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Vietnam - Country Profile

Summary

Vietnam is a country of chaotic, vibrant cities, stunning jungle-clad mountains and long sandy beaches. The struggle for independance has been a long one but nearly 40 years after reunification Vietnam is recovering well.

Vietnam has has two major cities, ancient Hanoi in the Red River Delta in the north and modern Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta in the south. Between the two cities is a narrow, mountainous coastal strip, home to the former Imperial City of Hue and the charming port town of Hoi An. Relics of the American War are scattered through this central region, a draw for many visitors from the West.

Life in the countryside is still sedate, with farmers in the traditional conical hats a common sight. Many minority tribes still live a traditional lifestyle in the mountains. City life is another world, busy brash and hectic but still with the underlying charm and character that makes up Vietnam.

Highlights

Weather and times to visit

Vietnam's long coastline leads to regional variations in the climate. The south is dry and hot from Dec to April, while the north tends to be sunnier from October to December and much colder and mistier through to March. The central coast has its rainy season from September to February although there's still a lot of rain the rest of the time.

Language

Vietnamese is the official language and has six tones including 'broken' tones which can be difficult to follow. The dialect differs strongly between north and south. English is widely spoken in tourist areas. Vietnamese script uses the Latin alphabet which makes signs much easier to follow than in other SE Asia nations.

Currency and money matters

The Vietnamese Dong (VND) has only recently become available outside the county and is still suffering from high inflation and subsequent devaluation. ATMs are becoming more widespread in towns although the daily limit is usually around 4 million Dong - about £120. Often prices are quoted in US dollars as a more stable alternative although the local currency is always accepted.

Officially the two-tier pricing system where foreigners pay more than locals is being phased out although it is still very much in place in smaller businesses. Bargaining is expected - and prices are again inflated for foreign visitors, so negotiate hard!

Business Hours

Banks are usually open 7.30 to 11.30 am and 1 to 4pm but most privately run shops are open all day and often late into the evening.

Visas

Visas must be arranged before getting to Vietnam - getting a visa on the border is not possible. A few travel agents can arrange a 'visa on arrival' where your official documents are organised at immigration. This is only available at international airports and not at overland border crossings.