Vietnam Travel Guide 2020
Jagged Karsts rising out of the sea, cascading waterfalls and terraced fields of rice; lush rain and bamboo forests, mangroves and cave systems; desert, idyllic islands with breathtaking beaches, and dense urban sprawls; bustling markets, scooter dominated streets, riverboats and relaxing retreats; ancient Hindu temples, colonial inspired buildings and modernist structures making Vietnam’s architecture as diverse as its topography, history and its culture.
Vietnam has everything and it is not only the base of operations for Travala.com but also an increasingly popular bucket list destination with almost everyone making plans to travel to Vietnam. It is a country steeped in and carved by history and a place where you will always find a helping hand and a smiling face during your Vietnam holiday.
With an industrious, hardworking and entrepreneurial population and a dynamically growing market economy the Vietnam tourism industry has enjoyed consistent growth and high employment rates. It has helped to make visiting Vietnam more accessible, affordable and even more desirable.
With our Travala.com Vietnam travel guide, our discounted prices and the Travala.com Price Guarantee, you will have almost everything you need to plan and book your Vietnam holiday.
Using this guide, you will know when best to go to and what the best Vietnam travel destinations are; where best to stay and how to navigate around this magical country throughout your Vietnam holiday. We will help you plan the best things to do in Vietnam and we will equip you with all the essential information on Vietnam tourism, including culture, religion, language, cuisine and customs.
What people say about Vietnam
“You haven’t experienced Vietnam until you’ve visited its noisy, vibrant capital city, Hanoi. Navigate the traffic-choked streets of the Old Quarter to discover crumbling colonial buildings, street vendors and traditional tubular shops.”
“From sailing along the Mekong Delta to indulging in Hanoi street food, discovering the delights of Hoi An and risking my sanity and life on the back of a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam delivers the perfect destination.”
Cities to visit in Vietnam
Everything you need to know about Vietnam
The weather in Vietnam can be split into a tropical zone in the south and a temperate zone in the north. The former has two distinct seasons with strong monsoon influences resulting in a considerable amount of sun throughout the year and a high rate of rainfall in the summer months. High humidity before the summer rain can make April and May feel uncomfortable. Making the best time to visit southern Vietnam between late (to minimise the risk of typhoons) December and March with temperatures in the low to mid twenties and with low precipitation.
Regions located in the North and central Vietnam including Hanoi and Hue, and in the mountainous regions have a slightly cooler, more temperate climate with a relatively dry winter. You will need layers of clothing for the cold evenings in December and January, especially in the mountains and the waters of Halong Bay may not be too inviting. Arguably, March and April are the best months to visit central and north Vietnam.
Craggy green mountains to stunningly beautiful beaches, Vietnam has a topography to suit everyone. Travel to Ha Long to view thousands of towering limestone karsts rising up from the sea. Explore vast caving systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and relax on sun kissed beaches in the south.
While Vietnam is synonymous with the Vietnam War of the 1960’s and its cultural presence in the film and music of the time, Vietnam has a rich and varied history from Chinese rule to feudal dynasties and the Indochina colonisation.
With its geography of mountains and jungles along its northern and western borders and sea to the east, Ancient Vietnam was able to create some of history’s earliest agricultural societies which remained protected and independent until around 200 BC when the Han Chinese arrived and started a thousand year period of domination.
This lasted until the late 10th century when the Chinese were expelled from Vietnam under Ngo Quyen. This heralded the beginning of Vietnam’s sovereignty.
In the late 19th century, the French arrived and over a gruelling thirty five year period, French forces gained control of southern, central and northern Vietnam along with Cambodia and Laos creating Indochina.
It was not until World War II that this dominance ended, firstly with Japanese invasion and then by the declaration of independence and the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. However, the French quickly returned this began the Indochina Wars and which subsequently heralded a period of communist rule. In recent times, Vietnam’s communist ideology has permitted a market economy to develop.
The culture of Vietnam is primarily one of respect and reverence. For the land, the sea and for their ancestors. The Vietnamese respect family values, respect their elders and are devoted to studying and working hard. Family overrides individualism and it is common to see generations of a family living together.
