Frequently Asked Questions Vietnam
Why travel to Vietnam, where should I go, what is the difference between North and South, and when is the best time to go? Far East expert Michael Allford answers these frequently asked questions and more.
Vietnam is an endlessly fascinating country, and one that travellers often have many questions about. Our FAQ will help you find the answers to all those little queries you may have.
1) What does Vietnam have to offer travellers?
Vietnam is an intensely cultural destination, with everything from historical world heritage sites to the modern history of the Vietnam war. Its culture is fascinating, particularly as it varies a lot between the north and south, meaning there's so much to discover here.
It also provides a substantial amount of natural beauty, from pretty rice paddies in the Mekong Delta to outstanding attractions like Halong Bay – one of the country's best-loved natural wonders.
2) What are the main differences between the north and south of the country?
Weather definitely sets the north and south of Vietnam apart from one another, with the former tending to be much milder than the distinctly tropical-feeling latter.
The stand-out differences, though, are in terms of culture. Owing to their geographical locations, each area has been influenced by different cultures. In the north of the country, you'll be able to discern Chinese influences, while the south has been affected by south-east Asian traditions. This comes out in a variety of ways, though perhaps the clearest is in cuisine.
Because of these differences, it is a good idea to include both the north and the south in your travels. This way, you can experience the contrasts of Vietnam in one trip.
3) When's the best time to visit Vietnam? Does this differ from destination to destination and, if so, how?
Broadly speaking, the best time to visit Vietnam as a whole is between November and April. However, the climatic differences from one place to the next mean that you'll experience different weather as you travel. For example, should you be travelling in January and February, places like Hanoi in the north can become quite cool - though you shouldn't see snow.
It's best to avoid travelling in September and early October, because this tends to be when the rain hits central and southern Vietnam.
4) What's the climate like?
The climate varies between the north and the south. In the former, you can expect quite mild temperatures, averaging approximately 19C (66F).
As a rule of thumb, the further south you go, the more tropical the weather becomes. For example, if you're travelling in the Mekong Delta or the Saigon area, you can expect hot, humid and rather sticky conditions, with typical temperatures being between 25C (77F) and 30C (86F).
5) Do you need a visa to visit Vietnam?
Yes, you do need a visa to visit Vietnam. Usually, these will be valid for single entry, so if you plan to leave and re-enter during your holiday, ensure your visa covers multiple visits.
6) Is it easy to travel around Vietnam, and what are the best transport options?
Generally speaking, domestic planes are the best way to travel around Vietnam, with distances from one place to the next typically not exceeding one and a half hours. Vietnam Airlines is a very modern fleet of aircraft, so this is a comfortable as well as convenient way to travel.
With the exception of tourist trains, it is advisable to avoid travelling by rail in Vietnam, largely because this tends to be somewhat unpredictable and uncomfortable.
7) Is there anything travellers particularly need to take with them (outside of the usual holiday packing list)?
No, you don't need to worry about packing any unusual extras - just prepare as you usually would for a visit to a hot country, with suitable clothing and insect repellent.
8) What is the national cuisine like, and are any dishes that really shouldn't be missed?
In recent years, Vietnamese cuisine has achieved a glowing reputation on the world culinary stage. Its skillful application of spices, herbs, soy sauce and fish sauce, combined with its use of vegetables, means that Vietnamese cooking typically has a very fresh, flavoursome taste.
When it comes to dishes that shouldn't be missed, you should make every effort to try street food, which is often more exciting and authentic than the meals you'll come across in restaurants. A particular must-try is banh mi, which is a fusion of French and Vietnamese cooking.
These baguettes are made with rice flour to achieve a lighter texture than a French baguette, and are then cooked over coals and filled with things like pickles, meats and herbs - an amazing snack.
One of the more well-known foods is pho, perhaps the national dish of Vietnam. The broth is laden with spice and then simmered for hours overnight. Beef (or chicken) is then added, along with slippery noodles, and handfuls of fresh vegetables and herbs. The result is a complex and flavoursome dish that is often eaten for breakfast.
You should also try Vietnamese coffee, which has a somewhat rough and rustic taste. But it's very different from coffee you'll try elsewhere; served with evaporated milk, it boils away for hours on end until it becomes a thick, indulgent goop.
9) What are the country's top destinations, and what sort of holidays/experiences is each good for?
Because Vietnam is such a varied country, you should really try to visit its three main sectors, which effectively make up its top destinations. Starting with the north, Hanoi is a very cultural, historic city that's full of temples and great for cycling.
Also in the north is Halong Bay, a spectacular Unesco World Heritage Site of dramatic limestone outcrops. This extremely beautiful place is best visited with a one or two-night cruise. Following this, don't miss the opportunity to go up into the hills to the rice terraces and visit the minority villages, which is always a fascinating experience.
Moving on to central Vietnam, places such as Hoi An and Hue are full of culture, and are where you can see the influences of Japan and China. These destinations have a lot of history and, interestingly, there's a lot of modern history to be discovered here too - especially in Hue, where you can see the remnants of the war with the US still standing today.
Travelling further south to places like Saigon, you'll have the opportunity to discover the newer culture developing in Vietnam, thanks to the city's vibrant restaurant and bars. In the far south, however, you'll come across a distinct contrast. In the Mekong Delta, for instance, the water is the lifeblood of the area, which is full of rural villages. People live traditional lives here and rarely go on to the mainland.
10) Are there any lesser-known attractions worth visiting?
If you're hoping to get to know the real Vietnam, one thing that's well worth doing is dining at restaurants that offer training and jobs to poor village people or homeless children. In Vietnam, disadvantaged children and impoverished adults are encouraged to get involved in such training schemes, which many eateries run to help them learn new skills and get to grips with the restaurant trade. Eating at one of these venues helps to support these programmes and allows you to experience Vietnamese communities at a deeper level.
In Hue, you can get under Vietnam's skin through food in quite a different way - by enjoying lunch in an ancient royal family's home. You'll be shown around the house and introduced to various artefacts from its past, as well as share some food with your hosts. This is a fascinating experience, and a great way to get off the beaten track.
11) Are there any other tips for getting the most out of a tour around Vietnam?
Definitely get off the beaten track wherever you can. Cycling is often a good way to do so - you will often have such opportunities during a cruise around Halong Bay, when you can pedal around some of the islands, or in the Mekong Delta, cycle through some of the rural villages to discover the heart of the place.
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