Vietnam is a peculiar country. It often incites polarizing opinions among travelers. You either absolutely love it or hate it so much that you swear on your mother’s grave never to visit it again. There seems to be no middle ground.
Strangely though, I got to experience both extremes. On my first two visits, I couldn’t stand it at all. Out of the many countries I had visited, Vietnam was the first one that I could honestly say I hated.
But curiosity got the better of me, so I went again a third time, and lo and behold — I fell in love with it! Two weeks went by so fast, and by the end of the trip, I was already picturing myself staying there for good.
Why this huge disparity? I can’t even explain it myself, but I do know what I loved about the country.
1. The Food
If you’ve read my other articles, you might have noticed a pattern: if I love the food, I love the country.
From the famous ‘pho’ (beef noodle soup), to the prawn spring rolls, to the variety of ‘banh mi’ (baguette sandwiches), I love how Vietnamese food is so fresh and healthy, and usually served with lots of fresh veggies on the side.
Vietnamese food is proof that healthy doesn’t have to mean bland.
Even if you’re not a big fan of Asian food, you may find the Vietnamese kind palatable. While most Southeast Asian cooking is laden with spices, fats, and coconut milk, the Vietnamese take their cue from the French and place emphasis on using fresh ingredients instead.
So, don’t worry if thick curries aren’t your thing. Vietnamese soups are usually light and clear with fewer spices but are still rich in taste.
2. The Vietnamese Coffee
I don’t usually drink coffee as it tends to make me jittery and lightheaded. But I would never turn down a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee.
For some reason, Vietnamese coffee doesn’t give me any bad side effect. It’s still pretty strong and caffeinated, but I get to enjoy the phenomenal taste minus the headache.
Did you know that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world?
Cafe culture is a big deal in Vietnam, where there is a cafe on practically every corner. Most of them provide free WiFi for customers and some are even open 24 hours.
While you’re at it, I highly recommend the ‘egg coffee’. Trust me — it’s not as disgusting as it sounds. Instead, you’ll find that it makes an egg-cellent after-dinner treat.
3. The Cheap Prices
Southeast Asia is cheap enough as it is, but Vietnam is probably the cheapest in the region. So, even if you’re a broke backpacker, in Vietnam you’ll become a millionaire, literally.
A clean and comfortable private hotel room with air-conditioner, hot shower, and cable television can go for as low as $12 (approximately VND280,000) per night.
You’ll also find that you can now afford that 5-star suite with the view of the sea, or a couple of nights in the luxury cruise, or a full day at the spa. Or all of them. While these may be expensive by Vietnamese standard, they are much cheaper than what you’d be paying at home. So, if you’ve been wanting to indulge in a long-overdue self-pampering session, this is the place to do so.
And if you’re a beer drinker, here’s some good news for you: a glass of freshly-brewed beer will only set you back 25 cents.
4. The Scenery
Vietnam is a long, narrow country with a north-to-south distance of 1,650 km. Along this length, it traverses different landscapes — from densely forested highlands to coastal lowlands, to swampy deltas.
What this means is that, as you make your way around the country, you’ll be afforded with ever-changing panoramas from one region to the next. In the north, you’ll find mountains and the green lushness of terraced rice fields. In the northeast, thousands of limestone islands protrude out of the water, creating an almost otherworldly setting.
Meanwhile, in Central Vietnam, you’ll get to see pristine beaches, marble mountains, and charming countryside scenery. And lastly, in the South is the Mekong Delta with its dense jungles and mangrove swamps.
In short, you’ll never run out of things to see and admire.
5. UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Vietnam has a total of eight natural and historical UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with seven more on the tentative list.
So, if you’re the type of person who keeps score of the number of UNESCO sites you have visited (I am that type of person), you can tick a few off your list in Vietnam.
List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam
- Ha Long Bay – a bay with thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes.
- Hoi An Ancient Town – an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, featuring a blend of indigenous and foreign influences in its building and street plan.
- Complex of Hue Monuments – a walled enclosure within the citadel of the city of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.
- My Son Sanctuary – a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century.
- Tràng An Landscape Complex – a scenic area near Ninh Bình, renowned for its boat cave tours, limestone mountains, rivers, lakes, and swamps.
- Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park – a largely unexplored cave and grotto system measuring 126 km, composed of 300 caves and grottos.
- Citadel of the Hồ Dynasty – a citadel constructed by the Hồ Dynasty (1400-1407).
- Central Sector of Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long – a royal enclosure that was first built during the Lý dynasty (1010) and remained the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810.
6. Outdoor Activities
With so many natural wonders and varied landscapes, Vietnam provides ample opportunity for outdoor activities. So, for those of you who thrive on adrenaline, I can assure you that Vietnam will keep you busy. You can go canyoning in Da Lat, kayaking in Halong Bay, scuba-diving in Nha Trang, or trekking the hill tribe villages in Sapa.
