Vietnam Travel Guide for First-time Visitors

Vietnam, a land of contrasts, where ancient traditions seamlessly blend with modern life, offers a captivating experience for first-time visitors. From the bustling cities to the serene landscapes, this Southeast Asian gem promises an unforgettable journey filled with cultural richness, natural beauty, and culinary delights.

Vietnam’s allure lies in its diversity. In the north, you’ll find the misty mountains of Sapa and the iconic Halong Bay with its limestone karsts rising majestically from the emerald waters. The central region boasts charming towns like Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the imperial city of Hue, steeped in history. The south, with its vibrant Ho Chi Minh City and the lush Mekong Delta, offers a glimpse into the country’s dynamic present and past.

About Vietnam

Vietnam is a small and, until recently, relatively unvisited country in Southeast Asia, surrounded by several mountain ranges to the west and sparkling ocean to the east. Nowadays, the country is better known for its stunning beaches, tumbling rice paddies, and high-octane cities.

Although Vietnam is small, at least by Asian standards, its long, thin shape means that it enjoys incredible variety. Ancient ethnic minorities, rolling rice terraces, and towering limestone karsts make up the mountainous north, while central Vietnam is famed for its white-sand beaches, historic towns with UNESCO status, and the most sophisticated and delicious cuisine in the country, if not the world. Vietnam’s south, on the other hand, is characterized by steaming deltas, fairy-tale islands, and cities that rival any of the world’s greatest.

Why Vietnam?

Vietnam is an ancient country that, until the 1980s, saw only the most intrepid travelers cross its borders. Nowadays, the nation is enjoying its time in the sun, with tourism numbers reaching 12 million in 2017, a 30% rise on the preceding year. And numbers aren’t set to drop anytime soon.

Vietnam is a strong favorite among everyone from student backpackers to elderly couples, families, and friends from all over the world. The country offers a unique blend of history, culture, natural beauty, and culinary delights that captivate travelers from all walks of life.

Whatever the Weather – Put the Date in Your Diary!

When to Visit Vietnam

Vietnam’s weather can vary greatly depending on the region and time of year. Here’s a brief overview of the best times to visit different parts of the country:

# Northern Vietnam

The best time to visit northern Vietnam, including destinations like Hanoi, Sapa, and Halong Bay, is between October and April. During this period, the weather is dry and cool, with average temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F).

# Central Vietnam

The central region, including cities like Hue and Hoi An, enjoys its best weather from February to May. This is when the temperatures are warm, and rainfall is minimal, making it ideal for exploring the beaches and historical sites.

# Southern Vietnam

For southern Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, the dry season runs from November to April. This period offers warm and sunny days, perfect for outdoor activities and sightseeing.

No matter when you plan to visit Vietnam, be prepared for occasional rain showers and high humidity, especially during the monsoon season from May to October.

Do I Need Travel Insurance for Vietnam?

Travel insurance is highly recommended when visiting Vietnam. While the country is generally safe for tourists, unexpected situations like accidents, illness, or theft can occur. Having travel insurance can provide peace of mind and financial protection in case of emergencies.

Here are some reasons why you should consider getting travel insurance for your trip to Vietnam:

Medical Emergencies

Healthcare in Vietnam can be expensive, especially for foreigners. Travel insurance can cover medical expenses, including hospital stays, doctor visits, and emergency medical evacuations if needed.

Trip Cancellation or Interruption

In case you need to cancel or cut your trip short due to unforeseen circumstances, travel insurance can reimburse you for non-refundable expenses, such as flights and hotel bookings.

Lost or Stolen Belongings

Petty theft can happen, especially in crowded areas. Travel insurance can cover the cost of replacing lost or stolen items, such as passports, cameras, or luggage.

Adventure Activities

If you plan to participate in adventure activities like trekking, kayaking, or motorbike riding, make sure your travel insurance covers these activities to avoid any exclusions in case of an accident.

When choosing travel insurance for Vietnam, look for a comprehensive plan that covers medical expenses, trip cancellation or interruption, lost or stolen belongings, and any adventure activities you plan to undertake.

