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Vietnam Travel Guide

Useful travel guide for Vietnam

1 - VIETNAM’S HIGHLIGHTS

  Vietnam is a vibrant, tropical country located in the heart of Southeast Asia, bordering China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west and the South China Sea to the east. The country stretches between two of Asia’s great river systems, the Red and Mekong, which fan out into broad, fertile deltas, rich in alluvial deposits that feed the country’s burgeoning population.

 

After opening up to tourism in the early 990’s, Vietnam has now be-come one of the most popular travel destinations in South East Asia. Drawn by Vietnam’s rich cultural traditions developed over 4,000 years of history, nearly 3 million visitors arrive annually.   With two thirds of the Vietnamese under thirty years of age, they are eager to interact with the outside world.

 

Visitors to Vietnam will be greeted at every turn with smiles and hellos, with teenage students happy to ask questions about hometowns, jobs, and family. In the Vietnamese language, the word for customer, “khach”, is the same as the word for guest.   Re-emerging after decades of turmoil, the country is quickly becoming a major Asian economic power, eager to put the painful decades of the 20th century behind them. With this development has brought massive, rapid changes to Vietnamese society, much like what Korea and Japan experi-enced in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, everywhere you look in Vietnam, there are concrete signs that the country is on the move, the double-digit growth rate of exports and construction serving as prime examples.

 

Street life in Vietnamese cities is vibrant, colorful and easy to enjoy. Families go on about their daily lives in front of their homes, eating, talking and enjoying the cool evening breezes, where traffic rushes by at a dizzying pace.

 

Shopping in Vietnamese markets reveals an amazing variety of choice, from Vietnamese silk products, to bamboo home wares to expertly tailored clothing available.

 

Eating in Vietnam offers further exploration, with three distinct regional cuisines, featuring fresh, tasty ingredients, from the Chinese influenced cuisine in the north, to the Imperial dishes found in the centre and to the spicy food in the far south.

 

Outside of the major metropolitan centers, dense tropical jungle and offshore coral reefs teeming with tropical fish are amongst the country’s highlights, with opportunities for scuba diving, relaxation on white sand beaches, mountain climbing and trekking.

 

With so much to do, see and experience, visitors are spoiled for choice in Vietnam, and with wide ranges of service from budget to luxury  properties, located in some of Vietnam’s most beautiful mountains, towns, and beaches making excellent bases from which to explore the magnificent rural scenery Vietnam is famous for. 

 

2 - BASIC FACTS ABOUT VIETNAM

-    Official Name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam

-   Capital City: Hanoi

-   System of Government: Socialist Republic

-    Head of State: Prime Minister

-    Time Zone: UTC +7

-    Economic Growth Rate: 8.5%

-    Labor Force: 44 Million

-    Population: (as of mid 2006): 84,000,000

-    Geographic Features: Mountainous in the north and centre, with fat fertile deltas in the south and north, the Mekong and Red Rivers

-    Land Area: 329,560 square kilometres (127,243 square miles)

-    Length of Country: 1,650 kilometres (,025 miles)

-    Length of Coastline: 3,400 kilometres (2,2 miles)

-    Climate: Tropical

-    Natural Resources: Hydroelectric power, forestry products, phosphates, coal, manganese, bauxite, chromate, and oil and gas deposits

 

3 - VIETNAMESE CULTURE

  Vietnamese culture is one of the most unique in Asia, rich in tradition, folklore, and literature: China, Vietnam’s northern neighbor, has heavily influenced the Vietnamese, who passed on their language, religion, and Confucian ethics to their southern neighbor. Strong family bonds have sustained the Vietnamese during their long and turbulent history, and visitors to Vietnam are frequently struck by the tight family structure that exists in the country, even despite the pressures of rapid modernization that are sweeping the country, rapidly developing Vietnam’s cities into modern metropolises rivaling those in neighboring countries.

 

3.1 - RELIGION

The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, who follows the Northern Path, or Mahayana Buddhist sect, that was introduced from China, identified by their light grey robes. In the south of Vietnam, it is common to see monks from the Southern Path, or Theravada Buddhist, (most widespread in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma) identified with their colorful saffron robes.

 

Strong missionary activity in Vietnam from the mid 500’s introduced Catholicism to the country, and in areas south of Hanoi, and north of Saigon, Catholic churches are typical sights for visitors. Upwards of 0% of the population identify themselves as Catholic, the highest percentage outside of the Philippines. Some Montagnards in the Central Highlands were converted to Protestantism in the early 20th century.

 

The Cao Dai religion is Vietnam’s most unique belief system, with elements of Catholicism, Taoism, Buddhism, and French philosophy blended into a religion that has a strong following in the Mekong Delta.

Both Taoism and Confucianism were introduced from China, and most Vietnamese follow some of the tenets of these philosophies, though the younger generation is increasingly rejecting both for more liberal interpretations of social obligations.

 

All Vietnamese houses have a small altar dedicated to their ancestors, where photos of deceased mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers are situated, behind offerings of incense, fresh fruit and sticky rice.

For Vietnamese, ancestor worship is an integral part of their daily ritual, and from early childhood Vietnamese are ingrained with this devotion to parents and grandparents.

