A travel guide to Vietnam with independent reviews and recommendations. No sponsored content, no advertorial.

Vietnam travel guide

Vietnam Introduction

| 23 Jun 2016
Last updated 23 Jun 2016

More than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s transformation has moved into overdrive. A country that was only recently struggling to shake off the impact of decades of conflict, is now dealing with the dilemmas of rapid economic growth. It's an amazing time of change.


Vietnam travel highlights
* The far north - from Ha Giang to Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam’s  mountainous north is spectacularly beautiful, culturally rich and unique. Not to be missed.
* Hanoi - The clash between tradition and modernity plays out on Hanoi’s streets every day - and it isn’t always pretty. Stunning architecture, amazing streets for photography and food - and an atmosphere unlike any place on earth.
* Halong Bay may be a mass tourism cliche, but it’s earned its place. Do it.
* Phong Nha Caves are a relatively recent arrival on Vietnam travel itineraries - beautiful caves in spectacular limestone mountains along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.
* The old capital of Hue is a personal favourite - but it takes some effort. Great for photographers.
* Hoi An and My Son - Hoi An’s old streets are loved by travellers.
* Saigon - Crazy, chaotic, hyperactive and intoxicating.
* The beaches - Phu Quoc is booming, Con Dao is trying. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are established. Some of the best patches of coast are between Nha Trang and Hoi An - if less developed destinations are your preference.
* Mekong Delta - rice paddies, fruit orchards and wooden boats in narrow, tree shrouded canals - life on the Mekong.

Check our menu for details on all these places.

more introduction

Vietnam has enjoyed two decades near the top of global economic growth rankings. Tens of millions, of a population of 90 million,  have been lifted out of poverty. Young Vietnamese now have access to a lifestyle unimaginable by their parents. And this extraordinary generational spectacle is on display in the major cities, Saigon and Hanoi.

But rapid development is posing new challenges. Pollution, soaring inequality and corruption, destruction of environment and heritage, and previously unheard of health challenges like obesity and diabetes, are now major concerns.

It’s hard to imagine how Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, could be more different. Hanoi retains its colonial grace and a certain aloofness while Saigon, always at full throttle, has managed to hold on to its friendly charm, while struggling to stay ahead of its own momentum.

Vietnam offers a welcome that is warm and convincing. Any postwar bitterness that exists is well hidden. The atmosphere, especially in the south, is exuberant.

The commerce may be too much at times, but the positive energy of the place will sweep you up.

And there’s plenty of diversity. The spectacular mountain country of the far north with its hilltribes and rice terraces seems galaxies away from the agricultural frenzy of the Mekong Delta. And in between, there’s the history of Hue and Hoi An and a coastline sporting stunning beaches and wonderful islands.

Vietnam’s exquisite cuisine and its shopping are also winning the hearts of travellers from around the world.

Vietnam offers a near perfect combination of cultural and historical depth and simple great experiences for the curious traveller. But it’s the atmosphere of a people on a mission that really makes Vietnam a great place to be.

 

Vietnam weather guide

Best time to travel?

Vietnam's unique geography makes it an especially tricky climatic puzzle. While travellers visit the country in big numbers year round, it's difficult to pick a "best" time to travel. The good news is that you're likely to strike good weather somewhere no matter when you travel.

Keep in mind that Vietnam's three regions - the north, the centre and the south, each experience different weather patterns at different times of the year. Their respective "best" months tend not to coincide.So here are some weather tips to factor into your planning -

We like Vietnam best in the hot wet months of June, July and August. The rice paddies are lush, beaches beckon and the afternoon storms are a great spectacle. Oh - and the occasional day might be lost to rain but some enforced down time can be a nice thing too.

There are fewer travellers on the ground as well though that's starting to change as the domestic summer holidays start to take off for locals.

Heat

Vietnam's south (Saigon and the Mekong Delta to around Quy Nhon) is tropical and therefore temperatures fluctuate between hot and less hot. You're not likely to ever need a coat in these parts.

In the north - (Hanoi and surrounds up to the Chinese border), there are four distinct seasons. Summer in Hanoi (June, July, August) is even more oppressive than it is in Saigon. The humidity is relentless - you'll be soaked for much of the time you're outside.

Cold

As we've said, you don't need to worry about the cold while travelling in south. Hue and Hoi An will occasionally experience cooler conditions (a light jacket should suffice) in December and January and these are not good months for a beach resort holiday in the Danang, Hoi An, Hue area.

In Hanoi and the north, winter temperatures rarely fall below 15 (except around Sapa and northern highlands where it can be cooler again) but the moisture in the air can make it feel a lot cooler. Make sure you have some warmth with you.

