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Vietnam guide

Overview

Vietnam, a country whose name was once synonymous with war, is gradually starting to attract the attention of tourists from around the world. The country’s historical past and modern present, different religions and cultural traditions, old and new all blend to give it a colourful and vibrant image.

A country of contrasts, from the dozens of islands in the south to the haunting beauty of Ha Long Bay, from the fertile land of the Mekong Delta to the rugged mountain ranges of the centre and north, Vietnam has at last opened its welcome arms and smiling faces to the world. Mysterious temples and pagodas stand in stark contrast to the energetic, lively cities of Saigon and Hanoi. The romantic imperial city of Hué houses treasures of a past era, while the beach paradise of Nha Trang offers all a young sun worshipers could want.

The countryside, a mixture of rice paddies and jungle covered mountains, is home to some of the warmest and hospitable people you could hope to find, with a welcoming smile never far away.

Brief History

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started. Read more...

Highlights

  • Ho Chi Min (Saigon) – pagodas, temples, museums and markets, and nightlife!
  • Mekong Delta – boat trips, floating markets and village life
  • Hué –Royal Citadel, tombs and pagodas, boat trip on the Perfume River
  • Nha Trang – white sandy beaches, coral reefs for snorkelling and diving
  • Sapa – Ethnic minority hill-tribe villages, trekking and colourful markets
  • Halong Bay – boat trips, caves, stunning scenery and wonderful seafood

When to go

The most pleasant time to visit Vietnam is during the dry season of December to late April since rainfall is at its lowest and the footpaths aren’t overtaken by torrents of storm water. Average daily temperatures in the country range from 17 to 27°C with the cooler temperatures frequenting the northern cities. If you are travelling at this time you may wish to consider starting in the North prior to December and head south or alternatively, from February onwards, start in the south and head north. This will help you to avoid the considerably cooler temperatures of winter in the North.

If you are looking for a special event to experience in Vietnam then Tet Nguyen Dan – ‘the festival of the first day’ or the Vietnamese New Year is well worth a visit. This celebration lasts for 7 days and usually falls around the end of January or the beginning of February on the night of the new moon. Not only is this a New Year’s event but also when everyone in Vietnam becomes a year older – age is reckoned by the New Year and not individual birthdays. It is however a time when much of the country is on the move and accommodation fills up well in advance.

Geography

Vietnam is a long, thin s-shaped country running north to south for over 1,600 km. At its narrowest point, in the centre of the country, it is as little as 50 km wide. The east of the country is over 3,000 km of coastline, stretching from the border with Thailand to the border with China. To the west Vietnam borders Laos and Cambodia, and in the north it has a land border with China. Most of central Vietnam consists of mountains and hill, as does the north and west of the country where the countries highest mountain, Fansipan (3,143m), rises. The countries main areas of cultivation are around the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south. The two largest cities are Hanoi, the countries capital, in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south.

Weather & climate

Vietnam’s climate is very diverse, due to the wide range of altitude and latitude within the country. This means that there is no good or bad time to visit the country, as there is always somewhere to go where the weather is favourable. Generally speaking the climate is governed by two monsoons.

From May to October the southwesterly monsoon brings rain and high humidity to the whole country, with the exception of areas sheltered by mountains, like the Red River Delta and the central coastal regions. Between July and November typhoons develop over the oceans east of Vietnam sometimes causing damage to the centre and north of the country.

From November to April the northeasterly monsoon brings chilly weather to the north of the country but dry and warm weather to the south of the country.

