Vietnam is a large, diverse and very interesting country which could keep you busy for months. Whether you’re a culture aficionado, a nature lover, adventurer or a foodie, Vietnam would be a great destination.
What to see in Vietnam?
It’s hard to beat Vietnam in terms of landscape diversity: tropical paradise island of Phu Quoc and Mekong delta in the south, forest-clad Central Highlands, huge cave systems of Phong Nha in centre-north, spectacular karst rock formations in the sea (Ha Long Bay) and land (Tam Coc/ Trang An) in the north and dramatic mountain landscape with verdant green rice terraces of far north (Sa Pa, Ha Giang) are only some of the choices you would have.
Adding to that cultural influences as varied as Hindu (Champa culture) and Chinese (who occupied Vietnam for 1 000 years!) as well as a multitude of ethnic minority communities and you’d get a very memorable mosaic.
Scars of the devastating Vietnam war are still visible throughout the country though Vietnamese people surprisingly don’t seem resentful of the recent past.
Beach bums options in Vietnam
Those who love relaxing at the seaside would be really happy only on southern island of Phu Quoc which is famous for white sand beaches and turquoise waters comparable to those of Cambodian and Thai islands. However, the mainland beach destinations along the entire coast of Vietnam lag far behind. In fact, some of the beach resorts are rather dirty and totally unappealing.
Active travelers options in Vietnam
Long term travelers could embark on an epic motorcycle journey from south to north (or vice versa). Smaller, equally exciting motorcycle circuits exist in the mountainous north and north-west of the country.
If only you could afford it, you could experience multi-day treks through some of the biggest caves in the world in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. If your budget is tight, you could visit more accessible but still very beautiful caves.
Vietnam is also a great destination for hiking, allowing short, independent treks, often in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. The hikes in Vietnam are equally rewarding for those searching for beautiful scenery and authentic experiences with the local people.
In the remote western and northern areas of the country you can still meet people who lead more traditional way of life, retaining specific way of dressing, building techniques and customs.
Likewise, the floating markets in the Mekong delta (e.g. wholesale market in Can Tho) are far more authentic than their Thai counterparts.
Vietnam for culture-vultures
The people who prefer sightseeing won’t be disappointed either. One of the most ancient sites to visit in Vietnam are the remnants of Hindu Cham culture in Nha Trang and My Son (the latter UNESCO site), which flourished the same time as Angkor Wat.
The well-polished and renovated Hoi An (also a UNESCO site) is one of the most beautiful towns in the whole South East Asia. The entire old town consists solely of historical buildings belonging to rich merchants.
The imperial city of Hue (deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site) with the outlying gigantic imperial tombs and a partially renovated, enormous citadel would keep a culture-vulture busy for a good couple of days.
The maze of narrow streets of the old Hanoi holds irresistible charm and even manic Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) hides some really beautiful, old temples.
The beauty of Vietam is that you can often enjoy historical sights and the wonderful natural scenery at the same time. This is the case with cave temples of Marble Mountains near Da Nang or temples scattered in the karst landscape of Trang An (yet another UNESCO site).
For those interested in the modern history, places like War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City or Son My memorial vividly present the ordeal of Vietnamese people, while Cu Chi tunnels near HCMC give a good idea about the daily life and fighting strategies of Viet Cong.
You won’t find many chilled-out, backpacker hangouts in Vietnam. Cities and towns tend to be busy and full of traffic. Forget about bamboo huts at the riverside or on the beach. It’d be hard to find anything else than multi-storeyed hotels which are very good value-for money but are also devoid of any character. The only way to sleep in the village is by paying a lot for the ‘cultural experience’ of staying in a long house in an ethnic minority village.
People of Vietnam
Vietnamese people are incredibly friendly and helpful, (particularly those living in the south and far north of the country). Nowhere else would you be approached so often when you look lost, or invited for a drink or a meal by complete strangers.
Sadly, the Vietnamese people generally don’t speak English at all. This is compensated by their will to communicate and by the fact Vietnam adopted Latin script. The ability to read the names makes navigating through the cities and menus much easier.
Some of the worst scams of the region do take place in Vietnam but in our experience, cheating is restricted to the most touristy destinations (particularly Hoi An, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay) and to large extent can be avoided. If you smile and make clear you do know the local price, you’d most likely get it.
Vietnam doesn’t have the usual taboos of its neighbouring countries since it’s not a Theravada Buddhist country. The Confucianist/Buddhist temples can be entered in shoes. I’ve seen local people raising their voice and shouting in the public places which is unthinkable in let’s say Thailand or Laos. Apart from remote, tribal areas local women wear sleeveless shirts and shorts and so can you.
Be careful about what you say about ‘Uncle Ho’ (Ho Chi Minh), though. You might come across some southerners unimpressed by him but generally he’s considered the father of the nation and a great leader. It’s worth to know that technically, Vietnam is still a communist country with a one party system but with free market economy, like in China.
