Vietnam is a long, narrow country, with a serpentine shape that you’ll often hear compared to a dragon’s spine. In fact, you’ll find many features of Vietnam’s landscape compared to dragons — the country’s favorite mythical beast. According to legend, the Vietnamese are descendants of the union between a dragon and a mountain fairy. Vietnam’s true history is one of a many centuries-long battles to fend off invading countries that want Vietnam's beautiful land and balmy shores for themselves.
Vietnam covers 127,880 miles (331,210 sq km), which is about the same size as New Mexico. It shares its western border with Cambodia and Laos (visitors often combine their visit to Vietnam with a trip to Cambodia and Angkor Wat). It also borders China to the north, and to the east, Vietnam’s shore meets the East Sea.
In northern Vietnam, limestone karsts create a dramatic landscape. You can see the karsts on sightseeing tours of Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. North Vietnam is also characterized by the foothills of the Himalayas. In southern Vietnam, the Mekong Delta bristles with soggy rice paddies. Water buffalo wade in the shallows, nibbling at the vegetation. Central Vietnam has rolling hills, lots of agriculture, and the occasional ancient citadel that makes the countryside especially photogenic.
Culture and What to Expect
Vietnamese culture is conservative, with an emphasis on manners and deference toward elders. You’ll find strangers are eager to help and offer directions, and that merchants aren’t shy about urging customers into their shops. Service in restaurants has a decidedly European feel — servers don’t rush to refill drinks or bring the bill.
Buddhist temples and pagodas have richly decorated interiors that waft incense toward the heavens. Ancient temples that dot the countryside tell the story of shifting influences from China, Thailand, and India. Of course, Europeans eventually had a say as well — France colonized Vietnam in the 19th century, bringing with them Roman Catholicism. The Virgin Mary is still a common sight in Vietnamese homes, although the population is overwhelmingly Buddhist.
Food and Dining Out
Visitors in Vietnam don’t need to consult restaurant reviews before deciding where to eat. Just follow your nose, or ask your guide where their favorite local spots are. Vietnamese people are passionate about food and have strong opinions about where to try authentic dishes.
Some of the nation’s best cuisine is served in the humblest of settings. These restaurants have child-sized plastic chairs and tables set up on the sidewalk. They serve spiced meats, noodle dishes, and savory snacks alongside copious amounts of beer. Start off every day with a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee, and continue to re-up your caffeine throughout the day — there’s always a café or a stand nearby.
Towns and Cities
Hanoi is the capital city, located in northern Vietnam, nearby tourist favourites like Sapa and Halong Bay. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the southern capital and the largest city in Vietnam. It neighbours the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam,’ the Mekong Delta. In between, you’ll find the historic town of Hoi An and and the port city of Da Nang
Environment and National Parks
Although cities in Vietnam struggle to keep on top of their pollution issues, the countryside has miles of pristine rice paddies and lakes, as well as a good selection of well-maintained national parks. Caves and karst formations define the topography of central Vietnam, and you can travel north to see some of the country’s highest mountains. Southern Vietnam is home to the country’s most beautiful beaches.
Halong Bay is the most iconic of Vietnam’s attractions. Karst formations jut from the blue-green bay, and the surface of the water teams with tour boats. Tours make stops for visitors to explore the water on their own, either via kayak or rowboats. On the edge of the bay you can also visit enormous caves with colorful mythologies.
Vietnam’s fabled Marble Mountains have limited access for visitors. Locals spent many years hacking away at the mountains, and shops near the base of the mountain capitalize on the area's reputation for fine marble (although their wares aren't necessarily made from Vietnamese marble). They sell finely carved trinkets and patio furniture as well as enormous statues of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and exotic animals.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park is in central Vietnam, and it has received a UNESCO World Heritage designation. It has networks of underground rivers and caves, and a landscape marked by karst formations. You can explore the Phong Nha Cave by boat, and wander through the cavernous emptiness of the Son Doong Cave, which is believed to be the largest cave in the world.
Mui Ne beach is known for its golden sands, and in recent years has become the kitesurfing capital of the world. This area is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia. It’s located in southern Vietnam, just 4 hours away from Ho Chi Minh City.
You can find the Fansipan Mountain in the Hoang Lien National Park. Mount Fansipan is known as the “roof of Indochina,” and reaches 10,312 feet (3,143 m), making it the highest mountain in Vietnam and one of the tallest in all of Southeast Asia. The hike to the summit takes 2 days. For a quicker trip, there’s also a cable car that takes visitors to the top, on a journey high above the breathtaking Sa Pa mountains.
Climate and When to Visit
Vietnam has a steamy, tropical climate. It’s cooler to the north, and gets fairly cold in the winter. July, August, and September are the hottest months. Monsoon rains hit the North and South of Vietnam from May to August while Central Vietnam experiences heavy rain and flooding between October and December. Although it rains frequently at this time of year, it does not typically rain for very long. Some travelers prefer to visit Vietnam in the rainy season, when the landscape is especially lush.
The North experiences 2 distinct seasons, with shorter mid-seasons and a long, hot summer. People are often surprised by the chilly temperatures in the North between late November and March but it can be a welcome respite from sweaty southern Vietnam. Thick fog covers northern Vietnam during January and February, blanketing the valley and obscuring the view from the towering peak of Mount Fansipan.
The coastal lowlands are mainly tropical all year round with much smaller changes in temperature. The vast Mekong Delta surrounds Ho Chi Minh City and this part of the south remains largely hot and humid all year round.
Central Vietnam usually remains warm, with a typical temperature of 65° F (18 °C) to 85° F (29 °C).
Society and Economy
Since the Vietnam War overshadows so much of the country’s history, visitors are often surprised to experience the incredible momentum of the Vietnamese economy and the obviously thriving population. For its relatively small size, Vietnam is the 15th most populous country in the world with an impressive 92.7 million people. The country recognizes 54 ethnic minorities across its 58 provinces, and the majority are Kinh Vietnamese (86 percent).
Cities in Vietnam are busy places, with modern highways that swarm with thousands of the motor scooters. Although there are plenty of cars and buses, many Vietnamese people find that scooters are a more affordable option. Crossing the street can seem tricky, but just watch the locals and follow suit.
After a decade trying to recover from the ravages of war, the Communist government began allowing more private enterprise and encouraging private investment. Because of this, Vietnam’s economy has grown steadily, and poverty has reduced drastically.
Modern Vietnam is a socialist republic. The country has embraced its own kind of capitalism and is booming at an economic rate of 8 percent per year. In particular, the people of Vietnam are opening their arms wide to an influx of tourists and the whole country is reaping the economic rewards. Coming from a largely agricultural background, this impressive acceleration has created an intriguing confluence of the old and the new.