Entering Vietnam: Things to Know

Vietnam Visa Exemptions

Several countries are eligible for visa exemptions when visiting Vietnam for tourism purposes. Citizens of the following countries can enter Vietnam without a visa for a specified number of days:

  • Brunei, Myanmar: Up to 14 days;
  • Philippines: Up to 21 days;
  • Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan: Up to 30 days;
  • Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom: Up to 45 days;
  • Chile, Panama: Up to 95 days,

It’s important to note that these visa exemptions are subject to change, and visitors should always check the latest requirements with the Vietnamese embassy or consulate in their home country before traveling.

Vietnam Visa on Arrival

For visitors from countries not eligible for visa exemptions, a visa on arrival can be obtained at selected international airports and land borders in Vietnam. To obtain a visa on arrival, you’ll need to arrange an approval letter from a Vietnamese travel agency or visa service provider before your trip.

Upon arrival in Vietnam, you’ll need to present the approval letter, completed visa application form, passport photos, and the required visa fee (usually payable in cash in US dollars or Vietnamese dong).

Vietnam E-Visa

Vietnam also offers an e-visa system for visitors from all countries of the world. The Vietnam e-visa application can be completed online, and once approved, the e-visa will be sent to your email. You’ll need to print out the e-visa and present it upon arrival in Vietnam.

It’s essential to check the specific visa requirements for your nationality and the duration of your stay in Vietnam well in advance to ensure a smooth entry process.

Where to Go for First-Time Visitors to Vietnam

Vietnam offers a diverse range of destinations, each with its unique charm and attractions. For first-time visitors, here are some of the must-visit places to consider:


Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa is a picturesque town nestled in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam, known for its stunning landscapes, terraced rice fields, and diverse ethnic minority communities. This remote destination offers a glimpse into the traditional way of life and provides ample opportunities for trekking and cultural immersion.


  • Trekking through the lush, terraced rice fields and meeting the friendly local hill tribes
  • Exploring the vibrant Bac Ha Sunday market, where ethnic minorities gather to trade goods
  • Visiting the nearby villages, such as Cat Cat and Ta Van, to experience the unique cultures and traditions
  • Admiring the breathtaking scenery of cascading waterfalls, valleys, and towering mountains

Getting There

Sapa is accessible by overnight train or bus from Hanoi, a journey that takes around 8-10 hours. Alternatively, you can take a domestic flight to Lao Cai, followed by a shuttle or taxi ride to Sapa.


Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its stunning seascape of limestone karsts jutting out from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. This natural wonder is a must-visit destination for any first-time visitor to Vietnam, offering a unique and unforgettable experience.

What to Do: Take a Boat Trip

The best way to experience Halong Bay is by taking a boat trip. There are various options available, ranging from day cruises to multi-day overnight cruises. These cruises allow you to explore the bay’s hidden coves, caves, and floating villages, while providing opportunities for activities like kayaking, swimming, and hiking.


  • Cruising through the awe-inspiring limestone karsts and taking in the breathtaking scenery
  • Exploring the iconic Sung Sot Cave, also known as the “Cave of Surprises”
  • Visiting floating fishing villages and learning about the unique way of life
  • Enjoying fresh seafood meals on board the cruise
  • Participating in activities like kayaking, swimming, or hiking on one of the islands

Getting There

Halong Bay is located approximately 170 kilometers (105 miles) east of Hanoi. You can take a shuttle bus or private transfer from Hanoi to the bay, which typically takes around 3-4 hours. Alternatively, you can join a guided tour that includes transportation to and from Halong Bay.


Hanoi Cooking Class
Hanoi Cooking Class

As the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is a bustling metropolis that seamlessly blends traditional charm with modern developments. From ancient temples and colonial architecture to vibrant street markets and bustling nightlife, Hanoi offers a diverse range of experiences for visitors to explore.

