VIETNAM TRAVEL GUIDE
Vietnam is one of those countries that bring mixed emotions to travellers. Some experience only the coastal resorts and tourist hotspots and miss out on another side of Vietnam that most tourists skip - one with friendly locals and gorgeous landscape. Given its historic past, Vietnam is a country that offers a unique perspective for travellers. Blessed with a wonderfully diverse landscape, you could slip down sand dunes in the morning, take a stroll on the beach by noon and walk around a UNESCO heritage town by afternoon. During 2013 we did a 4-week cross-country trip on a small motorcycle from Ho Chi Min City to Hanoi and it proved to be a life-changing experience.
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VIETNAM QUICK FACTS
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND) - current conversion rate here.
Electricity: 220V AC electricity. Power outlets are usually two-prong round or flat sockets. Be sure to pack a universal travel adaptor. Be sure to carry a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices. If you are from a country with 110V as a standard be aware that you will need a voltage converter.
Visa: Compared to most countries, visa regulations in Vietnam constantly changes so it is best to double-check with your embassy or through the government website before your trip. If you get a free visa on arrival, it will not be extendable - meaning you will have to fly out of the country if you wish to stay longer. If you’re planning on staying for 30 days or more, you should rather apply for a tourist visa in advance.
Safety: Generally speaking, Vietnam should be a pretty safe country visit and to travel around. There are the usual scams to watch out for, with the most common accident being motorbike related. While driving a motorbike in Vietnam is something that we recommend you do, make sure that you at least have the proper license to do so from your home country.
If you plan on renting a motorcycle make sure to read our guide here first. What most people don’t realize is that even if you have travel insurance, if you don’t have a valid motorcycle license, most policies won’t cover you so make sure you look into this before your trip. You should take note that it is illegal for foreigners to ride a motorbike in Vietnam unless they are in possession of a temporary Vietnamese motorcycle license, which in turn requires you to have a current license issued by your home country/country of residence or an International Driving Permit. The major snag is that to convert your license or IDP into a temporary Vietnamese license you must hold a Vietnamese residence permit of at least three months' validity or a three-month tourist visa. This might not be possible for most visitors.
Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads or SafetyWing, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
Language: In larger cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, heaps of people speak a reasonable level of English making it an easy place to travel. However, as with most foreign destinations, as soon as you venture towards smaller towns and rural regions, the level of English spoken decreases radically. Having a good grasp of a few basic Vietnamese words can go a long way, although it is not the easiest language to get to grips with. You should at least have the most common words handy such as petrol, hotel, and bathroom.
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VIETNAM PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
30 April, Liberation of Saigon
2 September, Independence Day
Also, Vietnamese New Year, Founder’s Day, and other movable holidays.
FESTIVALS IN VIETNAM
For an authentic experience of the tradition and rituals of the 'real' Vietnam, nothing beats attending its festivals and celebrations!
Tết (New Year) - By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, a celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place somewhere between late January and March - usually coinciding with the Chinese New Year. Like many of Vietnam’s festivals, Tết honours it's ancestors and many will return home during this time to celebrate with their families. During the day it’s common to witness rituals such as the handing out of flowers and lighting candles at temples. But during the evening celebrations become much livelier with fireworks, live performances and loads of street food stalls.
Hue Arts Festival - As a celebration of customs practised during the Nguyen dynasty, it’s a great insight into the vibrant art scene and fascinating heritage of this historic town. There are impressive performances ranging from theatre and live music to film screenings and street art. You will also find activities such as boat racing, kite flying and human chess games.
Hoi An Lantern Festival - As perhaps Vietnam’s most famous festival of all, the Hoi An Lantern Festival each year draws huge numbers of visitors. The charming town is a firm favourite amongst visitors in any event, but when the sun sets and the twinkly lanterns are sent down the river Hoi An becomes particularly special. Join the crowds on the banks, or find your way to a sampan boat to see the best of it.
