Most visitors to Vietnam are overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the country's natural setting: the Red River Delta in the north, the Mekong Delta in the south and almost the entire coastal strip are a patchwork of brilliant green rice paddies tended by women in conical hats.
There are some divine beaches along the coast, while inland there are soaring mountains, some of which are cloaked by dense, misty forests. Vietnam also offers an opportunity to see a country of traditional charm and rare beauty rapidly opening up to the outside world.
When to go
There are no good or bad seasons to visit Vietnam. When one region is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else that is sunny and pleasant. Basically, the south has two seasons: the wet (May to November, wettest from June to August) and the dry (December to April). The hottest and most humid time is from the end of February to May. The central coast is dry from May to October and wet from December to February. The highland areas are significantly cooler than the lowlands, and temperatures can get down to freezing in winter. The north has two seasons: cool, damp winters (November to April) and hot summers (May to October). There is the possibility of typhoons between July and November, affecting the north and central areas.
Travellers should take the Tet Festival (late January or early February) into account when planning a trip. Travel (including international travel) becomes very difficult, hotels are full and many services close down for at least a week and possibly a lot longer.
With a multitude of altitudes and latitudes there's always somewhere that is pleasantly sunny and warm if you're prepared to find it. Temperatures are usually hot and humid, around the low 30°Cs (high 80°Fs), but if you head north and along the coast they cool down to comfortable temperatures towards January. The weather is determined by two monsoons; the winter monsoon comes from the northeast between October and March bringing wet chilly winters to all areas north of Nha Trang, but dry and warm temperatures to the south. From April or May to October, the southwestern monsoon brings warm, humid weather and buckets of rain to the whole country except for those areas sheltered by mountains.
The banknotes come in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000 dong. In small towns, it can be difficult to get change for the larger notes, so keep a stack of smaller bills handy. Now that Ho Chi Minh has been canonised (against his wishes), you'll find his picture on every banknote.
Coins are being reintroduced for use in Vietnam, partially to help stave off the number of counterfeit banknotes. There are coins to the value of 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong.
There is now a reasonably extensive network of ATMs in major cities and this can be a convenient way to get your hands on money. It is also handy to have a combination of US dollars and travellers cheques for more remote or rural parts of the country. There are four ways to exchange currency: at a bank, through authorised exchange bureaus, at hotel reception desks, and on the black market. The best rates are offered by the banks, but the exchange bureaus are generally more conveniently located and have longer opening hours. The black market rate is worse than the legal exchange rate, so if you're offered better rates than a bank it's bound to be some sort of scam. Visa, MasterCard, American Express and JCB credit cards are accepted in the major cities and towns popular with tourists.
It's virtually impossible to exchange travellers cheques outside the major cities and tourist areas. Visitors heading off the beaten track will either need to stock up on dong, or conduct a private cash transaction on the black market. It's a good idea to bring a small calculator with you for currency conversions, unless you're the kind of person who can divide or multiply by large numbers in your head.
Travellers staying in budget accommodation and eating in small cafes should be able to get by on around US$20.00 to US$25.00 per day, plus long-distance transport costs. Those wanting to stay in mid-range hotels, eat out at moderate restaurants, charter occasional taxis and enjoy the nightlife should budget on around US$65.00 a day.
Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam's busiest international air hub, followed by Hanoi's Noi Bai Airpot. A few international flights also serve Danang. Bangkok has emerged as the principle embarkation point for Vietnam but it's still possible to get direct flights from a number of major Asian cities and a few Australian cities. Buying tickets in Vietnam is expensive. Departure tax is US$14.00 , which can be paid in dong or US dollars.
There are currently 10 overland border crossings for travellers coming to Vietnam, but more may open soon. All crossing points suffer from heavy policing and often requests for 'immigration fees'.
For getting to/from China, it's become very popular to cross the border at Friendship Pass, or Dong Dang, 20km (12mi) north of Lang Son in northeast Vietnam, to get to/from Nanning. There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi that stops at Friendship Pass. The other popular border crossing with China is at Lao Cai in northwest Vietnam, which lies on the railway line between Hanoi and Kunming in China's Yunnan Province. There's also a seldom used crossing at Mong Cai.
