Lying on the eastern margin of the Indochinese peninsula, Vietnam occupies about 331,211 square kilometers, extending from north to south in an ‘S’ shape. It is bordered by China to the north, the South China Sea to the east and south, the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest, and Cambodia and Laos to the west.
With mountains and hills covering two-thirds of the mainland, Vietnam boasts diverse topography. Its territorial waters make up around 1,000,000 square kilometers with over 3,000 kilometers long coastlines.
Vietnam’s intricate mountain system extends from the northwest border to the easter side of the south, 1,400 kilometers in total length. Mount Fansipan is the country’s highest point, standing 3,143 meters above sea level.
Along its north to south coastline, clear seas and white sand beaches are of abundance. The Halong Bay in the northern region, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, is home to more than 3,000 limestone karsts protruding from emerald waters. Vietnam also lies between two big rivers Red River in the north and Mekong River in the south — which have greatly contributed to the countries’ agricultural and trade sectors.
Biggest City: Ho Chi Minh City
Administrative Divisions: 63 provinces and municipalities
Timezone: UTC/GMT + 7
Because of its unique geographical features, the climate in Vietnam varies significantly from North to South. Directly affected by cold monsoons from the South China Sea, the Northern Region sees four seasons: cold and humid spring, sweltering hot summer, temperate autumn and dry winter. The distinct summer and winter last from May to October and November to March respectively. The best time to visit Vietnam is from March to early June and from October to December when the weather is cool and pleasant.
The mountainous areas of the North — Sapa, Mai Chau, Ha Giang, Mu Cang Chai, etc. — enjoy cooler temperatures than the lowlands. Since the region is known for their verdant mountain ranges and spectacular rice fields, the best time to visit is during the harvest season, from September to early November, when the hills are covered with golden rice crops.
The Central Region is less affected by monsoons than the North, and is separated into two distinct seasons: dry and rainy. The North Central Coast, where the cosmopolitan city of Danang and the former imperial capital Hue are located, has summertimes that last from March to August. These months are the best time for mainland tours and sea adventures. In the South Central Coast, rainfalls don’t last for too long and are usually not an issue for outdoor activities. From December to April, during the dry season, the gorgeous sand dunes of Mui Ne and the captivating beaches in Nha Trang become a dreamland for locals and foreign tourists alike.
The Central Highlands boasts alluring hectares of coffee and tea farms, wildflowers and majestic mountains. They also experience dry (November to April) and rainy (May to October) seasons. In Dalat, located 1,475 meters above sea level, the weather is always mild and cool. The best time to visit Dalat is between December and March, when the flower plantations and farms are in full bloom. Temperatures during these months are also ideal for trekking.
Down to the Southern Region and the Mekong Delta, the average annual temperature is higher than anywhere else in the country, making the weather in these areas relatively stable throughout the year. Southern Vietnam is generally dry and hot from November to April, and warm and wet during May to October, with the highest amount of rainfall in June, July and August.
Vietnam has a tumultuous history, from the millennia-long reign of multiple dynasties to the fight against imperialism and colonialism in the 19th century. From 1858 to 1945, Vietnam was a semi-feudal colony for nearly 100 years.
The formation of the Communist Party of Vietnam marked the beginning of the revolution of the working class. In August 1945, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese people and the Armed Propaganda Unit for National Liberation launched an uprising to seize power from French colonialists. With the Proclamation of Independence on September 2, 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established.
Soon after, a full-scale war between Vietnam and France broke out in late 1946, ushering in the beginning of the First Indochina War. Vietnam was left a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's Communist DRV government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem’s Republic of Vietnam, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon. Along with this territorial split came the divergence in political and social structures.
Between 1954 and 1975, Vietnam had to fight another war for national liberation and unification. With untold hardships, the war came to an end following the victory of the Ho Chi Minh Operation in 1975.
It was only after a decade of chaos when Vietnam started to recover from the aftermath of war. In 1986, the Doi Moi policy was launched, focusing on economic reform and allowing the country to open up to international trade while rebuilding its education and healthcare systems. Doi Moi paved the way for Vietnam’s miraculous progress from grave poverty to the world’s second largest rice exporter.
People and Culture
The Vietnamese people are fairly conservative. Both men and women dress modestly, though the sight of younger generations wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts have become common over the years. The Vietnamese value their peace and avoid confrontations or any form of aggression, especially in public. Even minor vehicular accidents almost always end with a handshake and a nod.
For foreign travelers, shopping at local stores won’t be a problem, since younger Vietnamese people speak English fluently. Getting asked “where are you from” is a common part of the conversation, as the Vietnamese love to get to know new people. You can also expect to get invited to a drinking session.
Vietnam’s various ethnic groups are also a source of pride for the country. Over 50 distinct peoples, most of whom reside in mountains, have different values, lifestyles, traditions and languages.
Religion and Philosophy
Religion and spiritual beliefs play an important role in how the Vietnamese live their day to day lives. Mahayana Buddhism is a widely respected way of life, and the principal religion of the country. This religion was said to be introduced to Vietnam during a period of Chinese occupation by a monk called Mau Tu, in the second century AD. Between 1010 and 1214, the Ly dynasty made Buddhism a state religion. Wherever you go, you will see pagodas,temples, and monks with shaved heads in saffron robes. Most of Vietnam’s celebrations and holidays are also based on Buddhism.
