Viewed through the lens of its historic past, Vietnam may appear to be a nation defined by sorrow and loss. But zoom in and take a closer look and you will see one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies, determined to become a developed nation by 2020. Vietnam is going through a time of remarkable development but is still a land of incredible beauty and captivating culture. This is a country that is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites – seven others are on its pending list. Among its population of 90 million are 54 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, lifestyle and cultural heritage.
With its rapid growth and colourful diversity, Vietnam attracts an increasing number of travellers – more than six million visitors yearly – and is constantly praised as one of the most interesting destinations for expats due to its income opportunities and quality of life, not to mention its endless charm. Even those who have been living in Vietnam for years will tell you that every day is an adventure in this land of the dragon people. So, get ready to soak up the rich culture and vivid lifestyle while starting your own extraordinary journey.
Read on to find out what to do in Vietnam and the best places to go in the ultimate Vietnam guide.
Location ▪ Climate ▪ Population
Located along the eastern seaboard of the Indochina peninsula, this S-shaped country looks a bit like a dragon rearing up (see box) and measures 331,210 square kilometres – roughly similar in size to Italy or Japan. It shares borders with China, Cambodia and Laos.
The Land of the Dragon People
Vietnamese believe that they are descendants of the Dragon King, known in famous folklore as Lac Long Quan, who married Au Co, the Fairy of the Unknown World.
From this union, Au Co laid 100 eggs that then turned into 100 sons. Fifty of them followed their dragon father toward the lower coastal regions and became the first Vietnamese settlers, while the rest followed their fairy mother towards the hills and mountains and became the ancestors of the colourful ethnic minorities in Vietnam.
Today, the dragon is frequently used in Vietnamese art and architecture, glorified for its powerful symbolism and deep-rooted philosophy.
Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, is also popularly known as Thang Long, which literally means ’ascending dragon’.
History of Vietnam
Vietnam’s history has been one of long-running struggles and resistance against foreign occupation, from where the country drew its strong character and sophisticated culture. The family unit is viewed as being of the utmost importance, while hard work and perseverance are the nation’s virtues.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party Communist state. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) is responsible for the state’s policies as well as the sole source of leadership for the government and society. The country is run by a three-person collective leadership consisting of the president, the prime minister and the secretary general of VCP.
Local Time/ Business Hours
Vietnam is seven hours ahead of UTC (Universal Coordinated Time – formerly known as GMT). DST (Daylight Savings Time) is not applied, and every city in Vietnam shares the same time zone: ICT (Indochina Time).
Following the shift in 1986 from a highly centralised planned economy that focused on collectivising industry and agriculture, to a socialist-oriented market economy that encourages private enterprise and foreign investment, Vietnam’s economy appears unstoppable.
Vietnam used to be known as Asia’s best-kept travel secret – until 2011, Vietnam’s tourism board still pitched "Vietnam: Hidden Charm" as their campaign’s slogan – but the country’s reputation for its exquisite landscapes, cultural wonders and historical charm has taken off in a big way. The secret is out.
Because of the country’s diverse topography and differences in latitude, Vietnam’s climate varies a great deal from north to south. There are three distinct regions where the climates differ: North, Central and South Vietnam.
As with other countries in the region, Vietnam uses both the solar or Gregorian calendar (dương lịch), and the lunisolar calendar (âm lịch). By and large, most practical matters in daily life are handled using the solar calendar.
The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong (VND), represented by the symbol ₫. Banknote denominations are 200, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 and 500,000.
Over the last two decades, Vietnam has seen remarkable changes in its socio-political and economic climate. The country’s new open attitude towards the outside world has made this kaleidoscope of cultures even more striking. It’s pulsating with energy to adapt and connect, drawing inspiration from all around the globe. Vietnam today is at a cultural junction: an intersection of the old and the new. People are adjusting daily, acknowledging the shift in values.
Vietnamese is the main language spoken by the Kinh people (người Việt or người Kinh), the ethnic majority in Vietnam. It is also spoken by the country’s other 53 ethnic groups as the lingua franca, even though they have their own distinct languages.
According to Article 70 of the Vietnamese Consititution of 1992, “Citizens have the right of freedom of belief and religion, and may practise or not practise any religion. All religions are equal in front of the law”. The six most popular religions in Vietnam are: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo.
The world became interested in Vietnamese art at the end of the 1990s. Still, however, many Western art amateurs do not view Vietnamese art as being particularly developed. If alive at all, they think it is likely to remain mostly inside of the country and in Asia.
The French introduced coffee production and café culture to Vietnam in the 19th century. Today coffee is the second-most exported Vietnamese agricultural product after rice. The country is second only to Brazil in harvested coffee (14.3% of the world market share) and Vietnam grows more coffee than even Colombia.
Cultural Do's and Don'ts
Every country has specific cultural and practical “rules”, however formal or informal. Vietnam is no different. What may seem strange or baffling to outsiders may, however, be perfectly normal to a Vietnamese. It’s not a matter of life and death, but knowing these do’s and don’ts could come in handy. Not only to avoid cultural faux pas, but also to have a greater understanding about the Vietnamese way of thinking and values.
There are hundreds of newspapers and magazines in Vietnam, many of which are published in foreign languages or have a foreign language version.
History of Tourism in Vietnam
From a Western point of view, the history of tourism in Vietnam began in the early 20th century, during French colonial times. French families and military officials would escape their lives at home to enter the exotic land of Vietnam.