Despite Vietnam's ongoing economic liberalisation and the pressures of rapid development, this dignified country has managed to preserve its rich civilisation and highly cultured society. Most visitors to Vietnam are overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the country's natural setting: the Red River Delta in the north, the Mekong Delta in the south and almost the entire coastal strip are a patchwork of brilliant green rice paddies tended by women in conical hats. There are some divine beaches along the coast too, while inland there are soaring mountains, some of which are cloaked by dense, misty forests.
The country has discarded its post-war fatigues and the boom in budget travelling, coupled with the softening of government control, have enabled more contemporary and relevant portraits of the country to gain currency in the West. Vietnam offers an opportunity to see a country of traditional charm and rare beauty rapidly opening up to the outside world.
name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Visas: Bureaucratic hassles will be your first problem in getting a
visa - expect delays of five days or more; Bangkok is the best place to
get one. It's usually best to get your visas through a travel agency.
Expense is the other problem; tourist visas valid for a single 30-day stay
cost about US$40 in Bangkok.
There are no good or bad seasons to visit Vietnam. When one region is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else that is sunny and pleasant. Basically, the south has two seasons: the wet (May to November, wettest from June to Aug+ust) and the dry (December to April). The hottest and most humid time is from the end of February to May. The central coast is dry from May to October and wet from December to February. The highland areas are significantly cooler than the lowlands, and temperatures can get down to freezing in winter. The north has two seasons: cool, damp winters (November to April) and hot summers (May to October). There is the possibility of typhoons between July and November, affecting the north and central areas.
Travellers should take the Tet New Year festival (late January or early February) into account when planning a trip. Travel (including international travel) becomes very difficult, hotels are full and many services close down for at least a week and possibly a lot longer.
Special prayers are held at Vietnamese and Chinese pagodas on days when the moon is either full or the merest sliver. Many Buddhists eat only vegetarian food on these days. Some of the major religious festivals follow a lunar calendar. They include: Tet (late January or early February), the most important festival of the year, which lasts a week (with rites beginning a week earlier), marking the new lunar year; Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen), held on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon (August), is the second-largest festival of the year, when offerings of food and gifts are given to the wandering souls of the forgotten dead; Tiet Doan Ngo (Summer Solstice Day) in June sees the burning of human effigies to satisfy the need for souls to serve in the God of Death's army; and Holiday of the Dead (Thanh Minh) in April commemorates deceased relatives.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City is the heart and soul of Vietnam. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. The streets, where much of the city's life takes place, is a myriad of street markets, shops, pavement cafes, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. The city churns, ferments, bubbles and fumes. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture. Sights include the Giac Lam Pagoda, Reunification Palace, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Ben Thanh market and the harrowing War Remnants Museum.
Central Ho Chi Minh City is the place to be at night on weekends and holidays. The streets are jam-packed with young locals cruising the town on bicycles and motorbikes, out to see and be seen. The Municipal Theatre area is the hub for young hipsters. Entertainment ranges from disco, to bars such as No 5 Ly Tu Trong and the Hard Rock Cafe, where Western music is played, or experiencing traditional Vietnamese music at the Conservatory of Music.
Budget travellers tend to congregate around the Pham Ngu Lao area at the western end of District 1. Cholon has plenty of cheap rooms, but Western backpackers are rare here. Travellers with a little more cash prefer the more upmarket hotels concentrated around D Dong Khoi at the eastern side of District 1. Central Saigon is the best place to look for fine Vietnamese and Western food, while Cholon's speciality is Chinese food.
The city of Dalat is the jewel of the southern Central Highlands region. The cool climate and park-like environment (often with Vietnamese style kitsch), makes it one of the most delightful cities in Vietnam. Dalat is also a good base for trips into the surrounding highlands, which remain tranquil. In Dalat, make sure you visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, nicknamed the Crazy House by locals. It's a counter-cultural gem created by artist and architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga (known as Hang Nga).
Emperor Bao Dai's Summer Palace is stuffed with interesting art and artefacts, and is well worth a look. It's also interesting to stroll around the old French Quarter, which is little changed since the French departed. The Valley of Love, 5km (3mi) north of the city centre, is a bizarre place with a carnival-style atmosphere where you can hire a paddle boat on the lake, or a horse from one of the Dalat Cowboys (no relation to the Dallas Cowboys), who are, indeed, dressed as cowboys.
