Vietnam is an elongated "s" shaped country, resembling a bamboo pole with a wide brim basket on both ends. The country borders China and Thailand, with Red River Delta at its north and Mekong Delta in the south. Influences from both China (north) and India (south) as well as France (colonialism) are visible in its food and architecture.
Last year, the country saw 10 million visitors. However, tourism products remain rudimentary, but this is changing. The country is hopeful that foreign investment will aid development and that more diversified products will be created. Despite the scars of war, both US$ and the Vietnamese dong (₫) are legal tender. Many tourist activities are quoted in US$, but just in case, carry both types of currency.
While still officially a communist country, tourism represents big business. Residents are transforming their homes into tourist accommodation. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of the 2017 blockbuster—Kong: Skull-Island—has become the first foreigner to serve as a Tourism Ambassador. Both locals and foreigners are working hand in hand to see a country realise its tourism potential.
Vietnam is a richly blessed country of breathtaking beauty: From narrow valleys to waterfalls, terraced rice fields and beaches to limestone pinnacles and granite outcropping. It is a never-ending showcase of untouched nature. It offers some unparalleled vistas for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike, some spots have yet to be affected by globalisation.
Because locals are hospitable
Locals are, by nature, lovely people who show great interest, care and hospitality. Friendliness is a national character. A tourist even goes as far to suggest, Vietnam is the land of endless smiles.
Because it has a rich history
The country is one of the oldest in South East Asia. Dating back to 2000 BC, in its long history, Vietnam has been influenced by Chinese, Khmer and Indian cultures as well as French colonialism and the American war. These historical incidents makes it one of the most interesting places to visit.
Because it is a destination for budget travellers
Vietnam is well-known among backpackers. Though not as cheap as it used to be, it is still affordable. When foreigners ask for the price, they should know that overcharging unsuspecting foreigners is all too common a practice. Shopping therefore can only be enjoyed if you know how to bargain.
If you are looking for food, Vietnam certainly won’t disappoint. Considered as Asia’s culinary paradise, local cuisine is a brilliant mixture, combining a contrast of flavours and textures. There are also French influences and also a number of opportunities to spruce-up your cooking skills and learn a recipe or two.
Eating around the clock
A typical day in Vietnam looks like this:
breakfast (before sunrise), include sticky rice, fish or other meat
lunch (around 11am), lighter than breakfast
supper (taken when the family are together)
fruits to end the day, no dessert!
Pho -- If there was a national dish, pho (pronounced “fur”) is it. Made of beef and chicken with lime juice, ginger, bean sprout, basil and chilli, it is a blend of sweet and sour, crunchy, and spice, and eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner—showing how much the Vietnamese adore it.
Fish sauce -- Nurc mam is a distinctive taste made like wine, but comprises of anchovies in a brine.
Spring rolls -- Rice paper wraps, containing pork, shrimp or crab, mushrooms and bean sprouts, can be as fat as your thumb!
Fresh fruits -- Much loved local, seasonal fruits include mangos, papayas, coconuts, pineapples and apples
French colonialism is also manifested in the food. From Paris style cafes to Vietnamese coffee or baguette (locally made of rice flour), frog legs and beef Rossini—all these are reminders of the colonial era. Le Beaullieu is noted for its quality French food.
Needing a caffeine fix? In a green tea continent, the addiction to coffee is unfading. The country is also a productive coffee producer, like no other, even overtaking Brazil. So many varieties are available: black coffee, coffee with condensed milk, coffee with coconut milk, coffee with egg yolk, coffee with yogurt. Cafe Mai is a good place for your caffeine fix.
Like many other Asian cities, life is experienced on the streets. Not surprisingly, street food is the trademark of Vietnam. Surprisingly though, unregistered street vending is still not sanctioned. Given its popularity and the rural to urban influx, it is safe to say, street food is here to stay. When choosing where to eat, some street kitchens look all but appetising, their small tables and toddler-sized chairs may also not appeal, but it is commonly believed, “the dirtier the place, the nicer the food.”
Many establishments don’t show prices, menus are only in Vietnamese. A bowl of noodle soup can start from 30,000đ, but it is best to clarify prices before placing an order.
To the world, most people only ever heard of pho (beef noodle soup), yet there is much more to Vietnamese food than a single dish. Here is a selection of foods to try:
bun cha -- Charcoal grilled pork, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and thin white rice noodle
bun bo hue -- Rice vermicelli noodles served with slices of beef (ox tail) or pork knuckle, and a handful of green and sweet onions.
bun bo chu ha -- Rice noodles served in a clear broth with lemon grass and pig’s trotter or ox-tail, bean sprouts, herbs and dried chillis.
banh xeo -- Rice pancakes, simply made of rice, flour and water, may also contain a few small prawns and a sweet and sour herbal sauce.
