Our Vietnam Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Vietnam or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people." – Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam is the largest of the three countries of Indochina and one of South East Asia's most exciting - and accessible - destinations. From the bustling market streets of colonial Hanoi to the evergreen rural plains of the north, the sleepy tea shops of Hoi An to the floating boat markets of the monsoon-soaked south, Vietnam is a festival of cultural, historical, natural and, famously, culinary wonder.
There are over 54 recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam, ranging from the majority Viet group to the O Du, an aboriginal people who number just 300. No town is complete without a Buddhist monastery and the arrival of the Western powers also brought Catholicism, introduced in the 1500s.
For some, Vietnam is ubiquitous with the American war, but this is a country on the move, shaking off the shackles of its turbulent past and emerging as one of South East Asia's shining stars. Its history does still play an important part and is evident on every corner; the continued influence of China has left more than a million ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam and the subtle aroma of freshly baked baguettes betrays a European influence.
Thanks to these external influences - on politics, sociology and religion - and the presence of so many minority tribes Vietnam has become a melting pot of diverse and rich traditions, albeit beneath the watchful eye of the Communist party.
Culture & etiquette
"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."
Thich Nhat Hanh
As a traveller, it's always preferable to fit in with local people when visiting a foreign country. Below is a list of guidelines to consider when travelling in Vietnam.
- The elderly are treated with the greatest respect in Vietnamese society. Be sure to address the eldest in a group first and, when dining, wait for the head or the eldest of the family to start eating before you do.
- The Vietnamese are strongly family orientated and may enquire about your own family before pressing ahead with any business matters. Be willing to chat before continuing with more serious matters.
- Always remove your shoes before stepping into a temple or private house.
- It is offensive to tap someone on the head.
- Dress conservatively. Shorts are fine for the beach, but not greatly appreciated in museums, temples and restaurants. (The Vietnamese term, tay ba lo, meaning 'Western backpacker', has become a criticism in some parts of Vietnam. It refers to backpackers' fondness for dirty, torn and loose clothing).
- Exposing your shoulders or too much flesh is offensive in temples. Packing a thin scarf or sarong is a useful way to avoid this.
- A handshake is the appropriate way to greet men. Some women will be happy to shake hands, especially in more cosmopolitan cities, but some will prefer not to. Leaning in for a kiss on the cheek could cause offence and will certainly cause embarrassment.
- It's polite to ask first when taking a picture of someone, especially in rural areas. You're likely to be confronted if you take pictures of government buildings or military installations.
- Politics is a subject worth avoiding.
- If visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi, be sure to dress neatly, walk slowly and keep silent. The guards at the mausoleum are eagle eyed and keeping your hands in your pockets, or carrying anything that could be construed as a weapon will lead to unwanted attention.
"When we walk like we are rushing, we print anxiety and sorrow on the earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the earth... Be aware of the contact between your feet and the earth. Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet."
Thich Nhat Hanh
While the locals are unaffected by drinking tap water, visitors should avoid it. Not because it isn't sanitary, but because the mineral balance may be sufficiently different to cause a bout of sickness. Ice is generally safe, but blocks of ice may be carried to local restaurants in less than hygienic conditions. Chipped ice usually comes from such blocks, but cubes will have been delivered from factories in sealed plastic, and are a safer option. It is advisable to take a good quantity of drinking water with you if going out of town on day trips - there are vendors along highways, but it is not always easy to find drinking water once you've turned off the main roads.
Tea in Vietnam is, as it is in many other eastern nations, as important as a ritual as it is as a refreshing drink. Tea precedes and follows many significant moments in Vietnam, including weddings. If offered tea in a Vietnamese house, it is considered impolite to refuse. Many fine teas, grown in the Vietnamese highlands, are widely available. Coffee is also served everywhere, in a style that is particular to Vietnam, in glass tumblers with small aluminium pots on top. The glass holds barely an inch of condensed milk, and the coffee seeps down slowly, to create a robust drink. It's small, sweet and strong, but travellers are often offered extra hot water with which to dilute the intensity if preferred.
