With over 4,000 years of history stretched between 2500 miles of coastline, stunning northern mountain scenery and two steamy river deltas, Vietnam clings determinedly to the eastern half of the Indochinese peninsula.
It’s a nation of survivors, as any 20th century history book will tell you, and it’s one of the most popular travel destinations in South East Asia. The country’s economy is developing as fast as the country’s millions of motorbikes can rev – in lightning speed – and Vietnam long ago shed it’s outdated image as a war torn nation.
Start your journey among the swarms of Honda Dream motorcycles in Saigon, where Versace chic and Communist dogma clash in a war of neon and bright lights, mushrooming skyscrapers and markets bursting with everything from pungent durian to handwoven silk. Then head down to the watery world of the Mekong Delta, a mesmerizing warren of cool green rice fields, fruit orchards and interlocking canals linked with monkey bridges.
Hitch a ride on the Reunification Express up the coast to relax on a beach in Nha Trang, the country’s premier beach resort, home to some of the best seafood you’ve ever tasted.
Glide on further up the coast to Hoi An, a town so quaint and packed with history you’ll stay far longer than you planned, wandering the redtiled streets or at each full moon, setting adrift floating candles into the Thu Bon River.
Journey over the Pass of The Ocean Clouds,Vietnam’s version of Big Sur or the Great Ocean Road, stopping to admire the crumbling pillboxes and fortifications there, before taking in the view of Lang Co, a picture perfect lagoon famous for its mother of pearl shells.
Next, cycle under the flame trees in Hue, the ancestral home of the Nguyen Lords, with tombs overlooking the Perfume River, savoring delicious food descended from the kitchens of the Vietnamese emperors.
From Hue, fly to Hanoi, the quiet capital of reserved people prettily decorated with reflective lakes and French colonial buildings. From there its an easy jumping off point for Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where you can relax in the jade green waters and attempt to count the 3,000 limestone islets that rise like dragons teeth, turtle shells and other whimsical names bestowed on the rocks by inventive fishermen.
To the far north lies the rich ethnic minority villages that offer fantastic trekking and cultural exploration opportunities. Conquer Mt. Fansipan, Vietnams’s highest mountain, or explore Dien Bien Phu, the tiny valley that ended France’s colonial legacy in Indochina, or practice your Thai with the numerous groups that inhabith this misty, cool region.
Whether its lying on a beach, gorging on delicious spring rolls and grilled prawns, exchanging smiles with some of the world’s freindliest people, or attempting to count the different shades of green in the verdant agricultural regions, it’s all waiting for you in Vietnam, the Land of the Descending Dragon.
Climate and environment
The Red River Delta in the north and the the Mekong Delta in the south are the main agricultural regions, producing enough rice to make the country the 2nd largest rice exporter. In between are numerous mountain ranges (three quarters of the country is mountainous) that are covered in lush rainforest, and are inhabited only by ethnic tribes. The Vietnamese are a lowland people and shun the mountains for the warmer flat plains most suitable for rice farming.
The forests of Vietnam are thought to contain 12000 plant species of which only 7000 have been identified. It has an enormously diverse fauna with over many rare large mammals including the elephant, Javan rhino, tiger, leopard, black bear. Tragically Vietnam’s wildlife is in precipitous decline as forests have been destroyed and waterways polluted. In addition uncontrolled illegal hunting has exterminated the local populations of many species. There are over 100 recognised endangered species of animal and bird in Vietnam.
There are really no good or bad times to visit, because where there is rain and stifling heat, there is also usually cooler dry weather. In fact, the average temperature year round in cities like Ho Chi Minh averages over 30C (80F). Beware of cold winters in the North near the mountain ranges. Between July-November, Typhoons can develop along the eastern coast and can be very damaging.
The Vietnamese New Year Festival of Tet that falls in January or early Feb can be a tricky time to visit the country as flights are fully booked and accommodation can almost impossible to find. If you do decide to go, its best to find a good place to pause for at least a week because everything is closed though you may get invited to attend the parties that go on at Vietnamese people’s houses.
Vietnam has a population of 80 million, and is the most populated in Southeast Asia. It is home to a total of 54 ethnic groups including the Vietnamese themselves, known as Kinh. Among these ethnic groups the largest are the Tay, Tai H’mong, Jarai and Dao. Over 84% of the country is ethnically Vietnamese, with just 2% ethnic Chinese, who are concentrated in the cities. Small pockets of Chams still live in areas of central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta is home to many ethnic Khmers. 90% of Vietnamese are Mahayana Buddhists, the form of Buddhism found in Korea, China, and Japan. 5% are Christian, and the remainder are Muslim, Cao Dai, or Hindu.
The Vietnamese are of the Mon-Khmer lineage, Mon (from Burma) and Khmer (from Cambodia). Numerous ethnic language are spoken in the highlands, and are related to Pacific Polynesian dialects. English and French are widely understood, especially in the tourist industry, although Vietnamese over the age of 35 may speak Russian or Eastern European Languages, even Spanish (having lived in Cuba), all a result of the Communist system.
