This piece was first published in the April 2018 edition of Fórsa magazine and my piece was reproduced here with permission. I’ve added a few lines for links. It’s aimed at people in Irish so there are references throughout, however, I hope that the information will be useful to many.
Vietnam is on a lot of peoples’ bucket list. The country that’s renowned for its friendly people, mouth-watering food, and picturesque countryside, attracts millions of tourists every year. But for those who have no clue how to plan for their Vietnam adventure, fear not! I have just the thing to guide you through your adventure.
Before you go:
Consider the length of time you’d like to spend in Vietnam as this will also affect the season in which you travel. Considering how far away it is from Ireland, it’s worth spending at least two weeks in the country. Internal flights are also very affordable and worth checking out if you want to get from North Vietnam to the Centre and to the South. You can also travel by rail or by sleeper bus though the latter can be quite stressful, essentially if you’re not used to erratic driving.
If you would like a physical visa that’s sent to you, then you must order it through the United Kingdom as there’s no Vietnamese Embassy in Ireland. You can start the process by visiting www.vietnamembassy.ie I also have written a comprehensive guide for the Vietnamese visa process that you can find here.
You can also choose to get an e-Visa. This means that you order your visa online and receive it from the airport once you arrive. Because you don’t receive the visa until you’re in Vietnam, there’s a certain amount of risk with this so you should research which companies are best to order from before you buy. It is, however, cheaper usually to get an e-Visa.
There are no compulsory vaccines to get but it’s recommended if you’re visiting more rural parts of the country to get cover against food and water-borne diseases like Typhoid and Hepatitis A. Cover against Hepatitis B and Rabies should also be considered. Most vaccines last for a few years. Malaria prophylaxis may also need to be reflected on – the tablets are, however, very expensive.
Where to visit:
While there are plenty of places that you could visit on your journey, for first-time visitors I’d recommend these six places:
Without a shadow of a doubt, Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi is well worth the visit. Its centuries-old architecture oozes intrigue and the city holds a fascinating mix of Chinese, French and Southeast-Asian influences. At the heart of Hanoi is the brilliant Old Quarter by Hoan Kiem Lake where the streets are arranged by trade and motorbikes can be seen in every direction. There’s incredible street food to be found as you rest your behind on tiny stools and an atmosphere like no other as the smells of fresh coffee, barbecues, and spices weave their way to your nostrils.
Ho Chi Minh City
Also known still by its former name, Saigon, this is the largest city in Vietnam. The city is known for its French colonial landmarks including the incredible Notre-Dame Cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France and the 19th-century Central Post Office. A city of discovery that’s bursting with energy, you’ll marvel at the gorgeous temples, street stalls, and markets but also its modern skyscrapers and boutique shops.
Hoi An, these days, is incredibly touristy but still manages to keep its historical Ancient Town well-maintained and preserved. Set around a canal, the former port-city is graceful and saturated with history with a mix of French colonial buildings, Chinese-style shopfronts, and an iconic Japanese covered Bridge. Famous for its handmade lanterns, this charming town caters well to children as well, with the riverside all lit up at night and boasting games for all the family. Unfortunately, there’s no airport in Hoi An, so you will need to either fly to nearby Da Nang and get a bus or private car from there.
Situated near Hoi An in central Vietnam, Huế is known as the imperial capital of the country. One of the main attractions here is its incredible 19-century citadel with its royal palaces and shrines surrounded by moat. This city was also the battleground for the Battle of Huế, which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the American War where more than 5,000 civilians were killed.
One of the standout experiences in Huế is its incredible food which is known to be spicy but luxurious – something that has been passed down from their experiences with Royalty. There’s also a focus on vegetarianism which stems from Buddhist beliefs.
Sapa & the far North
Sapa is an amazing town close to the Chinese border but you need to head out of the town to experience the real countryside. Lush rice paddy fields and perfect for trekking, Sapa is close-by to the 3,143m-tall Phang Xi Pang peak, which is climbable via a steep, multiday guided walk. The area is known for its ethnic minorities, such as the Hmong, Tay and Dao tribes, who make up much of the town’s local population.
To get to Sapa you can either go by overnight train or bus, but I think that you should splash out on the train if you’re looking to get any kind of decent sleep. If you’re going by train, it’s worth noting that each carriage is owned by a different company and can vary in quality so look online to see the options that are available. Livitrans is one that I would recommend.
Ha Long Bay
For many visitors to Vietnam, heading to the UNESCO world heritage site Ha Long Bay is a must-see. The bay that’s surrounded by karst towers of limestone is astonishing. Ha Long Bay can be very busy which sometimes takes away from its natural beauty but it’s a place that will stay in your memory for years to come.
I’d also recommend you consider its sister location, nearby Bai Tu Long Bay – in the same area, looks the same but has far fewer tourists than Ha Long. Your cruise will be more than likely undisturbed, and you’ll see the bay without the clutter. I’ve written about Bai Tu Long here.
When to visit:
While visiting during festivals might seem like a good idea to catch the atmosphere, flights to Vietnam and internal flights during key events like Tết Nguyên Đán (Vietnamese New Year) can be far more expensive. Tết usually falls on a date between late January and February and during this time most Vietnamese take their holidays, so transport and accommodation options are often full, and prices rise significantly.
The country is over 1000km in length and has a huge variety of weather and realistically travelling through any season is very much possible.
Depending on your love of the heat or not (25°C is just perfect for me!), I would say that the best time to visit Vietnam is after Tết from February to April, or during autumn from August to October. The temperatures during this time are far more bearable, and rainfall is lighter. Rainfall starts to get heavy during October where flooding across central Vietnam and the north can be commonplace.
The north can be humid and unbearably hot in the summer reaching as high as 35°C. Hanoi’s summer runs from May to September and though hot can also experience flashes of heavy rain. The summer months also, however, have the highest number of hours of sunshine.
Ha Long Bay is quite often covered in mist, much to the disappointment of tourists however skies are usually clear during March and May. Some of the best times for cruises can be during spring and autumn.
Currency and Shopping:
The Vietnamese Dong can’t be bought in advance outside of Vietnam and, in truth, it is an awkward currency. One euro is around 28,000 Dong. Be very careful because the 5000 note is blue and can look very similar to the 20,000 notes and the 10,000 also looks very similar to the green 100,000. It’s very easy to get mixed up if you’re flustered. I tend not to use the ATM machines but go straight to the bank to exchange currency. They’re not too strict there but you need to be aware of the currency conversion.
Vietnam is well-known to be a country that’s OBSESSED with bargaining and if you’re not used to it, you may be in for a shock. Apart from restaurants, bargaining is a way of life in Vietnam with tourists and so you need to be on your toes. The general rule for gifts and things like that is to half the price of what they’re asking and work from there. Things are dirt-cheap in Vietnam anyway, so you’ll be able to get used to what things should be. A big bottle of water should be between 10,000 – 15,000 Dong.
Finally, one important thing to remember: Tell your bank that you’re heading to Vietnam so that your card won’t accidentally get locked while abroad.
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