The new breed of tourists are looking for better ways to interact with locals as well as improve themselves. Cooking provides an opportunity to get behind the scenes and get “hands on” by developing new skills to take home with you.
In Vietnam, a number of full or half-day classes are found in major cities, including Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh. Some classes include a market tour, which is usually off a tourist route, so you can experience how it is like to shop locally and the kinds of ingredients available.
Tourists may wish to confirm the class rundown before payment. The level of involvement and the types of dishes varies from class to class. Some are more or less “cooking demonstrations” while others are more “hands on”. Each class is unique.
Van's Green Bamboo Cooking School is a highly regarded, allowing each student to cook a different dish. One gets to see others cook and sample different flavours.
Thailand and Singapore are well known and established medical tourism destination. Vietnam is considered a late player, but is quickly gaining traction. While still in its infancy, the country is gaining reputation for its fertility and dental services. In general, services have improved and continues to do so, yet a range of language options are not always available. Singapore remains the preferred destination for more complicated procedures.
Here, hospitals are modern, treatment is reliable, effective and more comfortably price. Vietnam is no exception and like most patients considering a treatment overseas, price is a major factor. Treatments are up to 70% cheaper than the cost in the US and UK and also much lower than Thailand and Singapore. At less than half the price of what is charged in the US. The money saved can be re-directed towards travel and holiday expenses in Vietnam.
Still unknown to most, but when it comes to affordable dentistry, Vietnam is the best value outside the western world. From tooth whiting to dental implants or bridges, using the latest technology, patients can view the conditions of their teeth (cracked, decayed, plaque built-up) using a camera.
The usual process includes the following: A quotation, based on CT scans or X-rays from your dentist at home. After you have confirmed flights and accommodation, make an appointment. At the first meeting, the dentist will check your condition, then advise what needs to be done. Should patients require additional work, it can be performed immediately. Then before returning home, a final check-up takes place to ensure everything is satisfactory.
Medical services are popular among the diaspora (first, second, third generation). The major allure is price, and then language (served by somebody who speaks in the same tongue). Apart from this, there are also patients from the USA, Australia, South Korea, Russia and Japan. Surgeries and treatments include kidney transplants, heart surgery and fertility treatment. IVF treatment (fertility) is performed at Tiu Du Maternity Hospital, Van Hanh and An Sinh hospitals in Hanoi, with an annually average of 500 patients among them.
Medical tourism represents a profitable business, but it is more than that. It also represents a country honing in on skills and developing a regional reputation for excellence. And like medical tourism in other countries, it begins with its neighbours and the diasporic community. Today, its neighbours from Cambodia represent the largest market; they are turning to a geographically closer and economically viable Vietnam, instead of a more faraway and expensive Thailand or Singapore. Ho Chi Minh City, in the country’s south, is where a majority of the internationally accredited hospitals and clinics are based.
Vietnam is an example of a country that has previously not taken much notice of its colonial past. It is now hoping to capitalise on its imperial past, in particular French heritage. Becoming a colony (1887-1954) soon after the French Missionaries (Jesuit bishop Pigneau de Behaine) arrived in the 19th century, the old quarters of Hanoi are adorned with distinctive 19th and 20th century architecture, making it one of the greatest heritage townscapes in Asia.
What is French colonial architecture?
“History preserved in stone”. Despite cases of poor maintenance and neglect, many structures remain sturdy and are in good condition. It includes palaces, public buildings such as cathedral, post offices, schools and hospital and museums.
Ernest Hebrard, an architect par excellence, left a lasting legacy on Hanoi’s built fabric. He is best known for his Indochine style buildings, which infused French, art deco and local influences. Examples of his work are found in Hanoi, including the Cua Bac Church, Hanoi University, Pasteur Institute, Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, Louis Finot Museum, Ministry of Finance and Petrus Ky School.
To the tourist, the most distinguishing element of French colonial architecture is its buttery imperial yellow exterior. As to why the French favoured yellow? A number of theories persist. One is aesthetics; colonial administers wanted their buildings to look like those at home. Another is pragmatism; despite the buildings being, in many regards, ill-suited to the climate, yellow allows for reflection of heat. Third, yellow is the colour of royalty, coincidentally both in Vietnam and France.
Where to go?