The national Vietnamese currency is the Dong. It’s mostly accepted for everyday transactions and meals, though many room rates and expensive items are quoted in US dollars. Its very easy to change US dollars or other major currencies in banks, or gold shops near markets (who operate as unofficial changers and avoid long lines at banks which is often a time waster). If travelling off the beaten track, change large amounts into Dong before setting off as banks often don’t have enough cash to provide you with the bills. When you do change money, ask for small bills; streetside vendors rarely can break a 50,000 VN Dong note and taxi drivers are notorious for not having change, at all hours of the day. Also, if prices for everyday items (drinking water, meals in local restaurants) are quoted to you in US dollars, its most likely a rip off so look elsewhere.
Approximate Dong Rates:
1 US Dollar equals 15,000 Dong
1 Euro equals 16,000 Dong
1 British Pound equals 25,000 Dong
Currency rates vary from month to month, check with you local exchange bureau for up to date rates.
Vietnam is a relatively cheap country, if you stick to budget options, though 5 star hotels and first class restaurants are creeping in so if you want luxury you can now get it for a price. With so many travelers and expats living in Vietnam, eating out is cheap, and a midrange meal will cost $2-3 US dollars. Food added to budget accommodation (about $10 for a private room, $5 for a shared dorm) will be about $20 a day.
With over 500 national dishes in Vietnam, many originating from the Imperial kitchens serving Vietnamese emperors, there is a wealth of choice, for all budgets. The simplest is a beef or chicken broth (Pho) served 24 hours a day that is garnished with mint leaves, beansprouts and lime juice. Spring rolls (Cha Gio), rice noodle dishes topped with grilled beef (Bun Thit Nuong) and sour soup (Canh Chua) are all favorites.
Famous for its pungent aroma, the fermented fish sauce, Nuoc Mam, serves as the quintesential Vietnamese condiment, served with all meals, even breakfast, it doesn’t always strike a chord with westerners. (Much like the much despised durian fruit which is widely enjoyed in July and August).
With so much of the food in Vietnam influenced by Chinese culture, many exotic meats such as shark’s fin, field rats, dog and cobra are eaten to increase virility, cure colds or increase blood circulation. Many of Vietnam’s forests have been decimated of wildlife to cater to these markets, so it pays to be educated before eating.
Though Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t include a western style ‘dessert,’ fresh fruit is widely available and is cheap and makes an excellent travelling snack. The Vietnamese coffee industry began during the French colonial period, and continues to grow in the Central Highlands. Served thick and hot, its often slathered with equal parts sweetened condensed milk before being poured over a glass of crushed ice.
Vietnamese are conservative dressers, a combination of modesty and the reluctance to expose skin to the sun to avoid a tan. (Tans are the mark of farmers and street vendors) Shorts are commonly considered low class and suitable for children although they are used to seeing travelers wear them. Long, loose pants and short sleeved shirts with collars are common local attire, though t shirts and tank tops are acceptible. As you travel, many places offer hand made clothes using local materials that are of excellent quality and value, especially those made of silk.
The most fun way to travel in Vietnam is by train, especially the overnight journeys. It’s slow but comfortable and an airconditioned bunk is relatively cheap. The buses are quicker than the train but still slow, very crowded and dangerous. Most people travel by tourist bus on an ‘Open Ticket,’ which is safer and quicker, though the experience is slightly less than cultural, as they are packed with travellers just like yourself. Motorbike hire is possible if you’re confident enough on the dangerous roads. Vietnam Airlines has a monopoly on domestic flights although prices are falling: the two hour flight between Hanoi and Saigon now costs foreigners $110 US dollars, half that of 5 years ago. Hue to Hanoi will set you back about $80 USD, a flight of just over one hour.
Vietnamese visas are some of the world’s most expensive, and can take as long as a week to process. Unlike its neighbours, visas are not issued upon arrival for independent travellers, and careful planning is necessary to avoid the issued visa to expire, as they are valid for just a month after the embassy stamps it in your passport.
The old entry point and exit point regulations are no longer a problem and travellers can enter or leave Vietnam through any point they choose. Whatever you do, dont lose the yellow immigration/customs form, as leaving without one can result in hours of hassles and forms.
Business visas are valid for 3-6 months, and are easier to arrange once inside Vietnam; any major travel agent can do the paperwork, though the actual visa must officially be picked up at a specified overseas Vietnamese Embassy.
With the increased use of refrigeration across Vietnam, eating out is less of a threat than it used to be, though ice and unpeeled fruits should be avoided. Dehydration is a more common ailment and drinking lots of bottled water, which is available everywhere, is essential.
Dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, typhoid and tuberculosis could all be a threat if you don’t get your inoculations before leaving home.
By Jonny Wiles and Dave Lowe
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