Halong Bay can be very cold and grey in winter months with very poor visibility. The bay in winter has appeal too!

Rain

The wet season runs to a slightly different pattern in each place so check each destination on this website for more detail.

In the south, the wet season runs from May until November. The rain tends to be fall in short major downpours rarely longer than a couple of hours. Successive days of all day rain are very rare.

Vietnam is at its most beautiful during the wet - especially in the countryside where rice paddies glisten under amazing skies.

For our money, if you can cope with the heat, travel in the wet season. You'll definitely see the country at its most visually spectacular - even if it's on the warm side. The rain is unlikely to interfere with your travels.

June, July and August will be hot everywhere in Vietnam and you'll also enjoy picturesque conditions everywhere.

Typhoons and floods

Central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta suffer from serious flooding most years. It's difficult to plan around the flooding but it usually occurs in September and October. Travellers to Hue, Hoi An and Phong Nha are especially vulnerable to flooding during these months.

October and November are also months when Vietnam is most frequently hit by severe storms that can disrupt air, road and sea travel. Curiously, these are also some of the most popular months for travel.

 

Visas for Vietnam

Since 2015, Vietnam's visa system has been in a state of constant change. Visa arrangements are slowly liberalising, but there are some tricky pitfalls. Many European nations can obtain visas on arrival without prior arrangement. There are complicated rules about re-entering Vietnam if you are travelling regionally and using Vietnam as a base. In short, you need to check carefully the visa situation applicable to your country, and be aware of strict duration limits and re-entry conditions.

Sorry we can't be more helpful! Check carefully. And check duration and re-entry conditions.

 

Getting to Vietnam

Arriving at international airports

Vietnam’s main international gateways are its airports in the capital Hanoi - Hanoi Noi Bai  and the commercial centre of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - Tan Son Nhut in the south. Danang airport in central Vietnam is becoming a significant international gateway as well.

Hanoi and Saigon handle multiple daily flights from most Asian capitals from most Asian and some European carriers. Danang sees fewer but an increasing number of international flight arrivals. Other small cities are also starting to receive international flights.

The national carrier Vietnam Airlines has an extensive regional and international network. A number of budget regional carriers including Jetstar, Vietjet, Air Asia, Scoot and Tiger Airways operate services into Saigon, Danang and Hanoi out of Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Local budget carrier Vietjet is rapidly expanding its international network and offers some very competitive flights to many major regional centres.

Arriving by land

An increasing number of travellers to Vietnam choose to use land borders to enter and or depart the country. This is especially practical if you’re travelling from Phnom Penh in Cambodia into Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa or through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta crossings at Chau Doc and Ha Tien into Cambodia.

Overland crossings from Vietnam into Laos and China are also an option - usually for travellers with time on their hands and a readiness to take on some long rides in public transport.

The most commonly used international border crossings for Vietnam are -

Borders between Vietnam and Cambodia

Moc Bai (Vietnam) and Bavet (Cambodia)  - for travel between Phnom Penh and Saigon

This is Vietnam’s most commonly used land border for travellers. The journey between Saigon and Phnom Penh is inexpensive, comfortable and travel times are down to around 5 - 6 hours. Dozens of buses of varying quality now operate on this route each day. Prices are around US$15 each way. Fares for the 20 minute  flight are between 5 and 10 times more expensive for a saving of perhaps of 2 - 3 hours.

Vin Xuong (Chau Doc) Vietnam / Kaam Samnor (Cambodia) - for travel between Chau Doc (Mekong Delta) and Phnom Penh

This is the river crossing from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh. Multiple boats of varying quality run this route and can be booked in Chau Doc. The journey takes around 4 hours. Chau Doc is an interesting Mekong Delta town too.

Ha Tien - for travel between Ha Tien (Vietnam) and Kep (Cambodia) - for travel between Phu Quoc Island, the Mekong Delta and southern Cambodia

A less frequently used border, this is the gateway to Cambodia’s beautiful southern coast and is especially convenient for those travelling from Phu Quoc Island into Cambodia and vice versa.

Borders between Vietnam and Laos

These border crossings are popular with backpackers and those with plenty of time. They involve long road journeys - often on scenic but bumpy roads. Be ready to rack up a few traveller’s tales.

Dansavanh / Lao Bao - for travel between Hue and Savannahket / southern Laos
Nam Phao / Cau Treo - for travel between Vinh in central Vietnam and Vientiane and other points in Laos

Borders between Vietnam and China

Vietnam has two main border crossings with China. The most popular is at the Friendship Gate just beyond the Vietnamese city of Lang Son. The second is at Lao Cai which is also the main rail stop for travel to Sapa. These borders, like those in Laos are for travellers with plenty of time and patience.

