Vietnam officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam) is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. With an estimated 87.8 million inhabitants as of 2011, it is the world’s 13th-most-populous country, and the eighth-most-populous Asian country. The name Vietnam translates as “South Viet”, and was officially adopted in 1945. The country is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the East Sea (Bien Dong) to the East. Its capital city has been Hanoi from 1975.
Vietnam’s history is one of war, colonisation and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the Map-of-Vietnam-1French colonisation. Vietnam’s last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although French exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884. Both the Chinese occupation and French colonisation have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French leaving a lasting imprint on Vietnamese cuisine.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Dang Cong San led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War – although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire, and U.S. armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South’s Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and over 55,000 Americans were killed.
The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
Vietnam is the only one party authoritarian state, with the President as the Head of State, and the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. The Vietnamese legislature is the unicameral National Assembly, from which the Prime Minister is selected. In practice, the President’s position is only ceremonial, with the Prime Minister wielding the most authority in government.
Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program of đổi mới (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism. The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording near 10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during the Asian economic crisis of 1997). The economy is much stronger than those of Cambodia, Laos, and other neighboring developing countries. Like most Communist countries around the world, there is a fine balance between allowing foreign investors and opening up the market.
According to government estimates Vietnam sees over 5 millions tourist arrivals each year (2011 and 2012). Vietnam has a return rate of just 20% compared to Thailand’s whopping 50%.
Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there is a sizable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most who are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. There are also numerous other ethnic groups who occupy the mountainous parts of the country, such as the Hmong, Muong and Dao people. Theres also a minority ethnic group in the lowlands near the border with Cambodia known as the Khmer Krom.
Buddhism, mostly of the Mahayana school, is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with over 85% of Vietnamese people identifying themselves as Buddhist. Catholicism is the second largest religion, followed by the local Cao Dai religion. Other Christian denominations, Islam, and local religions also share small followings throughout the southern and central areas.
Due to its long history as a tributary state of China, as well as several periods of Chinese occupations, Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by that of Southern China, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese language also contains many loan words from Chinese, though the two languages are unrelated. Buddhism remains the single largest religion in Vietnam, though like in China but unlike in the rest of northern Southeast Asia, the dominant school of Buddhism in Vietnam is the Mahayana School.
Nevertheless, Vietnamese culture remains distinct from Chinese culture as it has also absorbed cultural elements from neighboring Hindu civilizations such as the Champa and the Khmer empires. The French colonization has also left a lasting impact on Vietnamese society, with baguettes and coffee remaining popular among locals.
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
The South has three somewhat distinct seasons: hot and dry from March to May/June; rainy from June/July to November; and cool and dry from December to February. April is the hottest month, with mid-day temperatures of 33°C (91°F) or more most days. During the rainy season, downpours can happen every afternoon, and occasional street flooding occurs. Temperatures range from stifling hot before a rainstorm to pleasantly cool afterward. Mosquitoes are most numerous in the rainy season. December to February is the most pleasant time to visit, with cool evenings down to around 20°C (68°F).
The North has four distinct seasons, with a comparatively chilly winter (temperatures can dip below 15°C/59°F in Hanoi), a hot and wet summer and pleasant spring (March-April) and autumn (October-December) seasons. However, in the Highlands both extremes are amplified, with occasional snow in the winter and temperatures hitting 40°C (104°F) in the summer.
In the Central regions the Hai Van pass separates two different weather patterns of the North starting in Langco (which is hotter in summer and cooler in winter) from the milder conditions South starting in Danang. North East Monsoon conditions September – February with often strong winds, large sea swells and rain make this a miserable and difficult time to travel through Central Vietnam. Normally summers are hot and dry.
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place between late January and March on the Western calendar. In the period leading up to Tết, the country is abuzz with preparations. Guys on motorbikes rush around delivering potted tangerine trees and flowering bushes, the traditional household decorations. People get a little bit stressed out and the elbows get sharper, especially in big cities, where the usual hectic level of traffic becomes almost homicidal. Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces. Finally on the first day of the new year an abrupt transformation occurs: the streets become quiet, almost deserted. Nearly all shops and restaurants close for three days, (the exception being a few that cater especially to foreign visitors; and hotels operate as usual.)
