Vietnam isn’t always topping the bucketlist of the southeast Asia traveler. With Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in its back garden and the beautiful islands of the Philippines just offshore there is fierce competition. However, traveling to Vietnam is beautiful in its own and has a lot to offer. With this Vietnam travel blog I am giving you 20 essential things you need to know before your trip and that help you enjoying this beautiful country even more.
My first trip to Vietnam I took in 2008 as part of my trip around the world. Unfortunately it was my second last country before flying back home after 12 months on the road and I only had two weeks. That time I traveled from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City and via the Mekong Delta up to the DMZ where I crossed into Laos. In 2013 I came back to explore the Northern regions and in 2017 and 2018 I was in Ho Chi Minh City and Quang Binh.
As you can see I love to travel to Vietnam. In total I have now been 4 times, but whenever I get the chance I will be back again. I am sure with my experience I am able to give you some vital Vietnam travel tips that will be of good use on your next journey.
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Here are Traveltomtom's 20 essential Vietnam travel tips to make sure you have an amazing trip to Vietnam.
1. Is it safe to travel to Vietnam
Generally spoken one should not have any problems when visiting Vietnam. The most common threats are road accidents, theft and in a rare occasion snatch and grab. Just always make sure to use common sense. This sounds really obvious but I have seen so many ignorant tourists in those 7 years I’m now traveling around the world.
2. Do you need vaccinations for Vietnam
There is no direct need for you to get vaccinations when you visit Vietnam. I have never taken any particular medication for any trip to Vietnam. It is adviced you have the standard childhood diseases shots. Shots against Hepatitis A and B are recommended to have, but aren't needed necessarily. Malaria occurs in Vietnam but very rarely. I have never taken any malaria pills and I have been trekking in the countryside. Some people do, some people don’t, but I have never heard someone catching malaria when traveling to Vietnam.
3. What is the best time of the year to visit Vietnam
For a lot of countries in Southeast Asia it is hard to determine, but the best time of year to travel to Vietnam is easy: March and April. Spring gets the least amount of rain and has moderate temperatures. The rainy season in Vietnam lasts from May to October. Mind you that especially the North of Vietnam has distinct summer and winter seasons. Snowfall in Hanoi is very rare, but it has happened before. If you decide to go for a trekking in Sapa, one of the best things to do in Vietnam, then beware that December, January and February it can be really cold. When you visit South Vietnam there is no need to bring warm clothes as the lowest average temperature in Ho Chi Minh is in December: 27 C / 81 F.
4. Do you need a visa to travel to Vietnam
The visa requirements for Vietnam are getting easier with the years. I remember my first time I had to drop my passport at the embassy for 3 days in Cambodia. In 2013 I already used the visa on arrival and nowadays a tourist visa for Vietnam can easily be obtained online.
Most countries still need a visa though, this in contrast with other southeast asian countries like: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia where you can enter visa free.
5. How much does a Vietnam trip cost
You can make it as expensive as you wish. There are fancy nightclubs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh where a cocktail can easily cost $20, but you can also go local. For your backpacking Vietnam trip you should count on $40 per day, which makes you stay in hostels, eat local food, rent scooters, do sightseeing trip and small tours. When you travel to Vietnam as a couple you can count the same ($40 per person per day), a mid-range hotel is not much more expensive than $30 a night, food in a little upscale restaurant is about $10 and private tours will cost you about $25 per person per day. In many Vietnam blogs I read that you need a minimum of $50 a day, but with that money you can live large.
6. History of Vietnam is rough
You won’t be able to refrain yourself from being fascinated by Vietnam’s long and interesting history even if you’re not a history buff. It is one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia dating back to 2000 BC and ever since it has been influenced by many others: Chinese, Khmer, Indian, Japanese and also Western.
Because of colonization, war eventually rummaged the country, a series of very tragical events in history which are still in the minds of many Vietnamese. For them however, it is much more than a war. Their nation’s efforts and determination enabled them to defeat the French and make the Americans retreat and finally become one country.
The country is filled with educational sites for you to learn more about these historic events, the Vietnam war, and even its aftermath. In fact, each city has monuments and museums that showcase the country’s deep-seated history.