Click for Hanoi, Vietnam Forecast
Hanoi
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Rain (mm)
18
28
38
81
196
239
323
343
254
99
42
20
Sun (hrs)
1
1
1
2
4
5
5
4
4
4
3
2
Temp (Max)
20
21
23
28
32
33
33
32
31
29
26
22
Temp (Min)
13
14
17
20
23
26
26
26
24
22
18
15
Days of Rain*
8
11
15
13
14
15
16
17
14
9
7
6
Hum (%)
68
70
76
75
69
71
72
75
73
69
68
67
 
Click for Ho Chi Min, Vietnam Forecast
Ho Chi Min
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Rain (mm)
15
3
13
43
221
330
315
269
335
369
114
56
Sun (hrs)
5
6
5
6
4
4
4
5
5
4
4
4
Temp (Max)
32
33
34
35
33
32
31
31
31
31
31
31
Temp (Min)
21
22
23
24
24
24
24
24
23
23
23
22
Days of Rain*
2
1
2
5
18
19
23
23
23
21
12
7
Hum (%)
61
56
58
60
71
78
80
78
80
80
75
68
* denotes number of days with at least 1.0 mm of rainfall

Money

Vietnamese dong

1 US$ = 20.985 dong (June 2012)
1 UK£ = 32,345 dong (June 2012)

Common notes

  • 200 dong
  • 500 dong
  • 1,000 dong
  • 2,000 dong
  • 5,000 dong
  • 10,000 dong
  • 20,000 dong
  • 50,000 dong
  • 100,000 dong

NB: it can sometime be difficult to change large notes at smaller villages so try to keep a stash of smaller notes with you.

You can also change all major currencies with any private moneychangers, at the local markets, shops or hotels, or at a bank. Banks usually open from 8.00am to 3.00pm, except Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Although all major currencies are usually accepted, the US$ is by far the most widely accepted and preferred currency, with large notes ($50 and $100 bills) getting a better exchange rate.

Travellers’ cheques in major currencies are accepted at all banks, though a commission will be charged.

At banks throughout Vietnam you can draw cash, in both dong and dollars on all major credit cards. Approx. 3% commission will be charged for this service. Many souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels will accept payment with credit cards. There is, however, a 3-4% surcharge.

There are ATMs in Major cities like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Hué, which accept major credit cards.

Holidays

Fixed Public Holidays

New Years Day-1st January
Vietnamese New Year (Tet)-January/February (4 days)
Founding of Vietnamese Communist Party-3rd February
Vietnamese Liberation Day-30th April
International Labour Day-1st May
Ho Chi Minh’s Birthday-19th May
Birthday of Buddha-May/June
Day of the Wandering Souls-August
Autumn Celebration (Trung Thu)-September
National Day (Quoc Khanh)-2nd September
Birthday of Confucius-November
Christmas Day-25th December

For exact dates of holidays and festivals for the coming year please click here.

Religion

Vietnam’s dominant religion is Buddhism (which fuses forms of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism). There is also a large Christian community, about 10% of the population, most of which are Catholics. Smaller religions include Islam, Caodaism and Hoa Hao sect.

Vaccinations

We do always recommend that you seek professional medical advice when considering holiday vaccinations but the ones that are normally recommend for travel to Vietnam are listed below:

  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Tetanus
  • Typhoid
  • Malaria prophylactic drugs are recommended
  • Yellow Fever (A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required when arriving from an affected area)

For direct, up-to-date information on vaccination requirements for Vietnam please click here

Customs

  • Greetings are usually accompanied with a small bow, a big smile and hands together in prayer. However handshaking is now common in Vietnam.
  • Vietnam is a Buddhist country and religion is taken seriously. Images of the Buddha are regarded as sacred and should be treated as such by foreign visitors. Always take your shoes off before entering a temple and remember to dress conservatively, shorts are not allowed. Women are forbidden to touch, give to, or receive from a Buddhist monk.
  • Public shows of intimacy are frowned upon and nude sunbathing is inappropriate. Except on the beach you should try to dress conservatively wherever possible.
  • The feet are considered as unclean and should not be used to point to things or to touch someone with. It is also considered rude to show the soles of your feet in public, so try to avoid putting you feet up on a chair or table. Try not to touch the head or ruffle the hair, as this is also considered rude. You should also remove your shoes when entering houses. Never leave your chopsticks sticking up out of a bowl of rice this is a powerful death sign - as it looks like incense sticks that are burned for the dead - and is not appreciated.
  • Tipping is not expected except at large tourist resorts, and then only when a service charge is not included, however a small tip will always be appreciated.
  • Haggling is expected and you can haggle for just about everything, but for the best results do so with a smile and a light-hearted approach. Always be wary of street sellers, as what they sell may not always be what you think it is.

