Vietnam - Land of the Blue Dragon
Since opening its borders to tourists in the late 1980s, Vietnam has become an incredibly popular destination. Having said that, Vietnam is still an exciting, and relatively untouched tourist destination in Southeast Asia that holds many pleasant surprises for first-time visitors.
Vietnam has well over 3,000 kilometers of coastline, most of which is lined with sandy beaches. It is an excellent location for scuba diving and is becoming increasingly popular for beach holidays. The remote hills of northern Vietnam on the Chinese border are home to more than 40 ethnically unique minority peoples. The cultures and lifestyles of these ethnic groups have often remained unchanged for centuries, and exploring this region provides a rare glimpse of undiscovered Asia.
Vietnam is a safe, secure and enjoyable holiday destination. The political and economic situation is stable, and the country has been at peace for over 25 years. The legacy of Vietnam's long history remains in evidence today. Cham towers dot the hillsides and entire towns and villages have remained almost unchanged for centuries. Vietnamese art and culture remain vibrant to this day with young Vietnamese artists recognized around world for the quality of their work.
In north-western Vietnam the mountain ranges are so high that it is not unheard of for it to snow at Christmas time. The trek up Mount Fansipan - Indochina's highest peak - is a true challenge for even the hardiest trekker. Vietnam's hotels and resorts are fast becoming recognized as some of the finest in the world, quite an achievement considering that four or five years ago there were no five-star hotels in the country at all.
Nowadays visitors can play golf on international standard golf courses, relax on superb beaches, enjoy the facilities of world-class hotels in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi, and even find comfort and style in some of Vietnam's more remote destinations. Vietnamese people are some of the friendliest you are likely to encounter anywhere in Asia. The genuine smiles of the people here are an enduring memory for almost every visitor. It is not unusual for complete strangers to be invited into a private home to share a meal or a cup of tea. UNESCO has recognized the importance of four separate sites in Vietnam and has bestowed World Heritage status on Halong Bay, Hoi An, My Son and the Imperial City of Hue.
Vietnam shares its land borders with Cambodia and Laos to the west, and China to the north. Vietnam's eastern border is the 3,000 kilometre coastline facing the East Sea. The country's topography varies from coastal plains to mountain ranges.
CLIMATE AND SEASONS
Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate with wet and dry seasons. These seasons vary from north to south and with elevation changes. In general, the dry season lasts from November to April in the north, south and central highland regions. The coolest, driest times to visit are from October to January (north), from February to April (Central Highlands) and from late December to March (south).
Vietnam has a population of 86 million, 85% of which are ethnic Vietnamese. 15% of the population is ethnic-Chinese, Khmers, Chams, or members of more than 60 ethnic-minority peoples who live in the mountainous regions of the central highlands or northern regions. The largest ethnic minority groups are the Tay, the White Thai, the Black Thai and the H'mong. These groups display similar rural and agricultural lifestyles, but have different languages, dress, cultures, and physical features.
Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses the Roman alphabet together with tone and diacritical marks. Much of the language is Sino/Vietnamese, though influences from French and English are also apparent. Today, English has replaced French and Russian as the most studied and spoken foreign language, and is widely spoken in major cities.
Buddhism is the most common religion in Vietnam, with about 60% of the population practicing some form of Buddhism. About 8% of the population is Catholic. Other religions practiced include Protestantism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Caodaism.
FESTIVALS AND HOLIDAYS
Tet, the Lunar New Year, is undoubtedly the most important holiday for the Vietnamese. It usually takes place in February and is celebrated for five days. Visitors should be aware that virtually all businesses are closed during this period and international and domestic flights are fully booked as overseas Vietnamese return to visit their families and friends. Other significant public holidays are on April 30th (Reunification Day), May 1st (International Labor Day), and September 2nd (National Day). Other popular holidays include New Year's Day (January 1st), and Ho Chi Minh's birthday (May 19th.)
HANDICRAFTS AND SOUVENIRS
Vietnam is particularly known for its various styles of lacquer wares (mother of pearl inlay, duck shell etc.) and for its growing silk industry. A wide array of other handicrafts is also available, including quality hand embroidery, woodcarvings, brass or marble figurines and ivory or tortoiseshell accessories. Paintings, silk screens, and hand-painted ceramics can be found in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. War paraphernalia, such as army helmets, are popular souvenirs, as are the old cameras, watches, stamps and coins sold on side streets in Ho Chi Minh City.
