Vietnam feels like a life-changing country. It’s the kind of place where every street has a story to tell or a lesson to teach. Whether it’s educating you on its violent but rich history through its historical sites like the Cu Chi Tunnel. Or showing you the epitome of resilience which is displayed by the locals living their life every day.
Vietnam’s world-famous cuisine is likely to teach you a thing or two about what brilliant food should taste like. How street food can taste better than any Michelin Star restaurant and why the perfect balance of flavours and spices is so important.
We’ve created this ultimate guide to Vietnam to share with you everything that this unique country has to offer.
Is Vietnam worth visiting?
It’s not all about education though. Vietnam is a country brimming with fun adventures and experiences.
Like trekking through the magnificent rice terraces in Sapa, experiencing the true kindness and warmth of locals along the way. Even Vietnam’s markets feel like an adventure with the plethora of goods to buy, chaotic atmosphere and an array of smells drifting from street food stalls.
We can’t mention it enough and will continue to bring it up. Visiting Vietnam for its food alone is worth it. Pho and Banh Mi are two of Vietnam’s most famous dishes. They’re addictively tasty, but there are so many more Vietnamese dishes to try as well as these.
And when you’re not eating your way through Vietnam, you can be relaxing on its white-sand beaches or cruising along the emerald waters of Ha Long Bay.
Vietnam is also a very affordable destination, making it accessible to every type of traveller.
Is Vietnam safe?
Generally, Vietnam is considered a safe place to travel. Like with almost every other country in the world, petty theft and pick-pocketing can occur, especially in busier areas. Always make sure to keep an eye on your belongings.
Another thing to be aware of is that Vietnam’s traffic can be pretty chaotic, especially in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Take caution when crossing the roads.
And, if you’re going to rent a moped or motorbike, make sure that you’re confident driving one, understand the rules of the road and wear a helmet.
Destinations in North Vietnam
Destinations in Central Vietnam
Destinations in South Vietnam
Top 3 places to visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a diverse country offering bustling cities, lush countryside and paradise islands. That makes choosing where to visit, especially if you’re tight on time, somewhat difficult. To help you out a bit, here are our three favourite places in Vietnam:
Halong Bay — stunning limestone karsts and vibrant waters
An aerial view of Halong Bay is one of the most iconic images associated with Vietnam. The thousands of towering limestone karsts erupting from the emerald waters is a mesmerising and stunning sight.
Aside from admiring this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s beauty, there are a number of things you can do in Ha Long Bay — boat trip, kayaking, rock climbing, visit floating villages and spend the night on an island. Most people stay on Cat Ba, the largest island in Ha Long Bay and one of the only islands you can stay on.
Most people visit Halong Bay from Hanoi. Here’s how to get from Hanoi to Halong Bay.
Sapa — some of Vietnam’s best rice terraces and hiking
Sapa isn’t a destination that everyone visits during their time in Vietnam, and that’s exactly why you should. Nestled in the northern mountains of Vietnam, it’s an awe-inspiring region known for its mist-shrouded valleys, terraced rice fields and towering peaks.
Sapa is also home to several ethnic minority groups, who have preserved their unique traditions and colourful attire. Here you embark on multi-day hikes through the stunning rice terraces, visiting these villages along the way.
Here’s how to get from Hanoi to Sapa.
Tam Coc — Halong Bay on land
Tam Coc is another destination in Vietnam that not everyone has discovered yet. Located near the more popular city of Ninh Binh, that’s where most people stop. Hearing that it’s been given the name ‘Halong Bay on land’ should be enough to convince you to visit.
It offers dramatic limestone karsts, lush greenery and meandering rivers. Hopping on a boat is the best way to explore this stunning landscape. One of our favourite things about Tam Coc is that it’s a lot more relaxed than most of Vietnam.
When is the best time to visit Vietnam?
There’s a pretty large distance between the north and south borders of Vietnam, around 1,650 km, which is a similar distance between Amsterdam and Rome. This means that different parts of the country have their own climate.
That being said, generally, the best time to visit Vietnam is between November and April. This is when most of the country is experiencing the dry season and the best weather.
How to get around Vietnam
Vietnam is a surprisingly large country, so be prepared for long journeys and adventurous ones at that! Thankfully, Vietnam has a pretty well-established transportation network.
Here are the best ways to get around Vietnam:
Buses are the most popular way to get around Vietnam. They’re often the cheapest option and faster than the train.
