Verdant patchworks of rice paddies, pointed conical hats, and acountry ravaged by war - these are some of the international imagesof Vietnam. But there are other scenes to be found too, ones ofspectacular natural beauty, fascinating ethnic culture, imperialhistory and timeless traditional villages, idyllic beaches anddynamic cities.
Vietnam stretches along the east coast of the IndochinesePeninsula and is likened by its people to a long bamboo pole hungwith two baskets of rice, represented by the two fertile regions ateither end of the country. Between the lush Red River Delta and thehighlands in the north, known for their magnificent scenery andcolourful hill tribes, and the agricultural plains and floatingmarkets of the Mekong Delta in the south, lie miles of white sandybeaches, towering mountains, rivers and dense forests, and thethousands of bizarre rock and cave formations on the islands ofHalong Bay.
The impact of Japanese and Chinese trade and occupation, Frenchcolonisation and American intervention has left its mark onVietnam, stretched over a period of more than two thousand years.However, the country has also been left with a vivid legacy fromdifferent cultures evident in the character of its towns, as wellas in the architecture and food. The quaint town of Hoi An, once amajor trading port, boasts the perfectly preserved architecturalinfluences of the Asian merchants from the north, while the broadleafy boulevards of the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City arereminiscent of France. Menus offer Chinese variations of springrolls, steamed dumplings and noodles. Hué is the old imperialcapital of Vietnam with its royal palaces and palatial mausoleums,and nearby the battle sites of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) arereminders of the brutality of war.
Ancient temples and colourful pagodas are scattered throughoutthe urban centres, while among them stand hotels of modern luxury,and the development of tourism infrastructure is a boomingbusiness. Vietnam is a perfect balance between ancient times andthe here and now, a country that reveres its past heroes, a nationthat has collectively put the woes of war behind it, and people whowelcome visitors to their country with open arms and friendlysmiles.
A trip to Vietnam is often centred around a journey between thecapital Hanoi in the north, and Saigon (as Ho Chi Minh is stillcalled locally) in the south, taking in the many highlights betweenthe two.
Vietnam's largest city and commercial capital, Saigon is afascinating blend of old and new, where gleaming skyscrapers sitalongside ancient temples, and street vendors tout for businessoutside gleaming shopping malls. While in the south of Vietnam,visitors should take a cruise through the lush Mekong Delta to seethe famous floating markets, tour the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels orrelax on coast near the tropical beach resort of Mui Ne.
Further up the coast travellers will find the delightful city ofHoi An, with its well-preserved old town, and a couple of hoursfurther on can explore the once magnificent Imperial City of Hué,which was the national capital and home to the Nguyen Dynasty from1802-1945, and is now a culinary capital. Hanoi is the modern-daycapital, and has been an important city for a thousand years; theinfluences from the French and Chinese rulers is ever present inthe architecture. Travellers can wander through the elaboratenarrow streets of the Old Quarter, avoiding the many scooters, tofind fashionable bars, restaurants and art galleries, alongsidefood vendors, street markets and Buddhist temples. The FrenchQuarter by contrast has wide boulevards lined with imposing houses.A winding train ride up the mountains in Sapa lets visitorsoverlook it all. On the coast, visitors can find remote beaches, ortake a boat cruise through the hundreds of towering islands inHalong Bay. The trip to nearby Ninh Binh offers tourists the chanceto experience some of Vietnam's most beautiful rural scenery, withnarrow rivers snaking past limestone cliffs and farmers tendingtheir fields with water buffaloes.
The quaint riverside town of Hoi An was an important port townand one of the major trading centres in South East Asia during the16th and 17th centuries. The cultural influences of the Japaneseand Chinese merchants are still evident today in the town'sarchitecture, with the famous Japanese Covered Bridge and thedistinctly Chinese atmosphere of the Old Quarter forming part ofits unique character. A UNESCO-listed town, Hoi An has preservedmuch of its heritage and has remained largely void of traffic andpollution.