There are some pleasant walks or rides (on horseback or bicycle) in the countryside around the city, but be aware that areas signposted with a C-sign are off-limits to foreigners. Further out, you can visit the villages of some of the hill tribes, such as Lat Village and the Chicken Village (with a huge statue of a chicken).
Dalat is famous for its cafes and is a paradise for people who love fresh vegetables. It's extremely popular with domestic tourists and honeymooners, so there's a wide range of accommodation options. You can fly to Dalat from Ho Chi Minh City, but the airport is 30km (19mi) from town; express buses also link the two cities.
Although it has the potential to develop into a flashy resort such as Thailand's Pattaya Beach, Nha Trang is still a good place to go for sun and partying. But see it while it lasts. With very clear turquoise waters (except for the wet season), snorkelling, diving and fishing are prime activities, and just lazing on the town beach is an experience in itself. You'll be offered everything from lunch to a manicure.
When you tire of the beach, there are some interesting sites nearby, such as the Long Son Pagoda, and 2km (1.2mi) to the north of town are the Cham towers of Po Nagar, built between the 7th and 12th centuries on a site that had been used for Hindu worship as early as the 2nd century.
Nha Trang's dry season runs from June to September, different from Ho Chi Minh City's. To cater for the growing influx of visitors, many new hotels have been built in town. Nha Trang is a major fishing port, so excellent seafood is available. The exotic dragon fruit (thanh long) grows only in the Nha Trang area. It's about the size and shape of a small pineapple, but tastes something like a kiwifruit. The fruit is in season from May to September, when you can find it served as a drink.
Express and regular buses link Nha Trang with Ho Chi Minh City; express buses take about 12 hours. Express trains run to both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and there are daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Traditionally, Hué has been one of Vietnam's main cultural, religious and education centres. Its Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the most famous structures in Vietnam. The remains of the huge, moated Citadel (Kinh Thanh), constructed by the Emperor Gia Long from 1804, contain many interesting sights, such as the Ngo Mon Gate, Nine Holy Cannons, Thai Hoa (the Palace of Supreme Harmony), Nine Dynastic Urns and the Halls of the Mandarins. Sadly, the intriguing Forbidden Purple City was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War. About 15km (9mi) south of Hué are the splendid Royal Tombs, of the Nguyen emperors. Hué has many other places of religious and dynastic importance, and some good museums.
You can do sampan trips up the Perfume River, which include visits to some of Hué's main attractions. If you want to get out of the city for a swim, head 13km (8mi) northeast to Thuan An Beach, where there's a lagoon and a hotel. It can be reached by sampan or bus.
There's a range of accommodation in Hué to suit most budgets, and the city is famed for its fine restaurants. Hué has a long tradition of vegetarian food, which is prepared at pagodas for the monks. Stalls in the markets serve vegetarian food on the 1st and the 15th days of the lunar month, and there are also several restaurants serving it all the time.
Hué is about 700km (430mi) from Hanoi and 1100km (680mi) from Ho Chi Minh City. The Reunification Express train running between those cities stops here, and there are frequent flights and buses to both cities.
Magnificent Halong Bay, with its 3000 islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is one of Vietnam's natural marvels. The tiny islands are dotted with innumerable beaches and grottoes created by the wind and waves. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers, while the Thien Cung Caves are also very impressive. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea', and refers to a legend about a dragon who created the bay and islands with its flailing tail. There's even a modern legendary creature, the Tarasque, said to haunt the area.
Taking a tour of the bay is the main activity here; most book a tour at a cafe or hotel in Hanoi. If you want to arrange things independently, be ready for lots of hard sell from touts in Halong Bay City. To see a lot, choose a fast boat. If you want a romantic experience but with the risk of getting hardly anywhere, look for one of the old junks. You have to charter the whole boat, but there are usually enough travellers around to make up a party and keep costs down.
The main town in the region is Halong City, which is in two halves, bisected by a bay. Bai Chay (the western part) is the more scenic and has the most hotels, restaurants and persistent touts. Hon Gai (the eastern part) is connected to Haiphong by a ferry. Masochists might try seeing the bay on a day-trip from Hanoi. Another option is to travel to Cat Ba Island (see Off the Beaten Track), where you can arrange a tour of the bay with less hassles.
Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, has shaken off its unwelcoming attitude to travellers and has become one of the most beguiling cities in Asia. It is slow-paced and pleasant, while its lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards and verdant public parks is home to beautiful and diverse architectural treasures, colonial French homes and astounding modern skyscrapers. Its bustling markets, thriving nightlife and excellent food are attracting visitors of every stripe to this ancient city.
Birthplace to so much of Vietnam's traditional culture, Hanoi, more than any other city in Vietnam, is a unique fusion of old and new. It personifies the spirit of historic Vietnam in the temples, monuments and pockets of ancient culture along the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, yet perfectly reflects the rapid changes sweeping the country as Hanoian yuppies sip cappucinos in roadside cafes and compare cell phones. The attractive centre of Hanoi is built around Hoan Kiem Lake. Sights to check out include One Pillar Pagoda and Van Mieu (Temple of Literature).
Vietnam has 3450km (2140mi) of coastline, and you can hire snorkelling and diving gear at most beach resorts. The most popular beaches include Vung Tau, just north of the Mekong Delta (which suffers from polluted water, although there are cleaner beaches nearby); Nha Trang, near Dalat; and the 30km-long expanse of beaches named China Beach, near Danang - but be careful of the currents. There is good hiking, horse riding and cycling in the beautiful countryside around Dalat, while some of the national parks are also good for hiking. Vietnam is a favourite place for long-distance cycling because much of the country is flat and the shortage of vehicles makes for light traffic off the main highways.
Spelunkers should head for the spectacular Phong Nha river caves, north-west of Dong Hoi. Those interested in the Vietnam War can walk part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of roads, trails and paths used as supply routes by the North Vietnamese during the war. It ran from North Vietnam southward through the Truong Son Mountains and into western Laos. Those with a 4WD can drive a 60km (37mi) stretch between Aluoi and Hué. The network of tunnels at Cu Chi (35km - 22mi - from Saigon) and Vinh Moc (near the old border between North and South Vietnam) enable visitors to experience the claustrophobic life led by villagers and guerrillas during the war.
Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. Over the centuries, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have melded with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as Tam Giao (or 'Triple Religion').
Vietnamese (kinh) is the official language of the country, although there are dialectic differences across Vietnam. There are dozens of different languages spoken by various ethnic minorities and Khmer and Loatian are spoken in some parts. The most widely spoken foreign languages in Vietnam are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French and Russian, more or less in that order.
Popular artistic forms include: traditional painting produced on frame-mounted silk; an eclectic array of theatre, puppetry, music and dance; religious sculpture; lacquerware and ceramics.
Vietnamese cuisine is especially varied - there are said to be nearly 500 different traditional dishes that include exotic meats (but think twice before you eat a rare animal) and fantastic vegetarian creations (often prepared to replicate meat and fish dishes). However, the staple of Vietnamese cuisine is plain white rice dressed up with a plethora of vegetables, fish (which is common in Vietnam), meat, spices and sauces. Spring rolls, noodles and steamed rice dumplings are popular snacks, and the ubiquitous soups include eel and vermicelli, shredded chicken and bitter soups. Fruit is abundant; some of the more unusual ones include green dragon fruit, jujube, khaki, longan, mangosteen, pomelo, three-seed cherry and water apple. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe phin) is very good; it's usually served very strong and very sweet.
Ho Chi Minh City's (Saigon) Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam's busiest international air hub, followed by Hanoi's Noi Bai Airpot. A few international flights also serve Danang. Bangkok has emerged as the principle embarkation point for Vietnam but it's still possible to get direct flights from a number of major Asian cities and a few Australian cities. Buying tickets in Vietnam is expensive. Departure tax is US$10, which can be paid in dong or US dollars.
There are currently six border crossings for travellers coming to Vietnam, but more may open soon. All crossing points suffer from heavy policing and often requests for 'immigration fees'.
For getting to/from China, it's become very popular to cross the border at Friendship Pass, or Dong Dang, 20km (12mi) north of Lang Son in northeast Vietnam, to get to/from Nanning. There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi that stops at Friendship Pass. The other popular border crossing with China is at Lao Cai in northwest Vietnam, which lies on the railway line between Hanoi and Kunming in China's Yunnan Province. There's also a seldom used crossing at Moi Cai.
It's possible to enter Laos from Lao Bao in north-central Vietnam; there's an international bus from Danang to Savannakhet (Laos). The other crossing is at Keo Nua Pass/Cau Treo, west of Vinh. The only crossing to Cambodia is via Moc Dai; an international bus links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City.
Information is based on Lonely Planet website.
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