Vietnam Travel Guide
In the past 10 years, overseas visitor arrivals in Vietnam have grown faster than any other country in Asia. That’s partly because of government initiatives to promote Vietnam as a tourist destination, but also because travellers have been discovering what a fascinating country Vietnam is, after being off-limits to foreign tourists for many years.
Some older seniors may still have reservations about visiting Vietnam, particularly if they or any of their family or friends were involved in combat activities during the Vietnam War – or the American War as it is known in Vietnam.
On the other hand, many retired military personnel who were in Vietnam prior to 1975, have taken the opportunity to return to see the country at peace, and to reflect on the folly of a war during which more than a million Vietnamese were killed, as well as an estimated 65,000 foreign troops.
These days Vietnam is high on the list of recommendations for first or second-time visitors to Asia because it is a country with many natural attractions, UNESCO heritage sites, colonial shopping precincts, and value-for-money beach resorts. It offers something to appeal to all types of travellers from backpackers to seniors, especially history and culture buffs.
The country’s capital is the ideal place to start a visit because Hanoi provides the best opportunity to learn about the history and culture of Vietnam, whilst enjoying relaxing strolls around its Old Town, French Quarter and picturesque lakes. It’s a very safe city although crossing the road during rush hour can be quite a challenge!
There are many good restaurants and coffee shops in Hanoi and excellent shopping opportunities for traditional arts and crafts. Most of the museums, temples and art galleries are either within walking distance of each other or a short taxi ride away.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see a performance in Hanoi’s water puppet theatre. Although almost all of the patrons these days are foreign tourists, the performance is authentic, totally fascinating to watch, and accompanied by live traditional music. Try to get a seat a few rows from the front for the best view.
A recommended day trip from Hanoi is to the Boi River (Song Boi). Visitors are taken along the river in slow rowboats through some magnificent limestone karst scenery that rivals that of Halong Bay. The climb to some caves and a viewpoint at the end of the boat trip may not be suitable for many seniors, but the boat trip is so relaxing it’s worth doing the trip just for that.
Day tours to Song Boi offered by travel agencies in Hanoi are often combined with a visit to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu.
Probably the most photographed place in Vietnam, Halong Bay these days is over-commercialised and over-run with foreign tourists. That said, it is still a destination worth visiting if you have the time to stay out on the water overnight.
Many travel agencies in Hanoi offer day trips to Halong Bay, but it is strongly recommended that seniors overnight at Halong Bay because the day trip there and back is tiring, and a day trip gives insufficient time on the water to see the most beautiful parts of Halong Bay or explore any of the islands where boats are permitted to stop.
A good option is to book an overnight cruise with dinner and accommodation on the boat, or even better, a two-night cruise if the weather is good. The two-night cruises are the only ones that take passengers far away from the day-tripper boats to experience what Halong Bay was like in the days that it was only just being discovered by backpackers.
There is a wide range of options from basic to luxury accommodation available on the cruise boats that ply the waters of Halong Bay. However, a few seniors have reported suffering traveller’s diarrheoa after overnighting on some of the cheaper boats, so spending a little extra money for one of the better boats would be good advice here.
Many visitors to Vietnam describe Hoi An as their favourite destination. Hoi An is an old trading port on the Central Coast with an eclectic mix of ancient Chinese temples, French colonial architecture and historic Vietnamese buildings. The Old Town is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the 14th day of each lunar month, the whole town is lit up with Chinese lanterns
Hoi An has many good quality boutique hotels to suit all budgets, excellent restaurants and coffee shops, and pedestrian precincts for shopping or strolling. Along the main riverfront at night, there are many cafes and bars at which visitors can eat and drink at very reasonable prices, and watch the world go by under the glow of thousands of coloured lights.
The Old Town is a photographer’s paradise, and has many antique shops and tailor shops for both men and women. Clothes can be tailor-made in 24 hours. Hoi An is a popular destination for travellers who wish to take Vietnamese cooking classes. Courses can be easily found on the web, but read the reviews first because some are better than others.
Hoi An has a reasonably good beach at An Bang, just 2 km away. Many visitors hire a bike and ride there, but expect to pay for parking the bike at An Bang. There is no shade on this stretch of beach, so most visitors hire a sun lounger or deck chair with a beach umbrella. Bike parking should cost no more than 5,000 dong and beach chairs 20,000 dong, but be prepared to bargain because often the starting price is much higher. Most of the eating places on the beach offer free chairs and umbrellas to patrons ordering meals.