Ghost Festival (Trung Nguyen) - This Buddhist celebration is built on the belief that a person’s soul is sent to heaven or hell when they die. On Wandering Souls Day (or Trung Nguyen), those sinful souls who find themselves in the latter may return to their mortal homes for absolution. The day before the celebration, families travel to the temples to make offerings of flowers and food for those souls without relatives, and altars are set up in each home with food offerings to guide ancestral spirits home.
Perfume Pagoda Festival - Every year, thousands of Buddhist pilgrims travel by boat across the Yen Vi River to the caves of the Huong Tich Mountain. Take on the hundreds of stone steps to the top of the mountain to see colourful parades, traditional performances, long-practised rituals and try local food.
Mid-Autumn Festival - This festival was originally conceived as an opportunity for parents to spend some time with their children at the end of the harvest season. As it is a celebration of children, the streets will be filled with kids singing and taking part in lantern parades. Don’t miss the chance to try a mooncake during the festival (an ode to the full moon); this sweet dessert is a treat only found during special occasions and normally contains red bean paste and salted egg yolk.
BEST TIME TO VISIT VIETNAM
The climate of Vietnam can be a somewhat complicated matter due to its stretched geography of over 1600km and exposure to the Gulf of Thailand, the Gulf of Tonkin as well as the South China Sea. Overall the whole country has a tropical monsoon climate with a number of monsoon seasons in different parts of the country year-round.
May through September (summer) sees the south or southwesterly monsoon which brings rain to the two delta areas and westward-facing mountain slopes.
October through April (winter) sees the northeastern monsoon picking up moisture over the Gulf of Tonkin then dumping it along the central coast and the eastern parts of the central highlands.
There are some marked differences within this basic pattern which would be due to altitudes and attitude of the region. The north is prone to more distinct seasonal variation whereas the south has more constant temperatures all year round.
With such a complicated weather pattern, there’s, unfortunately, no one particular time of the year to recommend as the best time for visiting Vietnam as a whole. Overall, the shoulder periods of autumn (September to December) and again spring (March to April) will probably be the most favourable if you plan on covering the whole country. During our 4-week motorcycle trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi in March 2013, we experience virtually no rain at all!
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN VIETNAM
If you're desperate for some snow sports while in Vietnam, you can visit the indoor Snow Town in Ho Chi Minh City!
HIKING & CYCLING IN VIETNAM
The climate in Vietnam depends on where in the country you are: North, South, Coastal or Inland. The best time to go hiking in South Vietnam is from October to February when it is drier and cooler. The hottest months are March to May. The rainy season is from May to November.
BEACH OPTIONS IN VIETNAM
Vietnam is packed with stunning beaches which you can enjoy at almost any time of the year. The beaches in the South are best from December to April. Depending on where you are in the country, it can be a bit wet from May to November.
SURFING IN VIETNAM
You can find some great surf in Vietnam throughout the year. The best surf is from September to March. Check out My Khe Beach, Nam O Point and Non Nuoc Beach in Da Nang as well as Bai Dai Beach in Nha Trang.
KITESURF IN VIETNAM
You can find suitable wind for kitesurfing in Vietnam from November to March with the most consistent winds from December to February. The main kitesurfing spots are Mui Ne, Malibu Beach, Turtle Island and Phang Rang.
For more details on kite surfing in Vietnam expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN VIETNAM
Be aware of possible health risks in
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
VIETNAM TRAVEL COSTS
Travelling to Vietnam can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. If you stick to just street food and hostels, travelling to Vietnam is incredibly cheap with a reasonable budget of around $25-30 being adequate. While the conversions can get a bit tricky (you’re always a millionaire in Vietnam), you will eventually get used to it. Excluding our flights to Vietnam, we averaged $76 per day for the two of us - which included buying a bike and staying in mid-range accommodation. If you want to learn more about what we spent during our 26-day motorcycle trip have a look at our Vietnam Budget Report.
VIETNAM TRAVEL TIPS
Vietnam is a long skinny country, and if sitting on a bus or train for 11 hours is not your idea of a fun time, you may well want to consider domestic flights. Skyscanner.com or Kiwi.com are handy tools for finding great flight deals. However, transport from one place to the next is fairly easy in Vietnam and is quite efficient. We recommend using BookAway or 12Go website to view bus and boat schedules ahead of time as these are often sold out well in advance, particularly in the busier seasons.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF VIETNAM
Seeing that Vietnam is such a big and diverse country, there are heaps of incredible things to do, making it a one-stop-shop country for both culture and adventure.
