Being a must in almost any first trip through South East Asia, and having so much to see and such a strong culture, Vietnam is a country from where you can´t leave without having a strong opinion about it. We found it impressive, annoying and enjoyable equally during our trip. Possibly related to the order and duration of our journey, south to north, during two weeks. I think it is also related to the expectations, and as it has happened with many destinations, and will happen with many more, memories are always charming. Let´s start by the end. Vietnam is worth a visit.
We spent our entire trip through Vietnam trying to label it: “It is like China, but messier”. “It is like the French version of Asia”. “It is like any other South East Asian country, but without so many temples”. No to all: Vietnam has its own culture. It is unique. Highly impacted by the relation with China, as it has been part of the Chinese Empire for over 1000 years, until 939, when it became independent, with Vietnamese dynasties and an expansion through the Indochina Peninsula. European influence can be seen as well, as since mid-1800s, with the arrival of the French, Indochina Federation was born, and eventually included as well Cambodia and parts of Laos.
Japanese also arrived to Vietnam. It was in 1940, during WWII, and to stop Chinese attacks from the north, while French kept dominating the area. Finally, during the 40s, northern communists leaded by Ho Chi Minh declared the independence from France, forming the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam”. Southern Anti-Communist folks remained in the so-called “Vietnam State”, later the “Republic of Vietnam” from where the French left in 1954. Permanent conflict transformed into the war known as “Vietnam War” in Western Countries, while in South East Asia it is the “American War” or the “Resistance War against America”, as the south was strongly supported by the United States and their allies. It lasted between 1955 and 1975, and it is the famous war to which Tom Hanks goes in Forrest Gump, and it is also depicted as central event during the 60s in the US in Mad Men. The war finished when the Communists dominated Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City), unifying the country, with a Communist State, led by the most important character in Recent Vietnamese history, Ho Chi Minh. Country´s name is “Socialist Republic of Vietnam”, as we know it nowadays. All this history allows us to understand a little bit of Vietnam and the Vietnamese.
In 1986 Vietnamese government started changes to insert the country into the global economy and by 2000 it was one of the nations with the highest growth rates in the world, with developing industries, exported manufactures (including the factories of many multinational companies), and streets full of emblematic brands from the capitalist world, while it remains as one of the few states still recognized as communist. If you need to know, yes, there are some McDonalds, but the first one opened in 2014 in Saigon, so it is something pretty new and the franchise is owned by the Prime Minister’s son-in-law.
We can´t forget to mention Vietnamese natural beauties, the jungles, beaches and rivers, and the amazing food. Please remember you can´t leave Vietnam without trying the Pho Bo (Noodle soup) in Saigon and the Bia Hoi (beer) in Hanoi.
Visa: Required for most passports. Some European might stay up to 15 days without a Visa
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (aprox. 22,700 per USD – July 2017 – easy conversion is remove last four numbers and divide by two. Then round down)
Credit Cards: Only Major stores, but can take cash out of ATMs easily. Carry Cash.
Exchanging Money: Exchange offices in touristic areas
Driving: On the right side of the street, but really crazy traffic (not recommended). Especially because of the Motorbikes!
Language: People might speak some English, and with street signs it is easy to move around
Travel: Trains and Flights between all major cities. Buses to small towns.
Sim card: Easy to buy at any airport. Good reception.