Friendship bridge - for travel by road or rail from Hanoi and Lang Son to Nanning and on to Beijing.
Lao Cai - Hekou - for travel by road from Sapa into China. Hekou is 400+ kms from Kunming

 

Getting Around

Most travellers to Vietnam will use a combination of flights and road travel to get around. There are airports at all major centres and the Reunification Express train runs the length of the country between Hanoi and Saigon. An inexpensive and regular bus service covers the whole country too. A popular train service also operates between Hanoi and Lao Cai for travellers heading to Sapa. Vietnam’s not particularly large so overland travel is practical. Domestic airfares are cheap so it’s not unusual for travellers with time to cover the whole country overland - either by road or rail.


Getting around by air

Vietnam now has three major domestic airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet. Vietnam Airlines has a major stake in Jetstar Pacific so Vietjet is the main alternative and offers sharp prices on a network that covers most destinations. Be careful of baggage allowance rules - especially with the budget carriers. Excess baggage charges at airports are punitive.

Getting around by rail

The Reunification Express train operating between the capital Hanoi and Saigon in the south can be a good option for part of your Vietnam journey assuming time is not an issue. Fares are cheap and sleeper cabins (usually four berth) are basic but clean and comfortable enough. Travel between Hue and Hanoi and vice versa is common for travellers. Ninh Binh is easily accessed from Hanoi and Phan Thiet is a nice ride from Saigon.

The most popular rail route for travellers is between Hanoi and Lao Cai for the journey to Sapa and the northern highlands. In recent years, road improvements mean many travellers choose the make the journey by bus.

Getting around by road

There’s no avoiding plenty of time on Vietnam’s dangerous and chaotic roads during your travels here. Inexpensive bus services operate along the coast between Hanoi and Saigon so many time rich travellers - mostly backpackers - traverse the whole country by road. Other common road journeys operate into the Mekong Delta,  between Hoi An to Hue (3 hours) and the journey to Halong Bay (3 hours). There are fairly awkward rail alternatives on these routes but road travel is quicker and usually good value for money - especially when two or more travellers are together.

Cycling in Vietnam

Cycling is a practical option around many of Vietnam’s towns though long haul cycles tend to be for the very committed. Dangerous roads make it a precarious pursuit. Seek out backroads. Most travellers choose to confine cycling to specific destinations. Hue, Hoi An, Phong Nha and the Mekong Delta are good places for casual cycling. Serious cyclists may struggle to find quality bicycles to rent.

There is a small band of committed travellers that cycle between Hanoi and Saigon or ride motorbikes between the two cities. Both depend on having lots of time, energy and pretty calm nerves. Vietnam is not the place to learn how to ride a bicycle or motorcycle.

Vietnam by motorbike

If you're thinking of making your way around Vietnam by motorbike, keep in mind that roads can be very dangerous and your travel insurance probably won't cover you in the event of an accident (unless you're a fully licensed motorcyclist and all other paperwork is in order). Many travellers have been killed and injured on Vietnam's roads. Many families have been dealt the double blow of having a loved one seriously injured and then receiving an horrendous bill for the treatment. Think carefully before you decide to jump on a motorbike - alluring as the idea is!

 

Health and Safety - Vietnam

Vietnam is a very safe travel destination by world standards. Serious crime against travellers is rare - though petty street crime such as phone, camera and bag theft are a common problem - especially in Saigon and Nha Trang. There are a number of additional hazards that travellers should be aware of and we list them here.

Crime

While serious crime against travellers in Vietnam is rare, petty crime is common and increasing. The most common crimes against travellers are phone theft, bag slashing / snatching and motorcycle drive by bag snatching. Motorcycle drive-by snatching has led to serious and fatal fall injuries. Don’t carry unnecessary valuables or wear clothing and jewellery that may make you a target. Ensure that you have your bag held close to your body and be especially wary of your valuables - as well as the traffic - when crossing busy roads. Be careful when using your camera and phone on city streets.

Violent crime against travellers is rare. Common sense rules of safety - staying away from dangerous areas and situations - should ensure safe happy travels. Violent brawls in some of Saigon’s late night establishments have been reported in recent times. Saigon’s Bui Vien backpacker area can get nasty late at night. 

There have also been reports of violent crime in Nha Trang and Cat Ba.

Scams

While serious crime is rare, scams are more common. They are particularly prevalent in the backpacker district. Common scams include taxi, cyclo and xe om (motorcycle taxi) rip offs and intimidation. There are many dubious taxi operations in Saigon and Hanoi. Reputable companies will tend to have newer, better vehicles. Try and have an idea where you are headed before you go out. With cyclos and xe om, negotiate a fixed price before you board.

