Vietnam Travel Guide

Jan 3rd, 2014 Asia, Culinary Travel, Cultural Experiences, Natural Wonders, Tropical / Resort

The bustling streets of Vietnam are filled with life and activity around every corner. Industrious people with a verve for outdoor social life combined with a vast range of scenery, in-depth history and fascinating sites make for a colorful blend of travel adventures. We’ve chosen our top destinations so you can fly away to a land of refreshing and insatiable spirit.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – Ancient Vietnamese Flavors

Vietnamese cooking is an exotic blend of fresh fare, flavorful Asian herbs and a hint of French flair. While you’re in country, drop in at any number of excellent high-end, fusion or traditional street-vendor eateries, or take a cooking class at Hoa Tuc to make and taste such classics as pho (beef noodle soup), Cha Gio (fried spring rolls) and crisp vegetables and prawns wrapped in mustard leaves. Located in an old opium refinery in the heart of Saigon, Hoa Tuc is full of ancient traditions. Be sure to make time for the optional market visit before class to purchase ingredients.

Other Saigon dining recommendations:

  • Banh Xeo Muoi Xiem: Famous for its southern pancakes. Banh Xeo are super-thin savory crepes made with rice flour and filled with varieties of meat, seafood, herbs, greens, veggies or sprouts (local favorites include seaweed and salmon, mushroom and lotus root, and palm hearts). Traditionally, crepes are wrapped in mustard and lettuce leaves, stuffed with mint and basil, and dipped in a fish sauce. The buffet offers over 20 varieties of che (hot & cold Vietnamese sweet soup)
  • Au Parc: Middle-Eastern inspired fare with a Vietnamese twist. Set in a colonial building with a Moroccan-style patio overlooking the park. Inside is air-conditioned. Reserve in advance for lunch.
  • Com Nieu Sai Gon: Featured in the book, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Rice cooked in clay pots and other traditional foods from the Mekong Delta region. Waiters smash pots and throw rice before serving for added entertainment.
  • Maxim’s Nan An Vietnamese fare in a 1940s jazz club setting with traditional Vietnamese dancing, accompanied by a variety of Vietnamese and International music.
    The Refinery: French bistro in a former opium refinery. Outdoor terrace surrounded by green foliage.
  • Temple Club: Housed in a former Chinese temple with original wood accents, Buddhist antiques and tapestries served with elegant Vietnamese dishes.
  • Saigon & Hanoi – Puppets Dancing on Water

    If you’re in Saigon on a Saturday night, take a taxi or cyclo and head to Thao Dien Village in District 2. Away from the fast pace of the city, you can enjoy a Vietnamese meal and a glass of wine on the outdoor terrace at Ngon while watching an ancient art form known as water puppetry. Featuring puppets that dance on water (in this case, the Saigon River), this craft dates back to the 11th century when rice farmers sought a form of entertainment and worship to satisfy the spirits. Spending a great deal of time in the rice fields, farmers discovered that water was an excellent channel for both special effects and hiding their puppets’ rods and strings. As water puppetry increased in popularity, fierce competition grew between troupes, which became secretive, exclusive societies. You can also witness this tradition in Hanoi at the magical Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Retelling tales of rural folklore, legends and traditions, puppet shows are presented in Vietnamese. Although you may not understand it all, the lively scenes, music, setting and colorful presentation make it a must-see performance.

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    Cu Chi Tunnels – Land at War

    To experience an important piece of the Vietnam War, take a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels northwest of Saigon. Key to military campaigns for the Viet Cong guerillas, this extensive complex of hand-dug tunnels served as hiding places, command centers, and communication and supply routes, as well as storage for food and weapons. Doubling as an underground escape for displaced locals, the 155+ miles (250 kilometers) of tunnels, some of which had multiple stories, also contained living quarters, theaters, kitchens and classrooms. A film and explanation of the tunnels commences the experience, followed by a guided foray into the surrounding forest, where you can find booby traps, camouflaged doors and tunnels.