7. War related tourist places in Vietnam
War Remnants Museum HCMC
In Saigon one can visit both the emotion-inducing War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace. The palace is also known as Reunification Palace, which is a national historical and cultural relic to the Vietnam War. I am pretty sure the War Remnants Museum makes you speechless. In 2018 I came back here 9 years after my first visit and I walked around for almost 2 hours, reading every photo subscription. These places always give me goosebumps! When traveling to Vietnam definitely put this on your list of places to visit.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Go to the outskirts of Saigon to have an insider look of the tunnel life at the Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong to protect themselves against the invading Americans. The tunnels are considered to have made a great contribution to the victory of the Vietnamese.
Those who aren’t claustrophobic may try crawling some small sections of the tunnel network. With my 1.86 meters I can tell you it is a punishment! Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels is great to learn about the Vietnam War and one of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
In Hanoi, you can visit Ba Dinh Square, the largest square in Vietnam where many important national historical events in Vietnam’s modern history took place. Get to know more of the ‘Father of Vietnam’: Mr. Ho Chi Minh himself at the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Ho Chi Minh Stilt House. Whatever you do, when traveling to Vietnam always be respectful to their history and past leaders!
Hoa Lo Prison
In Hanoi you can also find the former Hoa Lo Prison, which translates to ‘fiery furnace’. Nowadays it is a museum which depicts what the Vietnamese prisoners had to go through during the time the French were ruling in Vietnam. A special section has been designated for the prisoners of war during the Vietnam war.
All the sites mentioned above are super interesting and made a deep impression on me. Even if history is not your reason to visit Vietnam, these place offer important lessons for understanding the todays culture of the Vietnamese people.
8. Hanoi is the best place to visit in Vietnam
The streets of Old Town Hanoi made me fall in love with this country even more. It was only on my second trip to Vietnam that I ended up in the capital city. The cosy, but extremely bustling streets of Hanoi always remind me why I love traveling in Southeast Asia so much. It sounds simple but going out at night in Old Town Hanoi is one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
May be it was because of the super cheap Beer Hoi, which costs only like $0,20 per pint sometimes. Not the best beer in the world, but drinking Beer Hoi is something you must try when you visit Vietnam. Fun guaranteed!
When you want to soak up ancient village life then visit Duong Lam in Hanoi. It has the basic features of a Northern traditional Vietnamese village which are water wharves, communal grounds, and pagodas scattered with banyan trees. You will continue to feel being stuck in the past. French colonial architecture, pavement cafes, and wide tree-lined boulevards are what makes this place old-fashioned.
9. Ho Chi Minh City is very modern
Unfortunately I have been more times to Ho Chi Minh City than to Hanoi, because although I like Ho Chi Minh City I am much more a fan of Hanoi. So if you visit Vietnam and you have to choose between both of them I would say go North and skip Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless I always had a great time in this crazy big city where modern life meets the local lifestyle. From Ho Chi Minh it is easy to organize trips into the Mekong Delta.
10. Visiting Hoi An is the best thing to do in Vietnam
Despite the damage caused due to Vietnams turbulent past, many ancient structures managed to remain intact. Take Hoi An Old Town, one of the best places to visit in Vietnam for instance. This ancient riverside trading town with well-preserved buildings and temples that date back to the 17th century is where Chinese merchants settled at first. Today, the descendants of the Chinese merchants continue to sell their products. Hoi An is lit up at night by multiple colorful lanterns in the streets. Loads of backpackers tend to get stuck here and great thing is that the beach is just 10 minutes away on a bicycle.
Make your way towards the My Son Temple Complex a great day trip from Hoi An. My Son, which means ‘beautiful mountain’ got mostly destroyed during the American bombings in the Vietnam War. It is still worth going because some temples survived the bombing and are well-preserved. The complex used to be a place of worship by the Champa people and was built between the 4th and 13th centuries. Visiting My Son is one of the best Vietnam travel tips I found among Vietnam blogs.
11. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park for the largest cave in the world
You will surely be impressed by Vietnams natural wonders. Vietnam is for example home to the biggest cave in the world - the Son Doong cave located at the heart of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. It can be explored through a cave expedition, but only with an official tour operator. In 2018 I visited the Quang Binh Province and some of the caves, it is among my highlights of Vietnam.