To locate the best examples of French colonialism visit Hanoi. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has earned it the name, "little Paris of the East" or the Jewel of Vietnam. Some of its more notable sites include:
Ba Dinh District, the old "French Quarter"(1888-1954)
St Joseph’s Cathedral (1886)
Railway Station (1902)
Long Bein Bridge (1903)
Presidential Palace (1906)
Cua Bac Church (1925)
Museum of Vietnamese History—formerly Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient and Louis Finot Museum (1932)
University of Science—formerly Hanoi University (1926), and Pasteur Institute (1930)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs—formerly Ministry of Finance (1927)
Outside Hanoi, tourists will find Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has a number of remnant colonial structures:
Central Post Office (1860)
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica (1880)
Saigon Opera House (1897)
Le Hong Phong School—formerly Petrus Ky School (1927)
Tourism potential of French colonial heritage
While many structures remain intact, the biggest problem, at least for tourists, is a lack of information about them. Many frontiers for further interpretation remain uncharted. What’s more, it is a pity to say, at some sites it is not unlikely that visitors will be chased away by overzealous security guards. Nonetheless, the buildings will appeal to French tourists and those generally interested in colonial architecture in Asia.
Today, Vietnam wants to be remembered not as a war, but a country. Sad but true, but for many, the name “Vietnam” associates with war more than the country itself. In the post-World War II years, Vietnam has been at war with the French and the US. The “Vietnam War" – also called the "American War" in Vietnam – waged until 1975. For most of us, the memories are still is fresh the country is inevitability linked with war. Certain sites provide an opportunity for us to connect to a struggling past and mourn the losses as well as learn from the harsh lessons.
Legacies of war
Wartime heritage trigger associations with the ravages of modern warfare. In Vietnam, unfortunately, war sites are plenty and located throughout the country. The country has been largely influenced by invasion from the Chinese, French and then the US. Yet despite the passing of time, the aftermath of war still haunts the people. Dioxin-related birth defects and the danger of landmines and UXO are just some inevitable effects.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Vietnam’s premier heritage site is a 250km underground labyrinth used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the American-Vietnamese War. First built from the late 1940s, it took 25 years to complete. Consisting of an underground dormitory, meeting place and hospital, it served as a shelter, communication and supplies base for food and weapons for numerous fighters.
Construction of tunnels—some right underneath US bases—involved “human moles” who had to contend with snakes, scorpions, rats, bats, centipedes and fire ants. The ingenuity of the Viet Cong speaks of human instincts to survive against all odds. Today, these wartime warrens have “opened up” and visitors are invited to get on their knees and crawl. This “must-do” experience is for those wanting to understand the country's darkest past and don’t suffer from claustrophobia! A visit to the tunnel is also a visit to an important chapter of Vietnam’s history.
The visit is a half day excursion from Ho Chi Minh City. Remember your insect repellent and be prepared to get your clothes dirty! There are two sites where tunnels can be accessed: Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, most go to the former. Both are more or less the same. Ben Duoc has no rifle shooting and the size is slight smaller. Yet, it is not as rushed, fewer people, as fewer coaches go there.
Vinh Moc Tunnel Complex
Other than (or in addition to) visiting Cu Chi, Vinh Moc Tunnel Complex is another underground experience that survives as a memory of the War. Since Vinh Moc is less frequented, it is also less crowded. Situated near the DMZ on the 17th parallel that divides North and South Vietnam, it once housed an entire village who lived in a permanent bomb shelter. 60 families hid in the complex that included wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and also healthcare. 17 children were born inside the tunnel. In comparison, Cu Chi tunnels were used for combat. Hence, Cu Chi tunnels were extremely claustrophobic and a lot more "touristy"; the original tunnels are so difficult to crawl through, and were widened to accommodate tourists. Vinh Moc tunnels are on the other hand surprisingly breezy; they have ventilation wells and are much wider, but level 3 can be muddy and wet. Cu Chi are much smaller, so one requires to go on all fours (or squat walk), but visitors in Vinh Moc can walk upright. Both shows the resilience of humankind during adversity. A visit to Cu Chi is a half-day trip from downtown Saigon, while Vinh Moc is 45 min drive from Dong Ha, or a full day trip from Hue.
The War Remnants Museum
Located in Ho Chi Minh City, this 3-story museum is a sobering reminder of war and all that it entails. The America war during the 1969-70s is its main theme, but it also features exhibitions on the Indo-Chinese war against the French as well. Take a deep breath before venturing inside, things can be difficult to swallow, but you will come out better informed.Weapons and photographs from the Vietnamese perspective, showing some graphic images of the time are on display.
