Vietnam is a series of postcards in motion. Step back in time to see boys herding their ducks, men lounging on water buffalo, and women in conical hats bent double in rice fields. A diverse and varied culture, Vietnam has something for everyone. From water puppets in Hanoi to the DMZ near Hue, from the Mekong Delta to the Sapa Hills, Vietnam has sights, history, and people that will shock, amaze, and amuse you.
Visit Hanoi and stay in the Old Quarter where you can explore Shoe Street, Steel Street and even Button Street. See a water puppet performance, tour the city in a cyclo and watch the world motor by from a sidewalk cafe. Just hours from Hanoi you’ll find Halong Bay where you can spend the night on a “Junk.” Take day trips to Perfume Pagoda and Tam Coc and let paddlers take you out to the temples. For a more sobering day take a DMZ tour and see such sights at Hamburger Hill, Khe Sanh and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where an entire village lived and worked underground. Hear the Vietnamese perspective on what they call the “American War.” Stay a while in Hoi An, a beach city with a village feel. Try the local food and get an entire wardrobe made-to-order. Visit the Mekong Delta and be amazed at all that can happen on water. Visit the countless museums in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, an interesting mix of history and propaganda.
Best Time to Visit
Weather varies from region to region, making it possible to visit some part of Vietnam at any time of the year. The best time in Vietnam depends on where you want to go. One reason to decide to stay home or go is the Tet New Year around the end of January/beginning of February. Though a fascinating festival, it does mean that the country’s transportation and infrastructure comes to a partying halt.
No actual vaccinations are officially required. Malaria prophylaxis is no longer recommended but visitors are advised to check with their doctors or travel immunization clinics regarding the advisability of inoculation against typhoid, tetanus, hepatitis A & B. Carry a medical kit with bandages splints and the link. It is important if you bring a complete, personal medical and first aid kit along with a few other essential items. Suggestion the following (Note: You will need to pack sharp objects in checked baggage due to tightened airline security)
Traditional Vietnamese cuisine boasts 500 specialties, varying from the famous spring rolls to tamarind crab. For vegetarians, Vietnam offers unique Buddhist-style fare created from combinations of unending selection of legumes and tofu. Beyond the delights of the street stalls and the culinary wonders of Vietnamese restaurants, Saigon has an increasing selection of international restaurants including Italian, French, Indian, Japanese and Chinese. Vietnamese cuisine is rivaled only by the abundant array of Tropical fruits such as dragon fruit, longans and rambutans which form the perfect complement to any meal.
Saigon offers the greatest selection of western style entertainment: restaurants, bars, night-clubs, movie theaters (English dubbed in Vietnamese) and Karaoke bars, but diversions in the rest of the country are also plentiful if less cosmopolitan. Vietnamese theater, folk dancing and music always draw a crowd, as do more regionally specific performances such as water-puppets and Cheo in the north.
Vietnamese is a tonal language comprising six tones in the North and five in the South; accents and some words are quite distinct in the three regions, North, South and Central. Much of the language is Sino/Vietnamese, though influences from minority languages, French and English are also apparent. Thanks to the quoc ngu (romanised script), Vietnamese words, though difficult to pronounce, are easy to read. With the recent liberalization, English has replaced Russian as the most studied language and it is spoken widely if not especial well. Vestiges of colonialism remain in a French-literate older generation as well as in the architectural charms which grace the country.
Although communism has for many years dominated even religion, recent years have seen an increased tolerance of religious freedom. The country is the home to both Western and Eastern religions and philosophies: Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and the Vietnamese syncretistic construct, Caodaism. The most universal “religion” in Vietnam is the practice of ancestral worship, born of the belief that the soul lives on after death and protects its descendants.
6. Ethnic Groups
Vietnam is home to many nationalities of which the Viet comprise 85%. Their population is concentrated around the Red and Mekong Deltas and the coastal plains of Central Vietnam. Some 54 minority tribes live mostly in the mountain are which stretch from the North to the South of Vietnam.
Ethnic groups in the North generally live between altitudes of 25m and 2,000m above sea level… The best-known of these are the Tay (also the most populous), the White Thai and Black Thai (distinguished by the color of their clothes) and the Hmong (Meo).
