Stretching along the eastern parts of South East Asia, Vietnam is a culturally diverse country of imperial cities, sumptuous countryside and dramatic coastline. In contrast to neighboring Cambodia and Laos, life in Vietnam moves at a much faster pace. As heritors of a true civilisation its people have taken this country forward after almost 40 years of conflict. Their energy and direct nature is sure to keep you on your toes and wanting more.
Go coastal and escape to the magic of Halong Bay, exploring this natural wonder of the world as you float through azure waters within a labyrinth of spectacular limestone islands. Classed as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1994 it's definitely up there with the attractions in Vietnam that cannot be missed and it would be a definite shame not to give it a visit. Ensure that you plan your itinerary carefully and make sure that the boat trips you choose don't visit just two caves and one swimming area.Ba Be National Park
Ba Be features eighth on Vietnam's plentiful list of national parks and was established back in 1922. There's the chance to see incredible scenery, beautiful forest backdrops, cascading waterfalls, explore inside caves and even dip your feet into the fresh lakes. The National Park offers the most incredible array of plants and wildlife; there are over 550 named plant species, 65 different mammals, 353 butterflies, 106 species of fish, four kinds of turtle, the endangered Vietnamese salamander and the Burmese python. Also if you're lucky or maybe unlucky in some people's eyes, you might catch a glimpse of one of the bears, tigers or Tonkin snub-nosed langurs that hang out on the outskirts of the park. You are able to purchase tickets at the entrance of the park and the cheapest options start at 35 US dollars for a single day pass but can be less if you are with a big group. The national park is not the only thing that the Ba Be region has to offer; there's also the chance to see the homes of the 13 tribal villages that live there. If tribal life fascinates you there's even the chance to get involved with the village home stay programme to live in the life of a tribal villager.Nha Trang
If youre into snorkeling and scuba diving definitely pay a visit to the seaside resort Nha Trang. Their coral reef display is truly mesmerizing along with the hugely varied array of small creatures below the surface of the sparkling crystal blue water. Not only good for underwater exploring this town also comes alive at the nighttime with various lively bars on offer if you're still feeling energetic after a busy day. The beaches also provide the perfect relaxation spot with fine and clean sand that's simply bliss to rest your feet on.
Surface area : 128565.0 km2
Population : 90549390 inhabitants
Vietnamese handcrafts, of good quality, are on offer at affordable prices. Hanoi offers silk paintings and prints. Saigon offers laquered boxes, tortoiseshell bracelets and buddas sculpted from horn. Hue offers cone-shaped hats made from palm leaves. The Da Nang region offers light silks. Ao Dai (traditional tunics with trousers) can be made to measure anywhere in less than 48 and sometimes less than 24 hours! Tailors use patterns from western catalogues and, following photos, can perfectly copy the item of your dreams. Allow around £65 for a man's three piece suit. Women's dresses are cheaper. Shops are open earlier than in Europe and close later. It is possible to start shopping at 8am and shop until 10pm. The Siesta, however, is observed.
Vietnamese cuisine is well known worldwide for its spices and delicacies and is thought to be a lot less fatty than Chinese cuisine. Given the vastness of Vietnam and the difference in climate between the North and the South, the mountains and seaside areas, the specialties vary according to the region. However, there's one staple food that's served everywhere, nuoc mam, it's a fish brine and without out, according to the Vietnamese it's impossible to cook. Whats more, the dish that's most typically Vietnamese is Pho which is a soup composed of noodles, broth, a few herbs and meat. The taste comes from letting it marinade for a while in the juice from a beef joint, some onions and some spices for several hours. Pho can be eaten at any time of the day, even at breakfast.
The further you go towards the South, the more sea food dishes are on offer. Nha Trang is well known for its caffs and food restaurants that serve fish straight from the sea. Vu nang and vu xao shells are island specialties from Cu Lao Cham, off the coast of Hoi An, here fish pancakes with vegetables can be tried on the coast. Delta du Mekong is the hub of all the seafood restaurants and it's offered at every meal.
Finally some specialties are specific to certain towns like coffee and cashew nuts which make up part of Nha Trang's main resources and nuoc man from Phan Thiet. The country has no envy of anything from its neighbours seeing as it can find everything it wants there. Even any game, mushrooms but also dog and cat are often on sale in the market. If you're interested in trying dog remember its Tit cai in Vietnamese.
