Vietnam Travel Guide
Over its long, tumultuous history, Vietnam’s story has been one of occupation, revolution, war, and re-birth. Occupied by China four times in the past 1,000 years, and having fought them off almost as many times, the people of this coastal nation are no stranger to fighting for their sovereignty and way of life in the face of colonial and imperial aggression.
So when the revolutions and wars of the 20th century came about, should anyone have been surprised when Vietnam, occupied by a formidable colonial master in the form of France, and beset by American intervention, emerged the victor by the 1970’s? To be fair, all wars have their complexities, but the ordinary Vietnamese citizens in both the south and the north suffered mightily during these trying years.
In the years since then, they have reinvented and rebuilt their country, with rapidly growing cities, reconnected railways, and a vibrant economy manifesting as signs that Vietnam is back on the scene in Southeast Asia, and in a big way. With a world-renowned culinary style, largely deserted beaches, gasp-inducing natural assets, and dirt cheap prices for transport, accommodations and food that benefits from the uber-low cost of living in this country, Vietnam is an essential part of any world traveller’s itinerary.
IMPORTANT: Vietnam requires most nations to acquire a visa prior to arrival at ports of entry, whether by land or air. There have been rumors that the government has been planning to introduce a visa-on-arrival scheme, but for now, it remains just that, a rumor. Visit a Vietnamese consulate/embassy in the country where you are based, or in your nation of origin if possible, and arrange the visa prior to arrival.
Currency: Vietnam Dong
What To Do
Depending on the route that you have decided to travel the Banana Pancake Trail, you may be starting your Vietnamese adventure in either Hanoi or Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City). For the purposes of this guide, we will start in the south. In Saigon, the primary sights of interest revolve around the Vietnam War, and its closing days. Begin your day at the sombre and thought-provoking War Remnants Museum. This collection of military gear, largely seized from retreating American forces, gives a visceral feel to the war that no history book ever could. The upper floors are especially powerful, where pictures depicting acts of torture and the effects of Agent Orange on people and the environment will sweep away any romantic delusions you have had regarding the horrors of armed conflict.
For something slightly less horrifying, head down the street to the Reunification Palace, where the president of South Vietnam resided and help coordinate the war effort, right up until the tanks of North Vietnam were rolling across the front lawn of his abode. Observe the opulence and luxury in which the former leader lived while leading his country, being sure to check out the air raid bunker in the basement, where he slept on nights when the planes of the North rained fire from the sky.
After enjoying a night on the town in the backpacker neighbourhood of Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, preferably with a few Bia Saigon, hop on a bus bound for Mui Ne. Here, you will find massive sand dunes, and a sleepy beach town atmosphere. Enjoy kitesurfing? This place is one of the premiere destinations in Southeast Asia for this watersport, as the South China Sea here experiences strong winds November through March, making for some sick groundswell and ample gusts to perform some spectacular tricks.
Those looking for a party scene to go with their beach holiday may enjoy Nha Trang better, located further up the coast from Mui Ne. Here, you find a thriving bar and restaurant culture, with the Sailing Club at its epicentre, one of the few bars allowed by the government to stay open past 12 midnight. Do watch out for pickpockets and bag snatchers at this hour, as this city have developed a reputation for this crime late at night.
Continuing up the coast, Hoi An will charm you with its UNESCO old town area, strewn with colourful lanterns late at night. If you’re looking for some repairs to your favourite trousers, or an entirely new outfit made to order, Hoi An’s many tailors will be equal to that task! Finally, Hoi An has a little known, but gorgeous strip of sand on the coast just 4 km out of town. Rent a bike in town and check it out while you wait for your clothes to be finished.
Your final stop before reaching the north should be made in Hue. This central Vietnam city boasts its own distinctive regional cuisine that is so well spoken of, that it’s worth visiting for this reason alone! In between meals, be sure to poke around the Imperial Citadel, where Vietnam was ruled in the age of kings and queens.
In Hanoi, there are some notable sights and activities to partake in, such as seeing the countless museums located here (including the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where his embalmed body is on display), watching around the charming Ho Kiem Lake, and partaking of the sidewalk tradition of drinking super cheap Bia Hoi (goes for around 0.25 USD a glass!). After doing these things, you’ll want to see the two big attractions of Northern Vietnam.
The first one is the mountainside town of Sapa. Here, enjoy mountain treks into some of the highest terrain in mainland Southeast Asia, and for many others, just sitting on your balcony of your hotel and taking in the scenery with a drink in hand is entertainment enough.
The second attraction is Ha Long Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reserve a spot on a junk boat in Hanoi City, and then go off on a cruise into a bay with countless, gigantic limestone karsts shooting out of the water. Either destination will likely produce life-long memories, so don’t fret choosing one over the other if your time in Vietnam is limited.
What To Eat
Vietnam’s distinctive cuisine is known the world over for its use of a wide variety of vegetables, meats and seafood, all mixed together in a harmonious blend of deliciousness. The first dish you should try is a big, steaming bowl of pho. Made with a meat of your choice, pho consists of beef or chicken broth along with the meat you chose, rice noodles, and it is served with a plate of herbs on the side, which you can add to the bowl at your discretion.
An aftereffect of French colonialism, Banh Mi hangs on to this day, and for good reason. Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich made with freshly baked baguette bread, filled with your choice of vegetables such as shredded carrot, lettuce and herbs, as well as meats that are also freshly grilled before being tossed into your creation.
Finally, if you are just jonesing for a quick snack, the Vietnamese make some of the best spring rolls in Southeast Asia. Made fresh and not fried, they are filled with different ingredients depending on where you are in Vietnam, but you can generally expect pork sausage, beef marinated in lemongrass, egg, tofu, shrimp, and so on. Each spring roll you buy in Vietnam offers a different experience, perfect for those looking for an easy to digest cultural experience!