    Phu Quoc – Sparkling Gem in the Sapphire Seas

    For a glimpse of Vietnam off the beaten path, take a trip to Phu Quoc in the far southwest corner of the country. Since most of the island and surrounding marine environment remain under National Park protection, you can still revel in pristine tropical splendor. Here, you’ll find lush, virgin jungle, isolated strings of unspoiled beaches, fishing villages and a handful of places to stay. It’s a rare and quiet gem, still relatively undiscovered in the sapphire surf of the Gulf of Thailand. Fish, dive, swim or dine—you may never want to leave our favorite hammock spot in Vietnam.
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    Photo Credit: ronan Crowley

    Dalat – Cooling Breeze

    A trip to the cool Central Highlands of Vietnam is a refreshing break when the mercury rises in the cities. Known as both “Little Paris” and the “City of Eternal Spring,” Dalat is surrounded by misty valleys that often obscure its picturesque lake, numerous flower farms, tea and coffee plantations, pine forests and French colonial architecture. While you’re there, visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse (Crazy House), designed to resemble a colossal banyan tree, for a glimpse of whimsical design. You can also stop by the colorful central market, refuel at one of the coffee bars on Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, head to a nearby waterfall or tea plantation, and visit the municipal flower garden. If you want a real treat, enjoy a meal, a round of golf or a stay at the colonial Dalat Palace hotel.

    Hoi An – Lanterns, Romance & Tailors

    Travel north up the slender arm of Vietnam and stop at Hoi An’s Ancient Town. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An once served as the largest trading port in Southeast Asia. Now a hub for tailors, this is the place to get made-to-order clothing—from sandals to bags to shirts. On the 14th of each lunar month, the city celebrates the Festival of the Full Moon by turning off all its lights and banning traffic in the Old Quarter. Spend a romantic evening dining and strolling in the glow of the city’s unique lanterns, made of silk, glass, cloth and paper. Listen to the locals reciting poetry and the opera tunes wafting from the corners, creating an unforgettable experience.

    Other activities in Hoi An: Visit a silk factory to see how silk worms make silk. Stop for a stroll or an overnight at the beautiful China Beach. Drop in for a meal at Moon Restaurant & Lounge, a distinctive journey into the art of Vietnamese taste and decor. For a traditional local day, bike to the Tra Que Herb and Vegetable Village on the outskirts of Hoi An, where locals continue the ancient farming practices handed down for over 500 years. Referred to as artisans rather than farmers, local growers use an ancient process to cultivate the land, dig furrows and plant seeds, fertilizing with an algae from a local lagoon for herbs and vegetables of superior flavor and beauty. Spend a day with a Vietnamese family learning about farming techniques, types of herbs and how to cook like a local. Work in the fields, tour the organic gardens, cook lunch with the owners or simply enjoy a meal. Tran Quan Tuan’s family farm tours include a foot massage.
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    Photo Credit: Christopher Michel

    Stay at Anantara, a stylish, contemporary hotel with an eco theme and a blend of French, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese ambience. Try to get a room facing the river or the infinity-edge pool. Eat breakfast in the second-floor open-air dining room with views of the river and stellar service. Walk the short distance into town to take in all there is to see. Return to the hotel for a spa treatment or Tai Chi class.

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    Halong Bay

    Known to the locals as “Descending Dragon Bay,” Halong Bay features thousands of fantastic jagged-edged limestone islands and islets jutting out from emerald waters. Legend holds that the gods sent a family of dragons that spit out jewels and jade to form a great wall to protect the locals from the invading Chinese. The location where the mother dragon descended to live was called Ha Long. Inducted onto UNESCO’s heritage list in 1994, Halong Bay is a must-see destination for anyone traveling to northern Vietnam. Floating gracefully in this scenic wonderland of natural beauty, traditional sailing junks and modern vessels alike take visitors on day tours or overnight cruises. You can also kayak into hollow islands where giant, hidden caves open onto peaceful grottos and turquoise lagoons filled with intriguing wildlife.