There are both government and privately-owned buses. In general, private companies offer more comfortable buses with air conditioning, sometimes a toilet on board and more comfortable seats. They also provide sleeper buses for overnight journeys.
These sleeper buses allow you to recline to almost flat and give you space to lay your legs out. One thing to note is that these buses weren’t made with Westerners in mind, so if you’re tall, good luck!
Another thing to be aware of is that a lot of Vietnamese bus drivers drive like there are no rules on the road. Their driving style can be a bit crazy, flinging you around corners, and unsafe. This is why some people opt for the train instead.
How to buy bus tickets in Vietnam
Chances are you’ll be using the private buses rather than the government ones. These buses have separate bus stations, so make sure you know the correct one to buy your tickets.
Continue reading about bus and train travel in Vietnam.
Most train journeys take longer than the bus, but there are many advantages to taking the train over the bus. The scenery is often more beautiful than the bus, travelling through Vietnam’s countryside. The train is also considered a lot safer than the bus which often involves a number of near-miss incidents.
Vietnam’s main railway line runs from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, passing through Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hue.
Taking the train all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi can take 30-40 hours, so we don’t really recommend this, but the train can be good for covering the shorter distances between the cities on the way.
Buying train tickets in Vietnam
When buying your train ticket, you’ll need to consider which class you’d like. Third class usually has hard seats that aren’t very comfortable. Anything above third class should be fine.
If you’re taking an overnight train, we recommend getting a berth, which is essentially a bed in a cabin. The number of beds in the cabin varies between classes and trains.
If you’re booking a sleeper berth, I recommend getting your tickets a few days in advance before they sell out. These can be bought at the train station or online via Baolau.
Distances in Vietnam can be pretty big, so some people opt to catch a flight if they’re tight on time or can’t sit on transportation for that long.
There are a number of airports throughout Vietnam in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Nha Trang. Vietnam has several domestic airlines including Vietnam Airlines, VietJet Air, Bamboo Airways, Pacific Airlines, and Vietravel Airlines. Flights can be affordable if you book in advance.
It’s important to keep in mind that taking a short-haul flight can be up to 10 times more polluting than taking a more environmentally-friendly option like a bus.
Hiring a motorbike is a popular way to explore parts of Vietnam. It gives you ultimate freedom and it’s affordable. On average, bike rental costs around $7 a day and can be negotiated lower if you’re hiring it for a longer period of time.
Popular routes that travellers like to take on include the Ha Giang Loop, Ha Giang Loop and the bravest of them all take on Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
If this is something that you’d like today, make sure that you’re a confident motorbike rider. Vietnam’s roads are no joke and it’s not uncommon for tourists to get involved in accidents.
Taxis in the form of cars, tuk-tuks and cyclos (pedicabs) are mainly used to get around the city that you’re in. You’ll never have to wait too long before one of these drives past you, honking its horn.
You can either hail one of these directly from the street or use the popular ride-hailing app, Grab. It allows you to order a ride and pay via the app, saving you from having to haggle over the price. Grab is often cheaper than local taxis too.
If you do pick up a taxi from the street, always make sure to agree on the price before getting in.
Entry requirements and visa for Vietnam
In 2017, Vietnam launched their e-visa, making it easier for citizens of around 80 countries to enter Vietnam for up to 30 days. Some of the countries that can apply for a Vietnamese e-visa include EU countries, the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. You can check out the full list on Vietnam’s e-visa website.
You can apply for the e-visa online via their portal. The application usually takes around 20-30 minutes and should be processed within three days. There is a $25 visa fee.
Your passport will need to be valid for longer than 6 months. Also, ensure your passport is in good condition when entering Vietnam. The border officers have been known to turn people away if their passport is too damaged.
If your country is not able to obtain an e-visa, you’ll need to visit an embassy.
Must-try Vietnamese food
Vietnamese cuisine is famous all around the world. Chances are you’ll have a Vietnamese restaurant in your city or town, but we promise you that it won’t come close to the real thing. The best way to experience Vietnamese food is by sampling it from the street stalls and night markets.
Here are some dishes that you can’t leave Vietnam without trying:
- Pho — pronounced as ‘fuh’ is one of Vietnam’s most popular dishes. It’s a delicious noodle soup where the rice noodles are submerged in a flavourful broth, usually made from slow-cooked beef or chicken bones, infused with herbs and spices. Pho is served with tender slices of meat, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, and a squeeze of lime.
- Banh Mi — is also incredibly popular and a remnant of French colonisation. Banh Mi is similar to a crusty baguette filled with savoury grilled meats (such as pork or chicken), pâté, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and a dash of chilli sauce. It’s the perfect street food lunch.
