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France colonized Vietnam by 1884. Independence was declared after World War II. The majority of French had left by 1930, but continued to rule until 1954 when they were defeated (battle of Dien Bien Phu) by Communist forces under H? Chí Minh, who took control of the north. US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, but US armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later North Vietnamese forces overran the south. Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. What Americans refer to as "the Vietnam War" the Vietnamese refer to as "the American War".
While the Americans are still interested in the history of the war, it is untaught history to most Vietnamese. The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
Most visitors to Vietnam (except citizens of Nordic or ASEAN countries and Japan) require a visa in advance. A single-entry tourist visa valid for 30 days costs around €35 (although exact fees vary depending on issuing country) and takes around 4-7 days to process; express visas take 2-3 days at twice the price. Visas are now generally valid for all entry and exit points.
A fairly convoluted visa on arrival process has recently been introduced, but this requires a prior application to Hanoi and is generally intended mostly for groups and citizens of countries without Vietnamese embassies.
At the customs, you'll have to fill in a landing card the carbon copy of which becomes your infamous "Yellow Paper". You want to keep this slip of paper just as safe as your passport, since you'll have to produce it when leaving the country to avoid a fine.
For a few months now there has been a so-called health-check, probably in connection with the avian flu menace. There is no examination, though, but yet another form to fill in and, of course, another fee. If you can get hold of a handful of Dong it is only 2000 VND per person, but they charge US$2 for the same "service" if you only have greenbacks!
Vietnam has three international airports: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and Da Nang. Direct flights are available from Thailand, China, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan,France, Germany, Laos, Russia, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. After the long-awaited signing of an aviation agreement direct flights to the United States by US carriers began in December 2004.
Trains from Beijing, China cross the border at Dong Dang and terminate in Hanoi.
Due to landslides the rail link to Kunming, China is closed until further notice.
Flights are the fastest way to travel the distance of this long country; the trip from Hanoi to HCMC will take about 2 hours by plane. The major operators are Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines. Formerly highly discriminatory fares have been reduced, but foreigners still pay a surcharge when flying on Vietnamese carriers. Make sure to reconfirm (by telephone) your domestic flights, it is very easy to get bumped. Hotel will gladly do your reconfirmation for you.
There is one major train line in Vietnam, the 1700-kilometer trunk between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on which the Reunification Express runs. HCMC to Hanoi is more than 30 hours. It's a good way to see the country side, but unless you are traveling in first class it is no more comfortable than buses. Shorter tracks lead to the north-west and north-east, including international services across the Chinese border.
Long-distance bus services connect most cities in Vietnam. Most depart early in the morning to accommodate traffic and late afternoon rains.
Public Buses travel between the cities' bus stations. In bigger places, you often have to use local transport to get into the city center from there. Buses are generally in reasonable shape, and you have the chance to interact with locals.
Open Tour buses are run by several tour companies. They cater especially for tourists, offering ridiculous low rates (Hanoi to HCMC: US$25) and door-to-door service to your desired hostel. You can break the journey at any point and continue on a bus of the same company any time later, or simply buy tickets just for the stage you're willing to cover next. Most hotels and guesthouses can book seats for any connection.
Since tour companies charge very little, they do make commission on their stop-offs which are often at souvenir shops, where you do not have to buy; they always have toilets and drinks and water available for purchase. The estimated time for a bus trip may not be accurate and may be an additional couple of hours sometimes, due to the number of stop offs. Collecting the passengers at the start of the journey can also take quite a while to.
Since it is forbidden for foreigners to drive a car in Vietnam, there are no car rental companies. It can be quite easy to hire a car and driver for excursions and day trips. (around $40-$50 US an 8 hr. day) Hotels and tourist cafes can usually take care of this.
Adventurous travelers may wish to see Vietnam by motorcycle or bicycle. Several adventure travel tours provide package tours with equipment. Most of the population gets around on two wheels, so it's an excellent way to get closer to the people, as well as off the beaten path.
In cities like Saigon and Hanoi, parking bicycles on the sidewalks is not allowed, and you'll have to go to a pay parking lot. 2000 VND per bike.
By motorcycle taxi
"MotoBike?" as some xe ôm (literally 'wheel hug') drivers will yell to you as you walk by. They are reasonably cheap, about average 5000 Dong. You should be able to get anywhere within a city for about 5000-10000 Dong, since the city is usually densely populated and everything is reasonably close by. But watch out, some drivers will try to get you to pay more after you negotiated a price. But be firm on the price.