 

3.2 - ETHNIC DIVERSITY

Kinh, the name used to describe the ethnic Vietnamese, account for 85% of the country’s population, which passed the 80 million mark in the early 2st century. Almost 70% of Vietnamese are under 30 years old, and Vietnam has one of the highest birth rates in the world, even with their two-child policy.

 

Ethnic Chinese, migrants from southern and eastern China, make up the next largest segment of the population, followed by the Khmers, who inhabit large areas of the Mekong Delta in areas that were once part of the Khmer Empire.

 

There are over fifty ethnic minorities in Vietnam, living in the Central Highlands and the mountains of the far North. Historically, Vietnamese have preferred to stay in the fat, fertile land close to the sea, leaving the country’s mountains free for the slash and burn style of agriculture practiced by the Hill tribes. Spending time in hill tribe villages is a highlight of a visit to Vietnam, and Sapa, Ban Me Thuot and Dalat make good jumping off points for trekking, hiking, and cultural exploration.

 

3.3 - STYLE OF DRESS

The Ao Dai, or ‘Long Dress’ in Vietnamese, is the national costume worn by both men and women, though the male version is not as tight fitting. Typically worn only at special occasions, female bank employees often wear them along with cabin crew at Vietnam Airlines.

 

During the socialist period in the 970’s and 980’s, the Ao Dai were not popular, though the garment enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the late 980’s.

 

Today, the designer Ao Dai is popular across the country, and visitors to Vietnam often make one as a souvenir of their visit. 

 

3.4 - ART & LITERATURE

Vietnamese literature has been strongly influenced by China, but sadly, much of what has been written in Vietnam has been lost over time. One of the most important surviving pieces of literature is Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu, which reveals much about the national character of Vietnamese, when faced with a decision; many Vietnamese girls will open the book to a random page and follow the advice contained in the story’s lyrical verses.

Vietnamese painters and sculptors have expressed their national soul through colorful, moody, often impressionistic pieces, which have recently gained a foothold in the international art scene. During the revolutionary period of the 20th century, bold propaganda posters extolled the values of Socialism and Leninism; today, originals sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

 

One of the most unique Vietnamese art forms is Water Puppetry, which was developed during large foods in the Red River Delta outside Hanoi, which didn’t stop puppeteers from continuing their performances. Even after the waters receded, the water stayed on, and catching an evening water puppetry show in Hanoi is a must.

 

Cai Luong is a type of theatrical performance popular in the Vietnamese countryside, which is losing ground in the cities as young people continue to be drawn to western style music.  Cai Luong was developed in the early 1900’s, and contains sarcastic humor delivered in short skirts.

The traditional Vietnamese folk art - ca tru singing - is believed to have religious origins. Scholars trace its origins back to a type of female singing known as hat a dao, which was widely performed as an expression of worship during the Ly dynasty (1010-1225). As time goes by, it gradually became popular and eventually changed to alternative name, ca tru (singing for reward).

4 - TRIP PLANNING

 

4.1 - WHEN TO VISIT

While Vietnam is a tropical country, the large distance between the mountainous north and the lush south creates a very diverse climate that is divided into two distinct seasons: the dry season and the monsoon season.

 

The southwest monsoon arrives in May and lasts until October, bringing short, afternoon rainstorms to most of the country. During these summer months, temperatures across the country reach in excess of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit), and typhoons can strike the coast between Nha Trang and Hanoi.

 

The northeast monsoon lasts between November and March, and brings dry, stable weather to the whole country. Winters in Hanoi are characterized by cool, misty mornings, giving the city a moody, romantic feeling, with temperatures ranging between 0 and 8 degrees Celsius (50 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit).

In the far north, around Sapa, snow is sometimes reported on the highest slopes of Mount Fansipan. In the south, winter is far milder, with temperatures between 27 and 3degrees Celsius (8 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit), characterized by dry, clear, sunny days.

 

The high season for international travel to Vietnam stretches between October and April, with late January and early February being the busiest period, when domestic travel demand increases with the arrival of the Vietnamese travel back to their home provinces for Tet, the Lunar New Year.

 

4.2 – EXPENSES

Travelling in Vietnam is economical, with good value for money in accommodation, transportation, and shopping. In recent years, prices for airline and railway tickets have been equalized for foreigners and locals, though this is still not the case with entrance fees for parks, tombs, and museums. With more choice, and better quality, costs for everything vary dramatically between the major cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the countryside.

Transportation on trains is inexpensive, as are domestic fights on Vietnam Airlines.

Bringing $15 USD per day (approximately 10 Euros) for incidental daily expenses, like tips, bottled water and soft drinks is a good benchmark, though travelers staying in luxury hotels should budget more.

 

Shopping is a highlight of travelling in Vietnam, and though the costs are higher than in Thailand, often the quality and selection tends to be better. Lacquer-ware, handicrafts, art, and high quality tailored clothing make excellent purchases and gifts. The selection is different in the north and the south; travelers should therefore not expect the same items to be available in Hanoi and Saigon.

 

Though Vietnamese bargain for almost everything, tourists will find an increasing number of ‘Fixed Price’ signs in shops, particularly urban boutiques. Where there is no sign, bargaining is accepted, and often expected of customers. A casual, light hearted approach to bargaining is essential to make the transaction a pleasant one for everyone involved, and with a little persistence prices should fall between 0 and 20%.

