Vietnam Holiday Planning Guide
You may not think of Vietnam as an ideal beach destination, but with over 3,200 km (2,000 mi) of coastlines dotted with sandy bays, the country has one of Asia's top surfing and diving scenes. In addition to classic sun-and-sand activities, most holidays in Vietnam involve some form of cultural sightseeing in the big cities, which boast colonial-era buildings, open-air markets, outstanding spa complexes, and modern restaurants. Away from busy urban centers, a tour of Vietnam reveals a rural landscape of lush rice paddies, jagged mountain peaks, and timeless villages utterly unspoiled by the outside world.
Places to Visit in Vietnam
Regions of VietnamQuang Nam Province
: Old towns and ancient temple complexes bring visitors to Quang Nam Province, an area that also boasts plenty of beaches along its lengthy, quiet coastline. Quang Binh Province
: This area provides the setting for many adventurous, outdoorsy Vietnam itineraries, with forests rich in wildlife, impressive karst formations, and hot springs to explore.Thua Thien - Hue Province
: This province occupies the center of the country and features some of the best-preserved imperial landmarks in Vietnam, including palaces and tombs of the UNESCO-listed provincial capital Hue.Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province
: Many visitors looking for a Vietnam vacation by the sea look to this region, known for its many swimming beaches and adjoining resort towns, as well as offshore areas rich in marine life.Mekong Delta
: The delta offers quintessentially Vietnamese scenes, with slow-rowing boats carrying fruit and vegetables, wildlife-rich forests and grasslands, and a scattering of Khmer and Buddhist sites.Quang Ninh Province
: The main attraction of this province is the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, a scenic seascape of rugged limestone formations. Lao Cai Province
: The attractively tiered hillside rice paddies and mountain towns of this province provide a home for different hill tribes with distinctive cultural traditions, cuisines, and dress codes. Lam Dong Province
: Once a purely agricultural area benefiting from a temperate climate, this province is now a popular holiday destination, with a scattering of resort towns and protected national parkland welcoming a broad range of visitors each year.Khanh Hoa Province
: Though mostly mountainous, Khanh Hoa Province has become better known for its coastal lowlands, with many resort towns along the sandy bays offering routes into the rich marine environments offshore.
Cities in VietnamHo Chi Minh City
: The largest city in the country, this center boasts many important museums and historic buildings, though much of its charm comes in the form of thriving markets, vendor-lined street food hot spots, and bars.Hanoi
: The country's capital offers a good introduction to Vietnam, with districts rich in imperial and colonial history, attractive architectural highlights, and an important arts scene.Hoi An
: Many trips to Vietnam include a visit to this port town, filled with colorful buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, including merchant homes, storehouses, and temples.Nha Trang
: Lively, modern, and international, Nha Trang stands as one of the most popular beach resorts in the region, with a busy and diverse bar and restaurant scene, an action-packed beach, and a wealth of accommodations.
Things to Do in Vietnam
Popular Vietnam Tourist AttractionsWar Remnants Museum
: Giving an important perspective on past conflicts, this museum collects weaponry, photographs, uniforms, and official documents to tell a devastating but vital tale of the resilience and pride of the Vietnamese people. Old Quarter
: The narrow streets of Old Quarter have a rich heritage of trade and artisanship that continues to this day, as well as hidden temples, long-established water puppet theaters and performances areas, and plenty of places to eat. Cu Chi Tunnels
: Whether history is their subject or not, many on holiday in Vietnam visit this subterranean supply route and system of protective bunkers, which the North Vietnamese used during the last major war.Hoi An Ancient Town
: This World Heritage Site features temples, homes, and storehouses built in the national styles of the merchants who arrived here from all over the world during the 16th and 17th centuries.Central Post Office
: During your vacation in Vietnam, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive place to mail your postcards than this post office, a 19th-century building that displays Revivalist Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements.Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake)
: A symbol of the national capital, this lake is a place of myth and legend, serving as a backdrop for many holiday snaps and offering a pleasant walking route through greenery and past flower beds, right in the center of town.Halong Bay
: The UNESCO-listed bay is a must-see place in the north of the country, with hundreds of monolithic limestone islands jutting mysteriously out of the ocean. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
: The final resting place of the revered leader and national uncle figure, this mausoleum serves as the centerpiece of a larger site dedicated to Vietnam's independence.Temple of Literature & National University
: The country's first university is a collection of temples, reading rooms, dorms, and courtyards dedicated to legendary Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius. The Independence Palace
: Built as the residence of the president of South Vietnam, the palace played a major role in the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Vietnam
Cuisine of Vietnam
Most visitors have a good idea of what to expect during their trip to Vietnam, as the country's cuisine has spread across the globe.
The ubiquitous "pho" (rice noodle soup) comes with a clearer broth in the northern cities like Hanoi
, and is a little thicker down south in Ho Chi Minh City
, with the addition of more sauces and toppings.
In general, the cuisine of the south is more complex, spicier, and sweeter, with the climate and topography making the area more agriculturally diverse.
Fruit, spices, herbs, and a wide selection of vegetables from Mekong Delta
make their way into southern classics like "canh chua," a sour soup made with fish, tomatoes, pineapple, tamarind, and scallions.
The simpler cuisine of the north sticks to the "less is more" attitude that leads to finely balanced dishes, such as "bun cha," marinated pork served with rice vermicelli noodles.
Head to historic Hoi An
to try "cao lau," a pork, greens, and thick noodle dish only found in the town, as the noodles have to be made using water from an ancient well found here.