PASSPORT & VISA
A passport with a visa is required for entry into Vietnam. A regular tourist visa is valid for up to 30 days.
There are two kinds of tourist visa. The first can be obtained from the Vietnamese Embassy in the travelers' home country. The second can be obtained at the airport on arrival in Vietnam provided that it has been pre-approved by the Immigration Office. MARCO POLO TRAVEL offers visa procurement services for individuals and groups. The procedures are as follows:
1. Passport details and arrival and departure dates for each traveler are sent by e-mail or fax to MARCO POLO TRAVEL no later than 7-10 days prior to their departure date to Vietnam.
2. MARCO POLO TRAVEL submits the details to the Immigration Office, which takes between 3 to 5 working days to process the same.
3. The Immigration Office notifies MARCO POLO TRAVEL of the visa approval and sends a fax/telex approval code to the Embassy or Consulate in the travelers' home country.
4. MARCO POLO TRAVEL sends a faxed copy of the approval to the agent or directly to the individual concerned.
5. The agent should submit the client's passport, photographs and faxed copy of the approval to the local Vietnamese embassy or consulate. In cases where Vietnam has no diplomatic representative, agents should inform MARCO POLO TRAVEL so that an alternative Vietnamese embassy/consulate can be located.
VISA ON ARRIVAL
1. Passport details and arrival and departure dates for each individual are sent by e-mail or fax to MARCO POLO TRAVEL no later than 4 working days prior to departure date to Vietnam.
2. MARCO POLO TRAVEL submits the details to the Immigration Office, which takes 3 working days for processing.
3. The Immigration Department notifies MARCO POLO TRAVEL of the visa approval and returns an approval number to MARCO POLO TRAVEL.
4. MARCO POLO TRAVEL sends a faxed copy of the approval to the agent or directly to the individual concerned.
5. The travelers or tour-group operator must show these visa approval codes at the airline check-in counter before flying to Vietnam.
6. Upon arrival in Vietnam, a visa is placed in the travelers' passport.
DISEMBARKATION IN VIETNAM
On the plane, the passenger will be given the Vietnam Arrival - Departure Card to complete. This form includes customs and health declarations. (See form A2 attached.) Upon arrival, the form will be checked by an immigration officer who will take one copy of the form. The passenger retains the other half. The passenger proceeds to the luggage belt, then to customs. The passenger shows the customs form to the Customs Officer who will stamp and return the form. Passengers must keep this form and keep it for use at departure.
MEET & GREET
FOOD & WATER
The official currency is the Dong, although US dollars are widely accepted. The exchange rate at time of printing is US$ 1.00 = 19,500 Dong. Travelers' cheque can be cashed at major banks for a service fee of 2%-5%. Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most of the larger hotels, restaurants and shops. There are ATM machines in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
The basic principle of customs policy in Vietnam is that visitors should enter and exit with the same goods and personal possessions with the following exceptions:
1) Cash amounts greater than US$ 5,000 should be declared upon entry or exit.
2) Souvenirs: Visitors are free to buy products in Vietnam for personal use. The exception to this principle is antiques. Antiques considered of "national interest" will be confiscated without refund or recourse. In general this applies to articles of ancient (over 50 years old) or religious nature. "National interest" is interpreted by an expert at the airport. In cases where a visitor is unsure of the acceptability of the export of any goods purchased, they can check with the Customs Office in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi for prior ruling without risk of confiscation.
To avoid confiscation of goods not purchased, visitors must be sure an accurate description appears on the Customs Declaration form upon arrival. Particular note should be taken of antiques purchased in other countries in the region which might possibly be deemed of Vietnamese origin. Also, extra care would be taken to declare loose gemstones and jewelry.
3) Firearms, narcotics and other internationally prohibited goods are banned and those found in possession of such items are liable to prosecution.
Duty Free Allowance Liquor with above 22 degrees concentration of alcohol: 1.5 liters; below 22 degrees: 2.0 liters; alcoholic beverages: 3.0 litres. Cigarettes: 400 nos; cigars: 100 nos ; raw tobacco: 500g.