It's possible to enter Laos from Lao Bao in north-central Vietnam; there's an international bus from Danang to Savannakhet (Laos). The other crossing is at Keo Nua Pass/Cau Treo, west of Vinh and Nam Phan/Na Meo near Mai Chau. There are three crossings to Cambodia. Bavet/Moc Bai links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City and the road is in reasonable shape now. There are also two crossings in the Mekong Delta, a river crossing at Kaam Samnor/Vinh Xuong and a land crossing at Phnom Den/Tinh Bien.
Vietnam Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, which are relatively expensive. The departure tax on domestic flights is about US$1.50 , payable in Vietnamese dong only.
Ultracheap buses and minibuses criss-cross the country in an impressive network of routes. These are smarter, faster and safer than they used to be and are a good way to meet locals. The alternative, used by many foreigners, is to charter a minibus. They cost more can be faster as they don't stop as often; ask at budget hotels and cafes for details.
While sometimes train travel can be slower than bus travel, it is safer and more relaxed, and you're likely to have decent legroom. There are several types of train, including the famous Reuinification Express ; but think twice before you take a crowded, snail-paced local train. Petty theft can be a problem on trains, especially in budget class. Children throwing things at carriages, everything from rocks to cow dung, is another problem, and you're advised to keep the metal shield on the window in place.
Hire cars and drivers are available at reasonable prices. You'll still be stopped by the police to pay all sorts of 'fines', but at least you'll have a local with you to do the negotiating. You can hire a motorcycle to drive yourself if you have an International Driver's Permit endorsed for motorcycles, but you'll need nerves of steel.
Travelling through Vietnam, and around the towns and cities, by bicycle is worth considering, though the traffic is still a hazard on highways without wide shoulders. Trains and buses will carry your bike when you want a break.
Other than the sophisticated local bus networks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, local transport is by taxi (some metered, some not) or cyclo (pedal-powered vehicles that are cheap and plentiful). If you're in a hurry, and fearless, try flagging down any passing motorbike. Many people will be happy to give you a lift for a fee a little higher than the equivalent cyclo fare.
The sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Son culture emerged around the 3rd century BC. From the 1st to the 6th centuries AD, the south of what is now Vietnam was part of the Indianised Khmer kingdom of Funan, which produced fine art and architecture. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and had spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century. The kingdom existed in part through conducting raids in the region. The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century and their 1000-year rule, marked by tenacious Vietnamese resistance and repeated rebellions, ended in AD 938 when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.
During the next few centuries, Vietnam repulsed repeated invasions by China, and expanded its borders southwards from the Red River Delta, the kingdom of Champa was annexed in the 16th century and eventually the Vietnamese absorbed the Khmer territories of the Mekong Delta. In 1858, French and Spanish-led forces stormed Danang after several missionaries had been killed. A year later, Saigon was seized. By 1867, France had conquered all of southern Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochinchina.
Pro-independence forces, dominated largely by the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, resisted French domination during and after WWII. Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnamese independence in 1945 sparked violent confrontations with the French, culminating in the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The negotiation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 between the Vietnamese and the French temporarily divided the country into two zones (the Communists assumed control of the north and the anti-Communist, US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem took the south). Free elections were to have been held across the country in 1956, but Diem reneged on the plan - Ho Chi Minh seemed likely to win - and instead consolidated his own power in various ways, including fixing a referendum. Western powers embraced his government.
Political and ideological opposition quickly turned to armed struggle, prompting the USA (who'd been a covert presence since at least 1945) and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of US troops - signalling a famous victory for Ho Chi Minh. Saigon eventually capitulated to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975.
Going straight from the fat into the frying pan, Vietnam had barely drawn breath from its war with America when it found itself at loggerheads with Khmer Rouge forces along the Cambodian borders. A protracted round of fighting eventually saw China enter the fray in support of Cambodia and the killings continued until the UN brokered a deal, with Vietnamese forces being pulled out of Cambodia in 1989. Although the Khmer Rouge continued to snipe from the borders, it was the first time since WWII that Vietnam was not officially at war with any other nation. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused Vietnam and Western nations to seek rapprochement.
Relations with the USA, have improved in recent years. In 1994 the USA finally lifted its economic embargo, which had been in place since the 1960s. Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit northern Vietnam in 2000 and George W Bush followed suit in 2006, as Vietnam was welcomed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Relations have also improved with the historic enemy China. Vietnam's economic boom has caught Beijing's attention and it sees northern Vietnam as the fastest route from Yunnan and Sichuan to the South China Sea.