    Hanoi – Make it to the Mausoleum

    As the northern gateway to Vietnam, Hanoi is full of fascinating history, culture and sights. One stop that should top your list is a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, modeled after Lenin’s in Moscow. Long lines form to pay respects to the departed leader, who lies embalmed in a glass coffin, clad in khaki. The heavily guarded compound enforces a strict dress code and silence, and allows each visitor only 30 seconds per viewing. While there, you can also visit Ho Chi Minh’s simple teak house on stilts, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and a one-column pagoda. Check ahead to make sure the deceased ruler is not in Russia for his annual servicing on the date of your visit.
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    Photo Credit: rusticus80

    Custom-Made in Hoi An

    Vietnamese tailors have long earned acclaim and respect for their custom-made garments and shoes. Yaly Couture, one of the most brightly lit and well-staffed shops amidst the many that line the streets, has served the likes of Mick Jagger, Miss Universe and the president of Singapore. Fabrics of every color and style await you upstairs, while onsite tailors produce designer dresses and suits made to measure in only a few hours. Skim through a magazine in the store, find a style of garment you like, get measured and come out with a new outfit of the highest quality. If you’d like to have something made for someone else, a line of models will materialize, one of which is sure to match your loved one’s measurements.

    Day Trip from Saigon – Cao Dai Temple

    Located outside Saigon, the Cao Dai Temple serves as the “Holy See” for a unique religious sect that blends Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and a smattering of other religions. Built between 1933 and 1955, the temple is a marvel of opulent pastel extravagance of rococo design, vibrant color and imagery, and iconic symbolism. A sea of worshipers gathers in the temple four times per day for ceremonies that include chanting, prayer and Vietnamese hymns. Followers wear white robes, while priests don yellow (Buddhist), blue (Taoist) or red (Christian) robes, according to their spiritual beliefs. Visitors may watch this interesting scene from the ornate galleries.

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    Nha Trang

    Once a destination for R&R during the Vietnam War, Nha Trang has 12 miles (20 kilometers) of beach that attracts sun worshipers to its yellow sands and pristine indigo bay. Higher-end amenities cluster around parts of the beach, but Nha Trang retains a casual local flavor with a colonial twist. Check into a beach-facing hotel, then try an eatery in town for some of Nha Trang’s fresh seafood and its famous roll-your-own spring rolls. Grill superbly flavored marinated meat or local seafood directly at your table at the busy Lac Canh, a side-street bistro known for superb Vietnamese dishes. If you prefer a tad more upscale dining, head to the Sailing Club, a popular beachfront locale that caters to a more sophisticated brand of R&R. Sit back, relax and enjoy the sand and water views.
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    Photo Credit: Bruce Tuten

    Hué – The Land of Emperors & Buddha

    Lotus ponds, chanting monks, temples, pagodas and the winding Perfume River bestow Hué with a serene, regal allure. Once Vietnam’s imperial capital, Hué’s royal history earned it a place on the UNESCO Heritage Site list. After the wars with France and America, the city was neglected, but has since seen a rebirth. Within the walls of the grand Imperial Complex, visitors can tour the residences, temples and structures of the Nguyen emperors, including ruins of the mysterious Purple Forbidden City. Outside the complex, the Perfume River provides a serene backdrop for the many other sights of Hué, which include imperial tombs with gardens and lakes, as well as the Thien Mu pagoda, the symbol of the city. For a bit of colonial Art Deco, check into La Residence Hotel and Spa overlooking both the Perfume River and the Imperial Complex. The former 1920s French governor’s residence offers stylish décor, a high-end spa, a saltwater pool and a fleet of bicycles to explore the city. Long known in Vietnam as the land of Buddha, Hué also hosts the most monasteries in the country and a corresponding array of elegant vegetarian fare. For a sampling of the best, try Lien Hoa or the open-air Bo De Quan with their mesmerizing evening candlelight and lanterns. Try the fig salad, a Hué specialty.