When looking for cool things to do in Vietnam then think about caving in this national park, so worth it. For me it was one of the highlights visiting Vietnam.
12. Visiting Halong Bay is mind blowing
When around no one should miss Halong Bay, one of the natural world wonders. There are about 1,600 limestone islands and islets dotted around emerald waters, an absolute must see when you travel to Vietnam. There are even charming deserted islands and beaches where you can stay overnight or go multi day cruising on an old wooden ship. The Halong Bay area is obviously one of the best places to see in Vietnam.
13. The Sapa Rice Fields are Magical
Leisure travelers may opt to trek the mountainous Sapa region close to the Chinese border. Although the terraced rice fields are man-made, the natural surroundings make the experience wonderful. An opportunity to experience living like a local is possible with the local ethnic tribes offering homestay accommodation to willing guests. Trust me when you travel to Vietnam this is a must do. On my second Vietnam trip I did this for 3 days and absolutely loved it. During the day you trek through the rice fields up and down on the rim of these terraces and through the woods. We stayed overnight in local homes. Help them preparing dinner at night (free cooking classes), cool off in the river, learn about their culture and drink rice wine (very strong clear shot) till you fall of your chair. This experience is one of the best value for money tours in Vietnam and so much fun. I always wanted to write a separate Vietnam travel blog about this, but it was already in 2013 when I did this.
14. Festivals in Vietnam
While holding religious significance and imbibed with tradition, festivals in Vietnam provide an authentic Vietnam experience. Vietnamese know how to party, trust me I have experienced it many times. Their hospitality is enormous, especially when they are drunk and not that shy anymore! :)
Vietnamese New Year
The most important festival in Vietnam is the Tet Nguyen Dan or Lunar New Year as a result of a country with Buddhism as the predominant religion. Equivalent to the Chinese new year, Vietnamese welcome the new year by creating noise whether its simple beating of drums, lighting firecrackers or prodding dogs to bark. The morning is characterised with honoring ancestors, visiting temples and handing out flowers as part of the ritual. Meanwhile, evenings get really crazy because of all the celebrations and of course alcohol. Vietnamese New Year is always somewhere around end of January or the beginning of February.
Unfortunately I have never experienced this festival myself but I have heard so much about it that it is on my list of things to do in Vietnam. If you love the arts, head to Hue City, the capital of Thua Thien Hue province in Central Vietnam. It is the only place where the Hue Festival is celebrated every two years. The traditional customs practiced during the Nguyen dynasty are relived through different showcases and activities. Expect street performances, film screenings, art exhibitions, Ao Dai Fashion Shows, Hue Poetry Festival, and Dialogue of Drums and Percussions. For sporting activities, there is kite flying, boat racing, and human chess.
Hoi An Lantern Festival
This festival attracts a large number of visitors and is a very popular festival among Vietnamese and tourists. Every 14th day of the lunar month whereby it is the full moon, every establishment in the Ancient Town turns off all their lights. They utilize multi-colored lanterns lit with candles for illumination and are also placed on the river for well wishing. You may opt to see lanterns on the water from the riverbank or organise a local boat ride. Trust me when you are around this is one of the better Vietnam travel tips I got along my travels. You will love it!
You can freely and safely wander the streets of Hoi An that bask in a magical glow because this day any motorised vehicles are banned. The streets are filled with musicians playing traditional instruments like drums, fiddles, and bamboo flutes. Other activities that you can enjoy include lantern-making classes, Chinese chess, and poetry readings. This festival is one big happening and among the best things to do in Vietnam.
15. Water puppet is a Vietnamese tradition
Vietnam has a fascinating fusion of culture from its occupants and colonizers. However, age-old customs still prevail. One of them is the water puppetry that dates back to the 11th century. It features skilful manipulation of the puppets by the puppeteers hidden from the audience. Performed on a waist-deep pool, the puppets appear to be moving on the water by themselves. The stories are usually about everyday lives, ancient legends, and historical stories so it isn’t for mere entertainment. What further makes the show interesting is the reliance on live background music. There are many Water Puppet Theaters around the country, but the ones in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are the most suitable for tourists.