Another alternative is to rent your own motorbike. Traffic is reasonably easy to follow and people don't go very fast, since there are always lots of people on the road. As long as you don't break any traffic rules police will not pull you over. Although many people drive without a license, licenses are required.
You will be missing a big part of Vietnamese life if you do not spend some time on a boat. Tour boats can be hired for around $20 for a day's tour, or you can book through a tour company. Boat tours are definitely called for around Halong Bay, Hue, Nha Trang, and everywhere in the Mekong region.
Vietnamese, spoken by most of the population, is a tonal language and definitely not easy to master. It is written in a Latin-based script, making maps and signs relatively easy to understand. More than 50% of the modern Vietnamese vocabulary originally came from Chinese, so travelers fluent in other East Asian languages may find some similar words.
Many young people have a basic grasp of English. It is not uncommon to meet young people who learned English in school, especially in the South. French, although not widely spoken anymore, is still used by many older Vietnamese people who were educated in French. If not English, young people may study Japanese, Thai or Chinese.
(Information as of july 2005)
The national currency is the dong (??ng, VND), which has stabilized in the past few years but is difficult to find or exchange outside Vietnam. Bills are available in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000, 50000, 100000 and 500000 dong. In 2003, coins were also introduced in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 dong.
U.S. dollars are widely accepted, the standard exchange rate for small quantities being 15000 dong to US$1; this is some 5% below the bank rate (Click here for current rate (http://finance.yahoo.com/currency/convert?amt=1&from=USD&to=VND&submit=Convert)) , so it's usually better to pay in dong. Also note that dollar bills in less than perfect condition may be rejected. $50 and $100 US notes get a higher exchange rate than notes of lower demoninations.
With Vietnam being a very safe country when it comes to foreign tourists, you might opt for U.S.$ cash as the basic staple of your money belt, but bear in mind that it is always wise not to rely on just one leg when walking.
Traveller cheques of well known companies are widely accepted, but usually a small fee is charged. Fees might also be the only thing that would keep you from getting cash advances on visa- or mastercard at most banks. Through both ways you can also get hold of U.S. dollars, though there will be even higher fees.
ATMs are getting more and more common and can be found in most bigger cities and every tourist destination. They will accept a selection of cr and bank-cards, including Visa, Mastercard, Maestro or Cirrus and several other systems. Not every machine will like your particular card, but Vietcombank-ATMs are known for the broadest variety. The amount of your withdrawal may not exceed VND 2 000 000 in one transaction, and the fee is VND 20 000 for each of them.
There are branches of money transfer companies like Western Union, but this is always one of the more expensive ways to get money.
On most land borders connecting to Cambodia, China, and Laos there are freelance moneychangers to take care of your financial leftovers, but be assured they'll get the better of you if you don't know the going rate.
Prices such as hotel and bus fares are, by government mandate, significantly higher (typically three times) for "foreign guests" as for locals.
You can bargain on practically anything in Vietnam. Most merchants will start off charging foreigner prices, which you can easily bring down by a minimum of 10%, or more if you like bargaining.
It can be argued that food sits at the very epicenter of Vietnamese culture: every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person's life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions -- food plays a central role in each. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and even the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths. More business deals are struck over dinner tables than over boardroom tables, and when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.
Vietnam's national dish is ph?, a broth soup with rice noodles garnished with fresh greens (usually including basil) and bean sprouts. Ph? bò, the classic form of ph?, is made with beef broth that is often simmered for many hours and may include one or more kinds of beef (skirt, flank, tripe, etc.). Ph? gà is the same idea, but with chicken broth and chicken meat. Ph? is available at any time of the day, but is most often eaten for lunch. Famous ph? restaurants can be found in both Hanoi and HCMC.
Streetside eateries in Vietnam typically advertise ph? and c?m. Though c?m literally means rice, the sign means the restaurant serves a plate of rice accompanied with fish or meat and vegetables.
Coffee, baguettes, and pastries were originally introduced by the French colonials, but all three have been localized and remain popular contemporary aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. More on cà phê below, but coffee shops that also serve light fare can be found in almost village and on multiple street corners in the bigger cities. Bánh mì Hanoi are French bread sandwiches: freshly baked white bread baguettes filled with grilled meats or liver or pork pâté, plus fresh herbs and vegetables. Most pastry shops serve a variety of sweets and quick foods, and are now owned by Vietnamese.
