IIn a nutshell: Curvaceous Vietnam, wedged between the warm waters of the East Sea and the forested Annamite Mountains that border Laos, offers adventures on land, river and sea. You’ll discover ancient ruins, floating markets, hill tribe communities, beach havens and island paradises, with plenty of opportunities to get active, from forest-trekking and paddy field walks to kitesurfing. Add in the romantic charms of Hanoi and Hoi An, the full-on experience of Ho Chi Minh City, and one of the world’s most tantalizing cuisines, from street food to haute cuisine, and it’s easy to see why Vietnam has such a wide appeal, from family holidays to luxurious romantic sojourns.
Language: Vietnamese, but staff in hotels and tourist areas tend to also speak English.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong, with US dollars accepted in many places.
Getting to Vietnam:
- International flights arrive in the capital, Hanoi, in the north, or in Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Danang, in central Vietnam, is an international gateway for Asian flights.
- Vietnam Airlines flies direct from Heathrow to Hanoi and to Ho Chi Minh City. Newly promoted southern beach resort island, Phu Quoc, has an international airport with direct flights from London with charters.
Getting Around Vietnam:
- Internal domestic flights with national carrier Vietnam Airlines and several budget operators make sense in a country that’s more than 1,600 kilometres long.
- The Reunification Express train connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with some operators providing comfortable sleepers. Luxury train carriage Victoria Express links Hanoi to the northwestern mountain resort of Sapa.
- Boats cruise the southern Mekong River and northern Red River, while sea journeys are made to and around Ha Long Bay in the north and to Phu Quoc and Con Dao in the south.
- Coaches and minivans serve all corners of the country. Self-drive car hire is not available but motorbike hire is a popular method of travel for the intrepid. Principal highways can be dangerous in Vietnam.
When To Go To Vietnam?
Vietnam’s high season is November through to April, and the months of July and August, but temperatures vary within the country. Humidity soars in the south from April. It can be cool in the north between December and March. Typhoons may strike different latitudes of Vietnam between June and November. Although Tet, Vietnamese lunar New Year (late January or early February) is a wonderful time to visit Vietnam, prices soar and hotel and transport is hard to come by.
Festivals/Events in Vietnam
- Tet is the main national festival, with festivities focused on families and homes. Stalls cell candied fruits, cakes, and kumquat bushes.
- The biennial Hué Festival celebrates all things cultural. The Mid-Autumn Festival, held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, commemorates a legend of a Chinese king transported to the moon. Moon cakes (sweet and savoury desserts) are sold everywhere.
- Dozens of local and regional festivals fill the calendar, too, which are worth keeping an ear open for.
Food & Drink in Vietnam
- Vietnam’s food bounty from its rivers, seas and soil is world class. From street food stalls to haute cuisine, you can indulge like a king or queen here.
- The national spice-spiked beef noodle soup, pho bo, is eaten for breakfast across the north. Fresh spring rolls are a ubiquitous pleasure, as are banh mi, paté-stuffed baguettes.
- Bun cha in Hanoi (pork patties served with rice vermicelli, heaped herbs and fish sauce) is a favourite lunchtime street food dish.
- In the south, look for banh xeo, shrimp and bean sprout-crammed large pancakes.
- Vietnamese people also love their ice cream (kem). Local fresh beer, bia hoi, is drunk on pavement stools. Rice wines keep highlanders warm and ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) fuels the nation.
Top 5 things to do in Vietnam
Sail through Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long
Explore Hanoi’s Old Town and French Quarter
Cruise along the Mekong Delta
Discover the subterranean splendour of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Soak up the romantic atmosphere of Hoi An
For more ideas, see Top 10 things to do in Vietnam
Ultimate Luxury Experience in Vietnam
- Charter a seaplane to soak up Vietnam’s varied verdant and coastal landscapes from the sky. From Ho Chi Minh City, fly to the floating markets of Can Tho, then on to one of the sandy paradises on Con Dao or Phu Quoc, or the sand dunes of coastal corner Mui Ne.
- From the Surrey-like French hill station Dalat, fly to Hué and from there to the mega-popular beach resort of Nha Trang or Danang. For your ultimate island escape to deserted beaches, fly from Hanoi to Co To Island, over the drowned karst peaks, in the farthest reaches of Ha Long Bay.
Ultimate Family Experience in Vietnam
- Learn, cook and taste on a multi-day cooking holiday. Dive into city’s wet markets to pluck your protein, wander herb gardens for those crucial green ingredients, and buy fruit and veg from wandering salesmen and women before taking guided tuition on how to craft perfect Vietnamese dishes, from the more difficult-than-it-looks fragrant spring roll to a beef pho noodle soup.
- This kind of taste adventure in the culinary heaven that is Vietnam will appeal to budding chefs of all ages and will provide the family with favourite dishes that you’ll want to recreate back at home.
For more ideas on family travel adventures, read 12 Great Family Destinations
What to pack on a trip to Vietnam
- If travelling the length of the country, pack for varied weather conditions and include hiking boots, waterproof sandals, and a waterproof jacket. Pack high factor sun cream, sun hat and mosquito repellent, too.
- In temples, legs and upper arms should be covered. Women should note that Vietnamese women tend to be quite conservatively dressed and don’t tend to ‘let it all hang out’.
- Bring an adaptor with two round pins for electricity sockets. Bring a cheap phone, or dual-SIM phone, as Vietnam SIM cards and calls are very cheap.
Health & Safety in Vietnam
- Drink bottled water only. Parts of central south and mountainous central Vietnam are considered low-risk malarial areas, so take advice from your GP. Pack mosquito repellent and long-sleeved clothing for evenings. Dengue fever is known to be in parts of Vietnam.
- Take care on roads, as accident rates are high.
- Take advice on unexploded ordnance (UXO) in remote areas. Wise up on common scams, and take care of cameras and bags when riding on the back of motorbikes.
Travel Tips for Vietnam
- Crossing the road is an art form in Vietnam. Against instinct, step into the moving traffic and keep walking. The responsibility lies with the traffic to work around you.
- Although the Vietnamese language is Romanised, it’s still hard to decipher what’s going on, especially on your plate. Take time to join foodie tours on your trip to get a handle on the country’s cuisine.
- Taxi rides are more comfortable but you haven’t experienced Vietnam until you’ve hailed a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) to writhe through the traffic.
- the grand dame of Vietnam’s hotels, Hanoi’s Indochine-glam Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, former haunt of writers Grahame Greene and Somerset Maugham, which boasts its own wartime bunker.
- Elsewhere, the former French colonial governor’s home in Hué, the sumptuous La Résidence Hué, is an art deco gem.
- Cuc Gach Quan in Saigon for vintage glamour and an extraordinary range of tasty Vietnamese dishes, and the rich pickings at Ben Thanh night market. Hanoi’s Old Quarter sizzles with delectable street food eats.
- Sit down at restaurant Cha Ca Thang Long for Hanoi’s famed herb-enveloped white fish fillet and rice noodles.
You have to go to…
- the Reunification Palace in Saigon, the extraordinarily time-capsuled 1960s seat of the government of South Vietnam. Don’t miss the period furniture and basement war room. The preserved remains of Vietnam’s revered independence leader, Ho Chi Minh, can also be viewed in his austere Hanoi mausoleum.
Before you go…
- read Graham Greene’s excellent novel The Quiet American for a love triangle set in Vietnam under the French, or for contemporary insight, digest Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton.
Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer whose heart is split between Latin America and the Far East. She writes mainly about Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos for the international press. See www.claireboobbyer.com, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @claireboobbyer