Vietnam Travel Guide: What every traveller needs to knowby | July 10, 2023
Vietnam is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It offers its visitors stunning landscapes, amazing beaches and lively cities.
Discover all the general information you need before traveling to Vietnam with our Vietnam travel guide.
Flag of Vietnam
Vietnam’s flag consists of a yellow star on a red background.
The red of the background represents blood and the struggle of the revolution against foreign domination.
The yellow, according to Nguyen Huu Tien (the flag’s designer), represents the color of the skin of the Vietnamese people.
The five points of the yellow star represent the five classes of people invested in Vietnam’s politics: businessmen, farmers, workers, intellectuals and the military.
Geography of Vietnam
Vietnam is a part of the Indochina peninsula. Located in Southeast Asia, one of the most coveted areas for tourism, it has a length of 1.650 km and a width of about 500 km at the widest part.
Vietnam’s area is 331,690 km². Vietnam’s population is 97.468.029.
As we can see on Vietnam’s map, it borders China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the West and the Eastern Sea to the East.
Most parts of Vietnam’s territory consist of low mountains and hills. Only 1% of Vietnam is covered with tall mountains.
Vietnam’s deltas play an important role in the life of the country as they house some of its biggest cities. The two most important ones are the Red River Delta (or Northern Delta) and the Mekong River Delta (or Southern Delta).
Vietnam has a coastline of 3.260km. In the Tonkin Gulf, we can find around 3.000 islets and islands that belong to Vietnam. These include HaLong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, two of the main tourist attractions of the country.
Vietnam’s time zone is Indochina Time (UTC+7). There’s no Daylight Savings Time.
History and Heritage of Vietnam
Vietnam has been populated since at least half a million years ago, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The legends say that Vietnam’s population descends from a dragon and a fairy, who together had a hundred children.
The eldest descendant was supposed to be the founder of a ruling Vietnamese dynasty, who remained in power until 258 BC.
Around that time, Chinese influence began to grow. A commander of the ruling Qin Dynasty founded an independent kingdom in Southern China: Nanyue. It also included the north and the coast of what is modern Vietnam.
Eventually, the kingdom fought against the Chinese rulers and lost. All its territories were ceded to China. But Vietnam doesn’t resent that time period: in fact, in Vietnamese, Nanyue is spelled Nam Viet. That’s the root of the country’s actual name.
Vietnam was ruled by Chinese dynasties until 1427, but not without resistance: two of Vietnam’s national heroes, the Trung sisters, led a successful revolt against Chinese rules and liberated the country.
The final rebellion, led by the fighter Le Loi, triumphed in 1427 and completed Vietnam’s independence from China. However, their influence stayed in Vietnam in the shape of agriculture techniques and infrastructure.
Sadly, that was not the country’s last invasion: now it was Europe’s time in Vietnam. First came the Portuguese in the 16th century, but they only built trading posts and didn’t go any further.
In the 19th century came the French, who conquered Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in less than 50 years.
In the 20th century, a nationalist movement led by communist Ho Chi Minh began to occupy North Vietnam, but the French didn’t let this slide. Thus, the Indochina Wars began. In the end, Vietnam was divided into the Viet Minh to the north (the communist fighters) and the south was left to the French.
However, in the 1960s, the United States of America tried to crush the growth of communism and sent thousands of troops to Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War came to an end in the 1970s with the victory of North Vietnam. By 1976, North and South Vietnam were reunited into a socialist republic.
So, is Vietnam communist to this day? Yes: it’s a one-party communist state.
Culture and Traditions of Vietnam
This is a very diverse country. Although the official Vietnam language is Vietnamese, there are several others spoken throughout the country like French or Chinese, remnants of their domination of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s population believes strongly in the role of family. It’s still common to see families living together in one house led by a patriarch, especially in rural areas. The women work, raise children and manage the finances.
The role of the elderly is algo important for Vietnam’s population. For example, ancestor worship is still common: most houses and businesses have altars for their ancestors.