 

4.3 - TRAVEL LITERATURE

Many books have been written about Vietnam; however the majority tends to focus on the conflict in the mid 20th century. For books relating to the period, read Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy; Neil Sheehan’s Fire in the Lake, and Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried for differing perspectives on the war that divided the world public opinion on America’s involvement in Indochina.

 

With a perspective on the war with the Americans from the Vietnamese side, Bao Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War is a poignant look at the effects of the conflict of one soldier.

 

For a look at Vietnamese life after the end of the war, read Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, for a realistic look at life in Hanoi in the 1980’s. For a French perspective on life in colonial Saigon in the  920’s, Marguerite Duras’, The Lover, is an intimate portrait of life in the colonies and the Mekong Delta, told through the eyes of a 15-years-old French girl.

 

5. USEFUL WEBSITE

 www.vietnam-tourism.com: Official website of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism offers useful information and tourism statistics about Vietnam.   

www.vietnamairporttransfer.com: Our site provides useful information about transfer in Vietnam, kind of transport, distances….

www.pilotguides.com:  With the television Globe trekker programs aired on the Discovery Channel, the Food Guide to Vietnam and Vietnam Guide are interesting and humorous looks at travel in Vietnam.

www.thingsasian.com: Vietnam and Cambodia are some of the most popular countries on this website that features creative writing, and photography.

www.vietnamfoodtour: Covering all kinds of cuisine in Vietnam from street food to five star restaurants and culinary packages.

 www.weather.com: Detailed weather conditions for all of Vietnam’s major cities.

www.bayhalong.com: All information about beaches and cruises in Vietnam here with optional daily tour seashore cities.

www.visastovietnam.com: This is a door to open Vietnam’s gate with much useful information about visa to Vietnam or online application.

 

6 - ESSENTIALS OF VIETNAMESE COOKING

 Vietnamese food is light, fresh, and tasty, with strong regional differences in dishes from the north, centre and south of the country. Many culinary experts agree that Vietnamese food is also one of the most inventive in Asia, and in recent years, Vietnamese food has grown immensely popular as an ethnic food in the west. From Sydney to San Francisco, the cuisine is increasingly available, even outnumbering Thai restaurants in some areas.

 

Dining out while travelling in Vietnam is a definite highlight of any journey, and will form some of the most memorable experiences for visitors to Vietnam. With so many types of dishes to choose from, and served in such diverse ways, diners are spoiled for choice as eating out is a hugely popular pastime for Vietnamese of all walks of life. In fact, walking down any street in any village, town or city will reveal how diverse the cuisine of Vietnam really is.

And with the popularity of Vietnamese food in the west, many visitors will have already tried some Vietnamese dishes before they even arrive, and be familiar with Vietnamese spring rolls and the noodle soup served with chicken or beef, Pho.

 

It’s not Vietnamese food without it: Nuoc Mam. Used throughout the country, fish sauce, or Nuoc Mam, is an integral part of the Vietnamese dining experience. By the time visitors leave Vietnam, they will probably have accepted Nuoc Mam’s pungent odour and excellent favour; though restaurants serving foreigners will often be convinced no westerner can eat fish sauce. Vietnamese believe the best Nuoc Mam comes from Phu Quoc Island in the south, while others believe it comes from Phan Thiet.

 

As ubiquitous as rice, fish sauce is used as a condiment and as a marinade. Nuoc Mam is also typically used as a dip for fried spring rolls, and an additive to dry noodle and almost all rice dishes. Other variations of Nuoc Mam include Nuoc Cham, which is sweeter version of Nuoc Mam, as it is spiced with sugar and limejuice, and Mam Tom, made from shrimp which is a purplish, very strong smelling variety that most foreigners cannot eat.

 

6.1- NOTHERN VIETNAMESE FOOD

 Northern dishes are simpler than those in the centre and south, with chilies and spices used sparingly. Unlike the rest of Vietnam, soy sauce is commonly used in the north. Pho is originally from Hanoi, though it is now eaten everywhere: Pho is a light, clear broth served with white vermicelli noodles and sliced chicken or beef, and is often consumed as an early morning, or late evening, snack.

 

Fried spring rolls in the north are called Nem, and fresh spring rolls are called Banh Cuon. Bun Cha, a typical snack in Hanoi, is a dish of grilled beef served with vegetables, and is one of the most popular food for Hanoi residents, and the numerous Hanoi expatriates living in Ho Chi Minh City, where the dish is also available.

 

6.2-CENTRAL VIETNAMESE FOOD

Dishes from central Vietnam are strongly linked to the imperial kitchen serving the Vietnamese emperors who lived for several centuries in Hue.

Focusing on exquisite presentation, banquets were served elaborately with dishes which common people were banned from eating; today, locals and visitors can enjoy the emperor’s menu, which is typically served in small portions, with multiple courses. In fact, some emperors dined on 500 dishes in one meal, and forbade their chefs from serving the same dish twice in a year.

 

Cuisine in Hoi An is heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese traders that lived in the trading port, with many dishes using Chinese dumplings and rice noodles. The town’s most famous dish is called Cao Lau, a thick, fat noodle served in a bowl with vegetables (chopped cucumbers, bean sprouts) with slices of pork on top.

