This is part of a series on ASEAN countries. Not far from Malaysia, and boasting a wide range of very different destinations, Vietnam is a country ripe for exploration, and one that expats are encouraged to put on their personal travel list. Our sister product, The Expat magazine, takes a walk through Vietnam.
There are many tempting holiday locations within a short hop from Malaysia, but one that too often gets overlooked is Vietnam. Once the trendy place to go for the intrepid backpacker, Vietnam’s appeal is getting forgotten as the tourist tides turn; Laos and Myanmar are becoming the top options for the backpackers seeking “undiscovered” terrains, while those in the mood for sun, sea, and sand tend to head to the perennially popular Thai islands or Bali.
And yet Vietnam can more than compete on both accounts, boasting a coast that stretches the length of the country and enough stuck-in-time places to make any culture-hungry foreigner reach for the camera and dive in and revel in the experience.
Ancient temples, stretches of beach, colonial structures, war remnants, cool highlands, food at whatever your price, and markets that will overwhelm with variety and splendour – Vietnam has so much to offer in a country packed with cities and towns that charm in their individuality and yet all pulsate with the warm spirit of the Vietnamese people.
But though the Vietnamese may be among some of the sweetest, kind-hearted people you will meet in Asia, the more recent history of the country is one of war, rebellion, and a struggle for control of this lengthy stretch of lush tropical terrain. Vietnam has one of the longest continuous histories in the world: archaeological finds date the first signs of life at around half a million years ago and suggest that these early people were some of the first to practice agriculture.
The country enjoyed a prosperous Bronze Age from 1,000 BCE to 1 BCE, producing many items that found their way all over the region. It is perhaps this that first attracted the eyes of foreigners, and soon the unified country was to face an endless stream of invaders and colonialists, from the long influence of the Chinese to the shorter – and considerably bloodier – involvement of the French and Americans.
France’s arrival in 1885 changed the fabric of the country in a very real way, importing Roman Catholicism and modernizing many aspects of the country, as well as establishing a plantation economy and wringing money from the land through exports of tobacco, indigo, tea, and coffee.
As was not uncommon in Southeast Asia at the time, the Japanese had a brief period of occupation during World War II, and once the French arrived to reclaim their colony after the war, the Vietnamese people decided enough was enough. Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist liberation movement declared themselves leaders and a war ensued, resulting in a dividing line being established, creating the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and the State of Vietnam in the South, with Ho Chi Minh taking the state leadership in 1954.
Within a few years, the communist guerillas in Northern Vietnam had grown tired of the rule of Ho Chi Minh and launched an attack on their southern counterpart, which eventually led into what is commonly referred to as the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam). It was, for all involved, a difficult, bloody, and protracted war spanning two decades which left hundreds of thousands dead and much of the country destroyed. The war also seriously fractured the societies and politics of both Vietnam and the United States, and the fallout from the war endured for many years.
Over 40 years have passed since the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, and today, there are few signs remaining of the devastation wrought by the war. The country is now officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and has established diplomatic relations with all nations, implemented a series of political and economic reforms beginning in the mid-1980s, and enjoyed tremendous success and growth, ultimately joining the World Trade Organization in 2007.
The Vietnam of today is a country far removed from a harrowing and difficult recent past, and is a welcoming land for tourist exploration. Here are some ideas to get you dreaming:
For the old Asia of your imagination, make Hanoi your number one destination and book a hotel down one of the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter, where noodles are cooked on the side of the road, tiny old woman carry wooden yoke-holding baskets packed high with wares, barbers set up their chairs on the side of busy roads, and the motorbikes race and weave like ants on acid.
The serene Hoan Kiem Lake is the centre of activity, and while hours can be frittered away enjoying the markets, curious edibles, and exploring the old shophouses, more concrete facts can be soaked up at the various museums.
Visitors with an open mind can even doff their hat to the remains of Ho Chi Minh himself at the mausoleum. Parks, temples, and food galore ensure there is plenty to keep the whole family amused, while many people tack on a three-day excursion to the beautiful Ha Long Bay.
