Vietnam boasts stunning landscapes – the karst outcrops of Halong Bay and the hilltribe-settled mountains around Sapa spring to mind – as well as beaches, charming colonial towns, the fascinating villages of the Mekong Delta and lush national parks.
Windsurf at Mui Ne, chill on tropical Phu Quoc Island, roam the historic streets of Hoi An, delve into the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi and settle in for a water-puppet show in capital Hanoi – and those are just the headline acts.
As infrastructure improves and hitherto-remote areas open up to travellers, more of Vietnam’s treasures come to light – explore the hills around Ninh Binh, visit the Cham temples of Quy Non or meet the tribes of Ba Be National Park – so be prepared to look beyond this page and the Vietnam guidebooks, and discover your own gems.
Climate is complicated by regional differences and two monsoons – the northern three-quarters of Vietnam get wet and cool October-March, while the south is warm and dry; a summer monsoon affects most of the country from April to October, bringing hot and humid conditions. The northern spring (April and May) and early autumn are probably the most comfortable (and not too crowded) times to visit.
Noi Bai Airport (HAN) is 35km north of Hanoi. Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN) is 7km north-west of Ho Chi Minh City.
Domestic flights link the main centres, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, Danang and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. A range of buses – from small (and often packed) minibuses to large, comfortable air-con coaches – comprise an extensive network around the country at very reasonably prices.
There’s one main railway line that runs along the coast between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, branching out to a few more destinations around the north. Hiring a car (often with driver) or a motorcycle allows more flexibility – but be aware of poor road safety.
Hostels, guesthouses and hotels are all part of the accommodation scene (though not, largely, camping). Homestays are increasingly popular, and can offer great opportunities for living among the minority peoples of the central and northern highlands.
Vietnam’s cuisine is diverse and delicious. Best known flavours include pho bo (beef noodle soup), spring rolls – either translucent or fried – and the ubiquitous nuoc mam, a powerful fermented fish sauce. The French colonial influence means tasty breakfasts with strong coffee and baguettes. Bia hoi – glasses of beer served on tap from barrels – is the most common hooch, tea the rival to coffee for most-common daytime drink.
Consult your GP or travel health clinic to check the appropriate vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. As well as malaria, which is a problem in some rural areas, dengue fever afflicts parts of Vietnam; as much as possibly, cover up and use insect repellent, particularly in the evenings.
Avoid drinking tap water, and ensure eggs and other potentially risky foods are well cooked. Be wary of venomous snakes in remote regions.
There is a risk of crime in big cities, but in general Vietnam is not a dangerous place; one thing to be aware of, though, is the continuing risk from unexploded ordnance remaining from the war.
Take local advice on walking trails, and never touch any war relics you find.
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