 

 6.3 –SOUTHERN VIETNAMESE FOOD

Typically, dishes from the south are spicier, because of the relative proximity of Cambodia and Thailand, and served in larger portions, on large platters that are enjoyed family style. Curry is a common dish here, and with an abundance of fresh fruits, coconut juice is used as a cooking ingredient, unlike in Hanoi.

 

Spring rolls in the south are called Cha Gio, and come in several varieties; perhaps the most famous southern dish is a pancake called Banh Xeo, with a thin crispy pancake that contains pork slices, bean sprouts, mung beans and small shrimp. Bun Thit Nuong, a popular snack of white vermicelli noodles served with chopped peanuts, grilled pork, and mint leaves, is a common dish found in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta.

 

6.4 – DRINK

Vietnamese spend hours in cafes, watching the world go by, reading newspapers, and talking with friends, enjoying coffee and soft drinks. Visitors to Vietnam will often be invited to have a drink, and when accepting such an invitation, it’s best to let the inviter pay, and reciprocate at some other time.

 

6.4.1 Coffee & Tea

  Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world, and is served in small doses, especially at sunrise, when tiny café’s all over the country serve breakfast to commuters before they start their day. If caffeine in large does gives you the jitters, be careful with Vietnamese coffee; it’s one of the strongest brews, and can deliver quite a kick.

An interesting strain of Vietnamese gourmet coffee is called Ca Phe Chon, or Weasel coffee. Civet cats in the Central Highlands ingest large numbers of coffee beans, before excreting them out of their bodies where upon they are gathered up and roasted. Said to have a buttery, smooth favor, Ca Phe Chon is available at most cafes in Vietnam, though it’s best to check the authenticity of the blend being served, as some cafes will serve an unsuspecting customer a generic blend instead.

 

Vietnamese tea is similar to Chinese tea, and is served in private homes and offices. Iced tea, called Tra Da, is often served at restaurants, and is sometimes scented with jasmine.

 

6.4.2 Rice Wine

When visiting a Vietnamese household, it is common to be toasted with a tiny ceramic cup of rice wine, which is often fermented with snakes, scorpions, and geckos. The smell and taste resembles Japanese sake, and is often a homemade brew.

 

6.4.3 Beer and Wine

Vietnamese men are prolific beer drinkers, with the ‘bottoms up’ cry: Mot Tram Phan Tram! (100%) is a commonly heard phrase in beer halls.

There are plenty of local and international beers sold in Vietnam; however one of the most popular is one with no label at all: Bia Hoi is served in plastic jugs in street side cafes enjoyed by Vietnamese late into the night.

 

6.4.5 Nuoc Dua: Coconut Juice

Chilled coconuts are sold in cafes, and better restaurants all over Vietnam, especially in the beach resorts and the Mekong Delta. A quick flick of a knife removes the top of the nut, and after finishing the sweet juice, a spoon can be used to eat the white, tender fresh inside, a tasty afternoon snack.

 

6.4.6. Sinh To: Fruit Shakes

With an abundance of tropical fruit, especially in the summer months, Vietnamese fruit shakes make refreshing beverages to cool off in the heat.

A blend of crushed ice, condensed milk, and fresh fruit, Sinh To can be enjoyed at most cafes and restaurants in Vietnam, including hotels and resorts.

 

7 – DESTINATIONS

 

7.1 - HANOI

As the political capital of the country, Hanoi’s architecture is a curious blend of traditional ‘tube’ houses, French colonial buildings, and modern socialist structures, reflecting the tremendous influences and change that the city has witnessed over its 1,000 year history. It is a romantic, moody city, which many visitors fall in love with, after experiencing the quaint street life up close, which goes on as it has for centuries.

 

Many visitors call Hanoi the most charming city in the whole of Asia, where tranquil lakes, colorful markets, and proud people go about their lives with dignity and grace, and even despite the massive changes sweeping the country, much of what makes Hanoi special is still there for the visitor to experience.

 

The Vietnamese ruler Ly Thai To established Vietnam’s capital in the fall of the year 00, (in 200, Hanoi will celebrate it’s 1,000th anniversary) on the banks of the Red River, one of North Vietnam’s principal river systems, after witnessing a golden dragon rise up from the water, giving the new capital the name, Thang Long, “Ascending Dragon.”

 

Though the capital of Vietnam changed names and locations several times in the following centuries, Thang Long was eventually renamed Hanoi, which means “Within the River.”

 

Today, Hanoi is a city of romantic, tree-lined streets, misty lakes, and quaint architecture, famous for the four distinct seasons that give the city a different mood depending on the time of the year. Street cafes are favorite gathering places for the city’s residents, as are the beautiful lakes where, under the leafy trees, groups gather for early morning exercises, a cup of coffee, or a quiet read.

 

7.1.1 – Sights

The city’s heart surrounds the Hoan Kiem lake, the Lake of the Restored Sword, which lies directly to the south of the 36 Streets District, the oldest neighbourhood in the city. Artisans selling common goods gathered together here, and each street sold just one product: silk; funeral tablets; bamboo; or rice paper.

 

Best explored on foot, or by cyclo, the 36 Streets District is a lively area of street-side cafes, fresh fruit markets, and small boutiques, offering fascinating glimpses of daily life of Hanoians.