Each region has a variety of soups and fried, boiled or stewed dishes. In the North, the Tet festival normally includes a stew of pigs' trotters with bamboo shoots, boiled chicken, carp in salted sauce, meat paté and kohirabi - cauliflower or onion fried with pigs skin or lean pork. Don't miss two specialities: Banh Chung (square cakes made with sticky rice, pork and beans, wrapped in dong leaves and boiles) and little onions in vinegar. The latter are supposed to aid digestion.
In the centre of the country, families from Hue (the former Imperial City) eat Banh Tet (round rice cakes), coconut covered in sugar, roast melon seed and different pork dishes. The menu can also include garlic or galingale beef, different meat patties such as gio thu (pig's head pie), cha lua (pork mortadella), shrimp fritters, pigs trotter bones stuffed with meat, nem chua (fermented pork mince), shallots in vinegar, and green bananas in sweet and sour sauce. Candied fruits are also brilliantly done: crystallised ginger, pumpkin, apple, orange, lemon, carrot... all sorts.
Residents of the South make a mixture of salted pork and coconut. Because coconut trees are very common in this region, people use a lot of coconut milk or oil, giving dishes a particular flavour. Dessert-wise, the Vietnamese enjoy fresh fruit - mangoes, papaya, mangosteen, rambutan and longan, all year round, and special pastries on holidays. Tea is the national drink, served hot in the north and iced in the South.
For New Year celebrations (Têt Nguyên Dan normally in mid-January or the beginning of February depending on the lunar calendar), and to celebrate the start of spring, the Vietnamese particularly emphasise the preparation of special meals in order to offer delicious dishes to their visitors.
Haggling is almost a ritual. It's even done in restaurants (always agree a price before ordering). It's the same with a hotel room or rickshaw journey (also best to agree the price per journey on a piece of paper before sitting down!)
For Buddhists, the head is sacred while feet are dirty. For this reason, try not to approach altars or statues with your shoes on. Further advice: don't put your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice, as it's a symbol of death.
Geomancy determines the orientation of a building depending on the respective positions of the blue dragon (good spirit) and white tiger (bad spirit). Many sites owe their unusual harmony to this "science", halfway between astrology and geography.
Vietnam is very large. Unless you're travelling for four weeks, you will need to be content with the fact that you'll only be able to discover one or two parts of the country. Choose the North, South or Centre and use plane transfers when possible. Most agree that Hanoi is nicest to arrive to, and Saigon best to leave from. A week should be sufficient to visit Hanoi, Saigon, the Hue imperial tombs, Da Nang and the Mekong delta.
Go back and explore the fascinating remnants of the American War in the city of Ho Chi Minh, where skyscrapers sit alongside battered old silk shops and traditional temples.
Head north and discover the other end of the spectrum in the city of Hanoi as it revels in the splendor of its French colonial legacy. Away from its cities you'll find the true beauty of this country.
Drift among the paddyfields in the land of the peasants and their famous pointed hats or discover the mountains, jungles and mighty rivers.
Further south, roam the streets of the charming historic port of Hoi An with its abundance of bars, restaurants and famous tailors, travel to Vietnam and immerse yourself in its culture and heavenly cuisine. For the women who enjoy keeping up their appearances, a manicure and a pedicure in small beauty salons will cost you as little as 5 Euros.
If you're looking to rent a motorbike in Hanoi make sure you wear a helmet at all times. That being said, it's probably better to opt for a push bike, if you're not too accomplished in motor biking. By and large, the roads need a watchful eye as they can tend to be very manic. Expect a very polluted atmosphere in the capital, where traffic jams are unavoidable.
Don't forget to take your shoes off before entering a place of worship. Vietnam is home to more than 54 different ethnic backgrounds. Of course, avoid photographing these ethnic minorities without their permission. For the dog lovers amongst you, make sure you double check before eating what's on your plate, dog can often be on the menu!
Make sure you keep the immigration form that you filled out at customs in the airport safe during your stay on Vietnamese grounds: you have to present it again when you leave.
Monsoon season which lasts from July until September isn't really the best time for a trip to Vietnam but it's worth risking it if you're desperate to get a lower price.
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