Beer is also drunk everywhere, with each region having its own brew, variations of lager and pilsner. But because refrigeration is not widespread across the country, Vietnamese drinkers will often have bia dá - beer with ice. Travellers can generally avoid this by sticking to air-conditioned pubs and smarter bars and restaurants, but it is an authentic experience, and while ice needs to be treated with caution, as described above, it's incredibly rare for someone to suffer as a result of bia dá, unless too much has been consumed.
Wine is also popular - as a result of the French legacy perhaps, Vietnamese food actually goes well with wine, not something that can be said of all Asian cuisines. Most of the wines available are French - wine grapes are now being cultivated in the highlands, but it will take years before the quality comes anywhere near the French varieties. In any case the happy balance that currently exists between a cuisine so strongly influenced by the French and their home-grown wine makes for happy holidays.
January/February - Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is the largest and most important annual celebration in Vietnam. The festival runs from the first to the seventh day of the Lunar calendar, with families and communities starting the new year afresh, with a spring clean and a great feast. It's full name, tet nguyen dan, means the 'first morning of the new period'.
March - Taking place on the 6th day of the second lunar month, Ha Ba Trun Day celebrates and honours the two Trung sisters who led a rebellion against the occupying Chinese in 48AD.
August - Trung Nguyen, wandering Souls Day is one of the most important festivals in the Vietnamese calendar. Taking place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples and homes across Vietnam, as relatives pray to absolve the sins of the dead.
September - Tet Trung Thu, The 'mid-autumn festival' sees children parading the streets with lanterns and gorging on Moon Cakes, celebrating various legends and historical stories including one about a Chinese king who went to the moon.
November - Celebrations are held on the 28th day of the ninth lunar month to mark the birth of Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, whose teachings continue to influence Vietnam society.
Food & drink
"When eating the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree."
Shaped by geography and foreign influences (notably Chinese and French), the food in Vietnam is exciting, varied, distinct and delicious.
Almost anything can be grown in the country, so combinations are myriad, but the staples are rice, and given the long coastline, seafood. Alongside, there's always nuóc mám, a concentrated sauce based on salted and fermented fish, used in Vietnam as soy sauce is used in China, adding depth and flavour to everything, including the air - it's one of Vietnam's most distinctive smells.
From the Chinese, who ruled Vietnam for a thousand years, came chopsticks, stir fries, and most significantly, the art of cultivating rice. A meal in Vietnam is considered incomplete without rice. Without rice, it's a snack. For the Vietnamese, rice is a serious business, and many people can tell what sort of rice is cooking just from the smell. As well as forming the mainstay of each meal in grain form, rice is also made into noodles, wrappers and wine.
Rice noodles feature in the national dish, phò, which is a sensation in a bowl, and according to many, 'Vietnam in a bowl'. The French influence is there, in the long slow creation of stock based on beef shinbones and oxtails. This is poured onto a tangle of rice noodles adorned with finely sliced white onions and shavings of ginger and thinly sliced raw beef. The garnishes are up to you - beansprouts, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic sauce, mint leaves, basil, coriander - some or all. The end result is what all Vietnamese meals aim for - a balance between hot (spicy), bitter, salty, sweet and sour.
Other Vietnamese specialities are cha gio - spring rolls; bánh cuôn, which are rice rolls, with paper thin soft wrappers and a variety of fillings: many varieties of fish soup; bún cha (grilled pork served on cold rice noodles and herbs) - and baguettes, pâté, crêpes and ice cream - the French legacy.
And if you'd rather eat Italian, or American or European food, there are plenty of restaurants available in the many international-class hotels in Vietnam. Variety is not a problem here.