 

The Ba Dinh Square is home of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Ho’s simple home where he wrote, and received foreign dignitaries. The One Pillar Pagoda is housed nearby, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum is just a short walk away, where Ho’s body is on display for his adoring countrymen.

 

Hanoi is home to the Temple of Literature, which was built in 1070, functioning as the country’s first university. The temples well-manicured grounds and ornate architecture are a must see for visitors, offering interesting insights into Vietnamese architecture.

 

The West Lake, reminiscent of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll around sunset.

Hanoi is home to many museums, one of the most interesting of which is the superb Ethnographic museum, in a western suburb of Hanoi, which displays a comprehensive view into the beliefs and daily life of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.

 

7.1.2 - Dining and Nightlife

Hanoi tends to be on the quiet side for entertainment, with most of the bars and restaurants clustered around the Hoan Kiem Lake, or in the city’s major hotels. With a young, vibrant population, this is rapidly changing, and the scene is growing ever larger and diverse. It is best to ask advice from a local who can recommend a restaurant or bar that suits your tastes and budget.

 

7.1.3 - Shopping

Shops in Hanoi carry many handicrafts and lacquer wares, traditional paintings and other forms of art for sale.

Water puppets make excellent purchases, along with silk decorations, and bamboo home wares. Nha Tho street, near the Hoan Kiem Lake is an interesting area with many international standard boutiques selling high quality products.

 

As home to many art galleries, the choice of art is large, with prices varying greatly according to the level of exposure the artist has gained outside Vietnam.

 

7.1.4 - Outside of Hanoi

Popular day trips outside of Hanoi include the ancient craft villages that produced such diverse items as water puppets; wood block prints; firecrackers, and more.

 

The Perfume Pagoda, 60 kilometers (37 miles or 2 hours drive) south of Hanoi, makes for an interesting day trip as well, especially when the pilgrimage season to the temple is in full swing.

 

Ba Vi National Park, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Hanoi, is well known for it’s amazing biodiversity and views over the Red River Valley, though a steep climb is necessary for the view, and the mountains here are frequently misty and drizzly.

 

Many traditional villages and ancient villages around Hanoi such as Bat Trang Ceramic village, Van Phuc Silk village, Duong Lam Ancient village….being great places to learn about Hanoi’s history as well as shopping.

 

7.1.5 - Moving round from Hanoi

Hanoi is the departure point for the overnight train to Sapa, a romantic journey to the beautiful valley that borders China.

 

Halong Bay:is a three-hours drive away, a great cruise in magnificent bay with thousand islets and island. A place to do kayaking under the karstic . 

 

Ninh Binh: is about 95 km from Hanoi. This city is famous for the Tam Coc cave, for its rice fields, and for the Cuc Phuong National Park.

 

Mai Chau:  located 155 km North West of Hanoi, has a cool and fresh climate throughout the year with beautiful White Thai minority’s stilt houses, rice field, tranquility villages.

 

7.2 - NORTHERN VIETNAM: SAPA, DIEN BIEN PHU & HALONG BAY

Above Hanoi, the verdant Hoang Lien Son Mountains, nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps, spread out across the border with China. Wild and mountainous, and home to many ethnic minorities, Vietnam’s far north is one of the most picturesque in the whole country, with terraced rice felds, quaint villages and mountain peaks swathed in swirling mist, perfect for trekking, hiking, and cultural exploration, amongst the more than thirty ethnic tribes that live here.

 

7.2.1 - Sapa

The most popular tourist town in the far north of Vietnam is Sapa, situated at the end of a long valley nine kilometers (5 miles) from Mount Fansipan, which, at 3,142 meters, is the tallest mountain in the country. Vigorous hiking, or extended relaxation are both possibilities in this former French colonial hill station established in 1922, where freplaces create atmospheric evenings with swirling mists that constantly change the view.

 

Sapa is reached by the ten hours, overnight on train, a comfortable experience that transports guests from historic Hanoi to the rural splendor of Sapa in elegance and comfort with wide range of train from budget to luxury trains. 

Dominated by the D’Zao and the H’Mong, who make up the largest minorities in Sapa, whose villages surround the town. Visiting their villages is part of the Sapa experience, where colorful costumes are worn everyday, making for wonderful photographic opportunities (always ask first before photographing ethnic minorities) Relaxed hikes through pine clad forests, or more adventurous journeys high into the steep mountains can be enjoyed here in Sapa, where swirling mists obscure and reveal the scenery in ever changing views.

 

The markets in Sapa town are a great place to fnd handicrafts and fabrics woven by these ethnic peoples, where they often demonstrate the rituals surrounding the ‘Love Market,’ where young people perform to attract a mate. Other interesting markets include the Bac Ha market, which takes place every Sunday or Cao Son market on Wednesday.

 

Climbing Mount Fansipan is for the adventurous and five days expeditions can be arranged to reach the highest peak in Vietnam, from where the views are spectacular. It can be extremely cold on the summit of the mountain, and full mountain gear is essential to have a safe and comfortable trek to the peak. An experienced guide is also essential, too.

 

7.2.2 - Dien Bien Phu

A valley located on the border with Laos, Dien Bien Phu is of interest for its role in ending the French Colonial control of Indochina, though there is little else to do here except visit the small museum commemorating the event, and drive around the nearby hills, exploring the dense jungle.

