Vietnam: Know BEFORE You Go...

The growth of tourism...

In the 1980's Vietnam opened its doors to Western visitors and a few wandering souls began to tour the country. In 1993 Vietnam did away with its complicated system of permits and passes that visitors had to use while in country, and in 1994 the U.S. lifted its trade ban on Vietnam. The result has been a 35 fold increase in the number of visitors to Vietnam between 1990 and 2000. Today, over two million tourists a year visit the country and Vietnam has become a rising tiger in Asia's tourism industry. And for good reasons... Vietnam has a huge array of experiences, landscapes, and flavors to offer the discerning tourist. Whether you're looking for opera and architecture, an elephant safari and a night in a tribal village, a few days of French cuisine and culinary exploration, or a five star resort where you can lay on the beach, Vietnam has it. The country has over 2000 miles of coastline. There are subtropical islands in the China Sea. You can stroll through the manicured gardens of Hanoi and afterwards dine on some of the best French fare available (or on frog legs in a garlic sauce or Vietnamese chicken curry). The Central Highlands of the country offer tribal cultures in an alpine setting. You can browse through the historic artifacts of the Cham culture and the prehistoric Dong Son Man in the DaNang area. And then there is the night life of Saigon. There is no bad time to visit the country. When the rainy season hits Saigon, the north of the country is dry. And vice versa. With the exception of the TET holiday (when much of the country shuts down) in late January or early February, Vietnam has hospitable and temperate corners to it all year round. It is a place well worth visiting...


Health and weather

Vietnam has a lot to offer, but among its offerings are things like hepatitis and malaria. Indeed, the country provides all the normal health risks of Southeast Asia. Among them: dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and rabies. The risks increase with your time in the country. Taking prescription antimalarial drugs and protecting yourself against mosquito bites is a good idea. Less common problems include filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, and the plague. Swimming in fresh water rivers or lakes can result in schistosomiasis infection. Sunblock is also important health item in Vietnam. As you plan a trip to Vietnam you should also be aware of the vast differences in climate from location to location in the country. Vietnam's climate can be divided geographically into three regions: North, Central, and South. The temperature in Vietnam's southern region changes little from month to month, with highs around 31C (88F) and lows in the mid-20C (mid-70sF) range. A few points to take note of... Saigon gets half an inch of rain a day between June and September. Danang get over two-thirds of an inch of rain a day in October. The Highlands of Central Vietnam are significantly cooler than the lowlands, and temperatures can get down to freezing there in winter. If you plan to travel in the mountains, pack your mittens with your sunblock.

Visas and transportation

Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam's busiest international airport. Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi comes second. A small number of international flights touch down in DaNang. While direct flights are available from a number of locations, Bangkok is the single most active point of embarkation to Vietnam. Be prepared for sticker shock if you have to buy tickets to anywhere from within Vietnam. Price can seem like robbery. At last report Vietnam had a US$10 departure tax. U.S. residents can get visas through the Vietnamese Consulate online. Tourist visas are granted only for a single entry with a maximum stay in Vietnam of one month. Whether you get your visa before you leave home or in the field somewhere, you should expect to wait at least five business days for the visa to be processed. For the brave of heart there are six crossing points where you can enter Vietnam overland. You will, however, encounter a great many forms, questions, inspections, and so forth. You may also be asked to pay "immigration fees." From China, Friendship Pass (Dong Dang) is the most popular entry point; it is about 12 miles north of Lang Son. Train service between Beijing and Hanoi stopped at Friendship Pass twice a week at last report. Once inside Vietnam, Vietnam Airlines is basically all there is for domestic flights; expect to pay through the nostrils. Bus travel is far cheaper, but cross-country bus travel is only slightly safer than Russian roulette. It is also slow and over crowded. Chartering a vehicle (and driver) is by far the best option if you can afford it. Train travel is safer than being on the road, but it can be even slower. And theft is a problem on the trains. The bicycle is becoming a popular way to tour Vietnam; if you're up to it, it's worth looking into... Within most major urban areas there are plenty of cyclos and taxis -- some with meters, some without. Wherever you go be prepared to pay tolls that seem unusual and may have been created just for you...


