Vietnam at a glance
Population: 90.5 million
Capital City: Hanoi (6.5 million)
People: 53 ethnic minorities
Currency: Vietnam Dong (VND)
Time Zone: GMT +7 Hours
International Dialing Code: +84
People, Cities & Culture
Previously ravaged by war, Vietnam is now racing into the modern age. It’s major cities are rapidly transforming thanks to an influx of foreign investment and the immergence of a market-based economy. This sprint into the modern age has lifted millions out of poverty and into a high-spending middle class. Most of Vietnam’s population live along the coast, as economic development in these regions lures workers and families from the countryside, where agriculture remains the primary industry.
Vietnam’s biggest strength as a travel destination is its people. Chatting with Vietnamese is an incredibly rewarding way to immerse yourself in the country’s diverse history and culture. By nature, Vietnamese people are energetic, direct and enjoy having a laugh, typically over a cup of the locally brewed bia hoi - Vietnam’s famously inexpensive draft beer. A strong emphasis is placed on family and Confucian traditions, with a strong sense of obligation to spend most holidays and festivals with relatives.
Journeying from north to south will give travellers fascinating insight into the subtle contrasts that exist within Vietnamese culture. Food in northern, southern and central regions also varies in flavours and style. Ho Chi Minh City is regarded as the country’s most developed city with a noticeable Western influence. In Hanoi, the capital city has a distinctly traditional feel. Communication styles between northern and southern Vietnam are vastly different. Although Hanoians are generally regarded to be more stoic on the outside, attempting a few simple Vietnamese phrases is a guaranteed way to get to make friends.
At first glance, crossing the road in Vietnam may seem impossible. Newcomers can spend a considerably long time trying to find a gap in the a veritable stream of motorcycles, only to be led across the road by a sympathetic local. After careful observation, most travellers realise it is much easier than it looks. There is a rhythm to Vietnamese traffic that, with a predictable stride and a steady hand waving at waist height, will flow around you like water as you cross to the other side unscathed.
Taxis can be easily found in Vietnam’s major cities and are a popular means of transport for visitors. The most reputable companies include Thanh Cong and Taxi Group in the north, and VinaSun in the south.
Those wanting to explore the streets at a more relaxed pace can opt for a cyclo ride in major tourist centres.
Motorbike taxis, or “xe oms” are not recommended for tourists. Pricing is unregulated and commutes are often dangerous. This mode of transport is not recommended by Buffalo Tours and is generally not covered under normal travel insurance policies.
When to visit Vietnam
Vietnam’s vast and lengthy terrain has a diverse regional climate, making it difficult to specify a ‘perfect’ time to visit. Instead, it provides good flexibility for any itinerary.
In the north of Vietnam, from April to October, temperatures can reach up to 38°C with occasional bursts of heavy rain from July onwards during the rainy season. Winter is from December to March. The weather is damp and overcast and temperatures drop as low as 10°C, so be sure to pack a sweater! The best time to visit sights of the North such as Sapa and Hanoi is between September through December.
Generally sunny year round, the climate in the central region is more consistent. Visiting Hue, Hoi An or Da Nang can be lovely any time of year. However, be wary of autumn as cooler temperatures do usher in from September till December, and occasional typhoons bring heavy rains.
In the south, it is generally hot year round, with the dry season running from December to June. The wet season lasts from July to November and is hot and humid with short, heavy bouts of rain. The ideal season to see Ho Chi Minh city and the Delta is from December until March when temperatures are more mild.
Vietnam’s weather can be unpredictable so it may be a good idea to carry an umbrella or raincoat with you. You can purchase these from most supermarkets and general stores.
Festivals and National Holidays
The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet, is the most important time of the year in Vietnam. To celebrate, most Vietnamese return to their hometowns for family feasts, traditional ceremonies and visit relatives to exchange gifts and li xi, or “lucky money”. For visitors, the lead up to Tet is a visual collage of vibrant traditions, exotic foods and festive markets. Locals flock to banh chung stalls, a cake made of glutinous rice, pork, fermented bean paste rolled with banana leaf. Street markets overflow with elegant lanterns and calligraphy. Brave motorcyclists can also been seen balancing pots of bright peach blossoms or ornamental kumquat trees as they zip through the traffic. Tet generally lasts three days, taking place at the end of January or the beginning of February and usually coincides with a public holiday. Buffalo Tours can advise you on how this may affect your travel plans in Vietnam.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is another exciting and bustling time to visit Vietnam. Generally considered a festival for Vietnam’s children, it also has ties to ancient myths and legends. Large swathes of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and other regional centres, closed to traffic and dedicated to lion dancing and night markets selling decorative masks and toys. Delicious moon cakes are sold in sweet and savoury varieties that can take up to 3 months to make. The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on different dates every year in September.
Other important holidays include:
Liberation of Saigon: 30 April
International Worker’s Day: 1 May
Hung King’s memorial day: 10 March (lunar calendar)
Vietnamese National Day: 2 September
Top places to visit in Vietnam
The tale of Halong Bay’s creation is legendary. A great dragon, once residing in the mountains, charged towards the ocean and settled in the Gulf of Tonkin, its horned back protruding from the emerald waters. The result is a breathtaking sight of thousands of limestone islets rising out of the bay in grand clusters. Denoted a World Heritage Site in 1994, Halong Bay forested slopes and naturally formed grottoes are some of the most visited spots in Vietnam, predominantly accessed by multi-day cruise tours.
