Vietnam, Ha Long Bay © guido da rozze
Shaped like an elongated 'S', Vietnam stretches along the east coast of the Indochinese Peninsula. A local metaphor likens it to a long bamboo pole hung with two baskets of rice, represented by the two fertile regions at either end of the country. The lush Red River Delta and the highlands in the north, known for their magnificent scenery and colourful hill tribes, complement the agricultural plains and floating markets of the Mekong Delta in the south perfectly. In between these spaces lie miles of white sandy beaches, towering mountains, rivers and dense forests, and the thousands of bizarre rock and cave formations on the islands of Halong Bay.
The impact of Japanese and Chinese trade, French occupation and American intervention has had on obvious influence on Vietnam. These influences are readily apparent in the vivid legacy from different cultures evident in the character of its towns, as well as in the architecture and food. The quaint town of Hoi An, once a major trading port, boasts the perfectly preserved architectural influences of the Asian merchants from the north, while the broad leafy boulevards of the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are reminiscent of France.
Menus offer Chinese variations of spring rolls, steamed dumplings and noodles. Hue is the old imperial capital of Vietnam with its royal palaces and palatial mausoleums, and nearby the battle sites of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are reminders of the brutality of war.
Ancient temples and colourful pagodas are scattered throughout the urban centres, while among them stand hotels of modern luxury. Despite rapid economic expansion over recent years, its cultural roots remain strong. It is a country that reveres its past heroes, a nation that has collectively put the woes of war behind it, and houses a people who welcome visitors to their country with open arms and friendly smiles.
Best time to visit Vietnam
There is no clear-cut best time to visit Vietnam. However, spring (February to April) and autumn (August to October) offer temperate weather and are the driest times of year. Travellers may want to avoid Monsoon season: roughly May to September in the Southwest and October to April in the Northeast. Nonetheless, most people travel over the December-January period. Remember that the regions have such varied weather patterns that it ultimately depends on where you intend to visit. Read more on Vietnam's Climate and Weather.
What to see in Vietnam
-See the revered Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
-Explore the Cu Chi tunnels of the Viet Cong.
-Search for the mythical dragon of Halong Bay.
What to do in Vietnam
-Indulge in the big city nightlife of Pham Ngu Lau in Ho Chi Minh City's famous District One.
-Explore Sa Pa and Bac Ha near Hanoi.
-Hit the road on a motorcycle tour of Vietnam.
Getting to Vietnam
Getting to Vietnam is easy and there are dozens of flights throughout the month. There are many cheap direct flights to Vietnam from the UK and indirect flights cost even less. There are some direct flights to Vietnam from the US, but many indirect flights to Vietnam from major airports in the US are cheaper. Nearly all flights to Vietnam arrive at either at Tan Son Nhat International Airport at Ho Chi Minh City or at Noi Bai International Airport near Hanoi. Get more information on Vietnam Airports.
Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton, Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong and Life in Hanoi by Pam Scott.
Pham Duy, Khan Ly and Le Thu.
Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass (2015), The Quiet American (1958), Living in Fear (2005), Pearls of the Far East (2011) and Owl and the Sparrow (2007).
Dua Tuoi (fresh coconut drink), Nuoc Sam (herbal tea) and Ruou Nep Cam (Sticky rice wine).
Pho (one of many fantastic Vietnamese soups), Banh Xeo ('sizzling pancake') and Bun Tom Nuong Xa (shrimp and vegetables).
What to buy
Vietnamese silk and Ao Dai (national dress), snake wine, local handicrafts and arts, jewellery and cheap electronics.
What to pack
Sandals are a must, but leaving extra space for buying clothing is the most important thing of all. Bring padlocks for your bags and don't carry or leave valuables anywhere without locking them up. Moisture wicking clothing is best and basic medical supplies are always useful.
What's on in Vietnam
The O Loan Lagoon festival at the Black Dragon Lagoon is famous for its colourful setting and lively competitions- including boat racing, dancing, wrestling and much more. The Tet Festival is another major event and ushers in the Chinese New Year in magnificent style. More information on Vietnam Events here.
Did you know?
-The Vietnamese use traditional gongs instead of school bells in schools.
-Lizard fishing is a popular form of subsistence.
-One third of the world's cashew nuts come from Vietnam.
-The Vietnamese keep potbelly pigs as pets.
-Although a developing nation, Vietnam has a literacy rate of 94%.
A final word
Vietnam offers the perfect blend of a bustling city life and rural tranquillity. It is one of the most inexpensive holiday destinations, and its tourist culture provides a kaleidoscopic view of this Far Eastern gem: history, modernity, myth and legend.
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