In the major cities, streets are decorated with lights and public festivities are organized which attract many thousands of residents. But for Vietnamese, Tết is mostly a private, family celebration. On the eve of the new year, families gather together and exchange good wishes (from more junior to more senior) and gifts of “lucky money” (from more senior to more junior). In the first three days of the year, the daytime hours are devoted to visiting — houses of relatives on the first day, closest friends and important colleagues on the second day, and everyone else on the third day. Many people also visit pagodas. The evening hours are spent drinking and gambling (men) or chatting, playing, singing karaoke, and enjoying traditional snacks and candy (women and children.)
Visiting Vietnam during Tết has good points and bad points. On the minus side: modes of transport are jammed just before the holiday as many Vietnamese travel to their home towns; hotels fill up, especially in smaller towns; and your choice of shopping and dining is severely limited in the first days of the new year (with a few places closed up to two weeks). On the plus side, you can observe the preparations and enjoy the public festivities; pagodas are especially active; no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open; and the foreigner-oriented travel industry of backpacker buses and resort hotels chugs along as usual. Visitors also stand a chance of being invited to join the festivities, especially if you have some local connections or manage to make some Vietnamese friends during your stay. When visiting during Tết, it’s wise to get settled somewhere at least two days before the new year, and don’t try to move again until a couple of days after.
Lesser holidays include May 1, the traditional socialist labor day, September 2, Vietnam’s national day, King Hung celebration on April 12th, commemorating past kings, and Liberation Day on April 30th, marking the fall of Saigon in 1975. Around those times, trains and planes tend to be sold out, and accommodations at the beach or in Dalat are hard to find. Best to book far in advance.
Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Bac Ha, Cao Bang, Cat Ba, Cuc Phuong National Park, Dien Bien Phu, Dong Dang, Dong Hoi, Ha Long Bay, Haiphong, Lao Cai, Ninh Binh, Sapa)
Harbours some of the most magnificent views of Vietnam as well as the capital city and the chance to visit indigenous hill tribes.
Central Coast (Cham Islands, Da Nang, DMZ, Dong Ha, Hoi An, Lang Co, Hue, My Son, Na Meo, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Thanh Hoa, Vinh)
The ancient city of Hue is the home of the still recent Vietnamese kings and in Hoi An features one of the nicest old seacoast towns in Vietnam.
Central Highlands (Buon Ma Thuot, Dalat, Kontum, Ngoc Hoi, Pleiku)
Lush forest-covered hills featuring indigenous tribes and the occasional elephant.
Southern Vietnam (Cat Tien National Park, Con Dao, Can Tho, Chau Doc , Cu Chi, Ho Chi Minh City, Long Xuyen, Mui Ne, My Tho, Phan Thiet, Phu Quoc, Vung Tau, Tay Ninh, Vinh Long)
The economic engine of Vietnam, built around Ho Chi Minh City but also covering the lush and little-visited Mekong Delta, the rice basket of Vietnam.
– Hanoi (Hà Nội) – the capital and second largest city
– Haiphong (Hải Phòng) – the “port city”, a major port in north Vietnam
– Dalat (Đà Lạt) – the largest city in the highlands
– Ho Chi Minh City (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh) – the largest city and the main economic centre of the country, formerly Saigon (Sài Gòn)
– Hoi An (Hội An) – delightfully well-preserved ancient port, near the ruins of Mỹ Sơn.
– Da Nang ((Đà Nẵng) – the third largest city
– Hue (Huế) – former home of Vietnam’s emperors
– Nha Trang – burgeoning beach resort
– Phan Thiet (Phan Thiết) – “the resort capital” with Mui Ne beach.
– Vinh – the major city in northern Vietnam with very nice Cua lo beach.