What to Do: Cooking Class

One of the best ways to immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture is by taking a cooking class in Hanoi. Learn how to prepare traditional dishes like pho (noodle soup), spring rolls, and bun cha (grilled pork with noodles) under the guidance of local chefs. You’ll visit a local market to select fresh ingredients before heading to the kitchen to cook up a delicious feast.


  • Exploring the historic Old Quarter, known for its narrow streets, ancient buildings, and bustling markets
  • Visiting cultural landmarks like the Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
  • Sampling street food delicacies like banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), egg coffee, and pho at local eateries
  • Watching a traditional water puppet show, a unique art form that originated in the Red River Delta region

Getting Around

Hanoi is relatively compact and easy to navigate on foot or by using cyclos or motorbike taxis. You can also opt for ride-hailing services like Grab or traditional taxis to get around the city conveniently.


Hue Imperial Citadel, Vietnam
Hue Imperial Citadel, Vietnam

Located in central Vietnam, Hue is a city steeped in history and culture, serving as the former imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. The city is home to a wealth of historical sites, including royal tombs, pagodas, and the iconic Perfume River, making it a must-visit destination for history enthusiasts.

What to Do: Explore Imperial Citadel

The Imperial Citadel of Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as the political and cultural center of the Nguyen emperors. Explore the sprawling complex, which features impressive gates, palaces, temples, and gardens that offer insight into Vietnam’s royal past.


  • Visiting the elaborate royal tombs of emperors along the Perfume River, such as the Tomb of Khai Dinh and Tomb of Tu Duc
  • Exploring Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the oldest and most significant religious sites in Hue
  • Cruising along the Perfume River to enjoy scenic views of the city and surrounding countryside
  • Sampling local specialties like bun bo Hue (spicy beef noodle soup) and banh khoai (Hue-style pancakes) at traditional eateries

Getting There

Hue is accessible by domestic flights from major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. You can also travel to Hue by train or bus from other destinations in Vietnam, with the journey offering picturesque views of the countryside.


Thu Bon River, Hoi An
Thu Bon River, Hoi An

Hoi An is a charming riverside town in central Vietnam known for its well-preserved ancient town, lantern-lit streets, and rich cultural heritage. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a melting pot of influences, blending Chinese, Japanese, and European architectural styles with Vietnamese traditions.

What to Do: Get Something Tailored

Hoi An is famous for its skilled tailors who can create custom-made clothing in a matter of days. Visit one of the many tailor shops in town to choose fabrics, select designs, and have garments like suits, dresses, shirts, and shoes tailored to your measurements.


  • Strolling through the atmospheric Ancient Town, lined with colorful shop houses, temples, and communal halls
  • Participating in a lantern-making workshop to create your own colorful lantern to float down the Thu Bon River
  • Cycling through rural villages and rice paddies to experience the tranquil countryside
  • Indulging in local delicacies like cao lau (noodle dish), white rose dumplings, and com ga (chicken rice) at street stalls and restaurants

Getting Around

Hoi An’s Ancient Town is pedestrian-friendly, making it ideal for exploring on foot or by bicycle. You can rent bicycles from hotels or shops to venture further afield to nearby beaches or countryside areas.


Sand, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet
Sand, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet

Mui Ne is a coastal resort town in southern Vietnam known for its sandy beaches, red and white sand dunes, and year-round tropical climate. Whether you’re seeking relaxation on the beach or thrilling water sports adventures, Mui Ne offers a laid-back atmosphere and natural beauty.

What to Do: Sledging on Sand Dunes

One of the unique activities in Mui Ne is sand sledding on the towering red and white sand dunes. Rent a plastic sled or board and slide down the slopes for an exhilarating experience against the backdrop of the desert-like landscape.


  • Relaxing on the sandy shores of Mui Ne Beach and enjoying water activities like kite surfing, windsurfing, and jet-skiing
  • Exploring the Fairy Stream, a natural water feature with red and white sandbanks, limestone formations, and lush vegetation
  • Visiting the Fishing Village to witness local fishermen at work and sample fresh seafood at waterfront restaurants
  • Chasing sunrise or sunset views over the sand dunes for stunning photographic opportunities

Getting There

Mui Ne is located approximately 220 kilometers (137 miles) east of Ho Chi Minh City. You can travel to Mui Ne by bus, private car, or motorbike from the city, with the journey taking around 4-5 hours depending on traffic conditions.