 

7.2.3 - Halong Bay

World Heritage listed Halong Bay is a must for all visitors to Vietnam. Two hundred kilometers (124 miles) or a three hours drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay is home to 2,000 limestone islets that were formed by millions of years of erosion combined with a change in sea levels. Spread out over 1,500 square kilometers (579 square miles), local fishermen have given unique names for each of the islands; the name Halong in Vietnamese means, “Dragon Descending.”

 

Spending a night on a converted junk has been a popular pastime for guests as far back as French Colonial times, and it is still the best way to experience the majestic sunsets, misty mornings, and many moods that has made Halong Bay one of the top tourist destinations in the whole of Southeast Asia.

 

Not only is Halong Bay one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, with large caves open for exploration, it has a historical link as well: while fighting off Chinese invaders, the entrance to the bay was lined with steel tipped wooden spikes, that trapped the invading Mongol army’s vessels, delivering victory to the Vietnamese, who are very proud of the bay and it’s role in their struggle against the Chinese.

 

A wide variety of delicious seafood is harvested in Halong Bay, and boats will row out to offer up fresh crabs and shrimp; swimming in the bay in the summer months is a delight, with warm, jade green waters lapping the towering limestone rocks.

 

7.3 - CENTRAL VIETNAM:  HUE, DANANG & HOI AN

The narrow centre of Vietnam is home to the imperial capital of Hue, the ancient colourful port of Hoi An, and Vietnam’s third largest city in the country, Danang. Together, the three cities will keep visitors occupied for more than a week, with exquisite cuisine, opportunities to visit tombs and pagodas, and a chance for extended relaxation on stunning, white sand beaches. Central Vietnam has some of the most beautiful scenery in the entire country.

 

7.3.1 - Hue

 Hue was the seat of the Imperial Vietnamese court, when the capital was established to govern southern Vietnam. Situated on the banks of the Perfume River, the city is elegant and graceful, with delicious imperial cuisine to enjoy, along with elegant, inspiring vestiges from Vietnam’s past.

 

7.3.1.1 - Sights

The Citadel, which was badly damaged in the American War, is Hue’s most important site. Though much has not been rebuilt, what remains is a fascinating look at the way of life in the Imperial Vietnamese court, which was modeled on the Forbidden City in Beijing. Inside, the Royal Enclosure contains the Forbidden Purple City and the Hall of the Mandarins, which have been restored in recent years by international organizations.

The Thien Mu Pagoda is set on the banks of the Perfume River. It was from here, where the monk Nguyen Dinh Chieu, who was a member of the pagoda, left for Saigon in a car that is still contained at the pagoda, after he self-immolated in a protest against the war. 

 

Numerous emperors are buried in Hue, with many in the hills around the city. Khai Dinh’s tomb is one of the most ornate, with the tomb of Minh Mang and Tu Duc among the most popular with tour groups, who explore the gardens around the tombs.

 

7.3.1.2 - Around Hue

To the north of Hue, is the DMZ (De Militarized Zone) where visitors can tour the remains of the tunnels built along the 7th parallel, and the bridge that still stands today, across the Ben Hai river.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park, located to the north of the majestic Truong Son range in central Quang Binh province and about 195km from Hue, is one of the world's two largest limestone regions. The over 200,000 ha of parkland includes beautiful limestone formations, grottoes and caves, and boasts lush forestland covering 95 percent of the park area.       

7.3.1.3 - Moving on From Hue

National Highway 1 connects Hue with Danang, a three-hour drive south. Hue airport has direct fights to Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.

 

7.3.2 - Danang

Danang is a three hundred year old city on the banks of the Han River. As a major trading port, the city lacks significant historic monuments; however the Cham Museum in the south of the city makes an interesting stop to admire the skillfully crafted carvings from this ancient culture that surrounded the area.

 

The Marble Mountains and China Beach are a short drive south of Danang, and can be visited on the way to Hoi An.

 

7.3.3 - Hoi An

Hoi An (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was established as a trading post for Japanese and Chinese mer-chants in the 5th century, for trade in spices, porcelain, and Chinese medicinal herbs. Hoi An is Vietnam’s most charming town, thirty kilometres (18 miles) to the south of Danang, with narrow, quiet streets lined with Chinese style shop houses behind a narrow canal. Several days of walking, relaxation on beaches, and excursions to near-by the Ancient Town can be spent here, admiring the charming architecture of the old shop houses and narrow streets, where life goes on as it has for centuries.

 

7.3.3.1 - Sights

The Japanese Bridge is the centre of Hoi An, and is the town’s most famous site. With ornate carvings decorat-ing the bridge, visitors frequently photograph it. Various Assembly Halls, linked to the Chinese traders by their hometowns in China, also make interesting visits, which include antique carvings and old ceramics.

Lucky visitors in Hoi An during the Full Moon will witness a unique event, where lighted candles are let go to foat down the Thu Bon river, with music and festivities taking place in the centre of the town.

 

7.3.3.2 - Shopping

Tailor made clothes are the most popular purchase in Hoi An, with numerous tailors offering 24 hour turnaround service on designs that often are made from high quality Vietnamese silk. Suits, slacks, and vests are popular items, as are copies of existing designs in visitor’s possession, which can be duplicated exactly in any material desired.

