Vietnam is a country of astounding natural beauty, complex culture, and rich history. Home to emerald green paddy fields, exciting megacities, dramatic mountains and white sand beaches, it’s a place that’s as varied as it is vibrant.
Plus, with warm and welcoming residents, laid back ambience, and some of the most delicious and nuanced food in the world, it’s no surprise that it’s become such a popular travel destination.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, there’s a good chance you won’t want to come back – but to make the most out of your travels, it’s best to know a little bit about what to expect. So, here are 12 things to know before travelling to Vietnam.
1. Its size can be misleading
On the map, Vietnam looks like a very long, thin country. But its narrowness often means travellers underestimate its size. It’s a one thousand mile distance from the capital of Hanoi in the North to the sprawling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh in the South, and if you were to drive without stopping, it would take you 32 hours.
While taking the bus and train is usually the cheapest way to travel, you can find very cheap domestic flights in Vietnam (particularly if you book ahead), and this can save you serious amounts of time.
There’s so much to see and do in this wonderful country, so if you want to get the most out of Vietnam, it’s best not to underestimate its size – and to think about flying longer distances when you can.
2. It’s a foodie’s paradise
If you’re passionate about food, there’s good news: fresh, flavoursome, and diverse, Vietnamese food is arguably the best food in Southeast Asia. In the North of the country, the cuisine is influenced by Chinese flavours, and in the South, things become somewhat spicier.
The street food in Vietnam is some of the best in the world, and there’s a good chance that the best meals of your trip will be spontaneous ones, when you pull up a plastic stool to tuck into a steaming bowl of noodle soup on a busy street. If you’re in a city, taking a street food tour is a great way to get to know the area as well as the local cuisine.
Must-try dishes include phở (noodle soup), com tam (broken rice), bún bò xào (noodle salad), gỏi cuốn (summer rolls), bánh xèo (savoury crepes), and bánh mì (French-Vietnamese stuffed baguettes).
To find out more about some of the tastiest Vietnamese dishes, have a read of this article by The Culture Trip.
3. The weather is very variable
Because Vietnam is such a long country, it spans several different climate zones, and as such, the weather is very variable. Generally speaking, Vietnam is hot and humid throughout the year. But it’s entirely possible for weather in the North to be cold and foggy, while the South is sunny and bright.
May to October is monsoon season in Vietnam – and in spite of the rain, it’s also a busy and expensive time to visit. Spring is usually a good month to explore, though if you want to do plenty of trekking in the North, the weather warms up in late summer and autumn. Plus you won’t have to put up with fog ruining the views.
Wherever you go, it’s a good idea to pack waterproofs, just in case!
4. Hanoi will overload your senses
No visit to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the capital, Hanoi – and visiting this city usually results in a serious sensory overload (in a good way). From the ceaseless buzz of motorbikes to the mouthwatering aroma of street food and the colourful colonial architecture, it’s a feast for all the senses.
Despite being the capital, Hanoi has a more intimate appeal than Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s a great city to walk around. The winding, hectic streets of the Old Quarter are lined with red-roofed temples, pagodas, and tantalising street food stalls. It’s also the perfect place to sip a Vietnamese coffee and watch the world go by.
The elegant boulevards and wide pavements of the French Quarter are quieter, but no less atmospheric. And here you can find many of the top tourist attractions in the city, from the Opera House to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum of Ethnology.
To discover more about Hanoi and everything it has to offer, check out the Lonely Planet guide.
5. Ho Chi Minh City is overwhelming and intoxicating
Ho Chi Minh City in south Vietnam is the country’s largest and loudest city. It’s also a place like nowhere else…
Buzzing with the hum of a million motorbikes, it’s chaotic, exciting, and characterful – and if you don’t like the idea of high-octane, hectic towns, Ho Chi Minh City is the place that will probably change your mind.
The city has a way of breathing life and vibrancy into even the most jaded traveller, and its relentless energy has driven the country forward to become one of Southeast Asia’s cultural and commercial hubs. Home to soaring skyscrapers with rooftop bars, ornate temples and historic pagodas, trendy bars and bustling food markets, this city has something for everyone.
Though it’s been years since Ho Chi Minh City officially answered to the name of Saigon, its history and past are still palpable – even in the wake of such rapid development. Many of Vietnam’s most important historical and cultural attractions are located here, including the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the grandiose Hotel de Ville, and the Quan Am Pagoda.
To find out more about getting the most out of this intoxicating city, read this guide by Trip Savvy.
6. Hoi An is a photographer’s dream
Once you’ve had your fill of big cities, it’s hard to think of a more perfect place to visit than Hoi An.
Located on Vietnam’s central coast, halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An is an elegant and historic riverside town that’s almost ridiculously photogenic. Once a major port, today it’s a laid back town that offers tourists everything they could possibly want.
The Old Town is home to picturesque bridges, grand colonial houses, pretty courtyards, relaxed bars, and wooden-fronted shops selling all manner of treasures. The riverside was made for leisurely walks, and the absence of motorbikes makes it the best place in the country to explore on foot.
If that wasn’t enough, just outside Hoi An are some of Central Vietnam’s best beaches, so if you fancy some swimming and sunbathing, or perhaps a lazy boat trip, there’s plenty to do outside the town. Plus, Hoi An is a city of tailors. If you fancy getting some custom clothes made, there’s no better place in the world to get measured up.