Places to see...

There are a huge number of places to visit in Vietnam and any of them could take up an entire visit to the country. In case you're not familiar with the country, here is a list of a few of those locations: Hanoi is definitely a city worth seeing. The Vietnamese capital is one of Asia's more unique and beautiful cities. It is filled with French food, history, and garden spots. Hoan Kiem (Sword Lake), in the center of the city is enchanting. The city's Old Quarter has be the site of human habitation for over 2000 years. Saigon is the soul of Vietnam. Officially it is Ho Chi Minh City; but no one cares. Saigon is busy, but relaxed. If you've been lucky enough to visit the city, you smile while you hear the city's name. Saigon is an experience no one forgets... Hue': the cultural and religious heart of Central Vietnam. The Perfume River meanders through the city and fills it with mist and fog when the temperature is right. Thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty ruled Vietnam from here from 1802 until 1945. DaNang is the unofficial commercial capital of Central Vietnam. With 800,000 residents, it is the third largest city in Vietnam. My Khe Beach (featured in the TV series "China Beach") is less than four miles from the city. Danang attractions also include the Cham Museum, which contains artifacts of the Cham culture and empire that once rules Central Vietnam. Sapa in the country's North provides an unrivaled glimpse into tribal life in Southeast Asia and Southern China. Sapa is one of Vietnam's cooler locations. Its elevation is 1,650 meters (just over 5,400 feet); temperatures can fall below freezing in the winter. The area is populated by ethnic Hmong, Dao, Kinh, Tay, Boi, Lu and other tribal groups. French-style villas dot the hillsides. The French built Sapa in 1922. Vietnam's highest mountain, Fansipan (3,143 meters -- or about 10,300 feet) is not far from Sapa. Dalat in Central Vietnam is another tribal area. The town looks like part of France feel out of the sky. Elevation is 1,475 meters (about 4,850 feet). Dalat is used by many tourists as base station for trips into the surrounding highlands. The city is something of a honeymoon capital for the Vietnamese. One tour company describes the area around Dalat this way: "The remote and undiscovered Central Highlands contain some of Vietnam's best-kept secrets where visitors willing to get off-the-beaten track will discover pristine lakes, clear rivers, vast swathes of old-growth jungle and isolated ethnic minority villages." Nha Trang looks set to take on Pattaya in Thailand as the region's flashiest beach resort: sun, fun and nightlife. You can snorkel, ride the jet skis, bake on the beach, and stay in a five-star hotel. You can also gorge yourself on seafood and take in a few pagodas and historic sites if you feel touristy. Halong Bay and Haiphong: 3000 islands in the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong Bay near the city of Haiphong is one of the region's natural marvels. There are perhaps hundreds of grottoes and beaches. Looking for your own private beach for a day? This is the place... Vang Tau: For most of the 20th century it has been the premier beach resort in southern Vietnam. An old port, Vung Tau was the first area of Vietnam to become a vacation and health resort for foreigners. Part of its appeal was location; the city sits on a small peninsula about 75 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. Its 12 miles of soft sand beaches and calm waters still draw hordes of visitors looking to escape the stress of life in a city of 4 million people. Hoi An was an important port for much of Vietnam's history. Today it has been replaced by Danang. But it is still a picturesque and enchanting river port. The city includes Japanese covered bridges, French colonial homes, and a street scene left largely undamaged by war. Dien Bien Phu: near the Lao border in Northern Vietnam, it is in one of the most remote areas of the country. The surrounding region is steep and heavily forested. Hill tribes inhabit the area. In 1954 the Viet Minh forces defeated the French garrison here after a siege that last 57 days. As a result, he French government gave ups its post-WWII efforts to re-establish colonial rule here. Vietnam has a host of other small towns and attractions, but these few should whet your appetite. The country has a lot to offer...

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