Vietnam travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go

From head-spinning cities to tranquil natural scenery - via some exceptional street food - this is a bucket list favourite for a reason

Tamara Hinson
Tuesday 01 November 2022 11:14 GMT
Comments
<p>Hạ Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s hottest sightseeing spots</p>

Hạ Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s hottest sightseeing spots

A country famous for the diversity of its landscapes as well as its food, history and temples, Vietnam is a wallet-friendly destination which encompasses South East Asia’s best bits – you’ll never be far from some delicious street food, a heritage site or a pagoda, and the sprawling museums – many of which are in former palaces and government buildings - in monument-packed cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are fantastic places to learn about the country’s past.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

Currently (as of October 2022) mask wearing is still compulsory in public. Neither tests nor proof of vaccination are required to get into the country, regardless of vaccination status.

Best time to go

Vietnam’s climate varies according to region, but as a rule, March and April are great months to go - rainfall is generally low and temperatures are cooler. July and August are high season, with hot and humid weather. Hotels should be booked well in advance and prices can increase by 50 per cent.

Vietnam has hundreds of annual festivals and celebrations. The Buddha’s Birthday is one of the country’s most important events. It’s held in April or May (the exact date depends on the lunar calendar). During the celebrations, temples are adorned with lavish decorations and there are colourful street parades, the most vibrant of which take place in the coastal city of Hội An.

Top regions

Phú Quốc

In recent years Phú Quốc, a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia, has transformed into a popular winter sun destination. Don’t expect vast tracts of wilderness or opportunities for history fixes here – most people come to sprawl on the beach, although sites worth checking out include its (rather stinky) fish sauce factories and Phú Quốc prison, where Vietnamese soldiers were once imprisoned (and tortured in various horrific ways) by French and American troops.

Hanoi

Vietnam’s capital is smaller than Ho Chi Minh City and has retained a small-town feel. Parks and lakes (including Hoàn Kiếm Lake, with the stunning Ngoc Son Temple in in the middle) fill its centre, and its leafy streets are lined streets with heritage buildings. The Old Quarter is the best place for a history fix (it’s where you’ll find Hanoi’s beautiful French-built Opera House) and fantastic street food. Hanoi’s most visited site is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh

Vietnam’s biggest city has the country’s finest hotels and the tallest skyscrapers, although reminders of its past are omnipresent – in places such as the Reunification Palace (also known as the Independence Palace). In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates, sparking the fall of Saigon. Areas open to the public include former reception rooms, the president’s living quarters and the basement telecommunications centre. For further insight into Vietnam’s past, visit the War Remnants Museum for a fascinating (albeit harrowing) look at the US invasion of Vietnam.

Hạ Long Bay

Yes, Hạ Long Bay, in North-East Vietnam, has become somewhat crowded of late, but you can’t fail to be impressed by the limestone islets and pillars which earned this region its UNESCO World Heritage status. There are 1,600 islands, although most visitors base themselves on Cat Ba Island, the region’s largest. Popular activities include day cruises, kayaking and explorations of caves such as Tien Ong cave, which contains stone artefacts dating back to 10,000 BC.

Underrated destinations

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a pretty town in Northern Vietnam which is used by many travellers as a base by hikers keen to trek through Lào Cai Province’s hills. Close to the border with China, it’s home to the Hmong people, many of whom act as guides. Despite its location in Vietnam’s far north, getting there is relatively simple – there are regular bus services, although we recommend the eight-hour sleeper train service which departs from Hanoi.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

You’ll find this UNESCO-listed park in the Quang Binh province in north-central Vietnam. It straddles the border with Laos, and its diverse landscape includes limestone plateaux, tropical forests and cathedral-like caves. Most visitors stay in one of the many homestays close to the park.

My Son

My Son is a UNESCO-listed collection of Hindu temples in central Vietnam. The temples, built between the fourth and thirteenth centuries and famous for their intricately carved designs, were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by the French and were partially damaged by bombs dropped during the Vietnam war. Despite this, the site is absolutely worth a visit. It’s located 70km south of the coastal city of Da Nang.

Huế

Huế is a former feudal hilltop capital built by the Kings of the Nguyen Dynasty. This laidback central Vietnam city is filled with temples, pagodas and monasteries, and there are plenty of ancient palaces to check out, too. Its architecture is mind-bogglingly diverse – a single leafy street is highly like to have both a pagoda and an art déco mansion.

Best things to do

Check out Hanoi’s train street

Head to Hanoi’s centre to sip a chilled bottle of Saigon Red beer at a rickety trackside table and wait for the railway worker to sound the alarm that a train is approaching (albeit very slowly). Street food vendors and bar owners will quickly fold away their tables to make way for the train, before replacing them the second it’s trundled past.

Visit the Củ Chi tunnels

The best way to see these tunnels, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh, is on a guided tour. The tunnels were dug by the Viet Cong army and you’ll see some of the fearsome booby traps they created for the American “tunnel rats”, who struggled to understand how the Vietnamese soldiers appeared from nowhere then promptly disappeared. You’ll also get the chance to crawl along one of these claustrophobia-inducing passageways. Tours generally include a stop-off at a rubber plantation and there’s a firing range a few metres from the tunnels for anyone keen to fire off a few rounds from an AK-47.

Pay your respects to Hồ Chí Minh

The body of Vietnam’s former president, kept in a glass coffin in the Hồ Chí Minh mausoleum, is in surprisingly good shape, thanks to regular re-embalming sessions. The mausoleum is part of a complex which includes the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, where exhibits focus on Vietnam’s past struggles against various foreign powers.

Getting around

Vietnam’s extensive rail network includes plenty of spectacular sleeper train services, most of which have a range of different cabin types. For example, opt for an overnight train between Hanoi and Sapa, a popular trekking spot in the north, and your options include the Sapaly Express trains, with its spacious, wood-panelled cabins; the cheap-and-cheerful Dream Express trains; and Chapa Express trains, with small but ornate cabins. Prices for this journey range from £31 to £140 one-way. Alternatively, consider a long-distance coach. Most major destinations are connected by coach, and they’re incredibly cheap – expect to pay around £12 for an eight-hour journey. One of the biggest operators of sleeper coaches in Vietnam is The Sinh Tourist – their vehicles cover large parts of Vietnam and, like most modern sleeper coaches in the country, have armchair-like reclining seats.

How to get there

Air

Vietnam Airlines flies direct to both Hanoi (twice a week) and Ho Chi Minh (once a week, although a second route will launch in December 2022).

Bus

If you’re in neighbouring Cambodia, there are several long distance bus routes which connect the country to Vietnam.

Money-saving tip

US dollars might be the most widely-used currency amongst tourists in Vietnam, but we recommend using Vietnamese Dong. You’ll get better exchange rates and, given that prices are typically listed in Dong, it will be easier to check your change and to pay the exact amount.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

In the north, it’s hot and humid between May and October and cool and dry between November and April. December and January are the coldest months – particularly in the far north. In the south, dry season lasts between November and April and rainy season lasts from May to November. In central Vietnam, the wettest period is between June and November.

What time zone is it in?

Indochina time (GMT+7).

What currency do I need?

Vietnamese Dong.

What language is spoken?

Vietnamese, although English is widely spoken.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in