Or if those are all child’s play to you, you can try to get to the top of Mount Fansipan. Standing at a height of 3,143 meters, it is the highest mountain in Vietnam and is also known as “The Roof of Indochina”.
I’m not much of an athletic person, but I do enjoy some outdoor activities when I travel. In Mui Ne, I went sand-boarding on the White Sand Dunes. In Hoi An, I joined a cycling tour on a remote island where I cycled amidst rice fields, learned how to row a basket boat, and saw how rice wine was made. And in Nha Trang, I went stand-up paddling down the Cai River.
My dream is to one day scale Mount Fansipan and join a multi-day cross-country cycling tour in Vietnam.
7. The Workmanship
The Vietnamese are known to be good with their hands. The workmanship standards are so high in Vietnam that many large companies do a bulk of their manufacturing here. These companies include Patagonia, The North Face, H&M, Uniqlo, Nike, and Adidas, among many others.
So, the next time you buy any clothing item in your country, go ahead and check the label to see where it was produced — there’s a good chance it was made in Vietnam.
This is also why Vietnam is a popular place for other Asians to buy counterfeit products — because they are cheap and almost as good as the real thing. Not that I’m encouraging you to buy fake stuff. My point is, if you want to buy any local products in Vietnam, you can be certain that they’re of good quality.
Vietnam also has a reputation for being a place to get beautiful custom-made clothes for cheap. The streets in Hoi An are abound with tailors. All you have to do is pick one, choose your fabric and style, get your measurements taken, and your dress will be ready in just a few days. Nicole of Yale Wanders has a complete guide on getting clothes made in Hoi An.
Apart from clothes, nail treatment is another booming business in Vietnam. Vietnamese manicurists may well be the best nail artists in the world. From simple stenciling to hand-painting to 3D effects, you can get any nail design you want for as low as $2.
8. The Nightlife
And I’m not even talking about nightclubs (although I’m sure there are plenty of those too). Instead, what I’m referring to is the ‘Bia Hoi’ culture.
Bia Hoi is a unique after-work hangout/drinking culture that only exists in the northern towns and cities of Vietnam. Starting from around 4 p.m. every day, you’ll see locals and foreigners start to fill up the tiny plastic furniture on street corners.
The sight of full-grown adults semi-squatting on tiny plastic stools seemingly made for kindergartners is interesting enough in itself. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that they all have the same things on their tables: glasses of homemade beer and a choice of beer snacks, usually groundnuts.
In my naivete, I thought they were drinking sugarcane juice.
Bia Hoi roughly translates into ‘fresh beer’, which is brewed daily and has to be consumed within 24 hours as it contains no preservatives and therefore doesn’t keep as long as normal beer. Depending on the brewer, it can have a rice content of up to 50%, which is what gives it the golden color and light draft taste. Each establishment produces its own brew.
Unfortunately, I didn’t join in the fun as I was traveling alone and I figured it was something best enjoyed with company. But it was still fascinating to watch this unique culture, and it makes you feel safe walking at night, knowing that there will always be many people on the street.
9. The Sleeper Buses
In Vietnam, if you book a long-distance overnight bus, you’ll be surprised to find that it’s not a regular coach. Instead, you get this unique dormitory-style ‘sleeper bus’ with three rows of double-decker beds.
It may not be everyone’s favorite, as the seats/beds can be uncomfortable if you’re tall. But it was perfect for my 5’5″ frame.
I liked the fact that it was cheap and convenient — you book the ticket at your hostel, and on the day of your departure, someone will come and pick you up at your accommodation. You don’t have to worry about finding the bus terminal. Best of all, unlike on regular buses, I had my own private space — no seatmate!
Another thing I noticed about long-distance buses in Vietnam was how clean they were. Be it the regular day-time coaches or the night-time sleeper buses, you’re not allowed to wear shoes on board. At the entrance, you’re given a plastic bag to put your shoes in (remember to bring your own if you want to reduce single-use plastic).
10. The Grab Bike
Crossing the roads in Vietnam may still be a nightmare to me, but riding a motorbike amidst the chaos is actually pretty fun, as long as someone else does the driving for me.
In Vietnam, there is this service called Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia), and while it does offer regular car rides, I prefer booking Grab Bike, which is a motorcycle taxi service. It’s a really fun, cheap, and convenient way to get around like a local.
Everything is done through the app, including payment, so you can be sure that there will be no meter scams. On top of that, you don’t need to worry about language barrier either, as the app does all the translations for you.
And what I like most is that you know you’re in capable hands. It’s much safer than renting a motorbike.
With Grab Bike, you get to experience zooming around the city on two wheels without putting your life in danger. Grab Bike riders are put through training before they can take passengers and they always provide you with a helmet.
I’m sure there are many more reasons that make people fall madly in love with this country. Perhaps it’s the rich history. Perhaps it’s the unpretentious, no-nonsense attitude of the people. But these 10 listed here are the ones that I personally liked the most during my stay.
How about you? Have you visited Vietnam? If so, what did you like/dislike most about the country? Comment below.
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