Vietnam's economy is growing at more than 8% a year and tourists just can't get enough of the place. The future is bright, but ultimate success depends on how well the Vietnamese can follow the Chinese road to development: economic liberalisation without political liberalisation. With only two million paid-up members of the Communist Party and 80 million Vietnamese, it is a road they must tread carefully.
Hanoi has shaken off its once hostile attitude to travellers to become one of the most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia. It's slow-paced yet quick to charm, with a lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and French-colonial architecture.
Hanoi personifies the spirit of historic Vietnam in the temples, monuments and pockets of ancient culture along the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, yet perfectly reflects the rapid changes sweeping the country as Hanoian yuppies sip cappucinos in roadside cafés and compare cell phones.
There is really no bad season to visit Hanoi. The city offers countless attractions that can be seen year-round, and the climate is generally agreeable.
Tourist season runs from late June through August and October through Tet, the New Year's celebration that takes place in late January or early February. Though accommodations and transportation are bound to be booked around Tet, it's worth making the effort to see Hanoi dressed up for the festivities.
Vietnamese tend to travel in the summer and around Tet, making public transportation that much more difficult to book.
Winter (Nov-Feb) is generally cool and dry, with temperatures between 10-15°C (59-68°F). Spring (Feb-Apr) is warmer, but accompanied by constant drizzle which can start to wear a bit. Summer (May-Sep) is blatantly hot (30-36°C; 86-97°F) and sticky with the occasional devastating typhoon. Autumn (Sep-Nov) however, sees sunny, often perfect weather.
There's something about Hanoi that encourages early rising. It might be that most Vietnamese seem pathologically incapable of sleeping beyond about 05:00 , no matter how much bia hoi (fresh beer) and rice wine they put away the night before. And so I try (OK, yes, only a couple of times a week) to prise myself out of bed, shoulder my camera and wander down to Hoan Kiem Lake as early as possible. The benefits are soon apparent; traffic in the Old Quarter is quiet, a ghostly blue-grey mist hovers above the lake and elderly Hanoians practice their distinctive floppy t'ai chi in slow rotation around its perimeter. As the sun rises I'll wander through the Old Quarter, watching the city wake up along streets lined with trees and crumbling buildings of yellow stucco, eventually stopping for breakfast of pho and a fresh, fluffy baguette. Suitably fortified, I'll engage a xe om (motorbike taxi) and head out to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before the crowds arrive. I've seen Bac Ho before, but with rumours he might be about to get his wish and be buried, I figure it's time for one last peek. I love the romance and history of Hanoi and few places encompass it quite like the Temple of Literature, an easy walk away. Sitting here with a book is the perfect respite from the buzz of the city, and eating lunch at nearby KOTO satisfies both my hunger and my desire to aid the less fortunate of the city. In the afternoon I might check out another museum or just wander down to Pho Nha Tho for some shopping, and a drink while watching the shadows of St Joseph's Cathedral grow longer, before heading back into the Old Quarter for bia hoi with friends. Dinner at the Culi Cafe (40 Luong Ngoc Quyen) makes a tasty change from Vietnamese food, and a stroll down to Highway 4 for rice wine on the roof (get there before about 23:00 and hustle upstairs) will ensure I won't be up early tomorrow.
Vietnam operates on two calendars: the solar (Western) calendar and the lunar calendar. Official public holidays are usually scheduled according to the former, while the most festive celebrations are the moon's domain.
Buddha's birthday, which usually falls in June, and Tet, which takes place in late January or early February, are both lunar-calendar holidays when the bankers get a day off.
If you're looking for a party, then just eat the extra airfare or hitchhike to Hanoi for Tet , a New Year's celebration involving fragrant-flower blossoms, delicate kumquat trees, delectable cakes of pork, bean curd and sticky rice called banh chung and fireworks that put automatic weapons to shame. The days following the week-long celebration are family time, and the streets are generally quiet with most businesses closed.
Other events worth planning your visit around include Summer Solstice, when human effigies are burned to stock the God of the Dead's armies, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, which utilises the natural hyperactivity of children - who are drafted to carry colourful lanterns and bang cymbals while fortified with sweet moon cakes - for maximum effect. Wandering Souls Day, which takes place in late summer or early autmun, is second only to Tet in importance. Offerings of food and gifts are made in homes and pagodas for the wandering soul of the forgotten dead.
There are plenty of taxis and minibuses plying their trade between the airport and city centre, and it's possible to hire either for a trip around town. However, watch out for airport sharks taking you to the wrong hotel for commission, as this is all too common.
