Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country on the South China Sea known for its beaches, rivers, Buddhist pagodas and bustling cities. Hanoi, the capital, pays homage to the nation’s iconic Communist-era leader, Ho Chi Minh, via a huge marble mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has French colonial landmarks, plus Vietnamese War history museums and the Củ Chi tunnels, used by Viet Cong soldiers.
Dialing code: +84
Currency: Vietnamese dong
Population: 89.71 million (2013) World Bank
Official language: Vietnamese
Vietnam's history is one of war, colonisation and rebellion.
Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. At various points during these thousand years of imperial dynasties, Vietnam was ravaged and divided by civil wars and repeatedly attacked by the Songs, Mongols, Yuans, Chams, Mings, Dutch, Qings, French and the Americans. The victories mostly belonged to the Vietnamese but, even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonisation. Vietnam's last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884. Both the Chinese occupation and French colonisation have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French leaving a lasting imprint on Vietnamese cuisine.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at the 17th parallel of latitude, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
The tank that ended the war, Ho Chi Minh City
Fighting between South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese backed Viet Cong escalated into what became known as the Vietnam War - although the Vietnamese officially refer to it as the American War. US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of half a million American troops in 1966. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire and US armed forces were only withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South's Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended with the conquest of South Vietnam. An estimated 800,000 to 3 million Vietnamese and over 55 thousand Americans had been killed.
The Vietnam war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history.
Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese ape American mores and venerate US pop culture.
Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there is a sizeable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most who are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. There are also numerous other ethnic groups who occupy the mountainous parts of the country, such as the Hmong, Muong and Dao people. There is also a minority ethnic group in the lowlands near the border with Cambodia known as the Khmer Krom.
Buddhism, mostly of the Mahayana school, is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with over 85% of Vietnamese people identifying themselves as Buddhist. Catholicism is the second largest religion, followed by the local Cao Dai religion. Other Christian denominations, Islam, and local religions also share small followings throughout the southern and central areas.
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
- The North has four distinct seasons, with a comparatively chilly winter (temperatures can dip below 15°C/59°F in Hanoi), a hot and wet summer and pleasant spring (March-April) and autumn (October-December) seasons. However, in the Highlands both extremes are amplified, with occasional snow in the winter and temperatures hitting 40°C (104°F) in the summer.
- In the Central regions the Hai Van pass separates two different weather patterns of the North starting in Langco (which is hotter in summer and cooler in winter) from the milder conditions South starting in Danang. North East Monsoon conditions September - February with often strong winds, large sea swells and rain make this a miserable and difficult time to travel through Central Vietnam. Normally summers are hot and dry.
- The South has three somewhat distinct seasons: hot and dry from March to May/June; rainy from June/July to November; and cool and dry from December to February. April is the hottest month, with mid-day temperatures of 33°C (91°F) or more most days. During the rainy season, downpours can happen every afternoon, and occasional street flooding occurs. Temperatures range from stifling hot before a rainstorm to pleasantly cool afterwards. Mosquitoes are most numerous in the rainy season. December to February is the most pleasant time to visit, with cool evenings down to around 20° (68°F).
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place between late January and March on the Western calendar and usually coincides with the Chinese New Year.
In the period leading up to Tết, the country is abuzz with preparations. Men on motorbikes rush around delivering potted tangerine trees and flowering bushes, the traditional household decorations. People get a little bit stressed out and the elbows get sharper, especially in big cities, where the usual hectic level of traffic becomes almost homicidal. Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces. Finally on the first day of the new year an abrupt transformation occurs: the streets become quiet, almost deserted. Nearly all shops and restaurants close for three days, (the exception being a few that cater especially to foreign visitors; and hotels operate as usual.)
In the major cities, streets are decorated with lights and public festivities are organized which attract many thousands of residents. But for Vietnamese, Tết is mostly a private, family celebration. On the eve of the new year, families gather together and exchange good wishes (from more junior to more senior) and gifts of "lucky money" (from more senior to more junior). In the first three days of the year, the daytime hours are devoted to visiting -- houses of relatives on the first day, closest friends and important colleagues on the second day, and everyone else on the third day. Many people also visit pagodas. The evening hours are spent drinking and gambling (men) or chatting, playing, singing karaoke, and enjoying traditional snacks and candy (women and children.)