 

When searching for a suitable tailor, it is best to ask a local for recommendations, and when dealing with tailors, it is advisable to declare a shorter period of stay, to eliminate disappointment should the creations not be finished on time.

 

7.3.3.3 - Around Hoi An

The Cham islands can be visited for snorkeling and scuba diving, while the My Son ruins, vestiges from the Cham culture that have been designated as a World Heritage Site, also make an interesting day trip from Hoi An. While only 32 columns remain from damage caused by warfare, the ruins were built by the Chams.

 

7.4 - SOUTHERN VIETNAM: HO CHI MINH CITY, PHAN THIET, MEKONG DELTA

 The Mekong Delta mirrors the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam: it is extremely important for both agricultural and historic importance. Here in the south, much of the country’s rice, tropical fruit and vegetables are cultivated, enough to feed a fast growing, burgeoning population, and where Vietnam spread southward during the 8th century.

 

7.4.1 - Ho Chi Minh City

As the commercial capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) is the engine driving the country’s economy. Despite the massive changes that have transformed many parts of the city, many colorful markets remain, with interesting street life and friendly locals.

 

Though there are not as many sights as in Hanoi or Hue, Ho Chi Minh City is bustling and vibrant, with a lively restaurant and café scene. The city is divided into numbered districts, with 3 and 5 being the most interesting to visitors.

 

7.4.1.1 - Sights

The Notre Dame cathedral is the heart of the city. The French built church faces Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to Beverly Hill’s’ Rodeo Drive or Paris’ Champs Elysées, where chic boutiques, fve star hotels and the city’s top restaurants are located.

 

The city’s main post offce is adjacent to the Notre Dame Cathedral, with a yellow ochre exterior decorated with French luminaries, where, inside, two paintings depict what Saigon and southern Vietnam looked like under the French rule.

The Reunification Palace, a short walk away through a green, well-manicured park, was the head of government under the Americans, known until 1975 as the Independence Palace. It was famously videotaped on April 30th 975 when the victorious North Vietnamese troops smashed through the gates and ran up the stairs with the Viet Cong fag, ending the confict.

 

Interesting pagodas can be visited in Cholon, Saigon’s sister city, with a large Chinese population. These include Tam Son Hoi Quan pagoda, dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, and the Quan Am Pagoda, built in the 86, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.

 

7.4.1.2 - Dining and Nightlife

There is a wealth of dining and nightlife options in Ho Chi Minh City, with a young population ready to go out and have a good time. All budgets are catered for, with swank bars and pubs in District 1, featuring western and haute cuisine, to more relaxed cafes around Turtle Lake in District 3, serving Vietnamese coffees and ice cream, and the travelers and expats hangouts of Pham Ngu Lao and Le Thanh Ton, respectively, where inexpensive beer and western food are available. Most of the fun of eating out in Ho Chi Minh City is just following the crowds and recommendations from locals.

 

7.4.1.3 – Shopping

Dong Khoi Street, and many side streets, like Dong Du and Mac Thi Buoi, are packed with boutiques and shops selling clothing, lacquer wares, paintings, and handicrafts, which make excellent gifts and souvenirs. Shop-ping malls like Parkson and Diamond Plaza offer international brands and are very popular with locals on week-ends.    

 

Ben Thanh Market, the city’s main commercial venue, offers good bargaining opportunities, as does Saigon Square, where surplus designer brands manufactured in Vietnam are sold.

 

Ton That Thiep Street, which runs off of Nguyen Hue, is a good hunting ground for home wares and furniture.

 

7.4.1.4 - Around Ho Chi Minh City

Surrounded by fat, lush countryside, there are just a few sights worth visiting outside of Ho Chi Minh City. The Cao Dai temples, located in Tay Ninh province, 45 minutes drive from downtown, is a fascinating glimpse into the belief system that has formed Vietnam’s unique religion. Nearby are the Cu Chi tunnels, which were built during the war with the Americans, revealing how tenacious and determined the Vietnamese were against foreign invaders.

 

7.4.1.5 - Moving on from Ho Chi Minh City

With a strong network of air, road and river transport links to all parts of the country, it is convenient and easy to arrange onward journeys from Ho Chi Minh City.

 

7.4.2 – PHAN THIET

180 kilometres north (111 miles) or four hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thiet’s white sand beaches are the perfect getaway for relaxation. Fantastic seafood is a highlight of Phan Thiet, and visitors will be spoiled for choice when it comes to dining in this seaside town. 

 

7.4.2.1 - Sights:

Phan Thiet Town and harbour: Beyond the beautiful beach, the fshing boat harbour right in the centre of town is the harbour for the hundreds of fshing boats that ply the local waters.  Early in the morning the harbour is busiest as they disgorge their overnight catch. A short stroll around town can be quite pleasant.  If history is your thing drop by the Ho Chi Minh Museum.  The central market has its own distinct style, as does the Phan Thiet Water Tower which was built in 935.

 

Khe Ga Lighthouse: About 40km (25 miles) south of Phan Thiet is a tall lighthouse that has stood on its ac-cessible island for over 100 years, the view from the top of Khe Ga Lighthouse is breathtaking.

