Forget what you think you know about Vietnam. This Southeast Asian country is quickly becoming a favorite haunt of travelers seeking a colorful kaleidoscope of experiences. Tropical beaches, excellent diving, unique cultural touch points and exotic cuisine are huge rewards for inquisitive travelers. Our insider guide to Vietnam will help you discover all this country has to offer.
A long, thin country located on the Indochina Peninsula in the South China Sea, Vietnam has a dramatic past. China occupied the country for 1,000 years, and France colonized Vietnam for the better part of a century. In 1954, a civil war broke out following independence from France in which the U.S. played a significant role. Today, remnants of these cultures are still quite visible, but Vietnam has moved on from its conflicted past. It has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world and some 4 million people visit annually.
China is located to the north, Laos to the north and west and Cambodia to the west. Vietnam borders the South China Sea and Gulf of Tonkin the east and southeast. The country’s 58 provinces contain dense tropical forests, massive mountains, pristine beaches and alluvial river deltas.
You’ll hear a variety of languages spoken in Vietnam. The official language is Vietnamese, and there are variations among people who live in the north, central and south. English is widely spoken, especially in tourist areas. French is also spoken by much of the population. If you plan to travel outside of the cities, it would be advantageous to learn some basic phrases in Vietnamese. Remember to always be polite. Vietnamese people are very polite and somewhat reserved and quiet. Speaking in a raised voice will not be to your advantage.
Money and Tipping
The dong is the official currency. It’s best to have cash on hand when traveling in Vietnam. Credit cards are accepted in many hotels, and ATMs can be found everywhere, even small towns.
Locals don’t tip in Vietnam, and visitors aren’t expected to do so either. However, if you receive exceptional service on a tour or in a restaurant, you can leave gratuity. Also consider giving taxi drivers a little extra, especially at night.
Given it’s location on the sea, the Vietnamese eat a lot of seafood. Many dishes are vegetable based, and French influence is evident in the country’s Bahn Mi sandwiches served on baguettes. Food tends to be spicier in the south than in the north. Pho, beef broth with thinly sliced meat and veggies, is the unofficial national dish. While you’re there, be sure to try Hue pancakes: a thin rice pancake that you fill with vegetables, meat and sauce. You’ll find the best ones are served by street vendors.
Weather and When to Go
Vietnam’s climate varies a great deal from north to south. In the north, the best time to visit is between September and December as it’s dry, sunny and warm. You may need warmer clothes if you plan to spend time in the mountains or Ha Long Bay. Winter can be cool in the north, but it warms up by March. The rainy season starts in June, bringing heavy downpours. The center of the country is much wetter and hotter, especially in the rainy season between September and November. In the south, the rainy season runs from May to November and daily temperature never gets below 70° F, even in winter.
Many people in Vietnam are Buddhists so keep that in mind during your travels. Don’t touch anyone on the head, and don’t point your toes at people or sacred objects like Buddhas. Avoid public displays of affection, and only wear shorts to the beach.
Adventure and Exploration
Nothing can prepare you for the epic beauty that awaits in Vietnam. For this insider guide to Vietnam, we’ve divided the country into three large regions.
Ho Chi Minh City and the South
The chaotic city of Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many, is a sensory overload. Motorbikes constantly whiz through pedestrian-laden streets in this city that never seems to rest. Stop by Há»“ Con Rùa (Turtle Lake) to eat an open-air cafe suspended above the lake. Escape the city with a visit to Phu Quoc island. White sand beaches, tropical jungle and azure blue seas make it an idyllic location. Check out Thom Beach or Ganh Dau on the quieter, northern end of the island. If you really want to escape, head to Con Dao. This archipelago of 80 islands off the coast feels like a scene from Robinson Crusoe. You should also check out the Mekong Delta. Many travelers opt to see My Tho, but Ben Tre is also a good option. See dozens of flat-bottomed, wooden sampans sitting in the water. Hire one to explore the canals and see what life is really like in Vietnam.
Central Vietnam and The East Coast
Explore Vietnam’s imperial capital of Huá or blow off some steam in Nha Trang, a hotspot for watersports and nightlife. The colonial gem of Hoi An is a UNESCO site famous for its world-class tailoring, street boats and delightful French quarter. Check out the Thap Ba hot springs where you can detox in a mud bath (communal or private). Mui Ne is a sleepy fishing village where the brightly colored fishing boats sell their wares each morning and you can explore fantastic sand dunes just outside of town. Finally, go canyoning near Dalat. Evergreen forests, lakes and waterfalls make this an ideal spot to commune with nature.
Hanoi and the North
Blending French architecture, royal legacies and artisan influences, the capital city of Hanoi is excellent for exploration on foot or motorbike. Plus, the shopping in Hanoi can’t be beat. Make the trek to see the Perfume Pagoda ensconced in a cool cave, just don’t go during the Lunar New Year (Tet) when crowds peak. To the east, find Ha Long Bay with its iconic limestone pillars jutting out of the sea in a seemingly random pattern. It can get quite crowded and touristy in Ha Long Bay, so opt for Bai Tu Long Bay instead. The geologic features are the same, and you can explore the bay on a traditional junk or venture into massive caves in a kayak. Head inland to explore the Hoang Lien mountains with staggered rice terraces and the Hmong indigenous tribe. Few tourists venture to Hoa Binh province where you can hike through lush forests and meet fascinating people.
Vietnam is a country just waiting to be discovered. Our insider guide to Vietnam will help you plan the perfect trip and learn more about this fascinating country. For those searching for a little more assistance, here are 10 bucket list worthy experiences in Vietnam.