Vietnam on a budget
Vietnam is a really inexpensive country to live, travel and have holidays. In my opinion, by far the cheapest in South East Asia. Great infrastructures makes independent travel very easy. Affordable buses get you to even the most remote areas of the country and wherever the bus doesn’t go, you can rent a motorbike. The food costs close to nothing and on top of that it’s delicious and plentiful. The accommodation (apart from Hoi An and Hanoi) is not only cheap but also represents great value for money. What makes Vietnam unique, though is that even tourist attractions such as boat trips or cultural shows have significantly lower prices than in the other countries of the region.
Getting in and around
Crossing the border
The biggest expense is getting into the country. The flights to Vietnam tend to be expensive, even if you’re flying from other South-East Asian country (particularly Laos or Cambodia).
If you’re travelling across the region, a much better alternative to flights would be overland journey from Cambodia or Laos. Vietnam has plenty of border crossings all along its length and lots of bus connections with the neighbouring countries but some of the crossings are more obscure than others and don’t accept e-visas.
Vietnam visa fees (and even more so visa extension fees) are higher than in the countries of the region. If you have time, it’s worth to apply for a three months visa rather than pay for a one month one and then try to extend it.
Long distance journey
Vietnam is a veeeeery long country. If you’re short of time, getting from north to south or south to north won’t be cheap as the domestic flights are more costly than in Thailand and the quality, long-distance sleeper trains are even more expensive. The train journey from HCMC to Hanoi takes at least 32 hours so if you’re short on time, it’s better to focus on either ends of the country.
Sleeper buses (with almost horizontal seats) are the best value for money alternative. Even a 10 hour journey on those buses shouldn’t feel tiring. You’d be in trouble if you’re tall, as the reclining seats are made for an average Vietnamese height. Just keep in mind that the A/C is set to insanely low temperatures so you’re very likely to be freezing despite the blanket. A bottle of water is provided by most of the companies. The buses tend to stop frequently at very decent rest stops. You might be even offered slippers to use in the bus and during the stops. The only exception I came across was a bus to Ha Giang which stopped for a toilet break in the middle of the field and was far from luxurious.
If you follow a typical tourist route, the hop-on-hop-off, tourist buses might be a good option. However, if you’re planning to detour to some less-known destinations which aren’t covered on those routes you’d be better off buying each ticket separately. Bear in mind bus stations are the places you’d be most likely to be cheated. Prices for foreigners are higher and quarelling for a fair fare would inevitably become part of your travel experience.
The second budget alternative for a long-distance travel is hiring or- as many people prefer to do- buying a motorbike either in Hanoi or in HCMC. Bear in mind you’d need to be a skilled driver for such a journey since the roads in the mountains are winding and challenging. The roads in most of the country are in excellent condition. Only the far north falls slightly behind.
Local buses are a great option for short distance travel as they are very cheap and cover even very remote areas. They are usually old and basic, at times overloaded but they do their job.
Low class trains (so- called ‘hard seats’) have similar prices as local buses and are a good and interesting option for short distances. They are fitted with A/C and flat screens but, as the name suggests, have wooden benches hence they’re not recommended on longer routes.
Another option is renting a scooter or- for shorter distances- a bicycle for a day. Both scooter rental and petrol prices are low. Bicycles tend to be rather rickety but so cheap you simply couldn’t complain.
In Hanoi and HCMC there is an extensive network of low-cost public buses though getting your way around the routes can be a bit tricky. Many people prefer to use quick and efficient motorbike taxis (xe om). The downside is that motorcycle taxis can take only one person at a time (independent xe om drivers very rarely agree to take two). To get the best fares, download Grab app (South-East Asian Uber). The only problem with Grab is communicating with drivers who don’t speak English. Unfortunately, there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam.
Vietnam has one of the best cuisine in South East Asia. Undoubtedly, it owes much to Chinese influence. The rice is a staple food but noodle soups are popular option for breakfast and sometimes also for dinner. The quintessential Vietnamese dish is pho – a noodle soup with various meaty ingredients, depending on the region. It’s always served with a huge bunch of fresh herbs. There is a significant regional variation in the cuisine with Hoi An and Hue generally considered Vietnam’s food capitals.
Vegans and vegetarians can sleep sound in Vietnam. Com chay (literally vegetarian rice) eateries cover most of the country apart from far north. Those simple establishments serve a huge selection of ‘vegan meat’: flour and soya fashioned to resemble meat, seafood and fish. Vegan version of pho is a common dish. If you don’t stumble upon com chay, don’t worry. Com binh dan (commoners’ rice) eateries which are literally round every corner always have at least two vegan options, often tofu in tomato sauce and greens in garlic.
Vietnam was a French colony and it shows. Local baguettes called bahn mi are sold across the country. They come with variety of fillings, from fried egg and tofu to various kinds of meat. They usually contain pickled vegetables as a standard.
Vietnam grows its own coffee and south as well as the centre of the country have a strong coffee culture with innumerable very simple cafes scattering every street. Vietnamese strong and tasty coffee is brewed in local version of cafeteras and could be served with sweetened condense milk (cafe sua). Green tea comes free and in unlimited quantities at the cafes.
North of the country is more green-tea based. Very strong green tea and huge communal pipes of strong tobacco replace the cafes from Hanoi northwards. Both tea and coffee are served with ice as long as the weather is hot or unless you ask otherwise.