– Con Dao (Côn Đảo) – island off the Mekong Delta
– Cu Chi (Củ Chi) – site of the Cu Chi Tunnels
– Cuc Phuong National Park – home to some of Asia’s rarest wildlife and the Muong hill tribe
– The DMZ
– Ha Long Bay (Vịnh Hạ Long) – famous for its unearthly scenery
– Kontum – relaxed little town providing access to a number of ethnic minority villages
– My Son – ancient Hindu ruins which are a a UNESCO World Heritage Site
– Tay Ninh (Tây Ninh) – main temple of the Cao Đài
– Tam Coc (Tam Cốc) – in Ninh Binh province south of Hanoi with Ha Long Bay-like scenery
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell lots of T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of “Uncle Ho.” Many overseas Vietnamese are highly critical of the government of Vietnam you may want to consider this before wearing communist paraphernalia in their communities back home! A less controversial purchase would be a nón lá (straw hat) instead.
It’s common to be stared at by locals in some regions, especially in the central and northern side of the country, and in rural areas. Southerners are usually more open.
Asian women traveling with non-Asian men could attract attention, being considered lovers, escorts or prostitutes by some people and may even be harassed or insulted. These attitudes and behaviors have lessened but have not yet disappeared.
The most surprising thing about the topic of the Vietnam War (the American or Reunification War, as it is called in Vietnam) is that the Vietnamese do not bear any animosity against visitors from the countries that participated, and in the South many Vietnamese (especially older Vietnamese involved in the conflict or with relatives in the war) appreciate or at least respect the previous Western military efforts against the North. Two-thirds of the population were born after the war and are quite fond of the west.
The national currency is the dong (đồng, VND), which is difficult to find or exchange outside Vietnam; change money on arrival and try to get rid of any leftovers before leaving the country. Continuing inflation and a series of devaluations continues to steadily push down the value of the dong, with US$1 dollar fetching almost 21,000 dong in November 2012. Bills are available in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000 dong. In 2003, coins were also introduced in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong, although these are rarely seen
– Police 113, Fire Brigade 114, Ambulance 115, Time 117, General Information 1080
Landline numbers in Hanoi and HCMC have a sequence of eight numbers, others have seven.
– Vietnam international code: +84
– Hanoi area code : (04)
– Ho Chi Minh area code : (08)
Internet access is available in all but the most remote towns. Internet cafes are available in most tourist spots and rates are fairly cheap, ranging from 2,000-10,000 dong per hour. Connection speeds are high, especially in the big cities.
Many hotels and restaurants provide free Wi-Fi or terminals for their guests. If you bring your own phone and/or laptop, several providers offer mobile internet services (EDGE/3G) services as well.
Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, Gulf of Tonkin, and South China Sea, alongside China, Laos, and Cambodia
Geographic coordinates: 16 00 N, 106 00 E
Map references: Southeast Asia
total: 329,560 sq km
land: 325,360 sq km
water: 4,200 sq km
Area – comparative: slightly larger than New Mexico
Land boundaries: total: 4,639 km
border countries: Cambodia 1,228 km, China 1,281 km, Laos 2,130 km
Coastline: 3,444 km (excludes islands)
territorial sea: 12 nm
contiguous zone: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
continental shelf: 200 nm or to the edge of the continental margin
Climate: tropical in south; monsoonal in north with hot, rainy season (mid-May to mid-September) and warm, dry season (mid-October to mid-March)
Terrain: low, flat delta in south and north; central highlands; hilly, mountainous in far north and northwest
lowest point: South China Sea 0 m
highest point: Fan Si Pan 3,144 m
Natural resources: phosphates, coal, manganese, bauxite, chromate, offshore oil and gas deposits, forests, hydropower
arable land: 19.97%
permanent crops: 5.95%
other: 74.08% (2001)
30,000 sq km (1998 est.)
Natural hazards: occasional typhoons (May to January) with extensive flooding, especially in the Mekong River delta
Environment – current issues:
logging and slash-and-burn agricultural practices contribute to deforestation and soil degradation; water pollution and overfishing threaten marine life populations; groundwater contamination limits potable water supply; growing urban industrialization and population migration are rapidly degrading environment in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
Environment – international agreements:
party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands
signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements
Geography – note:
extending 1,650 km north to south, the country is only 50 km across at its narrowest point in the central of Vietnam.