Vietnam War Museum
Vietnam War Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and a bustling hub of commerce, culture, and history. From French colonial landmarks and war remnants to vibrant markets and modern skyscrapers, the city offers a dynamic blend of old and new attractions for visitors to discover.

What to Do: Museums

Ho Chi Minh City is home to several museums that provide insight into Vietnam’s history, art, and culture. Visit iconic museums like the War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace, and Museum of Vietnamese History to learn about the country’s past and heritage.


  • Exploring the historic District 1, where you’ll find landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and Opera House
  • Shopping for souvenirs and bargains at bustling markets like Ben Thanh Market, Binh Tay Market, and Saigon Square
  • Sampling local street food delights like banh xeo (sizzling pancake), pho, and banh mi from roadside stalls and eateries
  • Taking a cyclo tour or Vespa ride to navigate the city’s chaotic streets and experience the local way of life

Getting Around

Ho Chi Minh City has a network of taxis, ride-hailing services, buses, and motorbikes that make getting around the city convenient. You can also explore on foot or by using cyclos to navigate narrow alleyways and bustling markets.

How to Get Around Vietnam

Vietnam has a well-developed transportation system that makes traveling between cities and regions relatively easy and affordable. From domestic flights and trains to buses, boats, and motorbikes, there are various options available for getting around the country based on your preferences and budget.

Domestic Flights

Vietnam has several domestic airlines that operate flights between major cities and tourist destinations. Domestic flights are a quick and convenient way to cover long distances, especially if you’re traveling between northern, central, and southern regions of the country.


Vietnam Railways operates an extensive rail network that connects key cities like Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh City. Train travel offers a scenic way to see the countryside and is a popular choice for overnight journeys between distant locations.


Public buses and private coaches are widely available in Vietnam, offering budget-friendly transportation options for short and long-distance travel. Sleeper buses are popular for overnight trips, providing reclining seats or beds for added comfort during extended journeys.


Renting a motorbike is a common way to explore cities and rural areas in Vietnam, giving you the flexibility to stop at scenic spots and off-the-beaten-path destinations. However, be mindful of traffic conditions, road safety, and local driving rules when riding a motorbike.


In regions like the Mekong Delta, Halong Bay, and Phong Nha, boat travel is a popular mode of transportation for navigating waterways and visiting islands, caves, and floating markets. Boat tours and cruises offer unique perspectives of Vietnam’s natural landscapes and cultural sites.

Unique Experiences You Won’t Find Anywhere but Vietnam

Vietnam is a country rich in culture, history, and natural beauty, offering travelers a wide array of unique experiences that showcase its distinctiveness. From cruising on traditional junk boats in Halong Bay to savoring street food delights in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, here are some unforgettable experiences you can only have in Vietnam.

Water Puppet Show

Water puppetry is a traditional Vietnamese art form that dates back centuries, originating in the Red River Delta region. Watch a captivating water puppet show in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, where intricately crafted puppets perform on a water stage accompanied by live music and storytelling.

Caving in Phong Nha

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is home to some of the world’s largest caves and underground rivers, making it a paradise for caving enthusiasts. Embark on a cave exploration tour to marvel at spectacular formations, underground rivers, and hidden chambers in this UNESCO-listed park.

Homestay Experience

Immerse yourself in rural Vietnamese life by staying with a local family in a homestay accommodation. Participate in daily activities like farming, cooking, and fishing, and gain insights into traditional customs and cultural practices while forging meaningful connections with your hosts.

Floating Markets

Experience the vibrant sights and sounds of floating markets in the Mekong Delta, where boats laden with fresh produce, handicrafts, and goods gather to trade along the river. Join a boat tour to navigate the bustling markets, interact with vendors, and sample local fruits and snacks along the way.