    Hué – Pagoda of Passion

    Peacefully set between pine forest and Perfume River, Hué’s oldest Buddhist temple retains a noble beauty and a deep legacy of faith. Renowned for its opposition to colonialism in the ’30s and ’40s, Thien Mu Pagoda (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady) sprang into world headlines when one of its monks traveled to Saigon in protest of Buddhist discrimination imposed during the Diem regime in 1963. Tchich Quang Duc exited a car in an intersection, assumed the lotus position and set himself ablaze while fellow monks surrounded the area to protect his valor. Although his body was consumed by fire, his heart remained intact and now lies in the Reserve Bank of Vietnam.

    Monks still go about their daily lives in this historic monastic complex, built in seven tiers to symbolize the steps to enlightenment. The car that carried Tchich Quang Duc to his martyrdom is on display, along with a copy of the famous photograph that shocked the world. While you’re there, view the octagonal pagoda and its temple guardians, observe the monks engaging in prayer, calligraphy or wood gathering, and contemplate the mystery of faith.
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    Photo Credit: Clay Gilliland


    The Vietnam War still figures prominently in the psyche of the people of the country and veterans alike. To explore its poignant tragedy, take a tour or hire a private guide and visit the DMZ (demilitarized zone) near Hué. As the dividing line between north and south, the area saw Vietnam’s heaviest military action. Guides will navigate you to key battle areas, the Khe Sanh Rockpile and the Vin Moch Tunnels. Request an experienced guide to show you the key points of interest and provide explanations of key historical sites and actions with recollections of personal experiences.

    Halong Bay – Junk Journey

    Sailing through the mystical karsts of Halong Bay on an Oriental teak vessel is an inspired Vietnamese experience that should be mandatory for visitors. For a unique overnight trip, book passage on an eco-friendly Indochina Junk luxury cruise. The company’s five superbly kept vessels maintain exclusive rights to isolated groups of islands within Bai Tu Long Bay. Enjoy a refreshing drink on a shining teak deck or retire to your deluxe cabin. Swim in crystal waters, navigate water caves by kayak, take a rowboat to meet locals on a floating fishing village, have dinner in a cave, join a mangrove forestation tour or try some night fishing. Top-notch staff attends to your every need and serves superb Asian-Western fusion meals on deck.
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    Photo Credit: Elena

    Hanoi – The Old Quarter

    The Old Quarter of Hanoi is the pulsing center of the capital. While you’re there, be sure to see the traditional tunnel homes, street barbers and market vendors. Pay a visit to the fascinating Vien Mieu, also known as the Temple of Literature. Set in an oasis of green tranquility, it commands a peace that is hard to find elsewhere in Hanoi. Founded as a temple in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, it also became the site of the country’s first university. Centuries of additions have resulted in an interesting mix of architecture and learning. Five courtyards with dividing walls include shady gardens, halls, pavilions, the “well of heavenly clarity” and the sage sanctuary, which houses the Great House of Confucius. Afterwards, stop at the delicious KOTO restaurant across the street, where street kids and disadvantaged youth are trained in the art of Vietnamese cooking and hospitality. Try one of the refreshing fruit smoothies, shakes or meals.

    If you’re interested, take a trip to the Hoa Lo Prison. This was the home of Vietnamese political prisoners during French rule and subsequently imprisoned U.S. pilots who’d been shot down during the Vietnam War. American prisoners of war (POWs) interned here sarcastically nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton.” Exhibits include a guillotine, prison cells, artifacts (including the flight suit and parachute of U.S. Senator John McCain) and photographs.

    Hanoi – The Colonial Legend Metropole

    With French influence and colonial flair, Vietnam offers visitors several very special places to stay. Built in 1901, the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel stands in the center of the city with gracious Old-World serenity. Walk back in time and stay in the old wing of Hanoi’s grand dame of hotels for a romantic and authentic version of Vietnam’s colonial past. View the interior courtyard or the bustling exterior streets from one of its elegant rooms, order a drink at the Bamboo Bar and bask in quiet luxury. A gracious and attentive staff attends to your every need to create a serene refuge in the heart of the city.