During your holiday in Vietnam, you'll see "nuoc cham," a sweet and sour dipping sauce served in a bowl by the side of almost every dish. Strict vegetarians will want to note that there's lots of fish sauce in this delicacy, as there is in many Vietnamese dishes.
Vegetarians looking for fish sauce-free food can hone in on explicitly vegetarian restaurants in the main cities, and on street food snacks, such as "banh mi," a filled baguette that you can order without meat.
Shopping in Vietnam
Coming back from a first trip to Vietnam, many will feel a little disappointed if they aren't wearing one of the conical farmer's hats often associated with the Vietnamese.
It's possible to find these hats throughout the country, along with a number of other iconic Vietnamese souvenirs, such as lighters inscribed with American GI sayings and slogans, ornamental fans, and national flags.
Head to the markets of Hanoi
to find a mix of fresh produce, souvenirs, and antiques, including original artworks, posters, photographs, and trinkets.
The shopping opportunities in Hoi An
are particularly diverse and impressive. The old port town has an abundance of art galleries selling original pieces, often created by artists from the town.
Hoi An is also known for its tailoring industry, with a large number of establishments able to make full suits and provide alterations with a fast turnaround time.
The floating markets of Mekong Delta
are a sight to behold whether you're looking to buy something or not, with boats filled with colorful, fresh produce bobbing up and down on the water and weaving their way through traffic to make a sale.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Vietnam
Interesting Facts About Vietnam
● The five-pointed star on the Vietnamese flag represents youth, soldiers, thinkers, farmers, and workers, while the red background commemorates the lives lost during times of conflict
● Vietnam is the world's top exporter of cashew nuts
● Potbelly pigs are popular pets in Vietnam
● Vietnam has one of the lowest unemployment rates among the world's developing nations
● Only Thailand produces more rice than Vietnam
Things You Should NOT Do in Vietnam
In general, you'll be forgiven for making minimal social faux pas while on a tour of Vietnam, particularly in larger cities and close to major tourist attractions.
Still, there are a few things you'll be wise to avoid during your visit.
"Saving face" is an important component of Vietnamese social life, as it is throughout much of East Asia. Basically, it's about minimizing confrontation and social embarrassment by not being too insistent or getting noticeably angry.
It's a good idea to dress modestly when in the country, avoiding revealing or extravagant clothing.
While many in the country enjoy a drink or two, public drunkenness is frowned upon.
Holidays & Festivals in Vietnam
Many on holiday in Vietnam look to catch a parade or festival during their stay--there's plenty of colorful and entertaining events to choose from, modern and traditional, throughout the year.
The main holiday in Vietnam is Tet, the lunar New Year celebration. Held over the first week of the new year, the festival involves feasting, visiting family and friends, and street parties.
Some foods, such as "banh chung" (a glutinous rice cake), are particularly associated with the festival and are enjoyed in huge quantities, as it is thought that to be well fed during Tet is to be well fed year round.
With people moving across the country to be with their friends and family during Tet, the roads get busy, public transport packed, and the price of accommodations inflates. If you're visiting during that period, make sure to plan your route, transport, and place to stay well in advance.
The Mid-Autumn Festival (late September to early October) is Vietnam's harvest festival, held when the moon is full. During it, the streets of big cities like Hanoi
light up with lanterns and parades.
Useful Vietnam Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Vietnam
During your holiday in Vietnam, it's best to follow the lead of the person you're meeting, as differences in age and gender affect how people greet one another.
When meeting someone for the first time, it's customary to shake hands. Bow slightly and use both hands.
People of the opposite gender usually just bow to one another when meeting and leaving, while elderly people will often not shake hands with anyone younger than them.
Say "xin chao" (hello) when meeting someone--few visitors are able to learn much more than a few words during their stay, but this simple greeting goes a long way.
Climate of Vietnam
A long, thin country with varied topographical features, Vietnam experiences distinct climates in its north and south sections.
Broadly speaking, the country has a cold season lasting between November and April, and a hot season between May and October.
The year-round average temperature in Ho Chi Minh is 26 C (79 F), compared with 23 C (73.4 F) in Hanoi.
Up in the most northern regions, temperatures can drop markedly during the cold season, with the extra elevation helping bring averages down to around 10 C (50 F).
Monsoons hit the center of the country between October and April, and the north and south between May and September. Make sure to check for weather updates before starting your vacation in Vietnam and pack accordingly.
Transportation in Vietnam
Most international visitors arrive through the airports serving one of the major cities. Domestic air travel between those allows travelers with limited time to see the north, center, and south of the country easily and quickly.
If you have a more time, consider taking the famous train route between Ho Chi Minh City
Some buses and coach tours are useful for inter-city travel, but can take up a lot of your vacation time.
When it comes to travel within cities, many tourists will hop onto a "cyclo" (a bicycle rickshaw) or "xe om" (motorbike taxi) for short distances.
Bike and scooter rentals promise a thrilling ride in the major cities, with roads congested with two-wheeled vehicles all seemingly following their own laws of the road. If you do rent such a vehicle during your trip to Vietnam, make sure you invest in a decent helmet.
Cars are an increasingly common sight in the suburbs, but can be very inefficient when traveling through congested downtown areas.
Tipping in Vietnam
Increased tourism in Vietnam has made tipping a more common practice.
Some restaurants in the big cities add an automatic service charge to your bill, usually somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the total cost. If you don't see it, consider leaving a similar amount if you have received particularly good service.
Taxi drivers often round up the cost of travel, but not always. If you're happy with the ride, consider offering a small tip. The same is true in hotels, where tipping is more unusual but often graciously received.