Renting a car or motorbike is a popular option, despite the presence of water buffalo, chickens, maniacal truck drivers, bicycles laden with struggling pigs, and packs of hormone-crazed teenage boys in vehicles of every shape, size and colour all sharing the narrow, pockmarked roads and obeying traffic laws that have no parallel in the known universe. Hanoi is so compact that you can get by (and get fit) by walking around town. Remember, walk don't run through the traffic: the drivers will go around you (just don't try this at home!).
As the economy continues to open to foreign investment and private ownership, Hanoi's leadership remains in the hands of hard-line communists. The economy's command structure insulated Vietnam from the worst of the Asian economic crisis (though its currency was devalued twice); the crisis actually increased confidence in the Communist Party.
The growing private business sector in the city makes it obvious, however, that capitalism is making sturdy inroads into Vietnam. While the government is eyeing Most Favoured Nation status with the US and, eventually, membership of the WTO, its human rights record is bound to be a stumbling block.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh City is the heart and soul of Vietnam. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture.
This is a city that churns, ferments, bubbles and fumes. The streets, where much of the city's life takes place, are a jumble of street markets, shops, pavement cafes, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. It's impossible not to be infected by its exhilarating vibe.
When to go
The best time to visit weather-wise is the dry season between December and April, when the humidity is more manageable. The crowds start getting heavy around November and stay through March. The Tet Festival in late January or early February is an exciting, if extremely hectic, time to visit.
Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport hosts flights from many major international airports, as well as domestic flights from 11 centres. If you can't travel directly to HCMC, the next best route is via Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore.
Buses run to the city from Cambodia and Laos, while buses and trains also link Ho Chi Minh City to most major towns in the country.
Intercity buses depart from and arrive at a variety of stations around HCMC. Cholon bus station (Ð Le Quang Sung) is the most convenient place to get buses to My Tho and other Mekong Delta towns. It's one street north of the sprawling Binh Tay Market.
Less convenient than Cholon, Mien Tay bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay) nevertheless has even more buses to areas south of HCMC (basically the Mekong Delta). This huge station is about 10km (6.3mi) west of HCMC in An Lac, a part of Binh Chanh district (Huyen Binh Chanh). Buses and minibuses from Mien Tay serve most towns in the Mekong Delta.
Buses to points north of HCMC leave from Mien Dong bus station (Ben Xe Mien Dong), in Binh Thanh district about 5km (3.8mi) from central HCMC on Hwy 13 (Quoc Lo 13), the continuation of Ð Xo Viet Nghe Tinh.
Buses to Tay Ninh, Cu Chi and points northeast of HCMC depart from the Tay Ninh bus station (Ben Xe Tay Ninh), in Tan Binh district west of the centre.
Cargo ferries bound for the Mekong Delta depart from the dock at the river end of ÐL Ham Nghi. There is a daily service to the provinces of An Giang and Vinh Long and to the towns of Ben Tre (eight hours), Ca Mau (30 hours, once every four days), My Tho (six hours, departs 11am) and Phu Chau (Tan Chau). Buy your tickets on the boat. Simple food may be available on board - or it may not. Be aware that these ancient vessels lack the most elementary safety gear, such as life jackets.
Trains from Saigon train station (Ga Sai Gon; 1 Ð Nguyen Thong, District 3) include the Reunification Express to Hanoi and serve cities along the coast north of HCMC.
Tan Son Nhat airport is Vietnam's busiest international air hub. Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamair.com.vn) is the state-owned flag carrier, and the majority of flights into and out of Vietnam are joint operations between Vietnam Airlines and foreign airlines. On the domestic front, cancellations and late flights are common. Many international flights leaving Hanoi connect through HCMC, but it's a pain. Passengers have to pay a domestic departure tax, fly to HCMC, claim their bags, check in again, then pay the international departure tax before boarding the international flight. Ugh!
The streets of Ho Chi Minh are not a place for the faint-hearted, so you'd be well-advised to put yourself in the hands of an expert. Metered taxis, cyclos and xe om (motorbike 'taxis') run the route from the airport to town, with official taxi meters in US dollars. Unless you're happy about paying four times the going rate, avoid the airport Taxi Booking Desk. Cyclos are the most popular (and hair-raising) form of transport among travellers. They're cheap, everywhere, and the usually helpful drivers are happy to steer you around all day for a small fee. Taxi rental is also a good deal if you're headed further out of town.