Hill Tribe Trekking

Embark on a trekking adventure in the remote highlands of Sapa or Mai Chau to meet ethnic minority communities like the Hmong, Red Dao, and Thai tribes. Hike through terraced rice fields, verdant valleys, and misty mountains while learning about traditional customs and lifestyles from local villagers.

Food and Drinks

Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for its fresh flavors, aromatic herbs, and balance of textures, making it a culinary delight for food lovers. From fragrant noodle soups and savory rice dishes to French-inspired pastries and strong coffee, here are some must-try dishes and drinks to savor in Vietnam.


Pho is Vietnam’s national dish, a flavorful noodle soup made with clear broth, rice noodles, herbs, and choice of meat like beef or chicken. Garnish your bowl of pho with lime, chili, bean sprouts, and basil for a burst of freshness and flavor that’s perfect for any time of day.

Banh Mi

Banh mi is a popular Vietnamese sandwich that reflects the country’s French colonial influence, featuring a crispy baguette filled with pate, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and chili sauce. Enjoy banh mi as a quick and satisfying snack or meal on the go from street vendors and bakeries.

Ca Phe

Vietnamese coffee, known as ca phe, is a strong and aromatic brew typically served with sweetened condensed milk or black with ice. Try traditional drip coffee (ca phe phin) or egg coffee (ca phe trung) for a unique caffeine fix that’s sure to perk you up during your travels.

Bun Cha

Bun cha is a classic Vietnamese dish consisting of grilled pork patties, vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and dipping sauce. Mix the elements together to create a harmonious blend of flavors and textures that exemplify the balance and simplicity of Vietnamese cuisine.

Fresh Spring Rolls

Fresh spring rolls, or goi cuon, are light and healthy appetizers made with shrimp, pork, herbs, and vermicelli wrapped in rice paper. Dip the rolls in tangy fish sauce or peanut hoisin sauce for a refreshing and satisfying bite that’s perfect for hot weather or as a starter to a meal.

Other Tips

Currency and Payments

The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong (VND), and cash is widely used for transactions in markets, street stalls, and small businesses. Major hotels, restaurants, and stores in urban areas may accept credit cards, but it’s advisable to carry sufficient cash for purchases in rural or remote areas.

Language and Communication

Vietnamese is the official language spoken in Vietnam, with English being widely understood in tourist areas, hotels, and restaurants. Learning a few basic Vietnamese phrases like “xin chao” (hello), “cam on” (thank you), and “bao nhieu tien” (how much?) can enhance your interactions with locals and show respect for the culture.

Weather and Climate

Vietnam experiences a tropical monsoon climate with distinct wet and dry seasons, varying temperatures, and regional weather patterns. The best time to visit Vietnam is during the dry season from November to April, when you can enjoy pleasant weather and outdoor activities without the risk of heavy rains or typhoons.

Dress Code and Etiquette

When visiting temples, pagodas, or traditional villages in Vietnam, it’s important to dress modestly and respectfully by covering shoulders, knees, and cleavage. Remove shoes before entering sacred sites, show deference to elders and monks, and avoid public displays of affection to adhere to local customs and etiquette.

Health and Safety

Ensure you have travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, vaccinations for preventable diseases like hepatitis A and typhoid, and mosquito protection for regions with malaria risk. Drink bottled or boiled water, eat at reputable establishments, and practice good hygiene to stay healthy and safe during your trip to Vietnam.

In conclusion, Vietnam is a captivating destination that offers a wealth of experiences for travelers seeking adventure, culture, and natural beauty. From the terraced rice fields of Sapa to the limestone karsts of Halong Bay, the historic charm of Hoi An, and the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s diverse landscapes and rich heritage await exploration.

Whether you’re indulging in street food delights, embarking on a trekking adventure, or cruising along scenic waterways, Vietnam’s unique attractions and warm hospitality will leave a lasting impression on your journey. By following these tips, planning your itinerary, and immersing yourself in the local culture, you can make the most of your trip to Vietnam and create unforgettable memories along the way. Safe travels and enjoy your time in this enchanting Southeast Asian gem!