Vietnam borders Cambodia, Laos and China, snaking from the Gulf of Thailand in the south to the Gulf of Tongking in the north. The Mekong Delta dominates the southern tip where it's wet, swampy and furiously fertile. Travelling north, the coastline changes shape and colour, from mangrove green to beach white and further north still, the towering limestone karsts of Halong Bay peak above the sea, like enormous chess pieces on a pristine watery board, whilst inland, the cool hills around Sapa roll in all directions, scarred with the terraces of rice paddies of rock-strewn rivers.
"A day of travelling will bring a basketful of learning."
For ease, join an escorted tour or take a private tour with a driver and local guide. Trains are a fantastic way to see the country and you can travel from north to south in minimal time, stopping at key cultural centres on the way. The stations are easy to navigate, trains are easy to use and comparatively cheap, comfortable and clean. Alternatively, there are regional airports in many of the major centres (outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) including at Cáº§n ThÆ¡, Danang, Nha Trang and Huáº¿.
"If you want to travel fast use the old roads."
"East Asia has prospered since the end of the Vietnam War, and Northeast Asia has prospered since the end of the Korean War in a way that seems unimaginable when you think of the history of the first half of the century."
Though sadly best known for the relatively recent Vietnam War, Vietnam has long had an interesting and conflict-stained past. It has changed hands and repelled the world's great powers on numerous occasions, with little time to re-settle between each encounter.
The country's recorded history starts with an embedded Chinese hegemony that lasted more than a millennium, finally giving way to the first independent Vietnamese dynasty of any real significance, the Ly, which started in 1009 and lasted more than 200 years. Since then, there have been various short and long term ruling dynasties and the Chinese even returned for a brief second period in the 1400s.
The arrival of the colonial French forces in the late 19th century was therefore, in many ways, just another occupation in a long list. From Vietnam, the French moved west and north into Cambodia and Laos, carving for themselves a small piece of Asia known collectively as Indochina.
It was revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh who, with the support of the world's growing socialist powers, finally expelled the French in 1954. With the French removed, the country divided into two, setting the stage for the war that subsequently led the world's leading super-power, the USA, to its first ever military defeat.
It's a history that led to the growth of a strong national sentiment, which now, in the form of the Socialist Republic, has helped Vietnam become a beacon of modernisation and economic industry.
"During the fifties, political and military activities in Vietnam were heavily influenced by the French, who as recent colonial masters, made all-important decisions."
Nguyen Cao Ky
Key words & phrases
"The irony of acquiring a foreign tongue is that I have amassed just enough cheap, serviceable words to fuel my desires and never, never enough lavish, impudent ones to feed them."
Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
Vietnamese is the official and most prominently spoken language in Vietnam. Though there is an array of minority languages, the vast majority speak Vietnamese as their first language. The most obvious variant is not dialect but accent; there are three strong regional accents - northern, central and southern.
English is spoken in the major tourist centres, though this is not the case in smaller or less-visited settlements. Chinese and Khmer are also spoken and French is still used by older generations, a legacy from colonial times.
Though Vietnamese is notoriously difficult to learn, it's worth investing a bit of time to learn a handful of phrases before you go, if only the basics such as xin chào (hello) or táº¡m biá»‡t (goodbye), and da (yes) and không (no) or làm (please) and càm o'n (thank you). Not only could it become indispensable away from the major centres, but also, using a few courtesies in Vietnamese is always appreciated by local people. Luckily, as the language uses the Roman alphabet, place names are easy to recognise and remember.
"He that has a tongue in his head may find his way anywhere."
The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnam Dong (VND). Though US dollars are widely accepted, it is preferable to use Dong as often as possible and you may find that this is the only currency accepted in rural areas. As a guideline, exchange rates are as follows: £1 = 33,500d, US$1 = 20,000d, €1 = 27,800d. (Check the current exchange rate at www.xe.com before you travel). Coins come in denominations of 200d, 500d, 1000d, 2000d and 5000d and notes in 10,000d, 20,000d, 50,000d, 100,000d, 200,000d, 500,000d.
