Vietnam wins the 2021 travel award “Asia’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination” according to the World Travel Awards (WTA) — the so-called Oscars of Tourism [source]
This is an amazing and well-deserved achievement for a country that, 30 years ago, was among the poorest in the world — on the scale of Africa in terms of income and standard-of-living. Now, the Socialist Republic is one of the fastest growing countries in world and has a vibrant, optimistic culture.
In this post, we discuss why Vietnam is a top tourism destination: see it now before it becomes utterly transformed and unrecognizable from its traditional and cultural origins.
We discuss the top reasons that tourists are flocking to Vietnam, including:
- Nature – more than just rice fields.
- Cultural diversity – over 50 different ethnic groups.
- Food – come just to eat! The food is amazing.
- History – more than just the American-Vietnam war. Unbelievable stories.
- Art – exquisite craftsmanship and technical sophistication.
- Shopping – discounts on many products that are made in Vietnam.
- Economy – one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and great opportunity for the business savvy traveler.
- Crime – some scams abound, but physical violence is very low.
- Friendliness – no, Vietnamese don’t hate Americans.
- Transformation – See Vietnam before everything changes.
1) Nature: Mountains, Islands, Caves, and Rice Fields
Vietnam has an amazing diversity of natural landscapes. Forget the iconic rice-fields: there are precipitous karst mountains, beautiful beaches, island archipelagos, and the world’s largest cave. Many of these are within a day trip of each other.
For example, our favourite two-week trip would be: start from Hanoi, do a motor-bike tour of the mountains of Ha Giang, rest peacefully in the rice-fields of Mai Châu, finish with some pleasant beach-time on the Island of Cat Ba outside of Hanoi.
- Mountains – there are mind-bending precipitous mountains on the northern border with China, like in Ha Giang.
- Island archipelago – Halong Bay.
- World’s largest cave – Son Doong in Phong-Nha Ke-Bang.
- Beautiful beaches – Da Nang or Phu Yen.
- Pleasant rice-fields in verdant valleys – Mai Châu.
- Rugged Karst hills and winding rivers – Ninh Binh.
- Dalat – waterfalls and eco-tourism in a serene, pleasant hilly landscape.
RELATED: See our list of under-appreciated gems in Vietnam.
2) Culture: Vietnam has Amazing Cultural Diversity
Vietnam is not an ethnically homogeneous nation. The người Việt (or người Kinh) are the majority group, for whom the country and official language are named after.
There are over 50 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, such as the H’Mong, Khmer, Tay, Thai, Cham, and even multi-generational Chinese refuges. These groups have their own distinct languages, religions, rituals, and traditional style of housing and clothing.
As a traveler to Vietnam, the ability to witness, learn about, and interact with many different ethno-cultural groups is definite highlight.
If you are in Hanoi, you can visit the amazing Museum of Ethology which showcases the traditional buildings and village-layouts of various ethnic peoples.
In Hoi An, a great museum of ethnic minority people is the Precious Heritage museum . If you travel to places like SaPa or Ha Giang (read our review here), you can meet people from dozens of different minority groups. For example, you can stay at remote home-stay or attend the Saturday farmers’ markets where different groups trade and socialize (e.g., Du Già or Sà Phìn markets).
RELATED: Superstitions in Vietnam, like how funerals are good-luck and weddings are bad luck.
3) Food: Vietnam is for Foodies
Vietnam is somewhat like Italy in terms of how important food is to the culture. And like Italy, you can spend hours and hours a day just walking through the maze of back-alleys and tiny towns sampling and trying new interesting foods.
What is the food like in Vietnam?
In the north, the food is somewhat similar to Chinese food: a lot of noodle dishes and rolls and soups. In central Vietnam, the food is much more spicy and hot, with amazing sauces. In the south, the food is incredibly sweet and spicy, perhaps somehat reminiscient of Thai (without the curry). However, each province has its own delicacies — there is almost an unending variety of dishes to try in Vietnam.
One of our favourite food destinations is Da Nang / Hue / Hoi An: despite the lovely beaches and mountains, food is our favourite features of Da Nang and regions. Read more about our favourite dishes in Da Nang
4) History: Landmarks of Vietnam’s Multiple Pasts
From ancient kingdoms, to a millennia-long resistance to China, to colonial occupations by the French and Japanese, to the living-memories of civil war, socialism, and now the explosion of economic activity — Vietnam has an incredibly rich history. This is history encoded in the architecture and landmarks such as:
- The tombs of Huế [map below] – hundreds of tombs scattered in the hinterlands of the former captial of Huế.