For more information about the beautiful town of Hoi An, head over to the Rough Guide.
7. Phu Quoc is perfect for relaxing
While Thailand may be better known for its beautiful beaches, Vietnam has its fair share of stunning white sand coves – and if you’re looking for a beach holiday, southern Vietnam is your best bet. More specifically, the island of Phu Quoc, in the Gulf of Thailand, is an absolute paradise, with powdery sand, warm turquoise waters, and gently swaying palm trees.
It wasn’t long ago that Phu Quoc was a well-kept secret – electricity from the mainland didn’t arrive until 2013! – but in recent years this tropical island has undergone rapid development and is quickly becoming one of Vietnam’s top beach destinations. However, it still lacks the crowds of Nha Trang on the southeast coast (for now).
This is an island that’s made for relaxing and exploring. Half the island is a UNESCO-listed national park, and the dense jungle is ideal for trekking and spotting wildlife. The gentle waters are perfect for swimming, kayaking and diving, the fishing villages make lovely bases, and the sunsets are glorious.
This Lonely Planet guide has more on Phu Quoc if you’d like to keep reading.
8. Sa Pa is the adventuring hub
If you like doing plenty of adventuring and exploring while on holiday, you’ll want to head to Sa Pa (or Sapa). Located on the edge of a dramatic plateau in Vietnam’s mountainous north, and surrounded by lush terraced rice fields, Sa Pa is breathtakingly beautiful.
Most tourists come here for trekking. The Hoang Lien Son Mountain range here is home to Vietnam’s highest mountain, so if you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll find that here.
But this gorgeous region is also packed with culture and history, and visiting the small towns here will teach you a lot about traditional rural life in Vietnam.
To find out more about getting the best out of Sa Pa, head over to Rough Guide.
9. There’s no such thing as the Vietnam War
In Vietnam, there’s no such thing as the Vietnam War; it’s the American War. Relationships between the US and Vietnam are friendly today, but though the war is now a distant memory, it hasn’t been forgotten. To fully understand the devastating impact the US invasion had on Vietnam, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is a must-visit.
Outside the museum, US armoured vehicles, bombs, and weapons are on display. Inside, the Chinese and French wars are covered, though the atrocities of the American War are the main focus. Some exhibits, like photos of the destruction from napalm bombs and the heartbreaking effects of Agent Orange, are especially harrowing.
This deeply moving museum gives visitors crucial insight into a devastating yet defining chapter in this country’s history, and allows you to gain a much deeper understanding of modern-day Vietnam.
10. Learning some Vietnamese is a good idea
English is widely spoken in Vietnam – particularly by younger people and in tourist destinations and major cities – which means getting around without knowing any Vietnamese is easy enough in these areas.
However, in rural parts of the country, many people don’t speak any English, so learning some key phrases can be really helpful. Plus, even if people do speak English, they’ll always appreciate it when they see a traveller trying to speak their local dialect.
Try learning a few words and phrases before you go: “Xin chào” (pronounced “sin jow”) is hello, and “cảm ơn” (pronounced “kam on”) is “thank you”. If you enjoy a refreshing alcoholic drink on a hot sunny day, there’s good news: the word for beer is “bia” – and it’s pronounced “bee-ah”, so there should be no problems remembering this one!
If you want to learn more essential Vietnamese words and phrases, head over to The Culture Trip.
11. The currency can be tricky
The currency in Vietnam is called the Dong, which is abbreviated to VND. The denominations are generally very small, with the largest note being 500,000 VND, which is equivalent to about £16. The smallest is 500 VND, which basically has no value whatsoever.
The problem many tourists have with Vietnamese currency isn’t just that the multiples of thousands can be confusing, it’s that many of the notes look the same – so unless you’re vigilant, it’s easy to hand over more money than you intend! Try arranging banknotes in your wallet or purse in ascending order, to make things easier.
In major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, US Dollars are widely accepted too – and in other touristy places, you can usually pay for hotels, tours, and meals with dollars.
12. You need a visa before you arrive
Normally, British citizens don’t need a visa to enter Vietnam if they’re staying for less than 15 days. Though, if you’re planning on staying longer, you will need one – and unlike neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia, you can’t simply get a visa on arrival.
The good news is that it’s pretty easy to obtain a visa online: just head over to the e-visa site.
COVID INFO: While Vietnam had suspended the issuing of visas to foreign nationals, this is expected to resume from the 15th March, when the country reopens for tourism.
Double vaccinated travellers will be allowed to enter with proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure, or a lateral flow test taken 24 hours beforehand. After arriving, visitors will need to take another PCR test and stay in their hotel until they receive the negative result.
Fascinating, exciting, and astoundingly beautiful, Vietnam is a country that’s dazzlingly diverse. Boasting mountains and rice fields in the North and idyllic beaches in the South – as well as having vibrant cities, compelling history and culture, and exceptionally delicious cuisine – Vietnam has a way of enchanting visitors.
Whether you’re dreaming of feasting on street food in Hanoi, enjoying lazy riverside strolls in Hoi An, kicking back on the soft sand of Phu Quoc, or trekking up mountains in Sa Pa – Vietnam has something for everyone. And if this is your first visit, there’s a good chance you won’t want it to be your last…