Vietnam is particularly known for its various styles of lacquer ware (mother of pearl inlay and duck shell) and its growing silk industry. A wide array of other handicrafts is also available, including quality hand embroidery, wood carvings, ceramics, silk paintings, brass and marble figurines and ivory and tortoiseshell accessories. Contemporary paintings and copies of masterpieces are also widely available in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. War paraphernalia remain popular souvenirs as do old cameras, watches, stamps, coins and Zippo lighters.
Tipping & Bargaining
Tipping according to a percentage of the bill is not expected in Vietnam, but is enormously appreciated. For a person who earns US$ 300.00 per month, a US$ 5.00 tip is about half a day's wages. You should also consider tipping drivers and guides. Typically, travelers on minibus tours will pool together to collect a communal tip to be split between the guide and the driver. About US$ 5.00 per day (per tourist) is standard. It is considered proper to make a small donation at the end of a visit to a pagoda, especially if the monk has shown you around. Most pagodas have contribution boxes for this purpose. Bargaining is a way of life in Vietnam, but do so in a good-natured manner. You will have a more pleasant experience, and stand a better chance of negotiating a lower price.
Baggage should have sturdy locks. Place all valuables, including passport and air ticket, in the in-room safe at hotels or at the front desk. It is best not to bring expensive jewelry or watches to Vietnam. Do not carry unnecessarily large amounts of cash with you at any time.
As in all tropical countries, insect life is vibrant. Expect to see a variety of flying and terrestrial insects and bugs.
Children & Beggars
Foreigners walking through the streets of Vietnam occasionally find themselves surrounded by a throng of curious children. Saying a quick "hello" with a smile will satiate their curiosity. Beggars are part of the streetscape of any major city, including those in Vietnam. Although, travelers should be wary of requests for larger amounts from beggars in the center of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi who are frequently controlled by organized street gangs.
POST & COMMUNICATIONS
Postcards to Europe or the USA cost about US$0.50. Items mailed from anywhere other than large towns and cities are likely to take over a month to arrive at their international destination. Vietnam's express mail service (EMS) has faster delivery to international destinations. International express delivery companies like Federal Express and DHL have offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
International telecommunications charges from Vietnam are among the highest in the world, and hotels usually add a high surcharge on top of this. It's best to make quick calls and to have the other party call you back.
Direct Dial Calls
Note: Calls are billed by six second increments
EMAIL & INTERNET ACCESS
All major hotels provide internet access in their business centers. Internet cafes have sprouted up throughout the country and can be found in nearly every city frequented by foreign tourists. Internet usage at peak times can be slow due to narrow bandwidth. Most of hotel in major city provide wifi internet.
It's best to bring your own film although film can be purchased in all major cities. Obtain permission before photographing monks or the interiors of pagodas and temples. At large airports, the x-rays on the safety inspection machines are now film-safe. In smaller, provincial airports, however, this is far from certain, so it's best to carry your film through the safety check by hand.
Please respect local dress standards, particularly at religious sites (avoid wearing shorts or sleeveless tops). In general, Vietnamese dress standards are conservative, especially in the countryside. Nude and topless sunbathing is inappropriate.
Like the Chinese and Japanese, Vietnamese are obsessed with clean floors and it's usual to remove shoes when entering somebody's home. Shoes must be removed inside most Buddhist temples, but this is not universal so look to see what others do. If shoes are piled up near the doorway, you should pay heed.
We suggest these tips for successfully dealing with Vietnamese officials, airport personnel, and bureaucrats:
1. Try your best to smile and be pleasant
2. Don't complain loudly
3. If you want to criticize someone, do it in a joking manner to avoid confrontation
4. Expect delays - build them into your schedule
5. Never show anger - ever! Getting visibly upset is not only rude; it will cause you to lose face
6. Don't be competitive. Treating your interaction as a cooperative enterprise works much better
7. Don't act as though you deserve service from anyone. If you do so, it's likely that you will be delayed
Trekking Vietnam through jungles and across landscapes, the mountainous north of Vietnam is home to many cheerful and vibrant hill tribes. As well as the challenging ascent of Fansipan and Ta Chi Nhu mountain a wonderful features of this adventure is spending a couple of nights on trek in the village homes of some of these welcoming tribes and with the help of your guide being able to learn more about their culture and traditions.
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