- Thuận Hóa kinh thành in Huế [map] – the palace and citadel of the last emperors of Vietnam.
- Hoa Lư near Ninh Binh [map] – 10th-century capital which housed three ancient dynasties.
- War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City [map].
- Củ Chi tunnels [link] – terrifying tunnels used in guerrilla warface.
- Old trading houses of Hoi An [map, link] – 18th houses of traders.
- French colonial architecture in Hanoi [map] – old beautiful buildings, now mostly embassies and cafes, from the French colonial period.
Perhaps the best historical attraction is to simply talk to people who lived through the changes since the 1970s. For example, children born in the 1980’s remember a centrally-planned Vietnam where there were no private business and the government provided everything to its citizen (including their socks and fabric to make their own clothes!) Older generations remember hiding in tunnels during air-raids, and the collectivization of property — imagine dozens of families being suddenly moved-in together to share a single 1000 sqft house!
Such stories are more interesting and unbelievable than most WWII documentaries.
5) Cultural Ascendancy: Witness an Inspiring Transformation
Since the free-market reforms of the Doi Moi, Vietnam has undergone a transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the fastest growing economies. The change is not just about money, it is also about a culture that is increasingly open, optimistic, and is establishing deep international ties across the world.
Consider that, within living memory, it was illegal to dance to Western music in Vietnam. Businessmen and capitalists were regarded with contempt. A child growing up in the eighties would have no dolls, no princess dresses, just hand-made items, or, if you were lucky to have relatives working in the USSR, perhaps a single toy from abroad.
Today, young Vietnamese now see as their inheritance an online, fully-connected world and Western-style quality-of-life: they are entrepreneurial, ambitious, and super-eager to learn and build.
Glimpses of the older, traditional culture are still available in the rural areas, but rapid changes are happening there too.
One day, Vietnam will have its own “Gangnam Style” moment, much like South Korea in 2013, in which its cultural and economic significance will explode upon the global conscientiousness. Imagine being able to experience South Korean culture before Samsung and Old Boy became household names — that is the opportunity currently available today. Seize it!
6) Art: Vietnamese High-quality Craftsmanship and Technical Sophistication
The Vietnamese are highly skilled artists and craftsman, in both traditional and modern arts. They have a deep, ancient culture of highly refined artisans, often clustered in guild-towns or guild-streets.
The art-scene of Vietnam is interesting — not only for collectors and home-decor shoppers, but also for regular tourist. One of our favourite DIY tours is to visit the many guild-neighbourhoods of Hanoi: villages or streets that were traditionally dedicated to a singular high-quality art-form, such as instrument making, embroidery art, painting, metal-work, luxury alcohol, and many more. It is fascinating to see their exquisite attention to detail and learn the history of their craft.
RELATED: DIY Tour of Hanoi’s Guild Streets.
7) Shopping: is Vietnam Good for Shoppers?
One could travel to Vietnam just to load-up on quality brand-name and hand-made consumer goods. Many companies like Samsung, Adidas, Northface, and Fjallrav have a most or a significant part of their manufacturing in Vietnam (read more here). More and more companies are entering Vietnam as they try to de-Sinoize their supply chains.
RELATED: Shopping in Vietnam – 14 small gift ideas and awesome souvenirs.
For consumers, this means that there are great deals to be found: local shops sell discounted merchandise that, for some reason, didn’t make the cut for the international markety. You can find high-quality shoes, bags, purses, hats, and much more. I still love my 1/2 price Meindl hiking shoes that have been tried and tested rigorously for over 3 years yet haven’t frayed.
Check out the M2 chain of clothing shops to see an amazing variety of high-quality discounted clothing for men and women [map].
Additionally, there are many hand-made or traditional handicrafts that are great value. For example, lacquer-ware jewelry boxes, paintings, silk-clothing, and much more.
RELATED: Bargain hunting – How to haggle in Vietnam?
8) Economy: Vietnam is one of the Fastest Growing Economies
Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Why should this interest tourists?
For rastas, backpackers and sun-bathers, a high-octane economy may not seem like a great thing. However, for digital-nomads or anyone with a business-bone in their body, Vietnam is simply a must visit.
