Vietnam's history is a history of war, colonization and rebellion - from long, long before Americans ever showed up. Occupied by China no less than four times, the Vietnamese managed to beat off the invaders just as often. Vietnam's last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonize Vietnam after 1884.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1930, but in 1948 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War - although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South's Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended, with over 50,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese killed.
While the Americans are still interested in the history of the war, it is untaught history to most Vietnamese. The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program of dổi mới (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism. The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording near-10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during the Asian economic crisis of 1997), but after decades of war the country still has a long way to go.
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, also known as Vietnamese New Year, which takes place between late January and March following the unisolar Chinese calendar. During the three days of Tet shops close up and everybody heads home to their family, making this a somewhat difficult time to travel in Vietnam. However, hotels do stay open and the foreigner-aimed travel industry of backpacker buses and such chugs on as normal, and penny-pinchers will be glad to know that no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open. Visitors also stand a good chance of being invited to join the festivities, often involving large quantities of food and candy (for women and kids) and alcohol, karaoke, and gambling (for the men).
Most visitors to Vietnam, except citizens of Nordic or ASEAN countries, South Korea and Japan, require a visa in advance. A single-entry tourist visa valid for 30 days costs around €35 (although exact fees vary depending on issuing country) and takes around 4-7 days to process; express visas take 2-3 days at twice the price. Visas are now generally valid for all entry and exit points.
A fairly convoluted visa on arrival process has recently been introduced, but this requires a prior application to Hanoi and is generally intended mostly for groups and citizens of countries without Vietnamese embassies.
At the customs, you'll have to fill in a landing card, the carbon copy of which becomes your infamous "Yellow Paper". You want to keep this slip of paper just as safe as your passport, since you'll have to produce it when leaving the country to avoid a fine.
Depending on the present level of SARS, avian flu or cooties hysteria, you may be subjected to a so-called health-check. There is no examination, though, but yet another form to fill in and, of course, another fee. If you can get hold of a handful of dong it is only 2000 dong per person, but they charge US$2 for the same "service" if you only have greenbacks!
Vietnam has international airports at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. Direct flights are available from Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. However, long-distance flights are limited and most visitors transit via Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei or Tokyo.
Trains from Beijing, China, cross the border at Dong Dang and terminate in Hanoi.
Due to landslides the rail link to Kunming, China is closed until further notice.
There are at least four border crossings between Cambodia and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners. These include:
The Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville issues 30 day tourist visas on a same-day basis.
There are three border crossings between China and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners:
There are at least six border crossings between Laos and Vietnam that can be used by foreigners. These include:
Flights are the fastest way to travel the distance of this long country; the trip from Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane. The major domestic airlines in Vietnam are Vietnam Airlines, a full-service airline, and Pacific Airlines, recently created as a low-cost carrier that also accepts online booking. For Vietnam Airlines, it is significantly more expensive to book domestic flights outside of Vietnam than to book with a local travel agent in Vietnam.
Although more expensive than buses, trains are undoubtedly the most comfortable way to travel overland in Vietnam. There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1723-kilometer trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi is more than 30 hours, and overnight hops between major destinations are usualy do-able, if not entirely convenient. It's a good way to see the countryside and meet upper-middle class locals, but unless you are traveling in a sleeper car it is no more comfortable than buses.
AC Soft or hard sleeper is recommended, and purchasing as early as possible is a good idea as popular berths and routes are often bought out by tour companies and travel agents well before the departure time (hence being told the train is sold out at a station ticket window or popular tour company office does not mean there are no tickets available--they've simply been bought by another reseller). However, unsold tickets can often be bought last minute from people hanging around at the station--a train is rarely sold out for real, as the railway company will add cars when demand is high. Commissions on these tickets will drop away as the departure time draws nearer.
In addition, there are shorter routes from Hanoi leading northwest and northeast, with international crossings into China. One of the most popular of the shorter routes is the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (with bus service from Lao Cai to the tourist destination of Sapa).
Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains, or run overnight.
Public Buses travel between the cities' bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city center from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals. Major bus routes in Vietnam may be found at GV Bus routes.
Open Tour buses are run by a multitude of tour companies. They cater especially to tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$20-25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you're willing to cover next. Note that if you're not planning to make more than 3-4 stops, it might be cheaper to buy separate tickets as you go (ie Hanoi to Hue can be had for as little as 5 USD). Most hotels and guesthouses can book seats for any connection, although you're better to shop around at travel agents, as prices will vary on any given ticket/bus company. Going to the bus company office may net you a commission-free fare, but most major bus operators have fixed pricing policies, which can only be circumvented through a travel agent. Major companies include Sinh Cafe and TNK Travel Vietnam-operated An Phu Tourist Hoi An.
Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip may not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while too.
Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese people - bigger Westerners will be very uncomfortable, especially on overnight buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to riding on long-haul buses, and will sometimes get sick - not very pleasant if you are stuck on an overnight bus with several Vietnamese throwing up behind you.
Although the bus company will usually be happy to collect you at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company office will guarantee a choice of seats and you'll avoid getting stuck at the back or unable to sit next to your travelling companions. The offices are generally located in or near the tourist area of town, and a short walk might make your trip that much more pleasant.
International driving licenses are not accepted in Vietnam. Therefore, there are no car rental companies such as Hertz and Avis etc. However, it is quite easy to hire a car and driver for excursions and day trips. (around $40-$50 US an 8 hr. day) Hotels and tourist cafes can usually take care of this. You will find that few drivers will speak any English. Therefore, make sure you tell the hotel/cafe exactly where you want to go.
Long distance travel by car may be a good choice for several people traveling together, as it provides flexible access to remote sites. However, be aware that Highway 1, the backbone of the country, is a two-lane road with very heavy truck traffic. Travel speeds on the highway average less than 50 Km/hour.
Adventurous travelers may wish to see Vietnam by motorcycle or bicycle. Several adventure travel tours provide package tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it's an excellent way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.
By motorcycle taxi
"MotoBike?" as some xe ôm (literally 'wheel hug') drivers will yell to you as you walk by. They are reasonably cheap, about average 5000 dong. You should be able to get anywhere within a city for about 5000-10,000 dong, since the city is usually densely populated and everything is reasonably close by. But watch out, some drivers will try to get you to pay more after you negotiated a price. But be firm on the price.
Another alternative is to rent your own motorbike. Traffic is chaotic (few stop signs or lights) but reasonably easy to follow and people don't go very fast, since there are always lots of people on the road. Charging the intersections is more of a game of chicken than conventional western traffic navigation. Not knowing the nuance of the horn might also get you in trouble. As long as you don't break any traffic rules police will not pull you over. Although many people drive without a license, licenses are required.
Exploring on motorcycle gives freedom and close contacts with local people. Minsk is the best motorcycle for travelings to remote areas and Honda is the best choice in cities. There are several companies offer motorcycle tours such as Explore Indochina, Voyage Vietnam, Offroad Vietnam and Freewheeling Tours...
While slowly being supplanted by motorbikes, cyclo pedicabs still roam the streets of Vietnam's cities and towns. Their drivers are notoriously mercenary and, while the ride will be slow, hot and dangerous, you'll generally need to pay more than for a motorbike for the equivalent distance. On the plus side, some drivers (particularly in the South) are very friendly and are happy to be chartered for sightseeing tours. Be aware to bargain the price before the ride.
You will be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat. Tour boats can be hired for around $20 for a day's tour, or you can book through a tour company. Boat tours are definitely called for around Halong Bay, Hue, Nha Trang, and everywhere in the Mekong region.
Vietnamese, spoken by most of the population, is a tonal language and definitely not easy to master. It is written in a Latin-based script, making maps and signs relatively easy to understand. More than 20% of the modern Vietnamese vocabulary originally came from Chinese, so travelers fluent in other East Asian languages may find some similar words.
Many young people have a basic grasp of English. It is not uncommon to meet young people who learned English in school, especially in the South. French, although not widely spoken anymore, is still used by many older Vietnamese people who were educated in French. If not English, young people may study Japanese, Thai or Chinese.
(Information as of july 2005)
The national currency is the dong (đồng, VND), which has stabilized in the past few years but is difficult to find or exchange outside Vietnam. Bills are available in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000, 100000, 200000 and 500000 dong. In 2003, coins were also introduced in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted, the standard exchange rate for small quantities being 16000 dong to US$1; this is some 5% below the bank rate , so it's usually better to pay in dong. Also note that dollar bills in less than perfect condition may be rejected. $50 and $100 US notes get a higher exchange rate than notes of lower denominations. Note that all gold shops will exchange the majority of hard currencies (Sterling, Yen, Euro etc.) at reasonable rates.
With Vietnam being a very safe country, when it comes to foreign tourists, you might opt for U.S.$ cash as the basic staple of your money belt, but bear in mind that it is always wise not to rely on just one leg when walking.
Traveller cheques of well known companies are widely accepted, but usually a small fee is charged. Fees might also be the only thing that would keep you from getting cash advances on visa- or mastercard at most banks. Through both ways you can also get hold of U.S. dollars, though there will be even higher fees.