Top Halong Bay tours:
Ranked fourth on TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice Destination Awards, Vietnam’s vibrant capital city is a maze of hidden alleyways, tranquil parks and sprawling residential areas, containing more street food stalls per square mile than anywhere on earth. Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter, colonial architecture and historical monuments - including but not limited to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Hoa Lo prison - have long attracted those with a taste for the exotic.
Top Hanoi tours:
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is an energetic collision of commerce and culture, a city hurtling into the future at such a blistering pace that visitors can’t help but go along for the ride. As Vietnam’s commercial capital, it is also a city of contrast; home to some of the country’s finest hotels, upscale restaurants and classy boutiques sandwiched in between crowded food stalls and bustling wet markets. The city is also a labyrinth of historical monuments, ranging from the chilling War Remnants Museum to the fascinating Cu Chi Tunnels.
Top Ho Chi Minh city tours:
Once a major trading hub, Hoi An is an elegant patchwork of lanterned streets, majestic architecture and a rich heritage that remains largely untouched by the heaving throngs of traffic that haunt Vietnam’s other cities. With palm-fringed beaches within a stone’s throw of most hotels, more tailors per square kilometre than any other city in Vietnam, and an eclectic culinary scene to match, it’s little wonder this place continues to be one of Vietnam’s most important tourism centres.
Top Hoi An tours:
There are few places in the world quite like the Mekong Delta, a convergence of mighty rivers and lush farms intertwined across the region. Despite being deeply rural, it is one Vietnam’s most densely populated areas, with millions of boats, houses, restaurants and even markets floating side-by-side in this fast-paced water world. Travellers searching for a glimpse of authentic Vietnamese lifestyles immortalised in poetry and postcards will find the Mekong Delta a magical place to explore.
Top Mekong Delta tours:
Set among rolling valleys of rice fields and vegetable farms, Mai Chau offers a change of pace (and scenery) for travellers wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Village life is simple, and the traffic minimised to bicycles and a handful of motorbikes. Mai Chau is also home to Vietnam’s White Thai ethnic minority group, who pride themselves on expert weaving and sell brightly coloured handicrafts at village markets. Visitors can also make the most of Mai Chau’s cycling, rock climbing and trekking routes through Buffalo Tours’ full-day and multi-day tour packages.
Top Mai Chau tours:
This former French outpost in the hills of northern Vietnam offers travellers a fascinating glimpse into the life of some of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, including the Red Dzao and H’mong people. Elevated 1600m above sea level, it also offers visitors some of Vietnam’s best trekking routes, laden with traditional village home stays tucked amid vast rice paddies and tropical jungle.
Top Sapa tours:
Top things to do in Vietnam
Kayaking in Halong Bay
Few things beat waking up to the glow of sunlight streaming across hundreds of limestone peaks visible from the window of your traditional junk boat anchored in Gulf of Tonkin. Whether it’s paddling to private beaches, weaving your way through deep caverns under huge limestone karsts or splashing through sunny patches of this UNESCO-listed bay, kayaking in Halong Bay will give you a front-row seat to one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
Trekking and homestay experience in Sapa
Sapa is home to some of Vietnam’s best trekking routes. Often joined by brightly-dressed locals from the Red Dzao or H’mong ethnic minority groups, visitors are treated to incredible panoramas of cascading rice terraces and quaint villages perched against rolling hills that snake their way to the Chinese border. Sapa multi-day packages allow travellers to get a unique feel for rural village life and traditional Vietnamese hospitality with overnight stays at local guest houses and homestays.
Sampling street food in Hanoi
With more food stalls per square kilometer than any other city on earth, Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is famous for its bustling street food scene. As the sun sets, Hanoi’s sidewalks become dominated by small pop-up restaurants with locals sitting on small stools amongst a litany of sizzling woks and bubbling pots. Our very own Hanoi street eats walking tour gets you close enough to enjoy some of the very best of Vietnamese street food, including favourites like pho bo (beef with noodles in broth), banh mi (Vietnam’s infamous sandwich) and fried nem (spring roll).
Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels is one of Vietnam’s most treasured symbols of the Viet Cong’s dedication and ingenuity during the Vietnam War. Our Cu Chi Tunnels tours allow travellers to spend the morning wandering around this vast underground complex that once buzzed with thousands of soldiers. The site is also provides a startling contrast to modern-day Vietnam, a rapidly-developing country propelled by grand aspirations and a resilient population looking away from its wartime past to a prosperous future.
Cruising the Mekong Delta
There is nowhere in the world quite like the Mekong Delta, a convergence of mighty rivers and lush farms intertwined and weaving their way across the region. The best way to explore the Mekong is undoubtedly by boat, with our Mekong River tours and cruise packages taking you deep into the heart of this bustling maritime hub. You’ll get to sail down the main artery of the Mekong, explore riverside villages, chat with Buddhist nuns at ancient monasteries and experience life on the river at the Chau Doc Floating Market.