 

Hon Rom Islet: 30kms (18 miles) north of Phan Thiet is palm-fringed Hon Rom Islet.  Here you will discover a lovely place to stop and have a swim.  Within walking distance, and up a stream, is the Hom Rom Red Canyon which is also worth a visit.

 

Sand Dunes: A little further past Mui Ne are some huge sand dunes.  Climbing them takes a bit of energy but getting down is a little easier if you opt to hire a plastic mat and slide down the sides.  There are plenty of local children happy to rent you the mats and show you how it’s done.  There are also some lotus-flled freshwater lakes amongst the dunes, which can be beautiful when in fower.

 

Ta Cu Mountain: 28 kms (17 miles) south of Phan Thiet is Ta Cu Mountain.  Here you will have to climb the 1000+ steps to reach the 49m (160 feet) long reclining Buddha.  Along the way is the Pagoda which was built in 86.  The view is spectacular and, because of the effort required to climb up the heights, it is rarely very busy. 

 

Fairy Stream: This freshwater stream is crystal clear and you can enjoy walking upstream in the water and enjoy the surrounding forest.  It’s about 10km (6 miles) from Phan Thiet on the way to the fishing village of Mui Ne.

 

7.4.3 - MEKONG DELTA

The Mekong Delta is the bottom half of Vietnam's two rice baskets, the other being the Red River Delta in the North . The people of south Vietnam are often very proud of the richness and vastness of this land. When referring to the rice fields in this area, they often say, "co bay thang canh", meaning the land is so large that the cranes can stretch their wings as they fly. Today, the region is one of Vietnam's highest producers of rice crops, vegetables and fruits.

 

7.4.3.1 – Sights:

Floating markets are held every morning from 5:00 to about 11:00. Phung Hiep market is the biggest since it is located at the intersection of 7 major canals. It is also a photographer's delight because it can be seen above from a bridge. Cai Rang and Phong Dien are two other notable floating markets in the delta. Boats loaded with produce from nearby orchards of the Mekong Delta converge to the floating market. They carry mostly fruits but also coconuts, vegetables and fishes.

 

Life on the river: The people living in the Mekong Delta make their living as farmers and fishermen. Often, they live right on the edge of the rivers or canals on various structures built from whatever materials found. Consequently, the architecture along the delta varies from place to place.

 

Fruits Orchards: The majority of Vietnam's fruits come from the many orchards of the Mekong Delta. On any given season, one can find a variety of tropical fruits that are produced by farmers of this region in the markets of Saigon, Hue, and Ha Noi. 

 

8 - GETTING TO AND AROUND VIETNAM

 

8.1 INTERNATIIONAL AIR TRAVEL

Most international and regional airline companies offer flights to and from Vietnam.

Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com): Vietnam Airlines provides comprehensive flights to all major cities in Vietnam, to regional cities in Asia, and serves long haul destinations in Australia and Europe. With state of the art 777’s, 767’s, and ATR 72s, service on board is comfortable and world class.

Air France (www.airfrance.com): Air France offers flights between Paris and Vietnam, with easy con nections to 658 destinations worldwide.

 

8.2 DOMESTIC AIR TRAVEL

Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com.vn): Prices for domestic flights are quite inexpensive, with one- way flights between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City costing $130 USD, and one-way flights between Hanoi  or Ho Chi Minh City and Danang or Hue costing about $75 USD.

 

Pacific Airlines (www.pacificairlines.com.vn): Pacific Airlines primarily serves the Hanoi - Ho Chi  Minh City route, and the Hanoi - Danang - Ho Chi Minh City route. The airline’s international destinations, Kaohsiung and Taipei are served with Airbus A321’s.

 

Air Mekong: The new brand for domestic routes in Vietnam with some special routes as: Hanoi – Phu Quoc Island;  Hanoi – Buon Ma Thuat….

 

8.3 RAILD TRAVEL

Built by the French in the 19th century, the Vietnamese rail network links Ho Chi Minh City with Hanoi, and continues north to Lao Cai, on the Chinese border. One of  the most popular route for tourist in Vietnam  is  aboard  the trains to Sapa, where guests  travel  in comfort aboard  totally refurbished rail cars, enjoying the early morning arrival into Lao Cai, the nearest station to Sapa.

 

8.4 BOAT

Travelling between mainland and islands by express boats are available for some routes such as: Vung Tau to Con Dao Island; Rach Gia to Phu Quoc Island; Chau Doc to Phnom Penh in Cambodia or take 5 star express from Saigon to Nha Trang.   

 

8.5 TAXI

Major cities have large numbers of taxis, and are readily available outside hotels and large restaurants. Bargaining is sometimes necessary, because some taxis are not metered. If this is the case, ask your guide to agree upon a price before departing on your journey, and always carry the address and phone number of your hotel with you.

 

 8.6 CYCLO

A cyclo (pedalled rickshaw) ride through the traffic in a Vietnamese city will be an unforgettable experience. It is unwise for any guests to take private cyclos after dark. Bargaining is a must, and if unsure of the price, ask your hotel staff for guidance.

 

8.7 WALKING

Though traffic in Vietnamese cities can be daunting, walking is an enjoyable way to experience daily life at its best, where cafes, restaurants, book shops, and more spill out onto the streets, at all hours of the day, showing the true nature of the Vietnamese.