Lining the narrow streets are two-storey Chinese shops, withcharming wooden facades and tiled roofs, merchants' homes, AssemblyHalls and temples that preserve an ancient character. On the 15thday of every lunar month, the ancient character of this sleepy towntakes on fairytale proportions, as porches, streets and windows arelit by the glow of coloured lanterns; a practice reminiscent of theold days and aimed at retaining the spirit of the past.
Hoi An is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination,not only for its attractive old-world atmosphere and genuinefriendliness, but also for its restaurants, serving delicious HoiAn specialities, and tailor-made clothes. Rows of little tailorshops with rolls of fine silk offer the chance to have beautifulgarments made up within hours; however, the insistence of thetailors can be annoying.
Two miles (4km) to the east of Hoi An is the beach of Cua Dai,considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in CentralVietnam, with its long, white and sandy coastline. From Hoi An,visitors can make trips to the large marble rock formations 'TheMarble Mountains', which are closer to Da Nang, or take a shortriver cruise. Travellers would be remiss not to take the time tovisit Hoi An, if only to take a moment to bask in its history.
The ancient meandering streets of the Old Quarter are each namedafter the crafts and speciality trades traditionally practised bythe original artisan's guilds in the 13th century. Each guild wasgrouped around a temple, or dinh, dedicated to the particularbeliefs of the village from where the guild originated, and many ofthese temples are open to the public today.
The early merchant's quarter affords an intriguing glimpse intolife centuries ago with covered markets, and the ancient narrowbuildings that still line the streets, known as tube or tunnelhouses that contained shops. Businesses were taxed according to thewidth of their storefront and resulted in shops only seven foot(2m) wide with a series of storerooms, workshops and livingquarters extending behind to a length of up to 197ft (60m). Manystreets are still devoted to a predominant trade such as silks,religious objects or textiles, silver jewellery, antiques, andthere are numerous art galleries and craft stores, as well as cafesand pavement restaurants lining the streets.
Traffic within the Old Quarter is a chaotic mix of bicycles,motorbikes and pedestrians passing noisily down the narrow streetsand shady alleyways.
Ba Dinh Square was where Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration ofIndependence in 1945, and is the site of annual nationalcelebrations today. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum dominates the site'swest side and is where the embalmed body of the beloved publicfigure, 'father of the modern state', and 'liberator of theVietnamese people' is displayed.
The body of Ho Chi Minh is enclosed in a glass case, thetraditional way to honour famous communist leaders. Security istight, there is a strict dress code and it is imperative tomaintain a respectful demeanour while inside; this also means nophotographs. Nearby is the Ho Chi Minh Museum that commemorates hislife, housing a collection of military orders, correspondence,manifestos and photographs that illustrates the crucial role he hadin the country's history.
One Pillar Pagoda was constructed to celebrate the tale of theheirless Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who dreamt about receiving a sonfrom the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion, seated on alotus flower. He married shortly after and had a son, and thepagoda was built to honour the event.
It is the most interesting of the city's numerous pagodas, andbeneath the ornate curved roof people come to pray for fertilityand well-being, with allegedly miraculous effects. The uniquewooden structure was designed to resemble a lotus flower, theBuddhist representation of enlightenment, emerging out of thewater, with the single stone pillar its symbolic stalk. It wasdestroyed by the French during the first Indochina War and wassubsequently rebuilt.
The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's historical seat oflearning and is the most sacred place for the disciples ofConfucius. It is one of the few remaining buildings from theoriginal city founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in the 11th centuryand is a well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture.
It became the site of the country's first university in 1076.Consisting of a complex of small buildings and five walledcourtyards, it was an exclusive establishment teaching theprinciples of Confucius. In the third courtyard is a pond, the Wellof Heavenly Clarity, and beside it are 82 stone stelae, mounted ontortoises and engraved with the names of successful graduates.
Over a period of 900 years thousands of Vietnamese scholarsgraduated from the university. In honour of their teacher's legacy,there is also a temple dedicated to Confucius, a place where theking and his mandarins would make sacrifices.
The natural wonder of Halong Bay has been declared a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site. Renowned for its spectacular scenery andlimestone grottos and caves, the bay is peppered with over 1,600inlets and tiny islands emerging almost mystically out of theemerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Wind and wave erosion havescored the site to form dramatic rock shapes, many of which containcaves.