Religion is not as important to Vietnam’s population as in some other countries of Asia. In fact, more than 86% of the country doesn’t follow any specific creed. To compare, only 6% consider themselves Catholics and less than 5%, Buddhists. The “triple religion” (Tam Giao) that defined the culture of Vietnam has been a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Some of Vietnam’s core values are humility and modesty. It’s not well seen to be boastful of wealth or too affectionate in public. These values are also reflected in the clothing: you won’t see many Vietnamese people in exotic garments.
Music and dancing also have a place in the culture of Vietnam’s population: there are nearly 50 national instruments! The musical style and dance forms can be different in different regions. Some of Vietnam’s traditional dances include the fan dance, Lion dance or the imperial lantern dance.
The absolute most important national holiday is Tet (Lunar New Year). There’s another similar festival: the Mid-autumn lantern festival. However, it’s less important than Tet. Those are times of feasting and gift-giving, a massive celebration for all of Vietnam.
Gastronomy of Vietnam
Vietnam’s food is revered in every corner of the world. It’s a mix of Western and Eastern cuisine: the Five basic elements of Eastern philosophy (tenets of Chinese cuisine) are a major influence in the gastronomy of Vietnam. Since the French spent many years in Vietnam, their cuisine is also a strong influence.
Vietnam’s food is also regional: we won’t find the same dishes in the North and in the South. For example, traditional dishes of the North are Pho, Bun Cha or Cha Ca. To the South we can find influences of Thai and Chinese food. Central Vietnam’s staple ingredient is fresh seafood.
Rice is omnipresent in Vietnam’s food, it’s eaten at least in 3 meals a day.
Here’s a list of some traditional Vietnamese dishes everyone should try at least once while traveling:
- Pho: a noodle soop.
- Bun Cha: grilled pork and rice noodles with herbs and dipping sauce.
- Banh Cuon: steamed rice pasta stuffed with pork and black mushrooms. It’s known as the “Vietnamese ravioli”.
- Cha Ca: fried fish with rice noodles and roasted peanuts.
Tea is the national drink of Vietnam, although we won’t have any problem finding other drinks like beer. Did you know that Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer after Brazil? Don’t miss the opportunity to try the Cafe Da, a traditional form of iced coffee perfect for warm days.
Weather in Vietnam
You can find different types of weather in Vietnam depending if you travel to the North, Center or the South, although it tends to be hot and humid everywhere.
- The best time in Vietnam to visit the Northern parts of the country is from April to June. The weather is warm and sunny, but it’s not the most intense part of the summer. This would be a great time to explore HaLong Bay and the city of Hanoi.
- The best time in Vietnam to travel to the center of the country is from March to August. If you plan to visit Hue or Hoi An, this would be the perfect time for warm and sunny days.
- The best time in Vietnam to travel to the South, for example to visit Ho Chi Minh City or the Mekong Delta, is from December to April. It is not fully summer, but the weather will be enjoyable.
We can find monsoons and typhoons if we travel to Vietnam between June and November. From December to April, there is less chance of rainfall.
Currency of Vietnam
Vietnam currency is the dong (VND).
There are banknotes of 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10.000, 20.000, 50.000, 100.000, 200.000 and 500.000 dong.
The coins are not as used as the larger banknotes, but they are of 200, 500, 1.000, 2.000 and 5.000 dong.
Main tourist attractions of Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is probably the first stop you’ll make on your trip. Formerly known as Saigon, HCMC (a popular acronym) is the largest city in the country.
In this city you can’t miss the following attractions: the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Pagoda of the Jade Emperor and the Cao Dai Temple.
Another common tourist experience in Ho Chi Minh City is to hire a guide and explore the war tunnels in the Cu Chi District, 40km away from HCMC. They were used as hiding places, hospitals and living quarters by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
Hanoi in Vietnam is one of the most important cities in Vietnam. In fact, it’s the capital of Vietnam.
Don’t miss the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the unique Pillar Pagoda, The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the Temple of Literature and the Cathedral for the ultimate experience in Hanoi, Vietnam.
This city is a World Heritage Site protected by UNESCO.