Visiting Vietnam during Tết has good points and bad points. On the minus side: modes of transport are jammed just before the holiday as many Vietnamese travel to their home towns; hotels fill up, especially in smaller towns; and your choice of shopping and dining is severely limited in the first days of the new year (with a few places closed up to two weeks). In Saigon, most shops are closed for a whole week after new years day. Restaurants may charge a higher than normal price, e.g. adding a 20% "Happy New Year" fee. Beware that crowded places are ideal for pickpockets. On the plus side, you can observe the preparations and enjoy the public festivities; pagodas are especially active; no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open; and the foreigner-oriented travel industry of backpacker buses and resort hotels chugs along as usual. Visitors also stand a chance of being invited to join the festivities, especially if you have some local connections or manage to make some Vietnamese friends during your stay. When visiting during Tết, it's wise to get settled somewhere at least two days before the new year, and don't try to move again until a couple of days after.
VISA ON ARRIVALS
This method is available only for Air travel.
The term visa on arrival is a bit of a misnomer in the case of Vietnam as a letter of approval has to be obtained before arrival. This is handled by a growing number of on-line agencies for a charge of USD10-21 (Aug 2014). Most agencies accept payment by credit card, some accept payment by Western Union or Paypal. You also have to pay stamp fee at the airport when arrival. You need 1 photo.
The visa on arrival fees 2014
- One month – single entry USD45
- One month – multiple entry USD65
- Three months – single entry costs the same with one month single entry
- Three months – multiple entry USD95
- Six months – multiple entry USD135
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office of Her Majesty's Government in London states "We are aware that there are nearly 1000 travel companies that are able to arrange legitimate visas-on-arrival but this must be done prior to arrival in Vietnam. There have also been reports of bogus companies that claim to be able to arrange for a visa on arrival. As the British Embassy and Consulate cannot confirm whether a company has a legitimate arrangement in place, the safest way to obtain a visa is via the nearest Vietnamese Embassy. Vietnamese visas are usually valid for only one entry. If you plan to leave Vietnam and re-enter from another country make sure you obtain a visa allowing multiple entries."
The situation is complicated by the fact that the Internet high level domain "gov.vn" does not necessarily denote a government agency!
The agent - located in Vietnam - obtains from the Department of Immigration a letter of approval bearing the traveller's name, date of birth, date of arrival, nationality and passport number, and then forwards that letter to the traveller (in PDF or JPEG format) by email or fax, usually within three working days. It is common to get the letter with several other applicants passport details (passport number, date and place of birth, full name, etc.). You might share your personal information with up to 10-30 other applicants on the same letter(s). For persons who are concerned about their privacy or security, it is recommended to check first if the agencies have an option for a separate or private approval letter (Private Vietnam visa on arrival) on their website. Very few on-line agencies have this option. Another solution is to apply for a regular visa through an embassy to keep your personal details private.
After landing at one of the three international airports (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang), the traveller goes to the "Landing Visa Counter" before the passport control and shows the letter, fills in an additional arrival form (can be pre-filled before departure), provide a photo and receives a visa sticker in his or her passport. As of Sep 2015 a visa fee in cash, of US$45 or US$65 for a single or multiple entry visa respectively, is payable at the time - only U.S. dollars or VND are accepted (no other currency or credit card) and the notes must be in reasonably good condition or they will be refused. One passport photo is required (often 4X6 cm). For $2 they can take a photo for you.
Note that visas on arrival are not valid for arrival at the land crossings, and the official visa stamp can only be obtained at the three international airports. Therefore, travellers arriving by land from Cambodia, Laos or China must be in possession of a full visa when they arrive at the border.
A third alternative, 'Visa Code' appears to be another option [More references needed] where on-line approval is first obtained - with a code, then you take the passport to the Embassy for the visa to be 'stamped'. The cost for service fee is cheaper than at the embassy in Europe or America. In Asia the cost will be almost the same as the regular total visa fee. However, you will avoid to go back and forth to the embassy.
Passengers of Air Asia and some other airlines travelling to Vietnam must present the approval letter at check-in.
Vietnam has moved away from arrival/departure cards.
Depending on the present level of SARS and avian flu you may be subjected to a so-called health-check, which as of Sep 2015 consist only from a thermal scanner you pass through on your way to passport control; there are no forms to fill.
Prior to 2015 it was relatively simple (and inexpensive) to obtain a one-time, 30 day extension to your standard single-entry tourist visa. This is no longer the case! As of May 2015, obtaining a 30 day extension took 10 days and cost US$185 - although the stamp still states "10 (mười) USD". Similarly, overstaying your visa has become considerably more expensive (on the order of USD50/day).