Many of the islands have been named for their astonishingresemblance to their namesakes, such as Dragon, Incense Burner,Pair of Roosters and Man's Head Islands. The weird protuberanceshave been at the source of several local legends, particularlyabout a dragon whose thrashing tail created the bay and itsislands. The name Vinh Ha Long means 'where the dragon descendedinto the sea'.
The most impressive cave is the Hang Dau Go (Grotto of theWooden Stakes), an extensive grotto with rock formations presentingvarious eerie images in the mysterious light. It was named from theBattle of 1288 when General Tran Hung Dao prepared hundreds ofstakes to be planted in the riverbed of the largest chamber tocounter a boat attack. Nearby the beautiful Hang Thien Cung cave isfamous for its sparkling stalagmites and stalactites. When bookinga cruise in advance, travellers should consider reserving a nightor two, to experience Halong Bay at its most picturesque; sunrise,sunset and star-scattered night.
The old hill station of Sapa sits high on the edge of a plateausurrounded by spectacular scenery and the Hoang Lien Mountains,which boast Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan. Sapa functions as amarket town and a gathering spot for local tribes who come intotown to trade every weekend.
The market is excellent for buying handicrafts and peoplewatching. Colourful tunics of the Dao and Giay people mix with theblack and blue clothing and silver ornamentation of the Black Hmongtribe, while bright red scarves cover the heads of the Red Hmongwho carry large woven baskets on their backs brimming withgoods.
Nearly 75 miles (140 km) from Sapa is the small town of Bac Ha.Situated in a valley, Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market. Muchless touristy than Sapa, the market is a riot of colour and noise,a place not only for trade but also for socialising. All pathsleading into town are filled with people going to market, someriding horses or water buffalo, and the square is a mix ofdifferent minorities, buying and selling, or gathered in groupsaround a central pot of food. The Flower Hmong are the most vivid,with richly coloured clothes of bright red, blue and pink, andskirts embroidered with delicate flowers.
The markets have become a major tourist attraction and it isimportant that visitors to the region are sensitive to localculture and traditions, particularly when taking photographs ofpeople.
Constructed by Emperor Gia Long in 1804 for the private use ofthe emperor and his household, the enormous moated Citadel iscomprised of three separate walled enclosures. The outer citadel,surrounded by a six mile (10km) perimeter wall, punctuated by 10gates, frames the Imperial Enclosure used for officialbusiness.
At the very centre is the Forbidden Purple City, the restrictedresidence of the emperor and his concubines. This once magnificentImperial City originally included many magnificent features, withtombs, pagodas and temples, lakes and lavishly gildedpavilions.
Today remnants of the palaces contain ornate ceremonial hallsand throne rooms, mosaics adorn roofs and pillars, and beautifullandscaped gardens surround the remaining buildings. Sadly much wasdestroyed during the Vietnamese War, and a fire further damaged theForbidden Purple City, but it is still possible to see evidence ofits past glory.
The main entrance is through the Ngo Mon Gate (Noon Gate), astunning example of Nguyen architecture, with separate entrancesfor the emperor, his mandarins and the royal elephants. A soaringmulti-roofed pavilion used for important royal proclamations, sitselegantly on top.
South of Hué are eight splendid royal tombs of the Nguyenemperors, situated among the hills on the banks of the PerfumeRiver. Often designed while the emperor was still alive, eachmausoleum was built to serve as a palace for the afterlife. In thisvein the tombs were built as vast complexes, each with traditionalfunctions.
These complexes include paved courtyards lined with mandarinstatues, a stone stele inscribed with details of his reign, a maintemple dedicated to the worship of the deceased and containingpersonal effects, and the tomb itself. Surrounding the complex wereartificial ponds in a garden-like setting. The Tomb of Tu Dac, withits lotus-filled lake and central pavilion, the remarkable mosaicsof Minh Mang's Tomb, and the simple and serene Tomb of Khai Dinhare the most interesting.