Security

Vietnam is a very safe country in which to travel. The most common form of crime against tourists is theft, usually by stealth rather than violence, so visitors should take care to secure their personal possessions at all times. It is also worth bearing in mind that street children, however cute they may seem, are often responsible for a lot of crime against tourists. In more remote areas the risk of muggings and robberies does exist but again is very low.

With so many years of devastating and intensive war in Vietnam it is not surprising that even today unexploded ordinance and landmines are causing some tragedies. All the areas visited by tourists, cultivated land, well-worn paths and inhabited land are safe but areas away from this may not be. With this in mind you should never stray from well-worn pathways and never touch, or pick up any military looking objects.

Know before you go

In association with the ‘Know Before You Go’ Campaign, we are working with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to do all that we can to help British travellers stay safe overseas. Before you go overseas, check out the FCO website at www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo. It is packed with essential travel advice and tips, and up-to-date country information.

FCO know before you go logo

Visas

Most foreign nationals can get a 30-day visa for US$33-40. You must specify your arrival date and this will be when the visa becomes valid. Visas must be obtained before arrival if flying from your home country. If arriving by land from Cambodia, Laos or Thailand your visa can be obtained from the main embassy of that country.

There is a US$14 departure tax when leaving by air to international destinations.

How to get there

By Air

There are two main international airports in Vietnam, one in the capital Hanoi, in the North, and the other in Ho Chi Minh City, in the South. We start most Thailand tours in Bangkok, though we can also combine Vietnam or Cambodia (or both) in many itineraries, and there are good options to fly into one country and out of another for this type of tour. Flights between Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh & Siem Reap are also regular with Bangkok Air, Vietnam Airlines, Air Asia and Dragon Air operating several flights every day.

Flying from the UK

If you are flying from the UK, then there are only indirect (1 stop) flights to Ho Chi Minh with Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific. The flight takes around 16 hours depending on connection times. Fares range from around UK£700 if you book well in advance, but do increase significantly during busy periods. In general, the earlier you book the better, as flights tend to get more expensive closer to departure. Flying from regional airports such as Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow will require a stop-over in London, Europe or the Middle East and normally are a little more expensive than flying from London.

Where to book

We hold an ATOL, and you are welcome to book your flights with us. Please discuss your ideal dates and departure airport with our sales staff, and we will send you a selection of airlines, flight times, and prices. You can then choose whether to book your flights through us, or to make your own arrangements. If you book your own flights, we will still include both your arrival and departure airport transfers.

By Land

Laos

The main border crossing between Laos and Vietnam is Lao Bao connecting the Centre of Vietnam and Savannakhet Province of Laos. Transports by bus or taxi to this border are available in Da Nang, Dong Ha and Lao Bao and you will find the same to Savannakhet waiting for you on the Laos side. Otherwise, every day buses run between these nations via Lao Bao. You will need a Laos visa and a re-entry Vietnamese visa if you go back to Vietnam. Other border crossings are available such as: Tay Trang border crossing between Dien Bien Phu of Vietnam and Luang Pra Bang of Laos. Nam Can border crossing connecting Nghe An Province and Xiangkhoang Province.

Cambodia

There is a daily bus service between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, alternatively, a number of local tour operators run a river boat + bus service from Saigon to Phnom Penh, a very enjoyable way to travel between the two cities.

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Factfile

Time: GMT+7
Dial code: 00 856
Area: 236,800 sq km
Elevation: Lowest point: Mekong River 70m
Highest point: Phou Bia 2,817m
Population: 6,678,000 (2008)
Capital: Vientiane
Government: Communist
Language: Lao (official), French, English, and various ethnic languages

News & features

A brief history of Vietnam

Interesting short guide to the turbulent history of this intriguing country.

Boat diving

Short guide about the pros and cons of boat diving.

PADI diving courses

Detailed look at the various courses offered by PADI.

View more news & features


Customer feedback

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