Ever thought "Is Vietnam worth a visit?" Well, that's an easy question to answer.
I have lived abroad for most of my adult life, in a variety of countries, and currently reside in Hanoi, Vietnam. Never have I seen a country with so many reasons to visit, and ultimately stay a little longer than planned.
From the perspective of a tourist first, and an expat second, here is my top 5 list of reasons to visit Vietnam.
1. The diverse landscape
From the traditional, culture-rich Hanoi in the north, down through the mountainous central highlands and the long, golden, sandy beaches then further south onto the waterways of the Mekong delta and the economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City. With a coastline of over 3,400 km, you'd need to book a year off work to see most of this vast country.
View of the Sapa Valley from a wooden hut
2. The difference in culture and atmosphere between the cities
Hanoi is the cultural and political capital of the country with historical buildings on almost every street. The famous 'Old Quarter' with 1000 years of history packed around the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake.
Da Nang in the center of the country is a city of fresh-air that is modern and newly developed with a little bit of everything a tourist would want. Temples in mountains, the Hai Van Pass made famous by the TV show Top Gear, long sandy beaches, top of the range hotels and lovely quaint guest houses and the strange but awe inspiring BaNa hills in the mountains to the east. It is also a very short drive to the imperial capital of Hue or in the opposite direction, the ancient city of Hoi An, famous for high quality tailors, tours highlighting the old way of life on the water, amazing old buildings that have been very well preserved and some cultural shows and activities spread out along the river.
Ho Chi Minh City feels like the capital city, with its high rises and bustling economic activity. You'll definitely see a lot more sports cars on the busy roads that wind through historic landmarks and famous markets. Ho Chi Minh City feels huge, and it is. Each district has its own personality and way of life - if you only so one activity during your stay, you have to try a motorbike food tour that takes you through the city and stops off at a range of restaurants, giving you a taste of the vast array of cuisine on offer in the city.
Ho Chi Minh City - French colonial-style City Hall in front of the modern Vincom Centre
3. The People
I have a somewhat controversial but entirely accurate view of people. If there was a measure of 'niceness' in people I guarantee this hypothesis would be proven true: "People in the countryside are nicer than the people in the cities". I think it is a massive credit to Vietnam and Vietnamese people that people in the cities are very friendly: tourists and expats just need to make the effort first. If you can speak a little Vietnamese to the city locals, it goes a long way.
People in the countryside however! There is no place on earth to beat their kindness and capacity for trying to help a "Tay" - meaning westerner, a common name given to most foreigners. Just try getting lost or breaking down on a motorbike in the countryside and you'll have your very own personal navigator and mechanic in minutes, without even trying.
Getting lost in the countryside, for a brief moment before the cavalry arrived
4. The Food
Having lived in Hanoi for 3 years now, I can provide testimony to the array of freshly produced and deliciously flavoured Vietnamese cuisine. I admit, it took me a few years before I found my Vietnamese partner in crime but once I did, the floodgates were well and truly open. I can't remember the last time I tried a "Tay" dish.
The typical foods that tourists are told to try include:
- Bun Cha (mini pork burgers with rice noodles in a sour soup
- Pho Bo / Pho Ga (beef / chicken with rice noodles in a fresh aromatic soup)
- Nem (spring rolls)- And other assorted rice and meat dishes.
However, now I am a local, I have the following recommendations that I eat more regularly than the above:
- Bun Oc (small sea snails with rice noodles and fresh aromatic soup) ** don't judge me just yet - try it once
- Banh Xeo (hard to describe - see image below) Basically a fried corn batter with some delicious meat and veg inside. Then rolled in a spring roll type rice paper with other leaves and flavours)
- Nem Chua Ran (deep fried pork nuggets with tapioca batter)
- Anything deemed a local dish from the countryside will be fresh and flavoursome - even if you don't know what the ingredients are. Your risk.
Chicken and Rice (top) Nem Chua Ran (bottom) Pork Noodles (left)
5. The Climate
I moved to Hanoi to get a bit of respite from the 32 degree, all year round, humid climate of Bangkok. Hanoi did not disappoint. The winters are mild but not freezing. The summers are hot and humid but get out of the city and it's bearable. Plenty of parks and lakes in the cities which reduce the air by a few degrees. Coastal cities and towns are great when it's breezy, even if temperatures often get close to 40.
The storms are amazing to watch from a safe place but sometimes the less developed areas suffer from floods and landslides. Something I am passionate about trying to solve once the businesses I am setting up get going. The North gets quite chill from December to March but the South is pretty much 30 degrees all year round. Again, the central areas are a kind of mixture which suits a lot of expats for their holidays and potential relocation.
You can visit Vietnam any time of year: Even in the rainy season there are more pleasant, sunny days than not.The best time to visit the North would be from March to May.The South would be March to May and October to December.The central areas are great all year.
Da Nang's golden sand beach in the 'rainy season'
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