A boat trip on the Perfume River is one of the highlights of avisit to Hué and includes stops to visit some of the city's mainattractions. Passing other sampans (traditional rowing boats) ontheir way to the market, houseboats and dragon boats, a typicaltrip will take visitors to the Thien Mu Pagoda, Hon Chen Temple andthe Royal Tombs.
The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the oldest and most attractivereligious structures in Vietnam, dating back to 1601. Its moststriking feature is the seven-tiered tower, representing the sevensteps to enlightenment. Another way to experience the Perfume Riveris on an evening boat trip hosting a traditional folksongperformance. This long-standing tradition goes back to the rule ofthe emperors when artists would play music and recite poetry from arowing boat on the river.
Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Vietnam was split into Northand South along the 17th parallel. The Ben Hai River was selectedas the temporary demarcation line. A three-mile (5km) strip ofno-man's land on either side of the border was known as the DMZ orDemilitarised Zone.
It was bombed into a desolate wasteland, riddled with land minesand surrounded by barbed wire during the war. The area surroundingthe DMZ and the land in between was the worst affected, and theamount of explosives, napalm and chemicals used, including AgentOrange, has left the once heavily forested land with stunted growthand infertile soil. Historical sites and landmarks include the HienLuong Bridge spanning the river, entry to the Ho Chi Minh Trailthat bypassed the border, the American firebase at Con Thien, U.SMarine base at Khe Sanh, and the Truong Son War Martyr Cemeterydedicated to the thousands who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Aguided tour is strongly recommended as there are no signs and thearea still contains unexploded landmines.
Vinh Moc is known for the extraordinary complex of tunnelsconstructed by the villagers as an underground village in which toshelter from American bombardments. Faced with the totaldestruction of their village in 1965, they dug an undergroundnetwork consisting of three layers starting at a depth of 33ft(10m) with room for 300 people, including wells, a school, clinics,storerooms, observation posts, ventilation shafts and a maternityroom where 17 babies were delivered during the war. A section hasbeen restored and is open to visitors and there is a small museumat the entrance. To fully appreciate the history of the site, itsbest to hire a guide.
The disturbing War Remnants Museum highlights the horrors ofmodern combat, and especially portrays the suffering inflicted onthe Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. Its former name, theMuseum of American War Crimes, was altered so as not to causeoffence to American visitors, but the museum's displays still givean anti-American perspective.
The museum houses a collection of weapons, machinery, artefactsand horrific photographs illustrating the devastating effects ofnapalm, Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction.
One room is dedicated to biological warfare, including theeffects of the defoliant sprays that were dumped over the country.Another room looks at worldwide demonstrations for peace andinternational opposition to the war. In the courtyard there aretanks, helicopters, planes and bombs on display.
Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon, is comprised of a densenetwork of vibrant streets and alleyways. It was first settled bythe Chinese Hoa merchants at the end of the 18th century, and isnow the home of Vietnam's biggest ethnic minority community. Cholondiverges from the conventional 'Chinatown' set up that exists inmany prominent cities the world over, largely due to its impressiveexpanse.
When visitors enter Cholon, the difference in environment isimmediately noticeable. Mandarin signposts lead into a fascinatinglabyrinth of temples, restaurants, exotic stores, medicine shopsand markets. The best place to experience the bustle of trade is atthe crowded Binh Tay Market, where the corridors are filled withstalls offering a variety of exotic produce, from live tetheredducks to nuts and seeds, as well as other household items.
There are several temples of interest in Cholon, including theQuan Am Pagoda with its ornate exterior, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple,its roof exquisitely ornamented with dragons and sea monsters, andthe Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Located in District One, this area of Saigon is known as SouthVietnam's backpacker district. Stretching along the streets of DeTham, Pham Ngu Lau and Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao is often compared tothe more famous Khao San road of Bangkok, and is a similaramalgamation of bars, guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops andsmall travel agencies.
Known also to be an expat playground, these bars stay open laterthan most in the city. The prominent Go2 Bar is the most popularamong tourists but dozens dot the area. Day trips to the MekongDelta or the Cu Chi tunnels are easily organised in any of thetravel agencies as well as transport to most of Vietnam. Althoughprices vary the trips usually are the same despite the agency.
