Vietnam Travel

Halong Bay cruising, Vietnam Travel, South East Asia

Halong Bay cruise ship, Vietnam travel. Photo by Adam Jones.

Why Vietnam Travel?

This is increasingly one of the great winter-sun destinations – a Southeast Asian country that is rich in culture, has some excellent beaches, delicious (and healthy) cuisine, friendly people (who don’t mind mentioning the war) and irresistible shopping, but many fewer visitors than, for example, Thailand.
The French colonial cities of Hanoi (aka Ha Noi) and Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) are interesting and lively while the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites offer world-class ancient ruins.
And by the way, Vietnam does not look anything like most of the post-war movies which were damp, dark, dirty, dangerous and shot in the Philippines, Thailand and California!

Downsides

• War relics can be depressing, though the Vietnamese have closed the book on that era of superpower stupidity and readily accept Americans and French in their country.
• Traffic is chaotic but the worst urban problem is air and noise pollution caused by motorcycles and uncontrolled light industry.
• Untidy, dirty, tangled streets are tiresome.
– Theft is a common problem, especially in the cities where motorcycle-taxis have a particularly bad reputation.
• Due to the country’s long, thin form, domestic transport is lengthy and slow, unless you go by plane.

‘In Japan people drive on the left. In China people drive on the right. In Vietnam it doesn’t matter. ‘
P. J. O’Rourke, All the Trouble in the World.

Best Seasons

Best: Nov-April. Relatively cool and dry in most areas, but can be cold, damp and foggy Feb-April in the north, e. g. Hanoi or Sapa.
Worst: May-Sept. Hot, humid, mosquito invasion, with the possibility of typhoons (violent rain storms).

Beware of floods in Mekong Delta in September.

Plan ahead if you wish to holiday during the Tet New Year Festival (late Jan – early Feb), it can be a problem getting accommodation and transport.

Length of  Vietnam Travel?
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: 5 days to see Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Halong bay, Hoi An/My Son, Hué and Hanoi.
Recommended: 13-16 days. Possibly: Hanoi 2 days, Halong Bay 1 day, Hué 1 day, Ho Chi Minh City/the Mekong Delta 2 days, Hoi An/My Son 2 days, Da Lat 2 days, Sapa, 2-3 days, beaches 2-3 days.

Main attractions

See Vietnam Highlights for a guide to the best destinations in Vietnam, whether it’s cities, beaches, temples or hiking.

Things to do in Vietnam

Traditional Dance: Folk music, singing and dancing in traditional costumes. The best location is at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) in Hanoi. Daily performances.

Water Puppetry: Wooden puppets act local legends on the surface of a shallow pool; this form of entertainment originated in North Vietnam. The main venue is in Hanoi; it’s a bit repetitive and touristy.

Cycling: The county’s flat and reasonably traffic-free off-highway roads are ideal for long-distance biking. Bicycles are widely available for hire.

Hiking and walking: Try Terraced rice paddies and hills around Sapa in Lao Cai provinces, the highland region around Da Lat, Cat Ba Island National Park in Halong Bay, and the tropical forest of Cuc Phuong National Park, 140 km from Hanoi. Guides can be hired locally.

Wildlife: Little but bird watching on Cat Ba Island (no cats! ) in Halong Bay, and the Mekong Delta (Cao Lanh, Long Xuyen bird sanctuaries).

Swimming: Most Vietnamese beaches are uncrowded, safe and pleasant for swimming though we don’t know any especially good snorkel or dive locations. Resorts provide marine equipment according to local needs.

Kite surfing: Mui Ne Beach gets good wind throughout the year and is a world class venue. An excellent kite school is based at Mui Ne Sailing Club.

Caving: The best place to go is Pong Nha river caves, near Dong Hoi, Cu Chi tunnels, 35 km from Ho Chi Minh City, or Vinh Moc.

Boat trips: Halong Bay, Nha Trang Bay, Mekong Delta, Saigon River (an alternative way to see the city of Saigon.

War Sightseeing: Cu Chi tunnels in the outskirts of Saigon and around Hanoi.

Cooking courses: Available through agencies.

Spa/ massage/ beauty treatments:
Be pampered, healed and refreshed with herbal baths/saunas, facial treatment or body/foot massage. Clean, relaxed, elegant salons can be found easily in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi or any beach resorts at reasonable price.

Festivals

As the country is mainly Buddhist most festivals are according to a lunar calendar which changes every year.
late Jan-early Feb, Tet (New Year) Festival, nationwide, one week. The most important annual event of the country and a wild and noisy time.
February 1 – April 30, (mid-March for the main event), Perfume Pagoda Festival, Vietnam’s longest festival, a pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda, one of the holiest places in the country. In Huong Son village.
early April, Thanh Minh (Holiday of the Dead), visiting cemeteries and temples to pray for the souls of deceased relatives.
June, Tiet Doan Ngo, Summer Solstice Day.
Mid-August, Trung Nguyen (Wandering Souls Day), inviting the souls of ancestors back to their families. Various towns and dates.

Food

The local cuisine is light, fresh, inexpensive, diverse and delightful. It’s less spicy than Thai food, and less oily than Chinese.
Fresh ingredients are always used with lots of herbs. The fish sauce ‘Nuoc-mam’ is deservedly famous.
Street food, especially Pho (noodle soup, in beef or chicken form) is definitely worth trying for seasoned travellers.
Each region has its own speciality – dog meat in the suburbs of Hanoi for instance. Excellent seafood is served everywhere, while Chinese or French influenced food is widely available, particularly in Hanoi and Saigon. Tourists will also enjoy fine local coffee and Asia’s best French bread. Cafe culture is well established, especially in Hanoi.

Shopping

Vietnam produces fabulous handicrafts and artefacts, which are colourful, sometimes kitsch, fine quality and reasonably priced.
Hanoi and Saigon are loaded with boutiques and bric-a-brac shops. Local markets are good places to get souvenirs, but strangely the prices are not necessarily cheaper than the expensive-looking boutiques so shop around.
Beautiful beads and silk, particularly Aodai (traditional clothes) and shoes, are especially attractive, as are lacquerware and wooden dinnerware. ‘Bat trang’ ceramics are also popular.
Shopping tours by ‘cyclo’ (cycle taxi) can be arranged.
Good value souvenirs: the market in Ha Long town, opposite the Heritage Halong Hotel, is the place to buy souvenirs of anywhere during your Vietnam travel at bargain prices, especially if you haggle a little.

Money

Vietnamese currency, the Dong, is unsellable outside the country so be conservative about how much you acquire from ATMs or banks unless you want a fat, useless wad when you leave.
US dollars, small bills, are very useful in Vietnam as well as most other SE Asia destinations, so bring a discreet stash to support your Dong management.