Ever wondered about what to do and where to go in the exotic country of Vietnam? Our Vietnam travel guide shows you all you need to know about this hidden paradise!
Vietnam is a fascinating hot spot within the popular region of South East Asia. Often overlooked for more tropical tourists destinations of Phuket and Bali, Vietnam boasts a vibrant culture full of cheap food delights, rich history and fast paced cities that will keep you guessing. From the rice fields of the countryside to the conical hats dotted on the heads of happy locals, here are some of our best tips for travelling in Vietnam.
Food and drink – A dollar goes a long way
You may have tried it before, but nothing can prepare you for tasting genuine Vietnamese Pho. This delicious beef noodle soup is both affordable and filling. No matter the time of day, you’ll never struggle to find a restaurant serving Pho. For a more authentic experience, try Pho by street food vendors marked by their distinctive small plastic chairs and tables. Fried chicken legs are also popular with the custom of dropping the bones on the floor to be swept up later.
Local scoop: It’s considered rude to put the bones back on your plate.
If you think the American influence on Vietnam means you won’t get a good cup of coffee, don’t worry! Vietnamese coffee culture is still intact with its strong brews being influenced by the 19th Century French colonists. Vietnamese iced coffee is definitely a highlight, made up of dark roasted coffee beans grown in Vietnam, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and then poured over ice. To order this, simply ask for a cà phê sữa đá.
Local scoop: Trung Nguyen is a coffee chain in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi that actually serves really good coffee, unlike chains in Australia. It also has the added benefit of comfortable couches and free Wi-Fi, perfect for weary travellers.
More cheap eats and drinks
- Iced tea (Tra da) – AUD$0.10 for unlimited refills
- Rice paper salad (Bánh tráng trộn) – AUD$0.60
- Minced pork sandwich (Bánh mì xíu mại) – AUD$0.75
- Sticky rice with ice cream (kem xôi) – AUD$1.10
The Vietnamese are renowned for their friendly nature and hospitality. They love to eat and drink in large communal groups, marked by the phrase “Mot, hai, ba, Yo!” which means “one, two, three, in!”. The equivalent to the English “Cheers”, this phrase makes everyone feel part of the group and enjoy the feast together. At restaurants or street food stores, this call will inevitably be heard as strangers united in sharing food and drinks together.
Where to go in Vietnam
You might not associate Vietnam with beaches, but with over 3,000km of coastline, Vietnam showcases its crystal clear water and is the gateway to numerous islands dotted off the coast. Keep a lookout for Nha Trang, a clear frontrunner. Vũng Tàu is popular with Ho Chi Minh locals seeking a weekend getaway. A peninsula hot spot, almost surrounded by the ocean, is well worth a visit with its colonial-era architecture, broad boulevards and lively bar scene.
When you think of Vietnam, you probably think of the two big cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon to the locals. Both cities have their own distinctive character. Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is more formal and proper while Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, is fast-paced and dynamic.
Vietnam has an abundance of natural beauty and the cities are no exception. Huge public parks are dotted around major metropolises, where they take their greenery seriously. Be mindful of keeping off the pristine grass, doing so will cause local police to angrily gesture you off!
Immerse yourself in the culture
Outside of these two cities, there’s plenty more to see that makes Vietnam unique. World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is a must visit, filled with limestone inlets, visible on only the clearest of days. Hoi An Ancient Town is rich with interesting architecture still intact from its days as a trading port from 600 years ago!
The Cai Be Floating Market of the Mekong Delta boasts the freshest produce with local marketers swapping goods from boat to boat. Dubbed the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia, the floating markets are a new experience for the foodie traveller.
To completely cover Vietnam, try taking the train from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, named the Reunification Express. Stopping along the way you will see the sights of the countryside as well as many remarkable towns along the coast including Hue, Nha Trang and Da Nang.
Dates to note
There is plenty to celebrate throughout the year in Vietnam. For an authentic cultural experience, plan your trip around these dates:
Vu Lan Festival – July
The Vu Lan Festival, honours parents and ancestors, by helping to guide lost souls in finding their way ‘home’. Offerings of rice, salt, pure water, fruit and flowers are presented in floating lanterns. A beautiful tradition and sight accompanied by music.
Known as Tet Trung Thu, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a national celebration, a festival of the children. Expect to see children parading along roads to show off their paper lanterns in all shapes and elaborate sizes. Families gather for a feast and eat moon shaped cakes – a decadent treat made specifically to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. Keep your eyes peeled for the famous ‘lion dance’ where two people don a lion costume and dance to the rhythm of beating drums.
Delve into History
Vietnam’s history is scaffolded with periods of war stretching back to Mongol and Chinese invaders in the 13th century. The only way to fully appreciate the historical significance of Vietnam is to pay a visit to the detailed historical sites and museums. There are many well preserved relics from wartime and from the Vietnam-American War. Be warned, photography in the museum is very confronting, a telling reminder of the resilience of the Vietnamese people.
Cultural Challenge: The Củ Chi tunnels, military base for the Viet Cong is an impressive site to appreciate the impacts of Tet offensive. If you’re game, try and squeeze your way through the narrow, dark passages. But don’t stop moving or else you’ll suffer the wrath of your fellow travellers behind you.
Another essential experience in Vietnam is hiring a motorbike. Many South-East Asian nations have them, but only Vietnam has the exhilarating, if at times scary, experience of eight lanes full of motorbike traffic. Ho Chi Minh City is a central hot spot for this entertaining mayhem. Trying to navigate the streets with very few traffic signs or lights is a unique challenge and a fun story to take back home. Just be careful not to graze your leg by the exhaust pipe when getting off the bike or else you’ll suffer a nasty burn.
Taxis in Vietnam are considerably cheaper than in Australia and a great way to travel, but they come with their own risks. Always do your research prior to visiting a certain town to find out the exact details of reputable taxi companies. Scam companies will often try to deceive tourists by using the same colours and a similar name as reputable companies. When getting into a taxi, always ask for the meter to be put on straight away, otherwise many drivers will not put it on and overcharge you at the end of the journey. It’s also a good idea to bring a GPS system, either self-contained or on a smartphone, so you know your taxi driver is taking the correct route.
Although tour guides may speak English, most of Vietnam don’t so it’s a good idea to brush up on some Vietnamese before you go. To help you on your way, here are a few useful phrases:
- Hello – Xin chào
- Thank you – Cảm Ơn
- Good bye – Tạm Biệt
- I can’t speak Vietnamese [well] – Toi khong biet noi tieng Viet [gioi lam]
- How do I get to __? – Lam sao toi den duoc__?
- Beef Noodle Soup – Pho bo
- Chicken Noodle Soup – Pho ga
- Vietnamese Iced Coffee – cà phê đá
- The bill (literally ‘money’) – Tien tien
- Waiter (to get their attention) – Em oi
- Waitress (to get their attention) – Anh oi
Despite the friendly welcome towards tourists, Vietnam has retained a solid sense of culture untainted by gimmicky tourist attractions. Immerse yourself in the buzz of city life or relax and take in the scenic landscapes by the country side. Whether you want to absorb the culture, history or delicious Vietnamese cuisine, there is something in Vietnam for all to enjoy. You won’t be disappointed.
Have you experienced Vietnam? Share your story with us in the comments below!