Located in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, Ben Thanh Market isone of the destination's best known landmarks. It is often hot,crowded and frantic, but it's a great place to buy localhandicrafts, branded goods and souvenirs. A wet market at the backsells every kind of food imaginable. It is rumoured that buyerswill be given their purchases in differently coloured bagsaccording to their bargaining ability, as a sign to other vendors.The market is open daily from 7am to 6pm, but an outdoor nightmarket and food stalls that surround the area are open until muchlater.
For most, a trip in Halong Bay means at least a night on Cat BaIsland. Many enlist for a package tour of one night on the islandand one on a boat, but Cat Ba is worth investing extra time in.This 54 sq mile (140 sq km) island houses equally impressive beachrelaxation and hardcore outdoor activities including kayaking,trekking and world-class rock climbing.
For those wishing to relax, there are three beaches withinwalking distance of town. Each is spacious and all are protectedinlets with views of Halong islands. Beaches one and three are themost secluded and offer beautiful views from the short walks alongsurrounding cliff lines. For those looking for something morerugged, the many limestone cliffs dotting the island are ideal forrock climbing and hotels located on the town's main strip offerguides and gear. Various treks range in length but most are fairlysteep. However, the reward is well worth it, as they give abird's-eye-view of the island's national park, which is also hometo the rare Cat Ba Langur.
All hotels can arrange excellent boat tours of the surroundingislands. This includes visits to deep caves with stalagmites andstalactites, secluded swimming holes, floating fish farms andkayaking. The tour is the same regardless of who it's bookedthrough, so the cheaper the better. Whether it has been a relaxingday of sun and sea or one of thrilling adventure, it must end atthe bay's floating restaurant, which has some of the best seafoodin Vietnam.
The best way to cool off in the hot dusty city is the Dam SenWater Park. The water park is set within three hectares ofVietnamese gardens and is the centre of a larger theme parkcomplex. Among all the rides there is a great selection of waterslides which hurtle passengers, full speed, up railings and downsteep drops. The large wave pool offers more relaxing fun and thewide stream encircling the park is a great place to float under thehot sun. There is also a designated section of the compound forrelaxing away from the excited crowds.
Located in Vietnam's central highlands region, Da Lat is thecapital of Lam Dong Province and a popular tourist destination. Itoffers sun-burned travellers an Alpine haven, ideal for rest andrecuperation. Full of beautiful French Colonial architecture, thecity's natural surrounds are also staggeringly picturesque -attested to by the fact that in Vietnamese, 'Da Lat' means 'city ofthousands of pine trees'.
There is much to see and to explore in the city's mistysurrounding valleys, including Truc Lam, a working Buddhistmonastery in a pristine pine forest setting; Lang Bian, a nearbymountain with spectacular scenery, that visitors can hike up inthree hours; the Da Lat Flower Park, where the area's famousorchids and roses take centre-stage; and Elephant Falls, a strikingcollection of waterfalls that is guaranteed to interest the mostjaded of travellers.
With a wonderfully temperate year-round climate - it isnicknamed 'the city of eternal Spring' - Da Lat, much likeDarjeeling in India, is often used by travellers as a restful placeto stop and catch their breaths. The best time to visit Da Lat isin the dry season, which lasts from November to April.
Located in the Gulf of Siam, Phu Quoc is Vietnam's largestisland, and is fast becoming a heavyweight tourist destination. Thedensely forested, mountainous island is ringed by some of the mostbeautiful, unspoilt beaches in the whole of Southeast Asia.Accessible by sea or air, Phu Quoc is the ideal place to spend aweek or two.
There will be more than enough to entertain visitors betweenrelaxing on the beach, sampling some of the famous seafood,shopping for pearls in the fishing village of Ham Ninh, or headingoff to Phu Quoc National Park to hike and swim in a tranquilmountain pool. The island is famous for its fish sauce (nuoc mam) -an essential ingredient of all Southeast Asian cooking, and awonderful gift for friends and family back home.