Vietnam has international airports at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. Non-stop flights are available from Australia, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Macau, Qatar, Turkey, Dubai and the U.S. However, most direct flights are served by flag carrier Vietnam Airlines while plenty of other long-haul flights are available with transits via Bangkok, Doha, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei.
Hue airport (HUI) is also classified as international, but currently (2015) has no international departures/arrivals.
There are direct international train services from Nanning and Beijing in China to Hanoi. Most require a change of trains at the border at Pingxiang/Dong Dang, but the Chinese-operated daily Nanning express (T8701/MR2) runs through, although it still spends about four hours at the border for immigration.
The daily train from Nanning starts around 18:00 and arrives around 05:00 to Hanoi. Hard Sleeper c. CNY180 and soft sleeper c. CNY295. (You can consider taking the bus from Nanning instead which is a cheaper and pretty convenient day journey.
The Kunming-Hanoi line was shut down by landslides in 2002 and, as of 2011, remains closed. There are no train links to Laos or Cambodia.
Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains, or run overnight. It is important to note that average road speeds are typically quite slow, even when travelling between cities. For example a 276 km (172 mi) journey from the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City by bus will likely take about 8 hours.
Public Buses travel between the cities' bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city centre from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals.
Vietnamese buses are made for Vietnamese people - bigger Westerners will be very uncomfortable, especially on overnight buses. Also, many Vietnamese are not used to riding on long-haul buses, and will sometimes get sick - not very pleasant if you are stuck on an overnight bus with several Vietnamese throwing up behind you.
Even if you are sometimes bus-sick, it is advisable to book a seat at the middle section rather than at the front of the bus. First, you will avoid viewing directly the short-sighted risks the driver is taking on the way. Second, you will somewhat escape the loud noise of unceasing honkings (each time the bus passes another vehicle, that is about every 10 seconds).
The long haul bus lines run from North to South and back on the only main road (QL1). Be aware that if you take a bus going further than your destination, the bus will drop you off at the most convenient crossroads for the driver and not, as you could have expected, at the bus terminal of your destination. For Hué, this crossroad is 13 km from the city centre and for Nha Trang, 10 km. At these crossroads, you'll find taxis or mototaxis to get you to your hotel.
If you travel with a bicycle, negotiate the extra fee with the driver rather than the ticket counter before buying your ticket. The bicycle fee should be no more than 10% of the ticket price.
A scam that you may encounter is that after arriving at your location, guides will ask you whether you have booked a hotel. Even though you haven't, say that you have and prepare the name of a hotel. If you say you have not booked one, they will charter a taxi for you and probably drop you at a hotel where they can collect commission. If you decide not to stay, things may get a little ugly, as they will demand that you pay the taxi fare, which they may quote as several times the actual fare for a ten minute ride.
One of the major bus companies is Hoang Long . They have an excellent website in english that provides all rate information as well as locations of bus terminals in all cities they service. You can bypass the travel agents altogether and head straight for bus station since the agent will simply sell you the very same ticket. If you choose to go the lazy route and use the travel agent at least reference the Hoang Long website for what the bus ticket should cost you. Do not give the travel agent a commission of more than a dollar.
Open Tour buses are run by a multitude of tour companies. They cater especially to tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$20-25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you're willing to cover next. If you're not planning to make more than 3-4 stops, it might be cheaper to buy separate tickets as you go (ie Hanoi to Hue can be as low as US$5). Also the open ticket limits you to using only one company and does not guarantee you a seat on any bus. Most hotels and guest houses can book seats for any connection, although you're better to shop around at travel agents, as prices will vary on any given ticket/bus company. Going to the bus company office may net you a commission-free fare. C
Although the bus company will usually be happy to collect you at your hotel or guest house, boarding at the company office will guarantee a choice of seats and you'll avoid getting stuck at the back or unable to sit next to your travelling companions. The offices are generally located in or near the tourist area of town, and a short walk might make your trip that much more pleasant.
Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip will not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while too. Always be at least half an hour early to catch the bus. Try not to drink too much water, as rest stops, especially for overnight buses, may be just somewhere where there are a lot of bushes.
WARNING - Be very careful of your possessions on the overnight bus, people (including bus employees) have been known to look through passengers bag's and take expensive items such as iPods and phones and sell them on for profit. If you are travelling with an iPod DO NOT FALL ASLEEP WITH IT IN YOUR EAR, as the chances are it will be nowhere to be found in the morning. Simply get a padlock for your hand luggage and lock everything up in there before you go to sleep.
- Source: Wikitravel -