insect repellent (take this from home, as high-strength deet-concentration products are uncommon in Vietnam). The mosquitoes that cause dengue fever bite during the day.
If you plan to travel to more remote areas, talk to your doctor about getting a rabies vaccination.
Bird flu is a source of ongoing concern in Vietnam, but mostly for duck farmers. To date, no human-adapted form of the H5N1 virus has been identified anywhere in the country. The people who have died were all poultry farmers in remote towns; unless you plan to pursue a strong interest in poultry farming, you will not be in danger. Many women wear masks across their nose and mouth; these protect their skin from the sun (pale skin is most desirable among Vietnamese women) and are not a response to threats of a pandemic.
The sun can be very strong, so use sunscreen liberally and wear a hat. Don’t forget to take along a pair of comfortable walking shoes and an adequate supply of any needed medications.
Remember to carry a small packet of tissues in your pocket or purse. Most bathrooms (called WCs) in Vietnam are equipped with toilet paper, but it’s a good idea to have your own supply with you. Many public WCs charge a small fee for their use. If you are confronted with a squat toilet, use the nearby bucket or ladle to scoop fresh water into the basin to flush waste. Wash your hands at every opportunity.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
Surprisingly, in a country where there are so many amputees (the result of land-mine accidents), there is little help for the disabled traveler. Only upmarket hotels have made efforts to ease travel. Staffers in all service industries are extremely helpful, but great care needs to be taken on the streets.
Entry & Visas
488 Cua Dai Str., Cam Chau, Hoi An, Quang Nam.
The will ask you the district and I selected Quang Nam.
The dong (VND) is the currency of Vietnam. ATMs frequently offer 2-million-VND withdrawals, which takes some getting used to. You will learn to count zeros backward from right to left to determine if you are holding a 1,000- or 10,000-VND note in your hand. U.S. dollars are accepted in most locations, but you’ll have a better time negotiating a good price if you stick to the dong.
The easiest way to obtain local currency is through ATMs, which only dispense dong but are found throughout the country in towns and cities. Banks and better hotels also offer exchange services, but the rates won’t be as favorable. Do not change money on the street.
All major credit cards can be used in more upscale locations, but they are rarely accepted in smaller shops and restaurants. Any credit card transactions will incur a 3% or 4% surcharge on the purchase price. As ATMs become more widespread, traveler’s checks are becoming less negotiable and will be subject to at least a 2% surcharge where they are accepted.
Do spend down all your VND before leaving Vietnam, because VND cannot be converted back into U.S. or Canadian currency, nor is it possible to exchange VND for the currency of any neighboring countries.
To view the most current exchange rates, please click here.
Value-added-tax, or VAT, is levied at 10% in Vietnam. Hotel rates are subject to 10% government tax and 5% service charge.
Tipping is fairly new in Vietnam, and it’s more commonly seen in the southern part of the country. Gratuities usually aren’t necessary in inexpensive restaurants, but even a small tip will be greatly appreciated. If you’re going to visit a restaurant regularly, a tip is a worthy investment to ensure prompt service, and good service should always be acknowledged with a small tip left behind on the table. Upscale places will often tack on a 5%-12% service charge.
Tips for taxi drivers are purely optional (and most appreciated, however small).
The weather in April is usually between 80-90 degrees with lows in the 70’s.
What to Wear
Lightweight tops: tees and light, long-sleeved tops to keep insects at bay
Activewear: breathable and light materials for hiking, cycling and so on
Swimwear, sunhat and sunglasses: to enjoy the tropical sunshine
A light waterproof jacket/poncho: for frequent downpours, especially in summer
Warmer layers: for any cooler evenings, strong air-con and winters up north
Modest clothes: cover your shoulders and knees for temple visits
Linen trousers: to keep the sun off your legs
An evening outfit: optional, for going out in the cities
Comfortable trainers/sneakers: for outdoor activities, choose a good tread
Sandals/flip-flops: relaxing in
Vietnam is great for getting clothes made-to-measure a series of beautiful fabrics – particularly in the tailoring mecca of Hoi An. You can get your measurements done anywhere, and bring along photos of designs that you want to copy. Prices are generally very reasonable compared to bespoke clothing elsewhere. We have an excellent tailor that I highly recommend at the Blue Gecko. We will discuss this more at the meet and greet.
It is best to check with your provided to see what international plans are available or charges will be incurred for using your phone during your vacation.
PREPAID SIM CARD FOR PHONE DATA
A prepaid Vietnam SIM card means you can easily use your phone while you’re out and about without clocking up huge charges. Some plans include voice calling but really this is about being able to access Google Maps and other useful data services while you’re on the move and outside the realms of hotel wi-fi.
You can pick up SIM cards with internet packages once you land from kiosks based at any international airport in Vietnam. They’re also available in phone shops and stalls in almost any city/town but it’s generally more convenient to sort it at the airport.
For around 200,000 dong (10 US dollars), you can generally get a month’s unlimited data.
Most hotels and restaurants will have internet access, so just ask for the connection details when you arrive.
Mail & Package Services
The Vietnamese postal system is dependable, but costs for large parcels are comparable to a private carrier such as DHL. The process of filling out all the required forms in duplicate, by hand, can take up most of the morning. Don’t bother to tape your package shut, as postal workers will need to approve all contents, and you must list them item by item on the shipping form.
DHL and FedEx have offices in the major cities, and their protocol is considerably easier to follow. DHL offers packaging, even for odd-shaped and bulky items.
The post office will pack your treasures up, too, but often in a collection of used cardboard cobbled together with yards of packing tape. Some postal workers are grand masters of this useful craft, and it’s fascinating to watch them fabricate a sturdy box out of bits and scraps.