Although Vietnam is officially an atheist state and one of the world’s least religious countries, it is also very tolerant to religion. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are collectively known as tam giáo and are regarded as the three main religions of Vietnam. While all three play an integral part in Vietnamese culture, the Vietnamese belief system also gives reverence to folk tales and the worship of gods, goddesses and ancestors has experienced a resurgence in popularity.
There are around eight million Christians in Vietnam and roughly seventy-five thousand Muslims while over one million practice Hoahaoism, a form of Buddhism. It foregoes the need for temples and abhors expensive weddings and funerals. Instead, adherents are expected and encouraged to have modest celebrations and to help the needy.
Another religion is Caodaism, a hybrid religion fusing Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity with the occult. Its core tenets are that there is one God and that the unification of the world’s religious and secular philosophies would lead to a more peaceful and tolerant world. Cao Dai Temple, a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, is the visual embodiment and centre of Caodaism and adorned with swastikas, the Eye of Providence, dragons and gods.
Visitors from most countries to Vietnam will require a visa except 24 exempted countries. You can choose either 1 month or 3 month visa with single/ multiple entries. To obtain a visa to Vietnam, you can choose one of the following methods: e-Visa, Visa On arrival and Visa at Embassy. For full details on Vietnam visa types and how to get Visa to Vietnam and visa fees, please check our Vietnam Visa Guide.
If your intention is to travel from north to south or south to north, the quickest way to travel between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is by air. At just over two hours flying time and at about $45 each way, it is ideal for those with limited time.
The alternative is to take the bus or train with possibly only the most adventurous taking the former. While it takes over thirty hours longer than the plane, the bus is only $10 less expensive and you will spend much of this time sitting in extremely congested traffic or bouncing along poorly maintained roads.
Possibly the best way to travel around Vietnam is by train. Although not much faster than the bus, the Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is air conditioned and follows a much more scenic route. You can also save on the cost of a hotel room by taking the overnight train and booking a soft berth on one of the four berth cabins for $90. Open tickets can be bought for both the bus and the train and these allow you to make multiple stops.
Within the cities themselves, other than walking, the main ways to get from A to B are by motorbike, taxi or cyclo. Agree the cost before you set off and do not be afraid to haggle. However, possibly do be afraid to ride pillion on one of the Xe om motorbike taxis. Translated it means hug vehicle and it involves you literally hugging the driver as you weave along your route. A cyclo ride for two is a more sedate (but slower) way to commute and will cost you about $5 per hour. Taxis are cheap at under $2 for a five kilometre journey.
One of the best ways to experience the customs and culture of Vietnam is to visit during one of the many festivals in Vietnam.
Tet or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture and usually occurs around the end of January. Expect to pay higher prices for hotels and for airplanes and trains to be fully booked. Many restaurants, shops and museums will close, especially in smaller towns. However, while it is a time for honouring family, present and past, no New Year celebration is complete without fireworks.
The Hue Festival is a biannual celebration (April 2020 and 2022 are the next) taking place in UNESCO-listed Hue City, Founded in 2000, this week-long festival was established to help preserve traditional customs of the Nguyen Dynasty. Expect an explosion of noise and colour with drums, kite flying and fashion shows along with more sedate events such as poetry and art exhibitions.
Another festival to time your travels with include the Perfume Festival which involves boat rides, dragon dances, stair climbs, caves and incense burning. People travel from all over Vietnam to participate in this event that occurs on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
There are festivals throughout the year and if visiting Hoi An, try and plan your visit around the monthly Lantern Festival on the 14th of every month. With electricity switched off, the city is magically illuminated by lanterns and candles.
The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. Other spoken minority languages in Vietnam include Mường, H’Mong, Chinese, Khmer, Tày, Nùng and Cham. Although Vietnam has one of the highest spoken levels of English In Asia, English is unofficially a second language. While you might need to write down directions in some places, over 50% of the population can speak English while both French, German, Russian, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean are sometimes understood.
The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). While credit and debit cards can be used and the US dollar is widely accepted It is advisable to exchange some currency.
Only exchange money at official money exchange counters as changing money elsewhere is illegal and often a risk as while higher rates may be on offer there is a risk of being overcharged.