ATMs are getting more and more common and can be found in most bigger cities and every tourist destination. They will accept a selection of credit and bank-cards, including Visa, Mastercard, Maestro or Cirrus and several other systems. Not every machine will like your particular card, but "Vietcombank-ATMs" are known for the broadest variety. The amount of your withdrawal may not exceed 2,000,000 dong in one transaction. You will usually incur a charge of 20,000 dong for each transaction, in addition to any charges your bank will make.
There are branches of money transfer companies like Western Union, but this is always one of the more expensive ways to get money.
On most land borders connecting to Cambodia, China, and Laos there are freelance moneychangers to take care of your financial leftovers, but be assured they'll get the better of you if you don't know the going rate.
Prices such as hotel and bus fares are, by government mandate, significantly higher (typically three times) for "foreign guests" than for locals.
You can bargain on practically anything in Vietnam. Most merchants will start off charging foreigner prices, which you can easily bring down by a minimum of 10%, or more if you like bargaining.
Costs for a month's stay can start from a backpacking 250$-500$ Using basic rooms, local food and open bus transportation can keep it very close to the 250 USD per month
It can be argued that food sits at the very epicenter of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions - food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and even the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
Characteristics of Vietnamese food include heavy use of fish sauce (nước mắm), which smells notoriously bad if you sniff it straight from the bottle, but blends into food very well. Vegetables, herbs and spices, notably Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), accompany almost every dish and help make Vietnamese food much lighter than the cuisine of its neighboring countries.
Vietnam's national dish is phở, a broth soup with rice noodles garnished with fresh greens (usually including basil) and bean sprouts. Phở bò, the classic form of phở, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Phở gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Phở is available at any time of the day, but is most often eaten for breakfast, for lunch as well if you like. Famous phở restaurants can be found in both Hanoi and HCMC.
Streetside eateries in Vietnam typically advertise phở and cơm. Though cơm literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.
Keep in mind that all travel books strongly urge tourists to refrain from beverages containing ice since it is created from local, impure water sources.
Don't miss out on bia hơi, (literally "beer gas"), or draft beer made daily. It's available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars will give you the opportunity to relax drinking in a typical Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveler can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying.
The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It's a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency.
The most popular beer (draft, bottle or can) among the Vietnamese is Tiger. 333, pronounced "ba-ba-ba" is a local brand, but it's somewhat bland; for a bit more flavor, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bière Larue is also good, and you can find local brands in every larger city.
It's regular practise for beer in Vietnam to be drunk over ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink.
Wine and liquor
Vietnamese "ruou de" or rice alcohol (ruou means alcohol) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It's commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don't drink much alcohol, well at least in public.
Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viniculture. Dalat is the center of the winelands, and you can get red and white wine with a hint of fish sauce everywhere in the country. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find places that store the bottles properly, so even imported stuff is likely to be spoilt due to the heat and humidity.
Coconut water is a favorite in the hot southern part of the country. Nuoc mia, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst-quencher is the fabulous Sinh Tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also have it blended in a mixer.
Lodging is not an issue in Vietnam, even if you're traveling on a pretty tight budget. Hotels in Vietnam range from scruffy, $4-a-night (Per couple) backpacking hostels to world-class resorts, both in the city and in popular rural destinations. Even backpacking hostels and hotels are by far cleaner and nicer than in the neighbouring countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Laos), and even cheap 4-6$ per couple hotels often supply with very clean rooms with towels, clean white sheets, disposable toothbrush and so on. Service in a lot of the more inexpensive hotels is actually quite good (since the fares that a person pays per night could equal a Vietnamese national's monthly pay), although modern amenities like television and room service in some cases are hard to come by. Like many hotels, there are often drinks and snacks in the mini-refrigerators in Vietnamese hotels; but these are horribly overpriced and you would be much better off buying these items on the street. Adequate plumbing is a problem in some hotels.
Many hotels in the larger cities, mostly Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have very good high-speed Internet access; but sometimes there is a fee (3000-15000 dong/hour) to use the computers in some cases.
The more high-end hotels have a multitude of free/low cost amneties; such as elaborate buffets with local cuisine, spa treatments, local sightseeing packages, etc.
If you want to meet local people, stop by a school. In Hồ Chí Minh City (aka Sàigòn), visit the American Language School, where you'll be welcomed enthusiastically and invited to go into a class and say hi. You'll feel like a rockstar.
The Vietnamese love to meet new people, and teachers welcome the opportunity for their students to meet foreigners.
Vietnam is very keen on bolstering foreign tourism, with severe punishments for crimes against tourists, violent crime against foreigners is rare. Nevertheless be alert in the big cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City, where teams on motorbikes drive by their victims to snatch bags, cameras, mobile 'phones, jewelry, etc. Carry bags on the side away from the street, use money belts, and let the hotel reception keep your valuables.