If you like seafood, you may find heaven in Vietnam. The ultimate seafood experience is traveling to a seaside village or beach resort area in the south to try the local seafood restaurants that often serve shrimp, crab, and locally-caught fish. Follow the locals to a good restaurant: the food will still be swimming when you order it, it will be well-prepared, very affordable by Western standards, and often served in friendly surroundings with spectacular views.
The Vietnamese-style coffee cà phê has in recent years become popular in many places in the world. The traditional version is served in a small, self-contained aluminum filter / cup that is placed on a drinking glass. After the hot water has dripped through the coffee in the top section, you remove the filter from the glass, place it on its upturned lid, then enjoy the coffee underneath.
The most common form is cà phê s?a, served with sweet condensed milk which is poured in the glass beforehand and stirred before drinking. It's sometimes accompanied with a pot of hot water so you can thin it down. With ice, it's cà phê s?a ?á. Served black without condensed milk, it's cà phê phin.
The best Vietnamese coffee is said to come from the Buon Ma Thuot area in the Central Highlands.
Don't miss out on bia h?i, (literally "beer gas"), or draft beer made daily. It's available throughout Vietnam, mostly from small bars on street corners. Bia hoi bars will give you the opportunity to relax drinking in a typical Vietnamese bar surrounded by the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Every traveler can easily find these bars to experience what the locals are enjoying.
The beer is brewed daily and each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. It's a very light (3% alcohol) refreshing lager at a fraction of the cost of draft or bottled beer in the Western-style bars. Bia hoi is not always made in sanitary conditions and its making is not monitored by any health agency.
The most popular beer (draft, bottle or can) among the Vietnamese is Tiger. 333, pronounced "ba-ba-ba" is a cheap local brand, but it's somewhat bland; for a bit more flavor, look for Bia Saigon in the green bottle which is bottled for the locals and a bigger bottle than Bia Saigon Special. Bière Larue is also good.
It's regular practise for beer in Vietnam to be drunk over ice. This means that the cans or bottles need not be chilled. If you are drinking with Vietnamese people it is considered polite to top up their beer/ice before re-filling your own drink.
Wine and liquor
Vietnamese rice wine (ruou means alcohol) is served in tiny porcelain cups often with candied fruit or pickles. It's commonly served to male guests and visitors. Vietnamese women don't drink much alcohol, well at least in public.
Dating back to French colonial times, Vietnam adopted a tradition of viniculture. Dalat is the center of the winelands, and you can get red and white wine with a hint of fish sauce everywhere in the country. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find places that store the bottles properly, so even imported stuff is likely to be spoilt due to the heat and humidity.
Coconut water is a favorite in the hot southern part of the country. Nuoc mia, or sugar cane juice, is served from distinctive metal carts with a crank-powered sugar cane stalk crushers that release the juice. Another thirst-quencher is the fabulous Sinh Tố, a selection of sliced fresh fruit in a big glass, combined with crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk. You can also have it blended in a mixer.
Lodging is not an issue in Vietnam, even if you're traveling on a pretty tight budget. Hotels in Vietnam range from scruffy, $10-a-night backpacking hostels to world-class resorts, both in the city and in popular rural destinations. Service in a lot of the more inexpensive hotels is actually quite good (since the fares that a person pays per night could equal a Vietnamese national's monthly pay), although modern amenities like television and room service in some cases are hard to come by. Like many hotels, there are often drinks and snacks in the mini-refrigerators in Vietnamese hotels; but these are horribly overpriced and you would be much better off buying these items on the street. Adequate plumbing is a problem in some hotels (the writer of this article once stayed in a hotel in Hue that had a bathtub that was constantly clogged, and the problem was never addressed.)
Many hotels in the larger cities, mostly Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have very good high-speed Internet access; but there is a fee (3000-15000 VND an hour) to use the computers in some cases.
The more high-end hotels have a multitude of free/low cost amneties; such as elaborate buffets with local cuisine, spa treatments, local sightseeing packages, etc.
If you want to meet local people, stop by a school. In H? Chí Minh City (aka Sàigòn), visit the American Language School, where you'll be welcomed enthusiastically and invited to go into a class and say hi. You'll feel like a rockstar.