Dogdgy taxis congregate at airports and target travellers at popular tourism destinations such as the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and Ba Dinh Square and the Old Quarter in Hanoi.

It often pays to have a regular xe om or cyclo driver for a few days. That way you'll develop some trust and probably have some fun as well.

There are a countless number of other scams that common sense and caution will reduce your exposure to.

Be very wary of “students” or other people making appeals for your charity on the street or offering unsolicited hospitality. Avoid money changers on the street.

Many cheap hotels recommend poor quality and overpriced tours and transport services. Check with other travellers or online before booking services from a hotel.

Some travellers have been confused by the currency. Don’t mistake 50K and 500K Vietnam Dong notes.

Saigon and Hanoi airports are havens for scammers. Either take a prepaid taxi for a small premium or choose a reputable taxi company.


Police

Fortunately, you are unlikely to require the services of the police during your travels in Vietnam. If you do, be warned that they tend to be disinterested and unhelpful. The most common need for police assistance for travellers is for the provision of a police report of a theft. A police report should be provided without a fee.

You will likely need an interpreter for your police dealings - even in tourist districts. Be polite and respectful with police at all times.

 

Safety

Vietnam’s roads pose the biggest safety risk to travellers. The number of trucks, cars and motorcycles continues to grow quickly and they view pedestrians with equal contempt. Pedestrian crossings should be ignored as they are by local drivers. You should also be wary on pavements as motorcyclists will regularly mount these at high speed to get around a traffic snarl. They will expect you to know they are coming and make appropriate space for them.

Naturally, general safety standards in Vietnam are not high. In addition to the roads, travellers should also be wary of boats, hotel electrical fittings and road and construction works.

 

Staying healthy in Vietnam

Vietnam’s health system has not kept pace with the country’s development so it pays to try and stay healthy while here. There are now a number of international standard facilities in Saigon, Danang and Hanoi, however they are only able to provide world class healthcare across a small range of health complaints. Outside of these cities, health facilities are basic.

Many serious health conditions require evacuation to Singapore or other Asian cities. Travellers should have good medical insurance including evacuation insurance in the event of serious illness or injury. Remember that unlicensed riding of a motorbike will void your insurance.

There are a number of steps you can take to minimise health risks while in Vietnam -

* Drink only bottled water.
* Use mosquito nets where these are necessary. They will normally be provided in accommodations where there is a risk.
* Eat street food with care. Eating street food and fresh salads is one of the joys of travelling in Vietnam. It can also be unhygienic. There is no easy way around this risk but use some common sense when choosing where and what to eat - and how much uncooked food you’re ready to risk. It’s also worth noting that while stomach upsets are common while travelling, serious food related illness is not as common.
* See your doctor before you travel and take advice on other health precautions.
* Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a major cause of illness. Drink lots of water.

 

Cash and cards in Vietnam

The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) - we’re done with dong jokes. At time of writing, US$1 = 22,000VND. In recent years the dong has been quite stable against the US dollar, in line with Vietnamese government action. While US dollars are widely accepted, you’re better using the dong as much as possible as there is usually a premium charged for US dollars.

ATMs accepting foreign cards are now found all through Vietnam so it’s possible to minimise the amounts of cash you carry. It makes sense to keep a few hundred US dollars spare in case there are bank or card problems but we’ve found them very reliable. It’s also a good idea to travel with more than one ATM card if you plan to make the ATM your main source of cash during your travels.


Credit cards are widely accepted at international hotels and large shops catering to tourists. They are less widely accepted at smaller hotels, shops and restaurants. Most local hotels will levy a 3% charge on credit card transactions. Most locally run hotels do not accept American Express or Diners cards.

International hotels usually accept all cards without surcharge.

 

Mobile phones and internet in Vietnam

Vietnam has excellent and inexpensive 3G - 4G mobile services. Grab a SIM card on arrival at any international terminal. Viettel is said to have the most extensive network if you’re travelling to remote areas. Vinaphone and Mobifone are also fine. You can purchase SIM cards with ample data and call credits for your holliday.

Internet access is ubiquitous throughout Vietnam. Free wifi is a standard feature of most hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants. This includes all the major traveller spots and many more remote places. Local 3G and 4G services are also good.

International calls from Vietnam are expensive from hotels, mobiles and landlines.

 

Media

Medis is tightly controlled in Vietnam. Services like Facebook and Google are also facing increasing pressure from the Vietnam government and are facing tighter regulation in 2019. The best place to catch up with local news in English is at VNexpress.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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