Vietnam Quick Guide
- Population: 91.5 million (13th most populated country in the world)
- Language: Vietnamese (official), English (increasingly favored as a second language), some French, Chinese, and Khmer, mountain area languages (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian)
- Government: Communist state
- Capital: Hanoi
- Currency: Dong
- GDP: $123.9 billion (2011), ranked 57th in the world
- GDP Growth Rate: 5.9% (2011 est.)
- Size compared to US: Slightly larger than New Mexico
- Religions: Buddhist 9.3%, Catholic 6.7%, Hoa Hao 1.5%, Cao Dai 1.1%, Protestant 0.5%, Muslim 0.1%, none 80.8% (1999 census)
- Ethnic Groups: Kinh (Viet) 85.7%, Tay 1.9%, Thai 1.8%, Muong 1.5%, Khmer 1.5%, Mong 1.2%, Nung 1.1%, others 5.3% (1999 census)
- Median Age: 28.2 years
- Visa Information for US Citizens: If you know approximately when you will be traveling to Vietnam, it’s easiest to apply for a 30 day single entry visa before you leave the US. Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam does not allow US citizens to get visas-on-arrival. However, if you are going to apply for a visa ahead of time you have to give the 30 day period you are planning on traveling in the country. For example, I didn’t know exactly what day I was going to arrive or depart Vietnam, but I knew I would be there at some point in March, so I applied for a visa starting March 1 and ending March 31. If you have no idea when you’re going to be traveling to Vietnam, then it’s best to wait until you’re already in Asia. I believe you can go to any Vietnamese consulate and apply for a tourist visa. I think the embassy in Bangkok is probably the most popular option. More information about entry/exit requirements can be found on the State Dept’s website.
Follow these instructions on the Vietnam Consulate’s website. Download and fill out the visa application form. Along with your passport you have to include: a money order for $80 (which you can get at the post office), the application with a passport picture attached, and a prepaid return envelope. The embassy address is somewhere in DC. The easiest way to do this is to go to the post office, get a large express mail envelope and then put a smaller express mail envelope inside that is addressed to you and is prepaid. Don’t forget to get delivery confirmation and write down the tracking numbers for both!
- Transportation: We took all forms of transportation in Vietnam, including ferries, buses, trains and planes. They are in the process of starting to build a few highways around the major cities, but for the most part you’ll be on single lane roads. However, most of the major routes are paved. Vietnam is known for having crazy bus drivers and there are a lot of bus crashes throughout the country every year. So make sure you go with a reputable bus company and try to avoid taking buses at night if possible. If you are traveling by bus from Hanoi to HCMC or vice versa I think there is some sort of hop-on-hop-off bus pass, which is a lot cheaper than buying individual tickets for each route. Do some research to see if it still exists.
We flew to Phu Quoc from HCMC with Vietnam Airways, which was an easy 45 minute flight. From Phu Quoc we took a 2.5 hour ferry to Rach Gia in the Mekong Delta. The ferry was very nice, minus the pounding music blasting throughout the cabin at 8am. From Rach Gia we took a mini-van to Can Tho and from Can Tho we took a bus to HCMC. We flew to Hanoi from HCMC on Jetstar, which was a 2 hour flight. From Hanoi we took an overnight sleeper train to Lao Cai (Sapa). We took a regular train back to Hanoi and spent a couple days cruising around Ha Long Bay on a junk. And finally we flew to Siem Reap from Hanoi on Vietnam Airways (I think they only fly this route a few times a week). For more transportation details and prices see subsequent pages.
- Weather: The monsoon season for northern Vietnam is Sept-Jan, while the monsoon season for southern Vietnam is May-Sept. So if you’re traveling throughout the entire country and want to avoid the heavy rains try to go sometime between Feb-April. (The embassy site gives you an overview of Vietnam’s climate). We visited Vietnam in mid-March and had pretty good weather in most of the country. Phu Quoc, Can Tho and HCMC were sunny and hot, but not stifling like I was expecting. I can see why you wouldn’t want to visit HCMC during the rainy season though; I’m sure the streets become flooded with water. Hanoi was a lot cooler, with temperatures in the mid-60s during the day and cooling off at night. It was always pretty cloudy while we were there, although it didn’t rain. In the mountains of Sapa temperatures were warm during the day (70-80s) but cool at night and early in the morning. It was also very foggy in Sapa for part of the time we were there, which effectively blocked any views of the mountains or rice terraces. And in Ha Long Bay it was overcast with temperatures in the 60-70s. We were actually lucky that we were able to go out on the boat because it had rained there the past few days and the boats don’t go out when it’s foggy and raining.
- Food: Vietnamese food is really delicious! I hadn’t tried much Vietnamese food prior to this trip, but it was some of the best food we had in Asia. The ingredients are so fresh and they cook with a lot of vegetables and seafood, so it was generally easy to find some vegetarian options. One of the most popular Vietnamese meals is pho, which is a noodle soup usually made with beef or chicken (but you can get it without meat if you ask) seasoned with vegetables and herbs. Often times they bring out a platter of ingredients and let you decide what else you want to add, like bean sprouts, peppers, onions etc. Another popular dish is banh xeo, which are fried Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with meat, vegetables and rice or noodles. Variations of pho and banh xeo can be found in different regions throughout Vietnam.
- People: The Vietnamese people are, understandably, the most reserved towards Westerns (and particularly Americans) than other Asian countries. We didn’t experience any hostility, but they’re typically not very warm or friendly at first. However, once you get to talking with them, they definitely open up more. And since Vietnam is a young country (the median age is 28), the scars of the Vietnam war are fading fast as new economic opportunities are opening up throughout the country.
- Dress: With the exception of the hill tribes, most people dress western.