Probably because the routes and timetables are a constant mystery, foreigners rarely make use of the few buses in the city (though an upgrade of public transport is underway, so watch this space). The hard-core adventure traveller usually prefers to rent a moped or bicycle.
If you're more interested in the journey than the destination, Ho Chi Minh is a good city for walking around, with one drawback - the traffic. Learn to cross roads by observing locals: they don't sprint towards the other side for a very, very good reason. Take it slowly, avoiding any sudden movements or panic, and you'll probably survive for at least a day or two. Because Ho Chi Minh stretches along the Saigon River, many people enjoy seeing the sights from a boat. Small boats are easily hired, and many destinations are located along the banks of the river or one of several long canals.
From the first to the sixth centuries, the south of what is now Vietnam was part of the Indianised kingdom of Funan. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and had spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century. The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century and their 1000-year rule, marked by tenacious Vietnamese resistance and repeated rebellions, ended in 938 AD when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.
During the next few centuries, Vietnam - divided between the northern Trinh Lords and the Nguyen Lords of the south - repulsed repeated invasions by China, and the Nguyen expanded its borders southwards from the Red River Delta, populating much of the Mekong Delta. This area included the site of present-day Ho Chi Minh City. In 1858, French and Spanish-led forces stormed Danang after several missionaries had been killed. A year later, Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) was seized. By 1867, France had conquered all of southern Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochin-China. The city became the capital of a large area including present-day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 19th century, with the French modelling the city after their own image. Ho Chi Minh City today still wears its French influence for all to see with wide boulevards, French architecture and a devout Catholic population. But the French never won over the hearts of the locals, so resorted to running the city as a ruthless, money-making enterprise based on opium, tea, coffee, rubber and alcohol.
Peru. An 1847 convention neutralized the victory, and Puno was left to live in peace.
Anti-colonial groups sprang up in the decades prior to WWII, with the most organised being the Communist Party, who organised several successful strikes before the government initiated a brutal crackdown on their activities.
During WWII, the Japanese occupied French-held regions in Asia; however, they - along with the French - met resistance from a force of communists called the Viet Minh, led by Nguyen Tat Thanh - better known as Ho Chi Minh. Due to their opposition to the Japanese, Ho's forces received funding from the Americans and the Chinese. Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnamese independence after WWII sparked violent confrontations with the French, culminating in the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
A peace agreement, negotiated in Geneva, divided Vietnam into north and south regions (always a sure recipe for everlasting peace). Ngo Dinh Diem, a communist-hater and fierce Catholic, took control of the south, with Saigon his capital. Almost a million refugees streamed from the communist north into Diem's region. When it came time for an election, Diem, sure that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh, held a rigged referendum and declared himself president of the republic of Vietnam. In December 1960 the north announced plans to 'liberate' the south with the formation of the National Liberation Front (known in the South as the Viet Cong). Meanwhile, unrest at Diem's tyrannical rule was boiling over into massive demonstrations and even acts of immolation by Buddhist monks. He was assassinated by his own troops in November 1963.
Throughout the 1960s, more and more American and other Western troops began pouring into Vietnam to assist the southerners in their guerilla-style war with the Viet Cong. Over 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam in 1969. The following few years saw the US withdraw from the seemingly unending conflict. In March 1975, with the Western forces long gone, the North mounted a surprise attack on South Vietnam's Central Highlands. The South Vietnamese decided to concede some ground, and retreated to a more defensible position. This unplanned withdrawal turned into a rout as the Southern army panicked and the Northern army kept marching. South Vietnam's President Thieu resigned on 21 April 1975 and fled the country, leaving his deputy in charge. He lasted a week, and his replacement survived for 43 hours before surrendering to the Communists. The first official act of the North Vietnamese was to change the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.
Easing into what was to become a brutal crackdown, the North's program of reunification (officially called liberation) was accompanied by large-scale political repression. The property of hundreds of thousands of people was confiscated, and many were imprisoned in forced-labour (or 're-education') camps. Revenge continued for well over a decade, with the children of suspected 'counter-revolutionaries' deprived of education and employment opportunities. Largely for this reason, Ho Chi Minh is a centre for widespread poverty, illiteracy and crime.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government - deprived of much-needed aid - had no choice but to seek reconciliation with the West. Ho Chi Minh City took doi moi , the period of rapid political and economic change of the 1980s and 1990s, to its heart, constructing new buildings and enthusiastically embracing opportunities for private enterprise. It stands poised to become one of Asia's great metropolises.