The Vietnamese love to meet new people, and teachers welcome the opportunity for their students to meet foreigners.
Vietnam is very keen on bolstering foreign tourism, and punishments for crimes against tourists are severe. May this be the reason or any other, however, Vietnam at the moment might be one of the safest countries to travel in. Basically it boils down to petty crime like overcharging, scams or theft. Violent crime is nearly unheard of when it comes to tourists. Take the usual precautions, use money belts, let the hotel reception keep your valuables and compare prices before buying, and you'll be fine. Nevertheless be alert in the big cities, especially Saigon, where teams on motorbikes drive by their victims to snatch bags or cameras from them. Carry them across your neck and on the side away from the street.
On the road
Be careful! When travelling within the confines of the city it is fine, as speed is pretty tame. However, getting on the freeway is dangerous, there are a lot of traffic fatalities (average is 30 deaths a day) on the freeways in Vietnam, and some locals will not even venture on them, if not in a big vehiccar or bus).
Taking a bicycle or motobike on the freeway is not advised. There are transport buses and tour buses that go about 80 km/hour that pay very little attention to what is going on around them (as is usually the way people adhere to traffic in Vietnam). This often leads to accidents, where frequently you will see many bodies lying on the road with a blanket over them and incense burning around them.
If you are in an accident you have to get yourself to the hospital. You have to call yourself or if lucky, get someone to call for you. Local hospitals will not accept you unless they think you can pay the bill.
Crossing the road
The stakes are high: if you are to die in Vietnam, more than likely it will happen on the road -- be it in a car or under one. Vietnamese cities are crowded, and the roads are absolutely packed. You will take your life into your own hands every time that you cross a busy street in any of Vietnam's major cities.
In most of the Western world, the trick is to avoid the cars. That's simply not possible in Vietnam, as there are far too many cars, trucks (lorries or utes), motorbikes, cyclos and bicycles in far too little space. No, the trick in Vietnam is to enable the vehicles to avoid you.
This is managed by first picking a reasonable gap in the traffic (probably a smaller gap than you'd choose when jaywalking in, say London or Manhattan or Sydney), then walking slowly and predictably across the street while looking directly at the on-coming cars, motorcycles, cyclos and bicycles.
The predictability of your pace and path is the critical factor between life and death. Do not change direction or speed.
If you stop, retreat or try to dodge the vehicles, you'll probably die or at least be severely maimed, and your misfortune will merely annoy a lot of commuters by snarling traffic even further. But if you step confidently and carefully, the drivers will see and smoothly avoid you -- often with grace and a casual aplomb that's initially bewildering to many panic-stricken Westerners. But remember, they do this all the time, every day...or they wouldn't be alive themselves.
The simplest way to cross a busy street is to find a local and walk close to him or her, mirroring their path and pace. They know what they're doing! And once you get the hang of it, it's actually great fun to find yourself walking unafraid through a deadly sea of swarming vehicles and people, suddenly feeling like part of the normal flow in this otherwise foreign land.
Vietnam has a great night life and is reasonably safe compared to most developing countries. However, Vietnam is still a developing country, and people are still very poor. Petty crime, prostitution, AIDS and drugs are rampant. Basically don't go looking for trouble, if you do, you are sure to find it. Remember Vietnam is still a communist country and though they are lenient towards foreigners you shouldn't try your luck. Bringing a Vietnamese national to your hotel room is still illegal. Also, things tend to get a little bit empty at night, since there is a curfew for shops to close, which is usually around 10ish. Alleyways, which there are a lot of in Vietnam, are usually safe, but walking in one coming out of a nightclub, half drunk at 3am in the morning in an area you don't know too well isn't too good an idea. Use common sense.
Tropical diseases such as malaria and Japanese encephalitis are endemic in rural Vietnam. Malaria isn't as much a concern in the bigger cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Most foreigners don't take any malaria pills, as cases of malaria in the city are rare and the side effects of the pills are pretty bad.
Souvenir shops in Vietnam sell lots of T-shirts with the red flag and portraits of "Uncle Ho." Though they may make good souvenirs, you are advised not to wear them in overseas Vietnamese communities back home such as in France, Canada or the USA!
There are internet-cafes in all but the remotest towns. Rates are fairly cheap (3.000-10.000 VND) and connection speed especially in the big cities are high.