Vietnam Travel Guide: Everything you need to know before you go

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A country famous for its diverse landscapes as well as its food, history and temples, Vietnam is an affordable destination that encompasses the best bits of Southeast Asia – you’ll never be far from delicious cuisine of a street, a heritage site or a pagoda, and the sprawling museums – many of which are housed in former palaces and government buildings – in monument-filled cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are fantastic places to learn more about the country’s past.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

Currently (as of October 2022), wearing a mask is still mandatory in public. No test or proof of vaccination is required to enter the country, regardless of vaccination status.

Best time to go

Vietnam’s climate varies by region, but as a general rule, March and April are excellent months – rainfall is usually low and temperatures are cooler. July and August are high season, with hot and humid weather. Hotels must be booked well in advance and prices can increase by 50%.

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

Main regions

Phu Quoc

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 swathes of wilderness or opportunities for historical corrections here – most people come to stretch out on the beach, though sites worth seeing include its (rather stinky) fish sauce factories ) and Phú Quốc Prison, where Vietnamese soldiers were once imprisoned (and tortured in various gruesome 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 magnificent Ngoc Son Temple in the middle) fill its center, and its leafy streets are lined with streets with heritage buildings. The Old Quarter is the best place for a dose of history (this is where you’ll find Hanoi’s magnificent French Opera House) and fantastic street food. The most visited site in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh

Vietnam’s largest city boasts the country’s finest hotels and tallest skyscrapers, though reminders of its past are ubiquitous – in places such as the Reunification Palace (also known as the Palace of Independence). In 1975, North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates, causing Saigon to fall. Spaces open to the public include the former reception rooms, the president’s quarters, and the basement telecommunications center. To learn more about Vietnam’s past, visit the War Remnants Museum for a fascinating (if heartbreaking) look at the US invasion of Vietnam.

Halong Bay

Yes, Hạ Long Bay in northeast Vietnam has gotten a bit crowded lately, but you can’t help but be impressed by the limestone islets and pillars that have earned this area its status as Unesco World Heritage. There are 1,600 islands, although most visitors base themselves on Cat Ba Island, the largest in the region. Popular activities include day cruises, kayaking, and exploring caves such as Tien Ong Cave, which contains stone artifacts dating back to 10,000 BC.

Underrated destinations

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a pretty town in northern Vietnam that is used by many travelers as a base for trekkers wanting to trek the hills of Lao Cai province. Near the border with China, it is home to the Hmong people, many of whom serve as guides. Despite its location in the far north of Vietnam, getting there is relatively straightforward – there are regular bus services, although we recommend the eight-hour sleeper train service from Hanoi.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

You’ll find this UNESCO World Heritage-listed park in Quang Binh Province in north-central Vietnam. It straddles the border with Laos and its diverse landscape includes limestone plateaus, rainforests and cathedral-like caves. Most visitors stay with one of the many homestays near the park.

My son

My Son is a collection of UNESCO-listed Hindu temples in central Vietnam. The temples, built between the 4th and 13th centuries and famous for their intricately carved designs, were rediscovered in the 19th century by the French and were partially damaged by bombs dropped during the Vietnam War. Despite this, the site is absolutely worth the detour. It is located 70 km south of the coastal city of Da Nang.

Tint

Huế is a hilltop ancient feudal capital built by the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty. This laid-back city in central Vietnam is full of temples, pagodas and monasteries, and there are also plenty of ancient palaces to visit. Its architecture is breathtakingly diverse – a single leafy street looks a lot like a pagoda and an art deco mansion.

The best things to do

Discover Hanoi’s train street

Head to central Hanoi to sip a chilled bottle of Saigon Red beer on 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 their tables to make room for the train, before replacing them the second it is overtaken.

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 Vietnamese military and you will see some of the fearsome traps they created for American ‘tunnel rats’, who struggled to understand how Vietnamese soldiers appeared out of nowhere and then quickly disappeared. You’ll also have the chance to crawl along one of these claustrophobic passageways. Tours usually include a stop at a rubber plantation and there is a shooting range a few meters from the tunnels for anyone who wants to shoot a few rounds with an AK-47.

Pay homage 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 condition, thanks to regular re-embalming sessions. The mausoleum is part of a complex that includes the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, where exhibits focus on Vietnam’s past struggles against various foreign powers.

Move

Vietnam’s extensive rail network includes many spectacular sleeper train services, most of which have a range of different cabin types. For example, take 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-paneled cabins; cheap and cheerful Dream Express trains; and the Chapa Express trains, with small but ornate cabins. Prices for this trip range from £31 to £140 one way. Alternatively, consider a long-distance coach. Most major destinations are linked by coach, and they’re incredibly cheap – expect to pay around £12 for an eight-hour journey. One of the largest sleeper coach operators in Vietnam is The Sinh Tourist – their vehicles cover much of Vietnam and, like most modern sleeper coaches in the country, have reclining armchair-style seats.

How to get there

Air

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

Bus

If you are in neighboring Cambodia, there are several long-distance bus lines that connect the country to Vietnam.

Tip to save money

The US dollar is perhaps the most used currency by tourists in Vietnam, but we recommend using the Vietnamese dong. You’ll get better exchange rates, and since prices are usually quoted in Dong, it’ll be easier to check your currency and pay the exact amount.

FAQs

What weather is it?

In the north, it is hot and humid between May and October and cool and dry between November and April. December and January are the coldest months, especially in the Far North. In the south, the dry season lasts between November and April and the 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.

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