Its key attraction is the lantern show you can see everyday in the streets at sunset, especially during Tet. When it’s time for the New Year, many workshops strive to create the prettiest lantern using only traditional designs in bright and powerful colors. But Tet is not the only time in Vietnam for lanterns: they are brought to life in festivals taking place every full moon.
One of the most important things to do in Vietnam is the Mekong Delta and its floating markets.
The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world and it finishes in Vietnam with a delta.
To fully appreciate the floating markets and their products, the best thing you can do is go early in the morning.
The city of Hue is located alongside the Perfume River, halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. On top of being a beautiful city, it also has historic importance: it was designated as the limit between North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
One of Hue’s main tourist attractions is the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the capital of Vietnam until 1945.
Most people choose to cruise through it by bike, taking in the stunning surroundings but at your own pace.
If you’re in Hue, you also shouldn’t miss the Elephant Springs and the Tu Hieu and Thien Mu Pagodas.
Golden Hands Bridge
The Golden Hands Bridge (also called Golden Bridge) is located in Da Nang, Vietnam, and it’s one of the country's most popular attractions. The 150m long bridge is held by two enormous hands.
This special bridge has some amazing views and it’s only for pedestrians. The best time in Vietnam for exploring the Golden Bridge is early in the morning: it’s the best way to avoid crowds and the fog.
HaLong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay
These two bays are some of the most recognizable landscapes of Vietnam.
In HaLong Bay we can find limestone towers rising from the water, a special sight for those looking for a nice day on the beach. Since it’s extremely beautiful, it’s no surprise that it’s usually filled with tourists.
Bai Tu Long Bay is nearby and it has similar sights. However, it’s much less crowded. This is a good alternative for travelers looking for a little peace and quiet.
Phong Nha National Park
You can find Phong Nha National Park sitting very close to the border between Laos and Vietnam, to the West of the country.
Take an excursion to Phong Nha’s caves, the main activity of the park. The cave that shares a name with the park is, the Phong Nha cave, is more than 7.000m long.
Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this National Park is also excellent for trekking to different waterfalls whilst admiring the biodiversity of the jungle.
Phu Quoc Island
This island is off the coast of Cambodia and it has stunning, idyllic beaches like Sao Beach or Khem Beach.
If suntanning on the sand isn’t your preferred activity, you can also visit the Vinpearl Safari Care and Conservation Park. You could encounter white Bengal tigers, elephants and several species of monkeys.
Another activity to do while on the island is going to Phu Quoc National Park for the Suoi Tranh Waterfall.
Rice Fields in Mai Chau
A few hours away from Hanoi, Vietnam, we can find Mai Chau, a beautiful rural village perfect to learn about the agricultural side of Vietnam.
In Mai Chau you should ride a bicycle through the green rice fields, explore the Pu Luong Nature Reserve and the Hoa Binh Lake, and also shop for Vietnamese textiles.
Safety in Vietnam
Is Vietnam safe? Vietnam is a safe country for tourists. Of course, as in most tourist destinations, we still should take certain precautions:
- Be aware of your belongings, especially on crowded spaces and public transport.
- Don’t keep all your money in the same place.
- Leave all important documents in the hotel safe. Carry with you photocopies.
- Traffic is a real hazard in Vietnam. Try to rent a car with a driver or move around Vietnam only using public transport. You can check our guide How to travel in Vietnam to learn about the means of transport in Vietnam.
- If you take a taxi, make sure it has a working meter and check the driver’s route on your GPS.
- Be extremely careful around wild animals. Avoid getting bitten as the animals may carry rabies.
Visa for Vietnam
Almost all nationalities have to apply for a Vietnam visa, although there are some exempt nationalities. You can apply for a Vietnam evisa online or in person at an Embassy, but online is the easiest and fastest way, especially if you do it with the help of specialized agencies such as visagov.com.
You must have a valid passport and a recent photograph to complete your application. If you wish to apply for another kind of visa for Vietnam, not for tourism, you will need to call the Embassy for information about the requisites.
All you need to know How to get Vietnam visa you can check out our guide.
Remember to check out Vietnam entry requirements as they may change over time.