Southern Women's Museum
Also located in Ho Chi Minh City, this museum is about women’s contribution to modern Vietnam history. It portrays fashion since 1900, traditional labour, such as weaving and creating silk, and women's effort in the wars and its resistance. The collection is informative, interesting and put together with considerable care. All the exhibits have English captions. Comprised of 4 floors, but unlike the War Remnants Museum (in close proximity) it lacks visitors. Admission is free. It opens daily except Monday.
Vietnam Airlines, a state-owned enterprise, mainly serves East Asia but also does long haul with connections in Germany, the UK, France and Australia.
Regional low-cost carriers include Jetstar, VietJet Air and Vietnam Airlines. These have direct connections with Hanoi, Nha Trang, Dannang, Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City via Singapore Hong Kong or Bangkok (Thailand). Visit their websites for more information:
The city is connected regionally and globally by Noi Bai International Airport – Vietnam’s largest airport, in Hanoi. A full list of airports in Vietnam include:
Cam Ranh International Airport
Noi Bai Airport
Phu Quoc International Airport
Tan Son Hhat International Airport
Cross-border buses run from Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Laos. To ensure a seat, passengers are advised to book at least a day before departure, otherwise it can get overwhelmingly chaotic last minute.
There are also special mini-buses for tourists that include airport or hotel pickup but will be 30% more expensive than an ordinary bus.
Internal flights are the quickest and most comfortable way of travelling within the country. They can also be a cheap way. For example, flying between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is about US$62 (not that much more than a berth on the soft sleeper—and much faster). To ensure a seat, book ahead to time.
The Reunification Express
This service operates daily between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Trains are considered the most comfortable land transport, but are more expensive than buses and tends to be slow, chugging away at 50km/h max. The advantages of rail however is that you will avoid the traffic and get to appreciate the natural scenery. You may also meet other passengers and share food, but to avoid going hungry, it is always best to bring your own.
There are different category of seating:
Hard seats are cheaper, but are usually always crowded and full of smokers. Take precaution of "grab and go" thieves, especially at train stations. Hard sleeper have three tiers of beds (total of six per compartment). Upper is cheapest, lower is most expensive. Soft sleepers have two tiers (total four beds). Travellers may opt to bring a bed sheet or sleeping bed with them. Some cabins are air-conditioned, but not all.
There are two models of trains, the newer and faster SE that have WI-FI (but not the fastest speeds) and the slower and older TN, an aging but dependable system. To find out more, click on the website below:
Tickets can be reserved 60-90 days in advanced or a few days earlier if it does not collide with peak travel seasons. If you desire a sleeping berth, book at least one week in advance. Children under two travel for free. Those between the ages of 2 and 9, pay half fare. Tickets can be emailed at 40,000₫ per ticket. Fright, like a bicycle, costs 3750,000₫. Sometimes it is not possible to travel with your bike. If it so happens, take note which train it is on and when it is expected to arrive.
Alternatively, travel in luxury on a private carriage. For more information, check the websites below:
Buses can be cheap, but uncomfortable, and not recommended for long distances. If you just want a taste, try a short overnight ride from Hue to Hanoi (US$20) on a sleeper bus. Schedule and tickets can be bought online.
Buses can be cheap, overcrowded and uncomfortable. Paying a bit more for a first-class bus or a tour bus will make your journey most pleasant. Few travellers will choose to take a local bus. Instead taxis, cyclo and xe om are more common.
Taxis are safe, efficient and cheap. In major cities, such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi they are abundant and all have working meters. Fares cost around 20-30,000 ₫.
For information on the most reputable companies, browse the links below:
The motorbike taxi, known as “zay ohm” are ubiquitous. They are found on almost all street corners, outside markets and hotels. Similar in operation to taxis, they are abundant in places where taxis are few. Fares are negotiable, but generally start at 10,000₫. A day’s hire can range from 100-150,000₫.
Cyclo is the local name for “bicycle rickshaw”. While a dying breed—being replaced by a quicker Xe Om—cyclos are still seen in major cities and considered a quintessential Vietnamese experience. Most drivers speak English and French, but it is always wise to have your destination (or address) written in the local language (including nearby landmarks, e.g. market). Bringing a city map may also be helpful. Since prices are not fixed, passengers are expected to bargain before setting out. Fares starts at 10,000₫. In Hanoi, a cyclo is built for two passengers, Ho Chi Minh City only takes one.
Motorbikes are everywhere. In fact, nowhere else in the world has as many. Statistics say there is one bike per adult. Motor-biking is as popular among locals as tourists. Hoping on one offers an authentic experience of travelling like locals.
Fully automatic mopeds can be hired for around US$20, while semi-auto moped start from US$5. Some may require your passport as collateral. In addition, a driver can be hired for US$20 a day.
