|Institute of Tourism Development
Physical geographyBesides the fast-changing cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, visitors are attracted to the unchanging beauty of Vietnam's natural landscape: the marvellous Halong Bay; the ancient Imperial Citadel; the amazing Cuchi tunnels; the lovely rural life in the Mekong Delta or in the highlands; friendly old people chatting over a cup of tea; charming girls hiding their smiles under conical palm hats; sun-burned kids sitting leisurely on the back of water buffaloes; the sampan gliding on a peaceful river; fairy caves lying deep in limestone mountains; and the beautiful beaches that are sunny year-round
The beautiful picture of traditional Vietnam is still there, no matter how fast life is changing. It's the contrast that interests visitors.
Vietnam, in the centre of southeast Asia, is shaped like an elongated letter S. Lying on the Indochinese peninsula, Vietnam borders on China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west and looks out to the sea in the east and the south like a long balcony reaching into the Pacific Ocean. It is a bridge connecting the south-east Asian continent to the scattered archipelagos of the Eastern Sea. With a total land area of 329,600 square kilometres in the tropical and subtropical zone, Vietnam is sunny all year round, and the country's 3,300 kilometres of coastline offers a satisfactory choice of resorts, hotels, and beaches of fine white sand.
Vietnam has two climatic regions. The central part and the North have monsoon from September to November. The South has dry and wet seasons, and it usually rains for a short time every day in the rainy season, but this region has no monsoons or big floods. Vietnam receives approximately 600 billion tons of rainfall every year.
Some mountainous regions have a temperate climate, but the average temperature is usually between 22 and 27 degrees Centigrade. The humidity degree varies from 80 per cent to 100 per cent. Some places, like Da Lat and Sa Pa, have a maximum temperature of 20 degrees Centigrade in the summer.
A brief history
Myth says that a dragon and a fairy met each other, and from their union 100 eggs was produced. When the eggs hatched, 50 of their offspring went up to the mountain with their mother, and the other 50 went down to the ocean with their father. Now, there are 54 groups in all, living under the same roof.
Scientists say that Vietnam is one of the earliest cradles of the human race, but Vietnam, as a nation called Van Lang, was only formed 4,000 years ago by the Hung kings. The country's second historic period lasted 1,000 years (from 111BC to AD938). Generations of Vietnamese kept on fighting for national independence. In 938, with the decisive victory over Chinese feudalists, Ngo Quyen began the new era of building and defending the feudalist dynasties in Vietnam.
Since 1945 Vietnamese history has taken a new course. A democratic country for working people came into existence. The result of the long patriotic war was the victory that brought independence and national reunification of the country. Life was harsh after the war. Vietnamese not only had to rebuild their country, but also continued fighting against the Khmer Rouge to protect the southern border, and against the Chinese to defend the northern border. For the Vietnamese, building and defending the country seems like a continuous song.
More than 70 million people of 54 ethnic groups live in harmony in the country's territory. The largest group is Viet or Kinh, who make up 80 per cent of the population. The Vietnamese civilisation dates back 30,000 years, according to various scientific and archaeological researchers.
Languages spoken by nationals
Vietnamese has existed for a long time; but the language was strongly influenced by Chinese feudalists through nearly 1,000 years of domination. In the 18th century, many Portuguese, Spanish and French missionaries came to Vietnam to bring Catholicism to the country, and thus Latin system have been used to transcribe Vietnamese. The Vietnamese like to simplify their language to escape from the Chinese feudalist influence; that is why the current Vietnamese tongue has been popular since 1900 throughout Vietnam.
English and French is spoken in many shops, restaurants, hotels and resorts.
ReligionBuddhism and Catholicism are relatively popular in Vietnam. Some Catholic churches and Buddhist pagodas are an attraction to tourists. In the south, there is a special religion namely Caodaism, a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism and worship of Genll. The majority of Vietnamese have no religion, but worship their ancestors.
CurrencyThe Vietnamese currency is the dong, which is available in 200, 500, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 notes. There are no coins. One US dollar is worth approximately 10,500 dong. Banks will accept travellers' cheques and credit cards, and other currency than US dollars when passports are shown. Banks give a fair exchange rate, so there is no need to deal with street traders. US dollars are accepted as payment nearly everywhere.
Main holiday resorts
Vietnam offers a wide variety of accommodation, from $8 per night rooms for backpackers, to the lavish Floating Hotel along the Saigon river. It is advisable to arrange all accommodation through Vietnam Tourism, as some hotels enjoy occupancy of up to 90 per cent. Many new hotels are either planned or already under construction, and the addition of these hotels will bring accommodation in Vietnam up to world standards. The standard of service is always very high - it would be hard to find staff more helpful and courteous than those in Vietnam. Many of the hotels have all the standard amenities, including restaurants and refrigerators.
TransportationAs Vietnam's economy improves, so does the transport system. The rapid expansion of Vietnam airlines allows comfortable travel to all the main cities. Upon arrival, air-conditioned cars can take tourists to their hotels by arrangement. Taxis and mini-buses with a driver can be hired for extended visits anywhere in Vietnam at a very reasonable cost.
For the more adventurous, bicycles and motorbikes can be hired. Cyclos, the three-wheeled passenger bicycles, are an ideal way to see Hanoi and HCM. This mode of transportation is not for the faint-hearted though, as the drivers tend to make their own road rules, and in the heavy traffic of HCM it is a ride that you will never forget.