- Reputation and perception are everything – The Vietnamese hate losing face to face confrontations. Try not to embarrass, ridicule, argue or haggle too aggressively
- Although do haggle – As a foreigner you will find many shop prices inflated, so the general advice is to try and pay between a third and half of the price initially quoted.
- Tipping is optional- Although tipping is not customary in Vietnam, it is often appreciated, especially if managed discreetly and accompanied with genuine praise.
- Clear your plate – With the quality of street food in Vietnam this should not pose too big of a problem, but leaving food can be considered as an insult.
- Do not mention the war (any war)- Although Vietnam does not hide its past, it is generally recommended that it does not feature as a topic of conversation or humour.
- Do remove your shoes – It is common practice to remove shoes when entering a home, places of worship and even some businesses. If in doubt, ask.
- Do Respect your elders – Experience and wisdom are intertwined and in Vietnam it is customary for elder citizens to be shown more respect.
FAQs about Vietnam
Do I need a visa for Vietnam?
Yes, almost all visitors to Vietnam require a visa to enter. See our Vietnam Visa guide for more details.
Is Vietnam safe to visit?
Like most countries, tourists will need to be mindful in the larger cities in Vietnam with scams such as the switching of notes and fake taxi drivers. Generally though, Vietnam is a very safe destination with the police maintaining low crime rates with crimes such as muggings, assaults and robberies rare. One of the biggest risks to Vietnam tourist safety is over confidence. Motorbikes are very, very popular in Vietnam and the idea of living like a local can be appealing. Be warned, Vietnam driving is not of the same standard as you might expect or hope for and accident rates are high. While walking, especially in central Vietnam, stay to maintained paths and well used tracks as there are still undiscovered and unexploded remnants of war ordnance.
What is the best time to travel to Vietnam?
Vietnam’s weather differs across the country with March and April arguably the best months to visit southern, central and northern Vietnam.
What to pack for Vietnam?
Apart from a sense of adventure, what you pack for Vietnam will depend on where and when you visit. Snow can fall in northernmost mountains (occasionally in sapa) during winter but for most tourists visiting Vietnam, some breathable cotton clothing and a sun hat is recommended. If travelling by night bus or train, bring ear plugs and a pillow.
What are the best places to travel in Vietnam?
If time permits, travelling from Ho Chi Minh in the south to Hanoi in the north and all the places between is the ultimate Vietnam holiday. Highlights include Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, Halong Bay, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc, Sa Pa and Ninh Binh.
Top booked hotels in Vietnam
Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake
InterContinental Hanoi Westlake is a 5 star-hotel beautifully-located on the shores of the famous lake and offering room service from three restaurants plus a business center for working guests and a pool and spa.
The Myst Dong Khoi
With classic contemporary interiors, The Myst Dong Khoi offers sophisticated accommodation and a central location in Ho Chi Minh City, steps from Saigon River and 15 minutes by foot from Saigon Square.
Furama Resort Danang
As a 5-star hotel with a prime beachfront location, The Furama Resort Hotel overlooks Danang’s renowned East Sea, just 15 minutes drive south of the International Airport and the city centre.
SOL by Meliá Phu Quoc
Featuring a private beach and distinct location in Phu Quoc, SOL by Meliá Phu Quoc guests can have easy access to the must-visit destinations and enjoy world-class facilities and services and well-appointed accommodation.
Top 10 things to do in Vietnam
Lose yourself in Hanoi's Old Quarter
Hopefully not literally, although the frenetic streets of Hanoi spilling over with buses and scooters might disorientate you while the smell and sight of the street food might entrance you. Hanoi is a city that you need to explore and its architecture is like nowhere else in Asia or even the world. Inspired by Chinese and French design and enhanced with a modern sophistication.
While exploring the streets of Hanoi, you will want to avail yourself with some of the best pho. Only in Vietnam could a simple dish of beef, rice noodles, green onions and stock leave you spellbound and in Hanoi they have perfected this dish with every restaurant, street cafe and even home boasting about their special recipes.
Cruise on Halong Bay
Famed for its sixteen hundred islands surrounded by sheltered and emerald waters, Halong Bay is possibly the top “where to go in Vietnam” destination. It is an ideal location for adventurers looking to scuba dive, kayak, cave or even climb while even a relaxing and mesmerizing cruise around this other-worldly bay will make the three and a bit hour trip from Hanoi worth it for those eye popping and Instagram worthy views.