In the south, geographic locations of tribes are much more distinct; tribes live in the plains as well as in the hills…The Hoa tribes (originated from China) is considered to be the most advanced but ethnic groups descendent from brilliant civilizations such as the Kingdom of Champa are equally fascinating. Although there is some overlap linguistically and culturally between these tribes, each has its own unique customs ranging from the style of their graves to that of their houses.
7. Handicrafts and souvenirs
Vietnam is particularly known for its various styles of lacquer-ware (mother of pearl inlay, duck-shell etc.) and its growing silk industry. A wide array of other handicrafts is also available, including quality hand embroidery wood carvings, brass and marble figurines and ivory and tortoiseshell accessories. War paraphernalia has become a popular souvenir in recent years as have old cameras, watches, stamps and coins, particularly ubiquitous in Ho Chi Minh City.
Paintings reminiscent of French styles of the sixties are in abundant supply, as are silk screens and hand-painted.
8. Climate and Seasons
The countries of Indochina can generally be considered sub tropical with a monsoon season from May to October. However, in Vietnam there are more marked regional differences as illustrated by the attached figures.
Special Note: The Seasons of Northern Vietnam
Winter: Late December through to the end of March
Sunshine: There is very limited sunshine during this period. The clouds part and give fine warmish days on average once a week. The remainder is typically dull and overcast.
Temperature: The temperature falls to 10 degrees centigrade in Hanoi and closed to freezing in some of the Northern regions over 1.000m. The typical winter temperature during the winter months is low to mid teens although the damp air makes it feel somewhat colder.
Precipitation: There is almost no heavy precipitation during the winter. There is however a constant drizzle or mua as the Vietnamese refer to it. This is not particularly uncomfortable or limiting but certainly does no favors to photographers.
Spring: Mid March through to early May
Sunshine: The sun comes out a great deal more in the spring than the winter with an average of five to six hours of sunshine per day.
One or two clear days are typically followed by a heavy downpour as the humidity rises. Rains also frequently come at night.
Temperature: Temperature rise through spring from 16 degrees up to 28.
Precipitation: The onset of spring is marked by heavy storms that are the first real precipitation of the year. Rains still only come every three or four days, but become frequent as Spring turns to Summer.
Humidity: High, but rising and falling between bouts of rain.
Summer: May through to September
Summer in Hanoi is very hot and humid. Locals head up to the hills around Tam Dao or to the coast at every possible occasion. Light loose clothing and the intake of plenty of liquids are a must.
Sunshine: Although rather hazy, summer is marked with high sunshine levels
Temperature: Temperatures rarely fall below 25 degrees in the summer and rise as high as 38 degrees.
Precipitation: Late afternoon downpours typically last for around one hour, but occasionally continue well into the night. In the height of summer (July) heavy rains come most days.
Autumn: Mid September through to the end of December
Autumn is the time of year that most Hanoi poets write about. Day in day out the skies are clear the breeze is gentle and the temperature comfortable. It resembles Autumn in New England and makes the softly colored streets of Hanoi look beautiful. Halong Bay is also its best in the autumn.
Sunshine: Bright and almost unpunctuated
Temperature: By day 20 – 25 degrees. Nights begin to cool to below 15 degrees
Precipitation: Infrequent. On average rains fall once a week. The rains are less severe than the Summer and last a little longer.
9. Festivals and Holidays
Most Vietnamese traditional and religious festivals occur around Tet (Lunar New Year). Although festivals traditionally lasted one month, they are now officially three days proceeded in major cities by a week-long flower market.
Other notable festivals are the Lac Long Quan Festival (Third lunar month) which is in honor of the legendary ancestor of the Vietnamese people; the Huong Tich/ Perfume Pagoda Festival (Spring) during which hundreds of Vietnamese make pilgrimages into the mountains; the Mid-Autumn Festival (September/ October) which is celebrated with moon cakes and colored lanterns.
The most widely celebrated public holidays are the Vietnamese Nation Day (September 2) and the Liberation Day (April 30), Labor Day (May 1st)
10. Currency and Banking
The official currency is the Dong although US dollars are widely accepted. Travelers cheques can be cashed at certain banks (even if drawn from a US bank). Visa and MasterCard are accepted in some of the bigger hotels and restaurants. In general the best advice is to bring cash and travelers cheques.
11. Key Overseas Embassies & Diplomatic Missions
Essential contacts for the issuance of visas, trade and travel information.