For those looking to be active on the island, Rainbow Diversoffer excellent opportunities for snorkelling and scuba-diving; andit is highly recommended that visitors rent a scooter or moped fortheir time on Phu Quoc, as it has to be the coolest, easiest way tozip around.
The best time to visit the island is in the dry season, whichlasts from December to May. Although Phu Quoc is currentlyexperiencing rapid development on the east coast, it is stillpossible for travellers to explore relatively untouched areas ofthe island.
The climate in Vietnam varies greatly from north to south. Thenorth has a cool and dry season from November to April and a hotrainy season from May to October. The central coast north of NhaTrang has a similar climate with the winter monsoon bringing cool,wet weather between December and February. The south is hot andhumid all year round, especially from February to May. The rainyseason lasts from May to November. The central highlands have asimilar climate to the south, but it is cooler and temperatures canbe freezing in winter. The official peak season in Vietnam is fromSeptember to April.
Serving some of Ho Chi Minh City's finest pho, Pho 24 is apopular chain restaurant serving up Vietnam's staple for a numberof years. The choices aren't that exciting, but meat lovers willenjoy the pho with beef fillet and fat brisket, or pho withchicken, while vegetarian options are available too. Open for lunchand dinner.
For travellers who are feeling a little homesick, Al Frescosoffers good old America fare that most western visitors will enjoy.From ribs, burgers and pizzas to tex-mex, steaks and fries withlashings of ketchup, Al Fresco's has it all. Open daily forbreakfast lunch and dinner.
With local cane furniture, low lighting and three storeys tochoose from, Lemongrass makes the perfect location for a romanticdinner in Ho Chi Minh City. Its lunch menu's not bad either. Thiseatery has been serving local Vietnamese fare to visitors andlocals for years and comes highly recommended. Serving healthy andlight dishes, the menu is varied, incorporating seasonal flavoursand ingredients and catering to all tastes. Guests should try thesoup or spring rolls and the deep-fried prawn in coconut batter.Open daily for lunch and dinner.
The official currency is the Vietnamese Dông (VND). Currency canbe exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and larger hotels, thoughonly US dollars are easily exchanged outside of major cities. Visaand MasterCard are becoming more widely acceptable, particularly inHanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and all major tourist centres. US currencyis accepted by many hotels in tourist centres and is useful as aback-up, but notes must be relatively new and unmarked. Betweenfour and nine million Dông can be withdrawn from ATMs at a time,and most banks will have useful leaflets listing ATM locationsthroughout the country. Dông is not easy to find outside of Vietnamand can be difficult to exchange, so change money on arrival anduse up leftover cash before departing Vietnam.
The official language in Vietnam is Vietnamese. SomeChinese, English and French are spoken. Tour guides can also speakRussian and Japanese. Numerous ethnic languages are also spoken inparts.
Electrical current in Vietnam is 220 volts, 50Hz.Plugs are either the two flat-pin or the two round-pin type. Threerectangular blade plugs can be found in some of the newerhotels.
US passport holders must have a passport valid for 6 monthsbeyond intended stay. Visas are required.
UK passport holders must have a passport valid for six monthsbeyond arrival date, and a visa is required. E-visas can beobtained before departure. Passengers must have a printed e-visaconfirmation. Visas are not required for stays of up to 15 days forUK Citizens. Visas are not required for stays of up to 30 days forUK nationals arriving at Phu Quoc (PQC).
Canadians must have a passport valid for 6 months beyond theperiod of intended stay, and a visa is required.
Australians must have a passport valid for 6 months beyond theperiod of intended stay, and a visa is required.
South Africans must have a passport valid for 6 months beyondthe period of intended stay, and a visa is required.
Irish nationals must have a visa and a passport valid for 6months beyond the period of intended stay.
US passport holders must have a passport valid for 6 monthsbeyond intended stay. Visas are required.
New Zealanders must have a passport valid for 6 months beyondperiod of intended stay, and a visa is required.