Boats to Halong Bay depart throughout the day from Halong City.
Get lost in time in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
No visit to Vietnam is complete without exploring this astonishing national park three hours north of Hue. While going deep underground in the region’s phenomenal and often very accessible (some by boat) caves will not be to everyone’s liking, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Parks protruding peaks coated in rainforests and its meandering rivers will leave you breathless while the sight of a tiger, black bear or elephant might leave you speechless.
Wonder at the Ban Gioc Ducthien Falls
Right on the Chinese border and worth every minute of the seven hour drive north from Hanoi are the awe-inspiring Ban Gioc Ducthien waterfalls. In an area blessed with beauty, these dual waterfalls are a sight to behold. It is worth booking local accommodation to enjoy a quiet morning visit to this popular attraction.
Cruise along the Ngo Dong River
Another three hour bus or train journey from Hanoi is Ninh Binh and the Tam Cốc-Bích Động rice fields which since 2014 have been protected as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sit back and enjoy a slow and listless boat ride along the Ngo Dong River. Float past rice paddies that are now synonymous with Vietnam with jagged limestone karsts almost thrusting out from the earth around you making this area resemble Halong Bay on land.
Pedal around Hue
When it is time to leave Hanoi and the north, your next base might be the Imperial City of Hue where you can take your foot off the gas. Literally. One of the best ways to get around this former capital city and the many sites and sights of Hue is by bike. Hop on and pedal your way around the majestic Hue Citadel, the exquisite Royal Palaces and charming pagodas on the outskirts of the city.
Immerse yourself in Hoi An
South of Hue is Hoi An, Vietnam’s hippest town and a place where you could easily spend days sampling sumptuous and inexpensive food, chilling with a glass of bai hoi beer or two or spending your dongs on elegantly tailored clothing. Take a stroll along the riverbanks and make sure to spend some time on the unspoiled and simply magnificent An Bang Beach.
My Son Sanctuary
Dating back to the 4th century and built over 900 years is the mystical and spiritual My Son Sanctuary. The remnants of an ancient civilisation that made this region in Quang Nam Province, near Hoi An, a religious and political capital for centuries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
The team at Travala.com suggest making your arrival after the morning tours have departed. Any increase in temperature, make sure to have water, should be offset by the reduced number of visitors, allowing you to wander around these temples in relative peace.
Get your sweat on in Ho Chi Minh City
You have made it to the south and will either love it or hate it, but you will certainly want to see Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. You might possibly be screaming for air conditioning and a respite from the incessant buzz of motorbikes but Ho Chi Minh City City is the place to party. It is also a place packed with history with both The War Remnants Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum providing an uncomfortable, distressing but poignant history of the Vietnam War.
Monkey around in Cat Tien National Park
While it does not have the rugged limestone karsts of the northern national parks, Cat Tien National Park is a phenomenal place to hike or bike. With lush botanical gardens, lowland tracks and fabulous opportunities to spot wildlife, including elephants and leopards, Cat Tien is a great way to end your Vietnam adventure. Look out for the wonderful Wild Gibbon Trek and visit the park’s primate centre, where gibbons and langurs are reintroduced to their natural habitat.
Reasons to Visit Vietnam
More affordable hotel and flight costs have made the world smaller and more accessible while online media has inspired millions to seek out exotic destinations across the world. With the world as your playground, what are the main reasons to visit Vietnam?
Generally, Vietnam is a very safe destination with the police maintaining low crime rates with crimes such as muggings, assaults and robberies rare.
Beautiful Beaches – If you have time to spare or are just looking for an unforgettable tropical getaway, Vietnam has a lot of to offer including Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, Mui Ne, Da Nang, etc.
Renowned for their warmth and friendliness as well as their hardworking nature, the people of Vietnam will make you feel welcome.
Dine on some tantalising Pho soups and Papaya salads and explore the markets for some exciting and delicious street food.
With the afore-mentioned street food often costing $1-2, accommodation for every budget and inexpensive markets, cost is another reason to go to Vietnam.