    The Water Pipes of Hanoi

    As you stroll through the streets of Hanoi, you may find more than a few locals smoking a curious type of pipe. Originating in the north region around Hanoi, bamboo water pipes (dieu cay) served as an alternative to cigarettes for farmers who couldn’t smoke with wet hands. Pipes are typically made up of two chambers sealed within bamboo sections and filled with water for filtering smoke from loose-leaf tobacco, which hails from the Hanoi province. Pedicab drivers, bus drivers and old-timers still enjoy this old and distinctly Hanoi tradition.

    Day Trip from Hanoi – Ngo Dong River at Tam Coc

    If you’re in Hanoi, take a trip to the country and hire a boat for a journey down the Ngo Dong River. Nicknamed “Halong Bay on Land,” this enchanting area is highlighted with dramatic rock formations that rise out of rice fields instead of water. Local women row small, rustic vessels with their feet, navigating you through low-ceilinged caves that separate four stunning valleys. Enjoy gorgeous mountain scenery, small traditional villages and shimmering green fields, while you watch peaceful fishermen and rice farmers at work. Floating through rice paddies amidst towering limestone karsts, you’ll be transported to simpler times and the quiet, vivid beauty of Vietnam.

    Northern Border – Hill Country

    On the remote eastern fringe of the Himalayas, visitors will find the stepped rice paddies, verdant vistas and misty peaks of travel lore. Located near the border of China on a rail line from Hanoi, this cool hill country holds rural charm. Weekends feature colorful hill tribe markets, and the area emits abundant local color and scenery. The Bac Ha Market, where the Flower H’Mong hill tribe takes center stage, offers traditional clothing and indigenous wares along with other intriguing food and curiosities, including the famous maize alcohol. SaPa, a former French hill retreat dotted with villas, blooms with flowers and luxuriant pastures during April and May. While you’re there, join a Hmong family on a trekking tour, take a minivan tour or go cycling in the area.

    Vietnam Travel Tips

    As both an ancient and developing nation, Vietnam functions a bit differently than western cultures in terms of practical matters. It also shares certain codes of modesty and conduct with its Asian neighbors. Here, we’ve listed some travel tips to help you get the most out of your trip to this amazing country of contrasts.

    Dress Modestly

    Although it may be less apparent in large cities, Vietnam still follows a modest dress code. It’s a good idea to respect the culture—here are some tips:

  • Avoid revealing and tight-fitting clothes
  • Don’t wear copious jewelry—flaunting wealth is impolite
  • Cover your shoulders and legs when entering pagodas and religious sites, including Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
  • Nude and topless sunbathing is taboo
  • Conservative Culture

    Although the Vietnamese are very social and hospitable people, loud speech, raucous laughter and public displays of affection are considered rude among locals. Always keep your demeanor cool and upbeat. Losing your temper in public will cause a serious loss of face for both you and the local.

    Geographic Markers

    The jumble of traffic and the maze of streets and alleys in Vietnam can challenge even a geographer. Look for landmarks any time you set out on foot. Take a business card from your hotel to show a taxi or cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) driver. Do the same with restaurants and shops you want to frequent.

    Street Vendors

    To truly appreciate the flavor of Vietnam, do what locals do and try some street fare—from a storefront, sidewalk vendor or bicycle food cart. Bun cha (barbequed strips of pork marinated with chili, ginger and garlic); banh mi (grilled meat with crunchy vegetables in a baguette); and pho (beef noodle soup) are just a few favorites. Follow your nose and don’t be afraid to try new things.

