Vietnam Travel Essentials


The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is similar to Italy in area, though amazingly enough it is over 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) long. Its geography contributes to its immense cultural diversity. The country's varied climate and landscape range from four seasons in the mountainous north, to year-round tropical temperatures in the lush south.


The official currency is Dong, though American dollars are widely accepted in larger stores and supermarkets. The exchange rate fluctuates frequently, but very rough calculations place one million Dong as equivalent to US$50. ATM's are available throughout the country, and generally dispense a maximum of 2 or 3 million VND per transaction. Please note that Dong is non-convertible outside of Vietnam.

Holiday and Festivals

Unlike Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam holidays place much more emphasis on Communist figures and events, and yet also features Christmas Day as a public holiday. Tet is by far the largest and most important celebration, lasting for a week, usually in late January or February, from the last day of the last lunar month, to the 4th day of the first lunar month. Falling at the same time as Chinese New Year it revolves heavily around food —indeed Vietnamese refer to Tet celebrations as “eating Tet”. Ho Chi Minh, the man who brought about the reunification of Vietnam in the 1970’s, is honored with two holidays, his birthday on May 19, and his death on September 3. Further highlighting the importance of Ho Chi Minh and the Communist party, and the central role that the Vietnam War continues to occupy in the Vietnamese psyche, the date of reunification is celebrated on April 30, as is the founding of the Communist party on February 3.

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A Vietnam tourist visa is required unless you hold a passport from one of the following countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Norway, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden or Thailand. While a visa is not required for citizens of these countries, the length of the visa varies so please check with your local embassy or consulate.

You can apply for a visa at your local embassy in person or by mail. The price varies depending on what country you obtain the visa in. You will need two passport sized photos, your passport and a completed visa application which you can download from the Vietnamese embassy's website. Processing time is generally 4-5 days.

Halong Bay
Halong Bay

All travellers can visit Phú Quõc Island for up to 30 days without a visa.

There are single entry and multiple entry visas and visas may be obtained for between 30 and 90 days.

Visa on Arrival (E-Visa)

We strongly urge all visitors to obtain their Vietnam visa from their local embassy. There are many online services offering e-visa processing however we are aware of instances where this has been problematic. Also, there may be very lengthy lines at the airport for picking up your e-visa. If you are traveling soon and don't have the time to get a visa in your home country, please let your ABOUTAsia representative know and we will assist you with the e-visa process.

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Vietnamese food is one of the most varied and healthiest on the planet; and cooking and eating play a very important role in Vietnamese culture.

Vietnam Cuisine

A lot of philosophy, passion and tradition goes into the preparation of each and every dish - including fresh ingredients that represent the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, as well as the principles of yin and yang, which are applied to provide a balance between "healing" and "cooling" ingredients that are beneficial for the body.

Regional Delight

Although Vietnam has over 50 provinces, when it comes to food, the three regions of the North, the Central Highlands and the South, are the most distinct. Each area celebrates its own climate, culture and traditions. However, mainstream culinary traditions within all three regions share some fundamental features such as:

Banh khoai

Fresh food - - Most meats are briefly cooked, vegetables are mostly eaten fresh and if they are cooked, they are boiled or briefly stir-fried.

Herbs and Vegetables - These are essential to most Vietnamese dishes and are abundantly used.

Broths and soup -Common in all three regions.

Presentation - Condiments are usually colorful and arranged in an eye-pleasing manner.

Regional Dishes

In the North, a colder climate limits the production of spices. As a result, most of the flavoring comes from a combination of ingredients like fish sauce, soy sauce, prawn sauce, and lime resulting in dishes that are less spicy than in other regions. Some signature northern Vietnamese dishes include búnchả (rice noodle with grilled marinated pork), phởgà (rice noodle with chicken), and chảcáLãVọng (rice noodle with grilled fish).

Cha Ca La Vong

The abundance of spices grown in central Vietnam's mountainous terrain make this region's cuisine notable for its spicy food. Among the more frequently used ingredients are chili peppers and shrimp sauce. Signature central Vietnamese dishes are bún bò Huế (soup with rice vermicelli and beef) and bánhkhoái (savoury fried pancakes stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts).

In the South, the warm weather and fertile soil create ideal conditions for growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and livestock. Therefore, foods here are often vibrant and flavourful. Dishes tend to be sweeter and the vast coastal area makes seafood a natural staple for people in this region.

