Beautiful, exotic Vietnam may not be the usual holiday destination, but it is quite simply one of the most rewarding places in the world you can visit, and it has never been easier. Vietnam has become a travellers dream in recent years, widely spoken English and excellent transport links have made travelling the length of this South East Asian nation a breeze.
Yet for all its advances in infrastructure, and its accommodation to travellers and tourists, it hasn’t lost the sense of exotic adventure that has attracted intrepid explorers for decades. Even among the other SE Asian nations it is a unique, alien culture, which encourages you to breathe in the atmosphere, soak up the sights, chat to locals, eat strange foods, explore incredible markets, roam ancient temples and stand in awe at places of incredible natural beauty.
Flights to the capital Hanoi, or to Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon) are commonplace, leaving from most UK airports. They are long haul at between 15 and 20 hours, but not overpriced and usually require a single transfer in either Abu Dhabi or Bangkok. Vietnam is seven hours ahead of UK time but the jet lag is not a killer and your destination will be well worth it.
The currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VDN) and while it cannot be attained before leaving the UK, cash machines are everywhere and accept most UK bank cards. It is advisable to carry a backup stash of US dollars in your luggage somewhere, as a last resort these notes can be exchanged more easily than any other and many businesses will accept them as they are, with a de-facto exchange rate of $1 to every 20,000VDN.
It can be difficult to suggest the best time to visit, especially if travelling from north to south (or vice-versa). November-March and July-August are the high seasons for tourists, while prices are at their highest around the end of January – Vietnamese New Year. The quietest tourist months are May, June and September.
Weather is difficult to judge as it can range dramatically from North to South, and is affected by the summer and winter typhoons in the south china sea, which can bring high humidity and heavy rain respectively. For balance, I would suggest the months of April and May for travel, or March if focussing on the south. These months usually precede the summer typhoon and mean dry weather and warm to hot temperatures – the goldilocks zone.
Upon arriving, you will usually discover that airport pickup is included in the price of a hotel. I would personally recommend that you jump at this service, as trying to negotiate your way around a brand new city, particularly after a 15 hour flight, can prove rather difficult (especially if you’ve never been to south east Asia before).
As for accommodation options, you will not be disappointed. Hotels range from hostels to luxury boutiques, and are universally low in price, an upper-mid range hotel with a double bed an an en suite will usually set you back around 500,000 Vietnamese Dong for the night – that’s around £14.
Accommodation options are plentiful and competition is fierce, but for your first few nights at least I’d recommend booking in advance, at least until you’re used to the currency and feel confident enough to shop around for accommodation. Booking for hotels is extremely easy as most of the hotels, particularly in the cities, are on websites like expedia, booking.com or agoda.
The city hotels, particularly the luxury ones, are fantastic places to recharge your batteries after a long flight, but don’t be too quick to leave the cities, grab a city map, get out and explore. The markets in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are huge, and are a real treat for the senses. They engulf you in the smell of spices, rich coffee and fresh fruit.
The sheer range of clothes and souvenirs will amaze you, be cautious though, market vendors can be fierce negotiators, so try not to get caught up in the rush, your first haggling position on any item should be half whatever the vendor suggests – be generous with you offers however, and courteous, a simple “Cám ơn” (thank you) will go a long way with the locals.
The national dish, ‘Pho’ (pronounced ‘fuh’) is available everywhere for a pittance and consists of a rich meaty broth over strips of tenderloin on a bed of vermicelli noodles.
It’s brilliance lies in its customisability, each dish is brought out with a large bowl of freshly cut herbs and leaves (washed in bottled water in a lot of street stalls), as well as chopped chillies, lime slices, soya and fish sauce; you’re free to flavour your dish however you please, confident that all the ingredients you see before you are fresher than anything you’d get at home. The result is simply delicious, and is as spicy or as sweet or as sour as you desire. This will become a staple, and a fond memory of your time in the country.
One final note on the food, or rather the drink – coffee. The Vietnamese do coffee like no other nation, a legacy from the French imperialists. Ask for a coffee at any café or stall and it’ll come out in a glass with a small metal filter balanced above it, slowly dripping the filtered coffee through an inch of coarsely ground beans.
The result is a thick, rich astoundingly flavoursome glass of coffee – great over ice in the summer heat – ask for milk, and it’ll be condensed, giving the coffee a real velvety sweetness closer to melted chocolate than coffee. It is simply divine, and I’m sure you’ll bring a bag or two home.
Hanoi and Ho-chi-minh are both transport hubs, and once you’ve had enough of the hustle and bustle, of the cities, you can venture somewhere new. Coaches are frequent, inexpensive and air conditioned, but for the ultimate experience, go for the trains.
Vietnam is a big country and a journey to a new place can take hours or even days, as a result the trains all have sleeper cabins. The ‘soft sleeping’ class is the most expensive (relatively) but can have a nice big double bed and a window from which to see the rolling Vietnamese countryside pass by.
It is the best way to while away long journeys, and can take you all the way from the north to the south if you desire, although there are so many amazing stops along the way, this would be doing the country a disservice. Among them, the beaches of Nha Chang, the ancient imperial city of Hue and the town of Hoi An, famous for the Chinese style architecture, floating lanterns and an entire district of tailors, able to make you virtually anything in a matter of hours.
The wealth of Vietnam is in the north however, and from Hanoi, you can easily venture to some of the incredible sites which surround the capital city. Either East to the incredible limestone karsts of the infamous Halong Bay, or west, to the tiered rice paddies of Mai Chau and Minh Binh, or the mountainous Sapa region, and the colourful hill tribes who dwell there.
With most of these destinations, it’s possible to arrange for tours with your hotel, while more expensive than the many intendant travel agencies around, with this option air conditioned minibuses will pick you up from your door, and return you there on the same day.
Unfortunately, Vietnam has become synonymous with the War which ravaged it during the 1960s and 70s, and this stigma it has been fighting to remove. There is so much more to Vietnam than its bloodied history, it is beautiful – scarred by war, but all the more remarkable for it. If you visit, I would urge you to visit the war remnants museum in Ho-Chi-Minh city, which will challenge your preconceptions, and remind you of the animosity it has had to overcome.
Vietnam is unique in that traditional culture persists whilst new innovation thrives, the result is a place of outstanding beauty and intrigue, which has become welcoming and accessible to all kinds of tourists. There has never been a better time to visit this amazing country,
Written by Adam Niblett
Photographs by Adam Niblett