Confucianism is another primary philosophy followed by many in Vietnam.As Vietnam’s population grew and expatriates entered the country, Roman Catholicism became a common religion. 8% of the population are baptized Catholics. In fact, Ho Chi Minh City houses one of the most sacred churches in Southeast Asia, the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.
In addition, a significant percentage of the population practices Islam. Hinduism is a prevailing religion supported by the Chams. There are also indigenous religions — Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, etc. — that are practiced by residents in specific provinces.
Regardless of their religion, the Vietnamese people venerate their ancestors. Photos of elders are commonly displayed in homes and honored in prayers and offerings on special occasions.
Blessed with diverse natural landscapes, well-preserved cultures and traditions, proven history of resilience and amazingly hospitable people, Vietnam is a paradise for all kinds of travelers.
For nature lovers, a cruise on the magical Halong Bay or an adventure inside Son Doong Cave will be an experience of a lifetime.
For those who want to get a glimpse of Vietnam’s splendid past, the Hue Ancient Capital and Hoi An Ancient Town are two of the best excursion destinations.
The towns of Nha Trang, Mui Ne, Vung Tau and the island of Phu Quoc are ideal for those who enjoy the gentle splash of waves. When the weather’s nice, these places are perfect for wind and kite surfing, skiing or even flyboarding.
Vietnam’s biggest cities Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang offer a good blend of modern and traditional vibes, with historical architecture and modern skyscrapers forming a uniquely Vietnamese skyline. Restaurants that offer both Vietnamese and international cuisines can be found everywhere, and the nightlife scenes are the most vibrant there than anywhere else in the country.
Vietnam’s transportation system and infrastructure has greatly improved over the years. Thanks to different types of public and private transport, getting around the country is pretty easy and cheap.
Flying is definitely the most convenient way to travel around Vietnam, especially as the country continues to build provincial airports for domestic and international flights. A flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh can take about two hours. Local airlines like Vietnam Airlines, Bamboo Airways and Vietjet offer reasonable deals. Flight prices from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and vice versa range from $20 to $50.
City and inter-provincial buses
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have buses that take passengers across towns at fixed prices — 7,000 VND on average — depending on the bus route. For those who want to travel to different provinces or towns, several bus companies operate day and night trips. Tickets can easily be purchased on company websites or through travel agencies.
Taking the trains is also an ideal option for traveling around Vietnam. The North and the South are connected by a single 2,600-km track network managed by Vietnam Railways. Vietnam’s Reunification Express takes around 36 hours to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping at main cities along the way. Train tickets are available in train stations days or months in advance. They are also sold through travel agencies or on the official train ticketing website.
Taxis are available in major cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. They are usually metered, but there may be surcharges depending on the time, booking platform, location and taxi model.
Private cars and motorbikes
Renting a car or motorbike is fairly easy in Vietnam, though you may need an international driving license if you’re traveling through provincial borders. There are several car rental companies and even travel agencies that offer vehicles to travelers.
Cyclos remain popular in Hoi An, especially among foreign tourists who want to tour around the laid back city at a slow pace.
Visa Requirements and Exemptions
Vietnam offers visa exemptions ranging from 14 to 90 days to travelers from 24 countries, and e-Visas for travelers from over 80 countries. Foreign visitors can also easily apply for a visa on arrival online or in-person at a Vietnamese embassy or consulate.
Although Vietnam does have a visa on arrival, the process can take anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours waiting at the airport. Too many tourists don’t realize they need to pre-arrange their visa until it’s too late, so they end up waiting by the customs. The rule of thumb is to get all of your paperwork done beforehand.
For Asian travelers from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea, you can stay fewer than 15-30 days without needing to get a visa in advance.
Visitors from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom can enjoy a free visa exemption for visits less than 15 days.
US citizens need a visa to enter Vietnam for business or leisure trips. American travelers can pick up their Vietnam visa upon arrival at one of Vietnam’s international airports. To streamline the process, travelers should complete their Vietnam visa application online before their trip.
Travelers whose parents have Vietnamese origins are eligible for a five-year visa. Check out our complete guide to getting a 5-year visa.
For Viet Kieus or foreigners who own businesses in Vietnam, here are some of the main reasons why you should obtain a Vietnamese passport and citizenship now.
Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries for leisure travel in terms of expenses, but also one of the richest when it comes to experiences offered to visitors. Vietnam’s official currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND), and $1 is equal to around 23,000 VND. Most establishments in Vietnam only use the local currency.
Accommodations as well as restaurants and tourist attractions are priced reasonably, with uncompromised quality of service. For a night’s stay at a hotel with a spacious room and satisfactory amenities, your $30-$50 can get you free breakfast, too. There are inns and homestays dotting big cities that offer lower prices. Five-star hotels and resorts are usually priced at $150 per night, the lowest. Note that most high-end hotels accept other currencies.
For a regular meal, a bowl of pho is priced at 30,000 VND. Expect to get free pickled vegetables and iced tea to go with your meal.
Admission to historic sites and tourist attractions is generally free of charge or priced very reasonably for foreign adult visitors.