Consider hiring a guide, especially when venturing into remote regions. Some speak English or French and are happy to customise the route to match your interests. Set tours are also available and include accommodation, petrol, helmets, drivers and admission tickets in a bundled package.
Safety and cautionary points
The frightening thing about Vietnamese roads are there is no real rules. A rule of thumb is that size matters: giving way to whoever is larger. Honking the horn may be necessary at times. Keep watch for livestock.
Before taking off, make sure you have third-party insurance. And if you’re considering a lot of riding, do invest in a good helmet. Imported varieties (or brought from home) offer more protection than the local “egg shells”.
Cycling, especially long distances, is a popular activity. The incentive is that the country is flat and conducive to cycling. However, it is best to bring your own helmet (and other personal safety equipment), plus a spare tire or two.
Renting or buying a bike is possible in many cities. Bicycle hire in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi hotels start at US$1, better quality bikes can cost around US$6. Hoi An (near Da Nang), Hue (near Da Nang) and Nha Trang (central south) are favourite cities for sightseeing-cyclists.
Crossing the road may seem easy at home, but in Vietnam, it is another story. Urban areas are plagued with heavy traffic, making a simple task chaotic or even a nightmare. The trick is to walk across at a steady, confident pace. There will always be motorcyclists coming and vying for precious “road space”, but you must not stall or speed up, so they can work their way around you.
Having your own vehicle will make travelling easier. Foreigners holding an international license are permitted to drive, but renting a car does not mean you are expected to drive. Car rental comes with a driver. The price can be reasonable if the group is big enough. It is advised to book through travel agencies. The daily price is US$110. While tipping is not necessary, the driver will appreciate it, if you think s/he performed well.
A word of warning: During rainy weather, landslides are not uncommon and traffic delays can be expected. In such cases, taking a 4WD is recommended.
BEFORE CHINESE DOMINATION
Legend of the country’s origin, Hung dynasty
700 BC- 42
Developed sophisticated farming techniques
Chinese defeats Vietnam, Confucianism is indoctrinated
Trung Sister revolt
Ly Bo rebels against Chinese rule
Early Ly Dynasty
Chinese Tang dynasty dissolves
LIBERATION FROM CHINA (since 938)
Ngo Quyen victory at Bach-dang River
Thang Long (Hanoi) become capital
Chinese invades and occupies Vietnam
LE DYNASTY (1428-1788)
Le Loi triumphs over the Chinese and claims throne
Champa kingdom defeated
Portuguese traders land at Danang, Catholicism spreads
Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes arrives
First Romanised Vietanmese dictionary produced by Father Rhodes
Tay Son rebellion
NGUYEN DYNASTY (1802-1954)
Emperor Gia Long assumes the throne
Citadel Complex of Hue built, Imperial city becomes capital
Ming Mang makes it illegal for foreign priests to live in Vietnam
Treaty of Saigon, ceding of Mekong Delta provinces to France
Treat of Protectorate, followed by 70 years of colonialism
Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, early quasi-Community Party
Japanese invade Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh returns and starts liberation movement
Vietnam’s independence under Emperor Nguyen
Ho Chi Minh founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
8-year Frano-Viet Minh War begins
French surrender at Dien Bien Phu
NORTH AND SOUTH DIVIDE (since 1954)
Vietnam divided by 17th parallel into North and South Vietnam
The Viet Cong guerrillas fought against Diem, “The American War”
Diem is overthrown and killed
Gulf of Tokin Resolution, Operation Pierce Arrow
My Lai massacre
Ho Chi Minh dies after a lifelong dedication to revolution
Le Duan assumes power
North Vietnamese attack, Easter Offensive
Vietnam War ends, Paris Peace Accords
South Vietnam overrun by North Vietnam forces
SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM (since 1976)
Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City
Hundreds and thousands flee, including boat people
Vietnam invades Cambodia
China invades Vietnam as a counter attack
Economic reform doi moi campaign
Vietnamese troops withdraw from Cambodia
First tourists arrive as backpackers
Vietnam and US normalise relations
Vietnam hosts APEC submit
Hanoi celebrates 1000th birthday celebrations; imperial Citadel de
Imperial Citadel declared UNESCO world heritage
Reunification of the nation, 40th anniversary
A basic estimate of daily spending (per person) is illustrated below.*
Food & Drink
local meals and noodle soup
bus, mini-bus and motorbike
Food & Drink
gourmet restaurants and fine dining
taxi or rental car
Total basic daily spending 664,800 ₫ (US$ 30)
Total basic daily spending 4,618,000₫ (US$ 200)
*This excludes sightseeing, shopping and other personal tourism activities, such as beauty care and hiring eco-guides.