This sleepy, charming place on the Perfume River is known for the Imperial City that was the headquarters of the royal family from 1802 to 1945. The large, quiet complex is remarkably intact, and offers an insightful experience for those seeking more from Vietnam than the recent, messy history. Life is laid-back in Hue – cycling along the lanes or taking a river cruise are both popular options – and the only other major tourist attraction are the various and quite spectacular Tombs of the Emperors.
As Central Vietnam’s largest city, Da Nang is often the embarkation point for those exploring the nearby destinations of Hue and Hoi An, or with a mind to head straight to one of the many beach resorts to laze under a cloudless sky, drink in hand. Some see little to interest them in the city itself, but with a number of museums, many bars and restaurants, and a long stretch of river- and sea-front areas promising some spectacular sunsets, Da Nang shouldn’t be overlooked.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site deserves all the praise it gets. A day spent in this gorgeously preserved – if a little commercial – place is a real insight into the Vietnam of old, when Hoi An was a major shipping port for the spice trade.
Chinese shophouses, temples, ornate bridges, and river front restaurants lull the visitor into a state of relaxed appreciation, while souvenirs of every imaginable size, shape, and colour are available to take back as a keepsake. Many foreign tourists make a beeline for the tailors, who are renowned for the low prices and speed of creation, thus allowing visitors to get their clothes made in the time it takes them to see the sights.
Proof that Vietnam can pull its weight when it comes to beach brilliance is Nha Trang, a town that sits along a gleaming coast and was a spot once loved by the American GIs, who frequented the city for a spot of R&R during the brutal years of war.
There are plenty of resorts, hotels, restaurants, and cafés to satisfy whatever the budget, and those who can’t resist the lure of the water will be pleased to hear that this is the scuba diving capital of the country. Many centres offer courses, day trips, and even beginner-level “experience” outings for those who are nervous and/or clueless.
Think Vietnam is just hot jungles and beaches? Let Da Lat, a former French hill station, prove that assumption incorrect with its eternal spring-like temperatures and gorgeous rolling green hills that fall away below the winding highland roads.
The indigenous tribes who call the area home add a fascinating element to the climatic pleasure of this little town, and the range of architectural influences reward any with an eye for design and the patience to walk the streets.
While Hanoi may be the “old” heart of the country, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) feels like it is pushing into the new, with malls, fine hotels, and traffic buzzing around this sprawling city.
That said, there is still much for the historical tourist to discover, and Vietnam’s history can be walked through at the grizzly War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. More sedate culture can be enjoyed in one of the many parks, in the maze-like markets, or at the cathedral, while lots of bars, restaurants, cafés, clubs, hostels, and hotels cater to any budget and persuasion.
Vietnam fact file:
- Size: 332,698 km2 (World rank: 65th)
- Population: 91.7 million (2015 estimate)
- Capital city: Hanoi
- Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
- Government: Marxist-Leninist one-party state
- Official language: Vietnamese GDP PPP*: $6,414
- HDI**: 0.666, medium (World rank: 116th)
- Currency: Vietnamese dong (1MYR = 6,765VND); about 20,000VND per USD
*GDP per capita, purchasing power parity, international dollars
**Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for 188 countries worldwide. For comparison, Malaysia’s HDI is 0.779, high, and is ranked 62nd.
- The stunning Ha Long Bay, in Quang Ninh province near the northern border of Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site’s name translates as “Descending Dragon Bay.”
- What was once the longest cable-stayed bridge in ASEAN is found in Vietnam. Cần Thơ Bridge, with a main span of 550m, was opened to traffic in April 2010, following a 2007 collapse of a section during construction which claimed as many as 64 lives. The bridge’s regional record for total length was eclipsed by the Penang Second Bridge upon its opening in March 2014, though the Cần Thơ Bridge still boasts the longest main span.
- The critically endangered saola, or Vu Quang ox, a forest-dwelling bovine which is one of Earth’s rarest mammals, is native to the Annamite Range of Vietnam.
- Vietnam’s GDP, GDP per capita, and HDI have all risen meaningfully since our 2013 ASEAN series, with the HDI moving up from 128th to 116th place worldwide.