Go on a Vietnamese Food Tour
Next to Thailand, Vietnam is on the top of the list of favorite places for street food in Southeast Asia. The best thing about it is the street food is dirt cheap with a bowl of authentic Pho starting at a mere $1.
If you’re unsure about what to eat while in the country, we highly recommend going on a food tour to get you introduced to all the local Vietnamese delicacies. Listed below are a few of our top food tour recommendations in most of the cities.
Hanoi Guided Street Food Tour - If you’re looking for an authentic guide to take you around some of the best street eats in Hanoi, we highly recommend this tour. It’s fun, interactive, and really takes you to some pretty unique places.
Ho Chi Minh Scooter Food Tour - If you want to do as the locals do, travel around on a scooter to 5 local food joints with a local guide as they take you to sample the best of Saigon’s street food and beer.
Hoi An Night Food Tour - Hoi An is a beautiful city with tons of delicious food. Discover them all with a local guide as you sample your way to some of Hoi An’s specialty cuisine.
Take a Vietnamese Cooking Class
Vietnamese cuisine is remarkably diverse and one of the many highlights of a visit to this incredible country. There are lots of cooking class options in Hanoi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh. Make sure to pick a class with a market-visit so that you can experience the local market as part of the process.
Buy a Motorbike and Travel from North to South Vietnam
The best part about buying a motorbike was being able to stop in smaller, less touristy towns and really interact with locals. In 2013 we bought Jerry for around $400 and sold it for almost the same price a month later. If you’re an avid motorbike person or if you simply want to take on this once in a lifetime adventure, check out our posts on travelling around Vietnam on a motorbike.
If you don’t know how to drive a motorbike (or are not properly licensed or insured), you can opt for a motorbike tour along some of the best routes. Listed below are a few of our recommendations.
Dalat City Easy Rider Tours – If you’re in the area, we highly recommend going on one of these motorcycle tours. Not only are the guides amazing (old Vietnamese veterans) but the roads around the area are top-notch! This tour is best booked ahead as they do fill up.
Discover Saigon with a Local – If you want to see Ho Chi Minh City through the eyes of a local, hop on a motorcycle and zip around some of the best places in the city.
Hai Van Pass Motorcycle Tour – If you want to experience some of the most scenic roads in Vietnam, then this tour is a must. Featured in Top gear and other popular shows, this tour allows you to enjoy the scenery while being safely driven by experienced riders.
Hai Van Pass Jeep Tour – Alternatively, if you’re not comfortable on a motorcycle, you can also do this tour on an open-air jeepney which just adds to the fun of it.
Explore Hoi An
Hoi An in Vietnam is one of our favourite towns in Vietnam, mainly due to its incredible food and atmosphere. The best way to explore is by renting a bicycle and make your way around the old town and to the nearby beaches. If you have room in your bag you can have quality garments custom-tailored in a day or two. Hoi An can be a bit overwhelming as the town is almost a theme-park like and some sellers can be a bit pushy but it is an incredible place to experience first-hand.
Explore the City of Hanoi
Hanoi feels a little bit more relaxed compared to Ho Chi Minh. Some of the best things to do in Hanoi is just to stroll around the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. From Hanoi, you can easily arrange trips to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and Sapa.
In Hanoi, beer is cheaper than water which makes can for some fun evenings. Although Hanoi has loads of trendy clubs and restaurants, if you want a more authentic experience, grab a stool at one of the many curbside local Vietnamese eateries and wash your food down with some cold local beer on tap. There’s absolutely nothing like it and it's what locals do on a daily basis.
Hike in Sapa
By far, one of the best things to do in the north of Vietnam is to go hiking in Sapa. You can opt for a 2-day trek with a homestay experience or a bus/trekking combination tour which also takes care of your transport - making the entire experience easy and convenient.