- Fresh Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon) — these translucent rice paper rolls are filled with a medley of fresh ingredients, such as shrimp, pork, vermicelli noodles, herbs, and vegetables. The rolls are usually served with a peanut dipping sauce, creating a light and refreshing appetizer or snack.
- Banh Xeo — is a savoury Vietnamese pancake made from a rice flour batter infused with turmeric, coconut milk, and scallions. The pancake is filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, and herbs.
Essential travel tips for Vietnam
Here is a selection of the best tips and pieces of information to make your trip to Vietnam that little bit easier:
Paying with Vietnamese Dong in Vietnam
Vietnam uses Vietnamese Dong (VND).
While card payments are becoming more popular in big cities, upscale restaurants and hotels, it’s good to always have some cash on you just in case. You’ll need cash for things like taking the bus, markets and local restaurants.
Finding a fee-free ATM in Vietnam isn’t an easy task. You can withdraw from Citibank and ANZ for free if you are with that bank in your home country. If you’re a HSBC Advance or Premier customer then you should also be able to withdraw from HSBC banks for free.
If you’re not with one of these banks, don’t worry too much as withdrawal fees are relatively low in Vietnam.
Agribank has a withdrawal fee of 22,000 VND ($0.90), one of the lowest in Vietnam. However, it also has a low withdrawal limit of around 3,000,000 VND ($125.00).
When using an ATM, it might ask you which conversion rate you would like to accept. Always decline the ATM conversion rate. Your bank will always give you a much better exchange rate than the ATM.
Buying a sim card in Vietnam
While a lot of cafes, restaurants and hotels offer free Wi-Fi, it’s likely that you’re going to want internet whilst out and about. We recommend getting a local sim card.
The three main mobile providers in Vietnam are Viettel, Vinaphone, and Mobifone. You’ll be able to buy a sim card from one of these providers at most international airports in Indonesia or at a mobile provider’s store.
Out of the three, we recommend Viettel. It has the best coverage, fast speeds and is very cheap.
You’ll need to make sure that your phone is ‘unlocked’ which means that you can put any sim card in your phone, rather than being locked to a specific provider.
Vietnam’s language cheat sheet
The language spoken in Vietnam is Vietnamese, with English considered to be the second language.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here are a few to get you started:
- Hello – Xin chào
- Thank you – Cảm ơn
- Please – Xin
- Sorry – Xin lỗi
- Beer – Bia
The perfect packing list for Vietnam
Vietnam is a pretty warm country all year round and can get pretty humid as the rainy season approaches. It’s best to bring loose-fitting, cool clothes and of course, your swimsuit if you’re heading to one of Vietnam’s beaches.
Though, if you’re planning on heading to the far north parts of Vietnam, it can get pretty chilly during the winter and at night. It’s always good to have a jumper or jacket with you.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
- Reusable water bottle – they’re better for the environment and can save you money on water.
- A portable charger – there’s probably going to be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, at a time that you desperately need it.
- An adaptor – Vietnam uses type A, C and F plugs. A universal travel adaptor is a great buy if you’re travelling between different continents.
Check out our full packing list for Southeast Asia.
Our favourite accommodations
Do you prefer to stay close to the river? Tam Coc Bungalow has spacious bamboo bungalows right next to Tam Coc River.
What we really liked about this place is their common area. From the terrace, you can watch the locals paddling back to Tam Coc town during sunset. And in the evening, you can play a game of pool in the open restaurant area.
Bungalows from $32
You think you can only find good banana pancakes in Thailand? Wait till you get them for breakfast at HaLo HomeStay. This homestay has it all: the high-end standard of a hotel combined with the family feeling of a homestay. The owners serve a lovely breakfast and will do everything to let you get the most out of your stay. You can explore Hoi An with their free bicycle rental and reach the Old Quarter or the beach within 5 minutes.
Double rooms from: $12
Thanks to the great hospitality of the family, this homestay will feel like your own home. After a day of trekking, you can take a dive in the pool or sit back and relax with a Netflix movie. The homestay is located right in front of the bus stop in the centre of Phong Nha. Rooms with mountain views start from $23, including an outstanding breakfast!
Bonus: Free cancellation policy till the last day!
We are sorry that this post didn't meet your expectations.
Your feedback is very valueable to us
What was missing in this post? (TIP: If you want us to reply to your feedback, you can leave your email in this text box.)
Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.