    Road Rules

    To truly appreciate the flavor of Vietnam, do what locals do and try some street fare—from a storefront, sidewalk vendor or bicycle food cart. Bun cha (barbequed strips of pork marinated with chili, ginger and garlic); banh mi (grilled meat with crunchy vegetables in a baguette); and pho (beef noodle soup) are just a few favorites. Follow your nose and don’t be afraid to try new things.

    Crossing the Street

    Navigating street crossings in Vietnam as a pedestrian can be challenging. Look left, look right, and then do it again before venturing out—especially in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) and Hanoi. The trick is to show confidence and proceed in a slow, steady manner so motorists can better anticipate your movement.

    Vietnam by Motorbike

    You should only drive a motorbike in Vietnam if your travel insurance covers it. Alternatively, you can get around town quickly and affordably by hiring a motorbike taxi. As with all taxis, you should agree on a price before departure and always wear a helmet (required by law for both passengers and drivers). If it’s cool enough, ride a bicycle in rural areas or the hill country for a slower tour.

    Cash & Carry

    Although many larger hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards, Vietnam is by and large a cash society. Carry small, crisp bills (torn and rumpled notes may be declined) to pay taxi and cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) fares, as well as merchants in smaller towns and markets. Notes are always preferable to coins. ATMs at ANZ and HSBC banks allow the highest withdrawal amounts, up to 4 million dong (approx. $205 U.S.); other banks only allow half that amount.

    Dong or Dollar?

    Both the Vietnamese dong (VND) and the U.S. dollar are widely accepted in Vietnam. Top-end locales may only list prices in dollars, while smaller merchants, cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) drivers and street vendors may only accept dong. Offering greater bargaining flexibility, the dong has smaller denominations that are easier to negotiate with than the dollar.

    Vietnamese Markets

    The heart of Vietnam resides in its markets, where all walks of society pass through to eat, sell, purchase and socialize. These are three of our favorites in Ho Chi Minh City: Ben Thanh Market (District 1): Souvenirs, seafood, spices, fabric, clothing and more Binh Tay Market (District 5): Wholesale market in Chinatown; sells most everything; less touristy than Ben Thanh Night Market (District 1): Opens when Ben Thanh closes and offers most of the same items, but with more food and drink stalls, somewhat lower prices and cooler air Going north? Check out markets in Hanoi

    Districts of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

    To locate a specific address in HCMC, you’ll need to know the district number.
    In general:

  • District 1: Financial and commercial center; houses most hotels, bars, shops, restaurants and the Ben Thanh Market
  • District 2: Embassy district with many foreign businesses, wealthy locals and villas
  • District 3: Populated with French colonial villas
  • District 5: HCMC’s Chinatown, famous for its street food
  • Undercover Finances

    Large, outdoor markets are a thrill for shopping, and exploring the city is a great way to spend the day. As a safeguard, keep your money in a small purse or wallet (see our full line of security bags), for easier transactions, hidden from would-be thieves.

    Weather Conditions

    Due to its range of topography and long geographic span, Vietnam’s climate is very diverse. April and May usher in the southwestern monsoon season, when warm and humid weather prevails in most of the country. In the hills and mountains, however, the climate is cooler. For optimum travel dates, click here. To find clothing for all climates, check out our packing guides.

    Vietnam by Rail

    Rail travel offers a wonderful way to see the country without the stress of road traffic. Vietnam Railway’s air-conditioned trains with sleeper cars whisk passengers past vivid scenery between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and north to Lao Cai. The entire trip is a long journey (32–45 hours), so don’t attempt it all at once. For rail scenery at its best, try the coastal stretch between Hué and Danang (3–4 hours), where trains glide past hills, bays and islands.

    What’s the Proper Name

    During its reign as the French colonial capital and later as capital of the independent state of South Vietnam, the country’s largest city was known as Saigon. After the communist takeover in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) became the official name. Locals, however, still refer to it as Saigon.

    Ready to Go?

    Before you take off to experience the many sights & experiences of Vietnam, be sure to check out our full line of men’s and women’s travel clothing as well as luggage & travel accessories.