Newspapers & Magazines
The Viet Nam News is the country’s nationwide English-language newspaper, with well-written international news and local features with a decidedly pro-Party slant. More local information about restaurants and nightlife is best obtained from brochures in the hotels or from your knowledgeable desk clerk.
Tan Son Nhut International Airport (SGN; http://www.hochiminhcityairport.com) is about 5 mi/8 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and Noi Bai Airport (HAN; http://www.hanoiairportonline.com) is about 25 mi/40 km north of Hanoi. The cost of a metered taxi from the airport into Ho Chi Minh City is about 105,000 VND and takes around 20 minutes. Drivers charge an airport fee in addition to the metered fare. The fixed-fare taxi into Hanoi is 209,000 VND and takes about 45 minutes. You can pay in either U.S. dollars or VND. Visitors should be aware that taxis in Ho Chi Minh City are notorious for scams and overcharging.
Da Nang International Airport (DAD) is the gateway to central Vietnam. In addition to domestic traffic, it welcomes international flights from Bangkok, Singapore, China and Russia.
Long Thanh International Airport is under construction approximately 25 mi/40 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. It will replace Tan Son Nhut as Vietnam’s main international airport and will be operational by 2020.
Hotels will often arrange to have a taxi meet you at the airport, and you’ll be grateful to see a neatly dressed man holding a sign with your name on it. Determine when you make your reservation whether you will be expected to pay for the taxi, and keep your hotel current with any changes in flight plans. If you’re traveling solo, it’s usually easy to find someone on your flight with whom to share a taxi into town. Taxis usually have a rate for airport-to-town transfers posted in their cabs: Locate this and verbally agree on that price before you get in the car. The better hotels will have an airport shuttle service.
Domestic flights are available through Vietnam Airlines, which offers multistop flights to airports in several cities. Inquire at one of the many Vietnam Air offices in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. An international departure tax of 292,000 VND per person is charged at Noi Bai Airport and Tan Son Nhut Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, and 209,000 VND at Da Nang Airport. Children younger than 2 are exempt from the tax.
Public buses are relatively modern but often overcrowded. For intercity travel, the Open Bus system is a fine alternative to air or train travel. One inexpensive ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City allows you to stop in any of the cities along its route (and most tourist destinations are on that list) for as long as you like, then pick up the bus for the next leg of your journey. Check with any Sinh Cafe tour office for details.
Travel between cities by private car and driver is possible and affordable, and it is especially recommended for a trip over the mountains between Hue and Hoi An. Renting a car for self-drive expeditions is quite expensive. It’s only possible if you return to the same city you’ve hired it in. A lack of service stations and confusing multiple speed limits argue for hiring a driver who knows the rules and speaks the language.
For getting around in a city, negotiate a price with your moto, cyclo or taxi driver before getting in or on the vehicle. Your hotel will be able to advise you on what is a reasonable price.
Rail service is quite comfortable but not particularly speedy. The fastest service between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City takes 29-46 hours. “Soft seat” class is quite comfortable for daytime travel, but we recommend a “soft sleeper” berth at night. Be sure to ask for an air-conditioned car.
Trains should be booked a day or two ahead of time, especially during peak holidays. Each segment of the rail journey requires a separate ticket: There are no hop-on, hop-off privileges. There’s also an international train that connects Hanoi to Beijing, China.
For More Information
The Vietnam Tourist Boards in the various towns will advise on trips you wish to make, but they have no handouts or information on the area.
Vietnam does not have tourist offices in Canada or the U.S.
Canada: Embassy of Vietnam, 470 Wilbrod St., Ottawa, ON K1N 6M8. Phone 613-236-0772.
U.S.: Embassy of Vietnam, 1233 20th St. N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036. Phone 202-861-0737. http://www.vietnamembassy-usa.org.
Foreign Embassies in Vietnam
Canada: Canadian Embassy, 31 Hung Vuong St., Hanoi. Phone 4-823-5500. There is also a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
U.S.: U.S. Embassy, 7 Lang Ha St., Hanoi. Phone 4-772-1500. There is also a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
To Vietnam with Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur edited by Kim Fay (Things Asian Press). A collection of personal recommendations from expats, travelers and locals. The result is invaluable insight and direction to ensure a memorable trip, but also enough room for you to make your own discoveries.
Descending the Dragon: My Journey Down the Coast of Vietnam by Jon Bowermaster (Random House). In 2001, American Jon Bowermaster traveled Vietnam’s 500-mi/800-km coastline in a kayak. This fascinating book charts his journey and gives valuable insights into the country and culture.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Penguin). The story of an American adviser in Vietnam during the last days of French occupation.
A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (Grove Press). A selection of superbly crafted stories that provide insight into modern Vietnam.
Shadows and Wind by Robert Templer (Penguin). An exceptional introduction to modern Vietnam, without sentimentality or political slant.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (Plume). Arguably the best book ever written about life in Vietnam’s central provinces during the war with the U.S. (It was the basis for Oliver Stone’s movie Heaven and Earth.)
A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by Norman Lewis (Eland Books). Vietnam before it was engulfed by war.
Romancing Vietnam by Justin Wintle (Viking). Contemporary travel writing.
Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton (Yale University Press). This informative book focuses on the challenges
and changes confronting modern international relations, the growth of civil society and economic developments.
The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Remarkable Story of War by Tom Mangold (Phoenix). Senior investigative reporter and war correspondent for BBC TV News, Tom Mangold tells the story of the war between Viet Cong guerrillas and special teams of U.S. infantrymen called “Tunnel Rats” in a book acknowledged as the best on the subject.