Two things to be aware of: firstly, Vietnamese Dong cannot legally be taken out of the country, so it is best to exchange your Dong to US$ before departure; and secondly, tatty US$ notes are generally refused in Vietnam, so it's a good idea to get your notes from the bank and check each one (especially the larger denominations) before your arrival.
Gone are the days when ATMs were exclusive to a handful of banks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Nowadays you'll find ATMs in most of the major tourist centres. That said, it's always good practice to travel with some spare cash as a backup. ATM withdrawals are limited to 2 million Dong per transaction. Credit cards - typically Visa, MasterCard, JCB and Amex - are also now widely accepted. If you are planning on using your bankcard in Vietnam, remember to notify your bank before you travel.
Allow about US$10-US$35 per day for meals. You can pick up a delicious meal from a street stall for less than US$1, and meals at local restaurants cost between US$2 and US$5. A beer can cost between US$0.20 for a glass of bia hoi, the local favourite, to US$4 for imported bottles. As with anywhere, costs can inflate/deflate dependent on location and season.
Vietnam has become a superb shopping destination. Locally crafted silks, ceramics, lacquerware, embroidery, jewellery and quality handicrafts make excellent souvenirs and, as Vietnam is a key manufacturing base, big name foreign brands can be picked up here for a fraction of the price. Market stalls and shops will accept US$ and Dong. Most shops will also accept credit cards.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are home to a vast array of stores, markets and souvenir shops, all worth a browse. Most obvious are the art shops, some selling high quality, highly priced fine art, others flogging fakes.
There are a number of shops in Ho Chi Minh City (and other popular tourist cities in the south) that sell trinkets left behind by foreign armies - Zippo lighters, Pernod ashtrays, battered cameras, pocket watches and cigarette cases. The Zippos are a particular favourite with collectors, thanks to the humorous, dark and often unsavoury comments and illustrations emblazoned on the side. If you're keen on picking up an original, do some proper research, as many of the Zippos are reproductions.
Hoi An is one of Vietnam's most popular shopping destinations. A pretty coastal city, which lies on the banks of the Thu Bon River, its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved trading ports in South East Asia. Today, the river is too full of silt for larger boats to sail upstream, but the city has had a resurgence in recent decades and the old streets are lined with quaint shops with low ceilings and restaurants with smiling owners. Now, local arts and crafts are carried off in suitcases rather than on board Chinese or Japanese trading ships. Hoi An is particularly popular for its tailors and you can pick up a high-quality tailored suit or jacket for a fraction of the price you could at home. Turnaround is always speedy and each tailor's product differs, so have a proper scout around town before deciding what to buy.
Vietnam's floating markets are a true spectacle and if you're visiting the Mekong Delta, be sure to wake early and catch the morning traders floating on the placid waterways, selling their fresh produce. Everything from watermelons and dragon fruit to cheap plastic umbrellas is sold and, if you don't like the price, you can always drift on to the next vendor.
Important note - Exporting antiques is illegal and your items could be seized at Customs on departure. Be careful to retain any receipts and arrange an export license.
Tipping is not generally expected in Vietnam, though as wages are low, tips will be hugely appreciated. When dining out, we advise following the same rules that you would at home, tipping between 5 and 10% of the total cost - preferably paid in Dong. It's also good practice to tip drivers and tour guides and to leave a small donation in the contribution box after visiting monasteries and pagodas. Tip hotel porters 10,000d-20-000d.
Where to eat
Where not to eat? In almost any part of any city you will find food and restaurants of every kind. There are street stalls, there are the basic eateries where many Vietnamese pause for lunch, that serve authentic and delicious food despite their spartan interiors, there are places serving only phò - some of these are mere corners on the street, others are more like cafés, the same applies to crêpes and other specialities. There are also many more formal restaurants, in the French style, but probably the single most common type of restaurant you will see is simply called a com - com being a word for rice, but where a standard meal will consist of meat, fish or poultry alongside the rice. All yield dishes that aim for a balance of those five flavours of hot, bitter, salty, sweet and sour, and are invariably fresh and fragrant.