Go on a Halong Bay Cruise
Although we really enjoyed our trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, next time we would opt to go to other locations a bit further as the immediate Halong Bay area can be very busy. Alternatives would be to rather opt for a cruise aboard a ship that heads to Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay, and Bai Tu Long Bay. As these parts are much further away from the busy ports, waters are much less crowded and dirty, actually allowing you time to take in the beauty of the incredible limestone cliffs.
Explore Ho Chi Minh City
If you can get over the chaos, the hooting and the constant barrage of motorbikes coming from every direction, the metropolitan city of Ho Chi Minh can be pretty interesting. It sports some lassy rooftop bars, an emerging craft beer movement, and an incredible array of food options.
In Ho Chi Minh you can visit the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, and the Notre Dame Cathedral for a taste of local history and culture. Take your time, explore on foot, and seek out Pham Ngu Lao (the Vietnam version of Khao San Road), for some cheap street food and even cheaper beer! The best part about Ho Chi Minh is its accessibility to day trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong River.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VIETNAM
The most important thing to remember when packing for Vietnam is that it is going to be hot, humid, and often wet! You really don’t need to take a lot with you as you will also easily be able to buy things there. Hoi An, in particular, is very popular for its abundance of great tailors so if you’re not travelling to other countries, save some space to get a few things done for a fraction of the price while you’re there. Bring lightweight, comfortable walking shoes, breathable, quick-dry clothing clothes. Also, pack a travel umbrella and poncho! Not only will you use it when it rains but it comes in handy to shield yourself from the sun. Do not forget to pack your mosquito repellent! The humidity of Vietnam brings with it many mosquitoes!
WHAT TO EAT IN VIETNAM
With its unbelievable abundance of fresh vegetables, herbs, fish and seafood, Vietnam has a lot to offer to a food lover. Food is a huge part of Vietnamese culture and is a centrepiece of every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar. Celebrations of all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life is highlighted with food, and indeed, so is most important day-to-day social events and interactions.
Keep an eye out for the following must-try foods:
Bun Cha Hanoi - Bún chả is grilled fatty pork (chả) over white rice noodle (bún) then topped with herbs and usually served with a side dish of dipping sauce. With generous lashings of fresh herbs and other greens, this wonderful dish is a must-try when in Vietnam. The dish originated in Hanoi (hence the name) but you will find different variations served in different parts of the country.
Pho - Undoubtedly, Pho is one of the most popular and well-known dishes of Vietnam. While it is difficult to choose where to eat amongst the wide variety of restaurants and stalls, something that we’ve learned based on our years of travelling around Asia is to always go to the places that are full of locals.
Gôi Cuon - Gôi Cuon or Vietnamese spring rolls is well deservingly considered to be a delicacy in Vietnam. Unlike the usual spring roll which is deep-fried, Vietnamese rolls are light and made out of fresh ingredients and a world apart from its usually deep-fried cousin! These delicious snacks are made by rolling a variety of ingredients (usually vermicelli noodles, some sort of meat or shrimp and heaps of fresh herbs) into a fresh rice paper sheet. It will be served with a sweet soy sauce, roasted peanuts and fresh chilli.
Bahn Mi - As with Pho, Bahn Mi sandwiches can be found all over Vietnam and equally well serves as a meal to a snack on the run. Bánh mì or Banh mi is the Vietnamese word for bread. Baguettes are a left-over from the French legacy during the mid-19th century and have become a staple food since. The sandwich typically consists of a baguette split lengthwise and filled with various savoury ingredients then topped with cucumber, pickled carrots or radishes.
WHERE TO STAY IN VIETNAM
Generally speaking, accommodation is very affordable in Vietnam. In most tourist hotspots, you will find plenty of hostels as well as 2-3 star hotels to choose from. During our 4-week bike journey, we averaged around $24 per night and found some very nice places. We even managed to score a 2-night stay during the end of our trip in Ho Chi Minh City for under $40 per night and even got upgraded to a suite?
Airbnb Travel Tip: Airbnb is recommended for an apartment- or villa-style accommodation. Check out our full article on how to get $65 coupon code for your booking or simply click here to get our coupon code to apply on your next booking.