Also infamously common are thefts on popular beaches, like in the case of Nha Trang, where tourists get into the water for a swim to find out their day bag is gone when they're back to the beach. Never leave your bag unguarded on beaches, and keep your eyes over it.
Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam and the age of consent is 18. Vietnam has laws on the books with penalties up to 20 years in prison for sexually exploiting women and children, and several other countries have laws that allow them to prosecute their own citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex with children.
On the road
Be careful! When traveling within the confines of the city it is fine, as speed is pretty tame. However, getting on the freeway is dangerous, there are a lot of traffic fatalities (average is 30 deaths a day) on the freeways in Vietnam, and some locals will not even venture on them, if not in a big vehicle (car or bus).
Taking a bicycle or motobike on the freeway is not advised. There are transport buses and tour buses that go about 80 km/hour that pay very little attention to what is going on around them (as is usually the way people adhere to traffic in Vietnam). This often leads to accidents, where frequently you will see many bodies lying on the road with a blanket over them and incense burning around them.
If you are in an accident you have to get yourself to the hospital. You have to call yourself or if lucky, get someone to call for you. Local hospitals will not accept you unless they think you can pay the bill.
Crossing the road
The stakes are high: if you are to die in Vietnam, more than likely it will happen on the road -- be it in a car or under one. Vietnamese cities are crowded, and the roads are absolutely packed. You will take your life into your own hands every time that you cross a busy street in any of Vietnam's major cities.
In most of the Western world, the trick is to avoid the cars. That's simply not possible in Vietnam, as there are far too many cars, trucks (lorries or utes), motorbikes, cyclos and bicycles in far too little space. No, the trick in Vietnam is to enable the vehicles to avoid you.
This is managed by first picking a reasonable gap in the traffic (probably a smaller gap than you'd choose when jaywalking in, say London or Manhattan or Sydney), then walking slowly and predictably across the street while looking directly at the on-coming cars, motorcycles, cyclos and bicycles.
The predictability of your pace and path is the critical factor between life and death. Do not change direction or speed.
If you stop, retreat or try to dodge the vehicles, you'll probably die or at least be severely maimed, and your misfortune will merely annoy a lot of commuters by snarling traffic even further. But if you step confidently and carefully, the drivers will see and smoothly avoid you -- often with grace and a casual aplomb that's initially bewildering to many panic-stricken Westerners. But remember, they do this all the time, every day...or they wouldn't be alive themselves.
The simplest way to cross a busy street is to find a local and walk close to him or her, mirroring their path and pace. They know what they're doing! And once you get the hang of it, it's actually great fun to find yourself walking unafraid through a deadly sea of swarming vehicles and people, suddenly feeling like part of the normal flow in this otherwise foreign land.
Vietnam has a great night life and is reasonably safe compared to most developing countries. However, Vietnam is still a developing country, and people are still very poor. As in most unfamiliar places, beware of petty crime. Basically don't go looking for trouble, if you do, you are sure to find it. Remember Vietnam is still a communist country and though they are lenient towards foreigners you shouldn't try your luck. Bringing a Vietnamese national to your hotel room is still illegal. Also, things tend to get a little bit empty at night, since there is a curfew for shops to close, which is usually around 10ish. Alleyways, which there are a lot of in Vietnam, are usually safe. Use common sense.
Unfortunately, much of Vietnam's dangerous wildlife is severely endangered and very rarely seen. Tigers are so rare that the odds of seeing one are extremely low, even for the people living in the rural parts of the country. Saltwater crocodiles were once present in the Mekong Delta (up until 20 years ago) and in much of South Vietnam, but today due to discrimination and habitat destruction they are rare everywhere in the country and may even be extinct as a breeding species in Vietnam (many stray individuals from Cambodia have been reported, where the species is also increasingly rare). Leopards, though more common than Tigers, are still very rare. Snakes are pretty much the only common animal that represents any substantial threat to a human being. The Siamese crocodile is also very rare, but is not known to represent a threat to human beings.
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell lots of T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of "Uncle Ho." Though they may make good souvenirs, you are advised not to wear them in overseas Vietnamese communities back home such as in France, Canada or the USA!
Internet access is available in all but the most remote towns. Rates are fairly cheap, but range wildly depending on the area and clientel (2000-10,000 dong) Connection speeds are high, especially in the big cities, but any tasks more complex than email and basic surfing may prove tedious, or even impossible. Most of these internet shops have ADSL, especially ones charging higher rates. Many hotels provide free access (terminals as well as wireless) for their guests, although free internet is always a mixed bag.