First, there is the street-level/small-scale entrepreneurship: from pop-up food vendors, to clothing merchants, to tailors — the visible hum of activity is fascinating to behold. One can’t help but feel like this country is alive!
RELATED: Bullish Vietnam – 5 Reasons to Invest in Vietnam.
Second, there are many great prospects for sourcing products and/or remote-services. Anyone who has dreamed of starting their own online business will revel in the opportunities that can be found in the manufacturing guild-streets, where dozens of competitors bunch together in a cluster and are ready to build high-quality bespoke products for your white-label ambitions (e.g. the Le Thanh street of Hanoi ). Likewise, there are many digital services for virtual assistants, developers, marketers, and more.
Even for someone like myself who has no business ambitions, I find it very inspiring and idea-generative to see the amount of business opportunity in Vietnam.
Can I teach English in Vietnam?
We have seen long line-ups in small towns on enrollment days for elementary school children trying to register for private English lessons. According to TEFLjobs.net, Vietnam has the fastest growing demand for ESL teaching in Asia.
As a native English speaker, and with some basic TEFL accreditation, you can get a decent income and free place to live fairly easily in big cities in Vietnam.
9) Crime: is Vietnam Safe for Tourists?
Vietnam feels relatively safe as a tourist. There isn’t the fear of walking down crime-ridden no-go-zones (like in Europe) or ghettos (like in the USA/Canada) or vast homeless encampments. There isn’t a problem with Islamic terrorism like in some neighbouring countries or tourist-kidnapping like in China.
Nonetheless, the USA State Department officially warms its citizens of crime in Vietnam [source]. However, much of this crime is in commerce, a consequence of a ruthless business-culture with sometimes ambiguous regulations and relatively young legal system — this pushes many operators to do shady things.
As a tourist, your biggest worry will be getting ripped-off from small scams that target naive tourists. See our post on 4 biggest scams that target tourists, and our guide on how to haggle in Vietnam. Armed with these insights and techniques, you can prevent yourself from falling victim to unscrupulous business practices and you have a relatively scam-free experience.
10) Friendliness: Are Vietnamese Friendly to Foreigners?
Official policies aside, Vietnamese people are generally welcoming of foreigners, especially Koreans for whom they have a lot of admiration. But are Vietnamese “friendly”? — the answer somewhat depends on geography and age.
The south of Vietnam (prior to re-unification) had a long history of international trade, free-markets, and openness to foreigners. Many people in Ho Chi Minh City have family living abroad or have themselves lived abroad. The north, on the other-hand, can seem more taciturn to foreigners, being more sombre and traditional in its culture, and also being the seat of the Vietnamese Socialist revolution.
Read more about the cultural differences between the North and South Vietnam.
As a comparison to other nations, Vietnam feels somewhat similar to South Korea in terms of friendliness — not as friendly as Australia or the UK, but not as cold as Egypt or Bolivia: it is somewhere in the middle.
The youth of Vietnam are very friendly to Western foreigners: they are optimistic about their future; they are avid consumers of American and Korean media; and they are desperate to learn English.
One caveat is that backpacking Europeans and Anglos seem to be viewed with some contempt in high-tourism areas like Hoi An and Halong Bay — it is almost as if the locals are tired of drunken, raucous, cheap backpackers. Those are the only places where we noticed overt and continuous racism and mean-spiritedness. In less party-centric places, outside of major tourist centres, we felt no such hostility.
Do Vietnamese Like Americans?
Vietnamese are much more weary of Chinese than Americans. Vietnam has over 1000-years of hostility from China. Tensions continue to rise due to China’s incursions into Vietnam’s 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Consequently, Vietnam increasingly sees the USA as an alley against China’s neo-colonial ambitions. Likewise, the USA sees Vietnam as a great trade partner to secure their supply lines away from China.
As for the people: most Vietnamese like America, but the answer somewhat depends on age. Many older Vietnamese, especially in the north, still see America as an enemy. The youth are more likely to idolize American pop culture, like movies and musicians, while at the same time being perplexed and curious about some of the exaggerated popular narratives surrounding USA political theatre (e.g. America is racist, America has a gun-problem, etc).
In the south, many Vietnamese have family and friends who live in America, either originating from the large Vietnamese diaspora around reunification, or by their own travels.
Americans do not seem to a huge part of the foreign expat community. There are more Koreans, Japanese and Europeans than Americans. Therefore, there isn’t a great “yuck, too many Americans!” feeling in Vietnam.