The train ride from HCM to Hanoi is one of the last great railway lines. The train is not up to world standards, and therein lies its mystique. A diesel locomotive pulls the carriages through rice fields, villages, mountains and past coastlines. The train gives you the feeling of Vietnam - cramped, noisy, but unforgettable and exciting. The full trip takes three days and averages 30km per hour. The train stops at various stations, and villages provide food and drink opportunities.
River tours are available throughout the country, and they are a great way to see the countryside and its people. Vietnam Tourism can also arrange professional tours, and for the more adventurous, a small Vietnamese boat can be hired, with its owner as guide. Most of the rivers are dotted with villages, so you can eat at a river cafe and enjoy the scenery.
MiscellaneousElectricity is a mixture of 110 and 220 volts. Post offices and most hotels have phone, fax, telex, mail and package delivery facilities. Note that all goods must be inspected before sealing.
City and country maps are available from the many bookstores, and from some street vendors. Medicine is available from the many pharmacies throughout the country.
Mass mediaThe media are available mostly in Vietnamese, with some TV programmes in English, French and Chinese. Newspapers and magazines are mainly written in Vietnamese, but street vendors can provide foreign newspapers and magazines. Some English magazines, like the Saigon Times and Investment News, are available.
Offices are usually open from 7:30am until 9pm. Markets start from 6am until 6pm, and street markets close a bit later. Vietnamese generally do not work on Sundays.
WaterBottled water is common and dirt cheap at markets or small restaurants. Drink only boiled water and be cautious when having ice in your drinks.
PhotographyCamera equipment is readily available, and films and processing are among the cheapest in Asia.
Festivals (lunar calendar)January: 30 December to 7 January: Rice cooking contests at Tu Trong village in Thanh Hoa.
2 January: Traditional wrestling at Lieu Doi village, Nam Ha province.
3 to 5 January: Horse race in Quang Ngai province. Women also join the race.
4 January: Bonfire festival at Dong Ky village. The winner should have the biggest, nicest, loudest fire crackers.
5 January: Dong Da victory festival in memory of King Quang Trung, who destroyed 290,000 Chinese invaders.
6 January: Co Loa festival in memory of King An Duong Vuong, who built up the citadel.
13 January: Lim festival in Ha Bac province. Young boys and girls sing and enjoy popular theatre. All questions about love and dates are answered by impromptu singing.
February: 6 February: Two Sisters' festival in Ha Noi to memorise two heroines, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who fought against the Chinese and declared independence for Vietnam in AD 40.
6 March: Tay Phuong pagoda pilgrimage.
April: 9 April: Giong festival in memory of the mythical hero in Giong village.
July: 30 July: Le Van Druyet festival in Ho Chi Minh city.
15 August: Children's New Year. Children make lanterns and sing in the moonlight at the Moon Cake Festival.
September: 13 September: Kao pagoda pilgrimage, where many folk games take place.
October: 15 October: Lantern festival for the moon in the south-west of Vietnam by the Khmer people.
Fine artsHo Village Paintings: Ho villagers always draw paintings for New Year. The paint is made from natural ink, and most of these paintings reflect the villagers' wishes for peace, happiness and prosperity.
Silk paintings: This is a high-class style of painting, where silk is used as canvas. Paint or natural ink are the main materials that are used. The general topics are the sun, the moon, stars, countryside and human beings.
Laquerware paintings: Lacquerware was imported to Vietnam in the 6th Century, and the Vietnamese developed this art form to become a part of the country's traditional heritage. Lacquer is derived from a special kind of tree. Egg shells or teak wood are used for decoration. Special lacquerware pointing takes weeks or months, and requires polishing by hand.
Ceramics: Different regions have different kinds of ceramics. The traditional ceramics come from Bat Trang village outside Ha Noi. Chu Dau in Hai Duong is the oldest seat of pottery and ceramics, and in the South, Song Be, Dong Nai and Da Lat are major ceramics centres. The quality and art of drawing on these hand-made articles are superb.
TheatreWater puppet show: Water puppetry has its origin in the North because of this region's many lakes. Ly King in the 11th Century liked this kind of art and encouraged it. Live folk bands stand behind the curtain to match the movement of the puppets on the water, and the artists sometimes jump into the water to handle the puppets. Fire crackers, smoke, fire and lights make the show more interesting. This unique art on the water attracts thousands of villagers for the festivals. Tourists can enjoy it in Ha Noi at the Water Puppet Institute, or in Ho Chi Minh City at the History Museum or at Binh Quoi resort.
Popular opera (Cheo): This typical opera comes from North Vietnam. It takes all village activities and historical events into the theatre. Actors and actresses make use of folk dance to accompany the local folk songs, and young boys and girls usually sing impromptu. Love songs are composed on the boats and rice fields.
Theatrical opera (Tuong): Tuong developed in Central Vietnam under the Nguven Dynasty. The kings used it to promote people's patriotism and loyalty to themselves. Masks and military costumes and elaborate facial decoration are used for most of the shows.
Reform opera (Cai luong): In the beginning of the 20th Century, reform theatre appeared in the south as the amateur popular music, then entered the stage as professional music and began to attract thousands of people. This form of opera mixes folk and modern music.
Smiling faces, colourful outfits, newly remodelled houses and high-rises, non-stop streams of cars and motorcycles, and markets full of local and foreign-made commodities can be seen everywhere. All of these mark a new period of time for Vietnam, a time to prove its potential in economic development, which is the background for developing culture, education and tourism.