Although officially Vietnam demands six months' of validity onpassports, passports valid for at least one month after expiry dateof visa will be accepted. Nationals of a handful of countries onlyrequire three months of passport validity. All visitors must havesufficient funds for the duration of their stay, onward or returntickets, and all documents needed for next destination. Visitorsshould hold a spare passport photograph on arrival in Vietnam foruse on the immigration form that must be filled out. They shouldretain the yellow portion of their immigration Arrival-Departurecard on entry to Vietnam, as this is required for exit. Visitorscoming from countries with no Vietnamese diplomatic representationwill be issued a visa on arrival, provided the visitor is holding aletter from Vietnamese Immigration confirming this. It is highlyrecommended that travellers' passports have at least six months'validity remaining after the intended date of departure from theirtravel destination. Immigration officials often apply differentrules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Health risks in Vietnam include Hepatitis A and E, typhoid,Japanese encephalitis, bilharzia, plague, cholera, diarrhoea andHIV/AIDS. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for travel outside themain cities and towns, the Red River delta and north of NhaTrang.
There has been an increase in the amount of reported cases ofdengue fever in recent years, and visitors should take care toprotect themselves from mosquito bites during the day, especiallyjust after dawn and just before dusk, particularly in the southernMekong Delta region. Travellers should seek medical advice aboutvaccinations at least three weeks before leaving for Vietnam andensure they have adequate insect protection. Typhoid can be aproblem in the Mekong Delta. Those arriving from an infected arearequire a yellow fever vaccination certificate. Water is drinkable,but visitors usually prefer to drink bottled water.
Decent health care is available in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) with English-speaking doctors, and there is a surgicalclinic in Da Nang, but more complicated treatment may requiremedical evacuation. Pharmacies throughout the country are adequate,but check expiry dates of medicines carefully and be aware thatsome medicines are counterfeit. Health insurance is essential.
Most restaurants and hotels in Vietnam now add a five to tenpercent service charge to their bills. In top hotels porters expecta small tip. Hired drivers and guides are usually tipped, and it iscustomary to round up the bill for taxi drivers in the cities.Tipping is not generally expected, but some small change for mostservices is appreciated.
Vietnam is relatively safe travel destination and violent crimeis uncommon. Petty crime can be an issue in Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) and other large cities and tourist hot spots, so visitorsshould be wary with their belongings when in crowds and on publictransport. Travellers are advised to leave valuables in their hotelsafe and avoid obvious displays of wealth. During the monsoonseason (usually between June and October) the country is prone toserious flooding and typhoons (until December), particularly theMekong Delta and Central Region.
Travellers should try to dress modestly when away from thebeaches (shoulders covered and shorts below the knee) and avoidexcessive public displays of affection. Shoes must be removed onentering religious sites and a donation is expected when visiting atemple or pagoda. Photography is restricted at ports, harbours andairports, and it is polite to ask permission before takingphotographs of people, especially of ethnic minorities. Visitorsshould never leave chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice asit has strong connotations with death. Travellers should use a handas opposed to pointing with a finger.
Business practices in Vietnam are conducted in a similar fashionto those of China, Japan and Korea rather than their SoutheastAsian counterparts. Pride and tact are important to bear in mind,as practices tend to be formalised more so than in Westerncountries. Often it is best to be introduced rather than approachthe person with whom business is intended for fear of suspicion.Negotiations and settlements may take longer as the Vietnamese liketo examine contracts thoroughly. Formal dress is common but insummer months the dress tends to be more casual. It is important tobe on time for business appointments as the Vietnamese considerlateness rude.
The person is always addressed as Mr., Mrs., and Ms., followedby their personal name (not family name), unless otherwisereferred; it is worth finding out in advance. Shaking hands withboth hands is the most respectful greeting although bowing is stillpopular among the older population, and meetings always begin withthe exchange of business cards, which should be given and receivedwith both hands; each person expects to receive one, so be sure tobring a vast supply. Business hours are typically 8am to 5pm Mondayto Friday with an hour taken at lunch, and 8am to 11.30am onSaturdays.
The international country code for Vietnam is +84. The outgoingcode is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 001 for theUnited States or Canada). City/area codes are in use, e.g. Hanoi is(0)4 and Ho Chi Minh City is (0)8. Wifi availability is widespread,expecially in the cities.