I have been to the one in Ho Chi Minh city and it was such a cool things to see that I wanted to include it in this Vietnam travel blog.
16. Silk paintings is traditional art
Another traditional art performance worth admiring is silk painting. Which is the creation of a painting on a piece of silk cloth. Watercolor, ink, or dye are utilized for vibrant colors and creating simple subjects which are often a portrayal of beautiful natural landscapes or rural life. It is important to note that this painting style calls for meticulousness because a wrong brush stroke can’t be erased. Silk paintings can be purchased in one of the many fine art galleries and shops located in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
17. Floating markets also exist in Vietnam
Local floating markets are among my favorite places to visit in Vietnam. They date back to the reign of the 19th century Nguyen Dynasty and contribute to the uniqueness of Vietnams culture. It reflects the way of life and is a source of livelihood for those who live in the Mekong Delta. Sellers basically sell their goods by boat. The most popular floating market due to its close proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, convenience to get to this place, and scale is the Cai Rang market. It is a wholesale market for fresh fruits. You can try out exotic fruits here like Vinh Long pink kiwi kumquat. Make sure to go here early in the morning not only to see a beautiful sunrise on the way but also to have a typical breakfast on one of the many boats.
18. Vietnamese cuisine is a must try
Most people, when they hear Vietnamese food, the first thought that pops into their mind is Pho, a soup broth dish with rice noodles, fresh herbs, and meat. But there is more to Vietnamese food than what you might expect. I had the honor to dine with Australia’s Masterchef Luke Nguyen, who is originally from Ho Chi Minh City. Trying his exceptional creations was outstanding.
The common denominator among the regional cuisines is the main use of rice and fish sauce in most dishes. Expect to see a form of rice on almost all meals especially that Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world. They have rice noodles, rice porridge, fried rice, sticky rice, and even rice wine as I told you before. Fish sauce, on the other hand, is used in almost any kind of dish from salad dressings to soup broths. In fact, their national condiment is also made of fish sauce that is diluted with a splash of lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chilies.
As for regional differences in cuisines, food in Northern Vietnam tend to be less spicy because they prefer using black pepper instead of chilli. Dishes famous in the Northern region are Bun Cha, Pho, and Thang Rice Noodle.
Southern Vietnamese cuisine is more flavourful and aromatic because of the liberal use of herbs and spices in cooking (yes I learned this all from Luke Nguyen). Popular dishes in the Southern region are Long Xuyen Raw Neem, My Tho Noodles, and Mam Hotpot.
For food in Central Vietnam, mixtures of spicy flavors characterize the dishes. You will find Nem Lui, Khoai Cake, Banh Beo, and Hue Beef Vermicelli delicious.
There is also French influence in Vietnamese cuisine which is particularly seen on Bah Mi, a sandwich in the form of a crusty French baguette. The filling of it depends on where you buy it, but shredded chicken with a fish sauce is common street food in Vietnam.
When you visit Vietnam don’t miss the opportunity to indulge yourself on street food. The street food scene is lively as ever and single-dish stalls serving a dish with a recipe passed down through the generations. The variety of dishes sold are numerous so there is something for everyone.
19. Vietnamese coffee is world class
After I did my barista course when living in Sydney I am very picky on coffee. But on your Vietnam trip you should try traditional coffee. Vietnamese coffee is often sweetened by condensed milk so if that is not your thing warn them up front. Their black coffee is strong, but very tasty. A good way to wake up and start your day full of adventures. Vietnam, after all, is the second largest coffee producer in the world.
20. Vietnam is for every budget
The affordable cost on major travel expenses such as accommodation, public transport, and the food is also a reason that makes traveling to Vietnam so appealing. Therefore, if you have a higher budget for your trip to Vietnam, you can easily have a fabulous luxury experience. Luxurious 5-star hotels are very affordable in this country.
No matter what type of accommodation you choose to stay at, traveling to Vietnam allows you to stretch your budget farther and leaves more room for a more enjoyable tours.
Overall, with all the Vietnam travel tips, reasons to go, things to do and places to see I hope this blog was helpful for your upcoming trip to Vietnam. Let me know if you have any more questions about traveling to Vietnam and I am more than happy to help. Leave me a comment below.
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Enjoy your trip to Vietnam!