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Vietnam History

For most of its history, what is present day Vietnam covered 3 ethnically distinct nations; a Viet nation in the north, a Cham nation in the middle, and remnants of the Khmer Empire in the south. Discoveries made in caves in the northern provinces of Lang Lạng Sơn and Nghệ An that human habitation in Vietnam dates back to at least 500,000 BC. Archaeological excavations at Dong Son and Hòa Bình demonstrate that these early cultures had agriculture and pottery, at a similar time as those in Mesopotamia. .

The HồngBàng period (c. 2879 - 258 BC) saw 18 dynasties slowly unify the tribal states into a centrally governed state. In 111BC, Han Chinese troops invaded Nam Việt,as it was then known, splitting it into three provinces. Chinese governors and officials were installed, while the Vietnamese ruling classes kept control in the highland areas.

Vietnam was named Annam by the Chinese, and under Chinese control trade flourished. A series of revolts against Chinese rule subsequently led to a period of autonomy culminating in the Battle of Bach Đằng, during which the invading Southern Han army was defeated.

Vietnam remained independent until 1407, repelling three invading Mongol armies in the 13th century. Weakened by wars with the Champa Kingdom, Vietnam succumbed to Ming Chinese re-annexation. This only lasted for 21 years, with Lê Lợi's defeat of the Chinese ushering in a new independent Vietnamese dynasty.

The need for more land to support it's growing population led to a period of Vietnamese military engagements, including the 1471 conquest of the Champa kingdom to the south, and the absorption of the remnants of the Khmer empire. In 1479 the Laotian capital, Luang Prabang was captured, and troops attacked as far as Myanmar.

Between 1627 and 1775, two powerful families effectively partitioned the country, with the south governed by the Nguyễn lords, while the Tranh lords ruled the North. Conflict between the two allowed an increase in European trade and influence, with the Portuguese supporting the south and the Dutch the north.

French military and colonial expansion in Vietnam began with the 1858 attack on Da Nang by Rigault de Genouilly. When this failed, he took Ho Chi Minh City instead and the colony of Cochinchina was formed in the Mekong delta. With attacks on the north, resulting in the taking of Hanoi, French power in the region grew, and resulted in the 1887 creation of French Indochina, which included what would become Vietnam as well as Cambodia and later Laos in 1893. Initial resistance to the French was led by the traditional ruling elites, however by 1900, French educated young leaders envisioned a modern, independent Vietnam.

The Japanese invaded in 1940 as part of their Asian expansion during WWII, and maintained the Vichy French administration. Ho Chi Minh returned from France to form the Viet Minh Front, which worked with the Americans to spy on the Japanese during the war. A famine in 1944, and Japan's subsequent defeat by the Allies enabled the Communist Party to gain increasing support in the north.

France returned to its colonies after the war expecting to resume as before, but the situation on the ground was now very different. In 1946 armed resistance from Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh in the north escalated into full scale war, known as the First Indochina War. It lasted until 1954 with the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, aand the subsequent Geneva Conference splitting Vietnam into the Communist north and American supported south.

In practice, there was little real break in the fighting, with the People's Army of Vietnam from the north, fighting alongside Viet Cong guerrillas from the south attempting to unify the country. America had largely been funding French military operations during the first war, and support for the south continued, first in the form of money and advisors, and later with U.S. troop numbers peaking at 540,000 in 1968. Fighting spread to include Cambodia and Laos, with the U.S. responsible for large-scale bombing of both, ostensibly neutral countries.

1973 saw the Paris Agreement, where the U.S. negotiated its withdrawal, in exchange for South Vietnam to be given the chance to vote on its future. Two years later, this second provision was ignored by the north as their troops reunified Vietnam with the taking of Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City. The country had been devastated by twenty years of fighting which saw huge destruction to infrastructure and nature following American use of napalm and Agent Orange. An estimated 800,000 - 3 million Vietnamese and 58,220 US soldiers died in the fighting, which also involved neighbouring countries.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, while the Pathat Lao succeeded in toppling the government in Laos. Both Communist groups were directly supported by Vietnam, leading to the whole region being Communist, the very fear that had lead the US to become involved in the first place. All three countries started upon a largely unsuccessful (and completely disastrous in Cambodia's case) series of ownership and farming reforms. Huge numbers of people died, but it would be a while before such policies were scaled back in Vietnam and Laos.

Following increasing cross-border violence from the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, and instilled a puppet government of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. While the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989, many of these politicians have remained in power in Cambodia.

In recent years, following liberalisation of its markets and loosening of rules on private ownership, Vietnam's economy has grown quickly, and by 2050 is expected to have overtaken Norway, Singapore and Portugal. With the maintenance of its rail system, and investment in regional air services, coupled with 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and areas of natural beauty, Vietnam has become an important tourism destination in South East Asia.

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