Travellers to Vietnam over 18 years do not have to pay duty onthe following items: 200 cigarettes, 20 cigars, 250g tobacco, 1.5litres alcohol with alcohol content higher than 22 percent and 2litres below 22 percent; up to 5kg tea and 3kg coffee; perfume anditems for personal consumption within reasonable amounts; othergoods to the value of five million Vietnamese dong.
Embassy of Vietnam, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 8610737.
Embassy of Vietnam, London, United Kingdom (also responsible forIreland): +44 20 7937 1912.
Embassy of Vietnam, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 0772.
Embassy of Vietnam, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 8119.
Embassy of Vietnam, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6286 6059.
Embassy of Vietnam, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 473 5912.
United States Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3850 5000.
British Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3936 0500.
Canadian Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3734 5000.
South African Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3936 2000.
Australian Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 377 40100.
Irish Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3974 3291.
New Zealand Embassy, Hanoi: +84 24 3824 1481.
The Cu Chi Tunnels system is an underground network of tunnelsdug in the 1940s by the Vietnamese as a place to hide during thefight against the French. The network was later expanded and usedin the American War. Today the system is more than 150 miles(250km) long.
It is comprised of winding tunnels and unlit offshoots, secrettrap doors connecting narrow routes to hidden shelters, localrivers and tunnels reaching to the Cambodian border. It was once asprawling city of improvised hospitals, living quarters, kitchensand fresh water wells, with some tunnels barely large enough towriggle through. The plan was to launch surprise assaults on theenemy, and then disappear; this strategy was so successful that thesuperior firepower of the French and American armies wasinsufficient in the face of continuous ambushes in which theassailants seemed to vanish into thin air.
Today many of the tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitorsthe dirty and claustrophobic experience of crawling through aportion of the underground network, past secret trapdoors and boobytraps laid against invasion. The two main sites, Ben Dinh and BenDuoc, are different in that one was constructed specifically fortourists (Ben Dinh) and the other was actually used in war (BenDuoc). Due to their popularity with tourists, hard-sell vendors canbe a constant hassle among the touring throngs.
The delta is a vast network of waterways formed by the MekongRiver. It is surrounded by a fertile patchwork of endless greenrice paddies, orchards and swamplands, where most of the country'srice is grown. Not only does the Mekong River irrigate what isknown as 'the rice bowl of Vietnam', it also serves as a vital formof transport.
A unique way of life has evolved among the villagers that havelived on or beside the river for centuries. The best way toexperience the delta is by boat, joining the rowing boats andfishermen, rickety houseboats, ferries and traditional sampans onthe brown water. On the banks are small villages, vegetablegardens, fish farms and stilted houses. Trading is carried outbetween boats at floating markets, where whole sections of theriver are covered by bobbing merchants who advertise their wares,often hung from long bamboo poles.
There are several towns in the region from where visitors canarrange boat trips, if not already on an organised tour. Touristsshould try to avoid the rainy season, as the tides may be too highfor canal travel. There is an impressive range of local dishes onoffer and, besides seafood, there are opportunities for adventuroustravellers to sample snake, eel and bat.
Mui Ne is Vietnam's most western style resort beach. The cityitself is a typical Vietnamese fishing community sporting a fleetof beautiful fishing boats but with little to see or do in town.The beach beside it, however, is home to luxury resorts and hotels,while cheaper guesthouses can be found across the road or closer totown.
A variety of water activities are available including surfing,kite surfing, jet-skiing, and sailing. The young and tireless willenjoy the beach and roadside bars where cheap drinks and electromusic carry on late into the night. Most parts of the long six mile(10 km) stretch of beach resemble the tropical paradise Mui Ne hasalways been toted as, but other sections have experienced coastalerosion. Travellers should keep this in mind when selecting aresort.
There are red-coloured sand dunes close to town, but beyondthose lie much larger white sand dunes, which are worth the extrahalf-hour trip. For a small tip, children will rent out sand sledsand demonstrate how to surf the dunes. One of Vietnam's top golfcourses is also just outside the city. Mui Ne is a scenic five-hourmotorbike trip from Vung Tau or five to seven-hour highway bus ridefrom Ho Chi Minh City.