Whilst exploring Hanoi’s old town or strolling along Hoi An’s riverside are experiences that draw many travellers back to Vietnam, nothing beats cruising the maze of estuaries and tributaries of the Mekong Delta for the ultimate relaxation. This is the one part of Vietnam where visitors can escape the crowds.
Cruising the Mekong Delta can be done on large boats for 30 people down to small boats for two, but it’s only the smaller ones that can reach the most tranquil backwaters. There are many travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) offering day trips to the Mekong Delta, but it’s better to spend at least a night at the delta because trying to go there and back from Saigon in one day is very tiring.
In any event, the hours around sunrise and sunset are the most magical times of the day on the delta, and those are all missed on the day trips. There are many good small resorts dotted around the delta. Check out sites like Trip Advisor to find the ones with the best reviews and value for money.
For seniors who are still fit enough to ride a bike, another great way to see the delta is to go on a bike tour with a guide. The cost is not high and they all take a slow pace because the rural bike paths are narrow as they wind along levees between rice paddies, vegetable gardens and fruit farms. The guide will handle the buying of tickets whenever it is necessary to take a ferry to cross a waterway.
Best months to visit Vietnam
Vietnam is nearly 2,000 km from north to south, so the climate varies from temperate in the far north to tropical in the south. Hanoi can get quite cool in the winter months, and very hot and humid in the summer months which are also the wettest months. Therefore spring (March – May) and autumn (September – November) are the best months to visit, but note that early September can still be quite wet.
In southern Vietnam there are only two seasons – the dry season (December – April) and the wet season (May – October) with November being a transition month between the Wet and the Dry. Temperatures don’t vary much during the year, but March to May are generally the hottest months.
On the Central Coast around Hoi An and Da Nang, the climate is closer to that of southern Vietnam than it is to Hanoi. The wet season starts later on the Central Coast – usually around September and may extend into early January. Temperatures in the northern winter months are also lower on the Central Coast with mild temperatures between mid-December and mid-March, and tropical temperatures the rest of the year.
Therefore considering the varying climates between these three regions, the best months to visit Vietnam if the traveller intends to traverse the country from north to south would be March and April, but with the qualification that these are amongst the hottest months in the south.
Currency and exchange rates
The Vietnamese dong is one of the world’s most devalued currencies having gone from an exchange rate of a little over two dong to the US dollar in 1978 to more than 23,000 dong to the dollar today. Coins are no longer used in Vietnam, and the smallest denomination note – 500 dong – is worth only two US cents.
The best places to exchange money in Vietnam are the gold and jewellery shops in Hanoi’s old quarter. They offer better exchange rates than banks and hotels, and don’t charge commissions. Never exchange money on the street in Vietnam. It’s illegal and many who have tried it have been scammed.
Outside of Hanoi there will not be many options aside from banks and hotels, and their rates are not much different to the rates that banks apply when drawing money from ATMs. Many establishments in places frequented by foreign travellers will take US dollars instead of dong, and if the exchange rate is the same as the bank rate, savings can be achieved by not having to pay any bank commission. However, many establishments will only accept brand new notes if payment is made in US dollars.
In 2003 the Vietnamese government commenced the production of new polymer notes to replace its higher denomination notes because it was difficult to distinguish between some of them. New polymer notes are now used for the five highest denominations (10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 and 500,000 dong). Old paper notes are still in circulation for the four smaller denominations (500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 dong) although it’s rare to see a 500 dong note these days.
The dong can still be an intimidating currency for seniors because of the large number of zeros on the notes. The 10,000 dong (about 43 US cents) and 100,000 dong (about US$4.30) notes are of similar colour and can be easily confused by those not familiar with the currency. The 50,000 (about $2) and 500,000 (about $20) notes might also be confused, but the colour differentiation between those two is more distinct.
The best way for seniors to handle the Vietnamese currency is to travel with a wallet or purse with two compartments, and place the 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 notes in one, and the 100,000 and 500,000 notes in the other. That way there is less likelihood that confusion will arise. The low value paper notes are best stuffed into a pocket and used for tips.
Header image: Hisu Lee