Vietnam: North, South, or Central?

Vietnam has it all: glorious beaches, ancient temples, amazing food, friendly locals, stunning wildlife, and more than a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But where should you start your journey around this incredible country – north, south, or central?!

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Yet before considering the tourist attractions, you need to make sure you are eligible to enter Vietnam. From a Briton’s perspective, we must obtain a Visa BEFORE we arrive in Vietnam (Visa on Arrival does not exist, at least not authenticated visas from the Embassy – many companies who claim to do this are BOGUS). This is how you can obtain a Vietnamese Visa. Interestingly, from July 2015 to July 2016, you can get 15 days Visa-Free upon arrival in Vietnam, but this is part of a “Visit Vietnam” initiative from the Government there, and it is unlikely to continue after July 2016. When checking in to a hotel or hostel, your passport will be photocopied, so the hotel or hostel can register your stay with the Police. Don’t forget to take your passport back immediately though!

Map, courtesy of Lonely Planet (click for larger version)
Map, courtesy of Lonely Planet (click for larger version)

You can see from the above, that Vietnam has some amazing locations spread all over the country. Before arriving here, you will need to think about what interests you. Do you want to spend time on the beautiful beaches? Do you want to experience some local culture in rural areas? Ancient ruins? Vietnam War locations? The stifling Mekong Delta? The Highlands of Sapa? Or do you just want to indulge in Vietnam’s bustling metropolises? Whatever tickles your fancy, you can find plenty of it here in ‘Nam, but it is best to plan ahead. Read on for some ideas to help you make up your mind.

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On the train between Hue and Danang the coastal scenery is incredible!
On the train between Hue and Danang the coastal scenery is incredible!
A soft sleeper cabin on the Reunification Express
A soft sleeper cabin on the Reunification Express

Many backpackers come to Vietnam (especially the central region) to have an adventure on a bike or a moped. It is almost a rite of passage to bike through the Hai Van Pass, which is the connecting road between Da Nang and Hue. However, the best way to experience Vietnam in its entirety is to travel on the Reunification Express train, which plies the length of the country down the east coast, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, via Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An. Tickets are cheap, and as long as you don’t mind sleeping in a communal cabin it is a great experience to meet new people who are probably on the same kind of adventure as you!

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The northern aspect of Vietnam is usually where travellers from Europe will arrive, as Hanoi is the Vietnamese capital. The first thing that will strike you here is the sheer chaotic nature of the city, and if you thought Bangkok or Jakarta were bad, then you haven’t seen anything yet! From the scams in the Old Quarter to the some of the tourist traps littered around the city, you really need to have your wits about you in Hanoi. That said, for the eager backpacker, the Vietnamese capital does offer some amazing sights, as well as some amazing food! Most travellers who stay in Hanoi will also make at least one (usually both) of the tours available to Sapa, a mountainous rural area that can be reached by train, and Halong Bay, the ever-touristy UNESCO World Heritage Site, which can be reached from Hanoi by car in a few hours.

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Central Vietnam is well-known to have amazing beaches and plenty of luxury hotel resorts, but for travellers of any budget, there are enough attractions here in the central parts of the country to keep you occupied. Just outside of Da Nang, there are two great day trip opportunities, namely to the Marble Mountains, and to the My Son Ruins in the depths of the steamy jungle. Angkor Wat it is not, yet it still is very different to anything else you will see in Vietnam. Hoi An, of course, is an ancient town, with a lot of history, including from Japanese invasion during WW2. Many islands and beaches also are scattered around Hoi An. In Hue, we have the old Imperial City, with its regal relics on display for all to see, and the splendid royal tombs, where Emperors of old are buried and remembered. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that Hue is a firm favourite among backpackers.

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I have recently just came back from southern Vietnam and enjoyed my time down there. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the largest and busiest city in the country, so I guess if Hanoi was a bit on the chaotic side, then you will know what you’re in for in Saigon! Southern Vietnam is in a tropical climate, so it will feel very sticky compared to the north, yet if you can brave the humidity (and mosquitoes) around the Mekong Delta area, you can even take a journey up the Mighty Mekong River into Cambodia and continue your South East Asian journey from there!

I hope I have helped you in a small way to plan ahead for your Vietnamese adventure!

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8 thoughts on “Vietnam: North, South, or Central?

    1. I haven’t been to the south yet, but the north was very impressive. Hanoi has an old world charm that is unlike any other city I have visited, whereas Halong Bay is a true wonder of the world (albeit touristy).

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  1. There is a Notre Dame Cathedral in Vietnam?? Now that’s something new. I’ve always been more of a nature person, so Northern Vietnam is the obvious winner for me. Ha Long Bay is quite high on my bucket list.

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    1. I actually think it was due to the French colonial era, I am surprised they didn’t build an Eiffel Tower in HCMC too! 😉 I hope you get to Halong Bay, but make sure you research the right time of year to go. The views are what you go to see, so it will be a bit disappointing if its’ shrouded in cloud and mist…

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