It is hard not to let first impressions of Vietnam be characterized by images of the Vietnam War, and yet the country has a lot more to offer than a history of atrocities and bloodshed. This long, thin stretch of land, flanked by Laos and Cambodia on the west and 3000km of coastline on the east, boasts bleached white beaches, paddy fields dotted with the ubiquitous conical hat-clad farmers, heaving head-spinning cities, jungle treks and mist-enfolded pagodas.

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Despite a decade of war and a legacy of trade embargoes and international isolation, the country is rapidly reinventing itself and is finally beginning to shake off its more damaging communist stereotypes of the past. Today there are few visible reminders of the conflict which saw over 5 million tonnes of bombs dropped, accounting for the loss of 2.2 million hectares of forest. The craters that still pockmark the country are slowly being refilled or used as fish farms or small-scale irrigation systems.

Officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vietnam (the name Vietnam translates as “Southern Viet” – synonymous with the much older term Nam Viet) has an estimated population of 90 million inhabitants making it the world’s 13th-most-populous country (as of 2014). Vietnam landmass covers a total area of approximately 331,210 km2 making it almost the size of Germany. Vietnam’s land is mostly hilly and densely forested, with level land covering no more than 20%. Mountains account for 40% of the country’s land area, and tropical forests cover around 42%.

The northern part of the country consists mostly of highlands and the Red River Delta. Phan Xi Păng, located in Lào Cai Province, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, standing 3,143 m (10,312 ft) high. Southern Vietnam is divided into coastal lowlands, the mountains of the Annamite Range, and extensive forests. Comprising of five relatively flat plateaus of basalt soil, the highlands account for 16% of the country’s arable land and 22% of its total forested land. The soil in much of southern Vietnam is relatively poor in nutrients.

The Red River Delta, a flat, roughly triangular region covering 15,000 km2 is smaller but more intensely developed and more densely populated than the Mekong River Delta. Once an inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin, it has been filled in over the millennia by riverine alluvial deposits. The delta, covering about 40,000 km2, is a low-level plain no more than 3 meters (9.8 ft) above sea level at any point. It is criss-crossed by a maze of rivers and canals, which carry so much sediment that the delta advances 60 to 80 meters into the sea every year.

Vietnam is a country of growing biodiversity and home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the Javan rhino, thought only to exist in Indonesia, until a recent discovery in 1989, and the previously unknown soala, a species of ox.

International tourists numbers in Vietnam are increasing rapidly, in 2014 Vietnam welcomed 8.3 million. With a plethora of options, make sure you consider a trip into the hill country of the north, which may lead to an invitation into one of the traditional communal longhouses, where you can experience unrivalled hospitality and elaborate displays of age-old customs, complete with tribal costumes and rice wine. Alternatively, a foray into Hanoi, Vietnam’s Northern capital, or Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city of the South, encourages you to explore the country’s cultural heritage at a slightly more frantic pace.

Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Orphanage Tourism: Increasing numbers of tourists visiting Vietnam’s colourful markets and lush national parks, want to experience the latest must-do activity on the tourist trail: a volunteering stint at an orphanage. However these good intentions are unwittingly feeding an industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners. It is a business model built on a double deception: the exploitation of poor families in rural Vietnam and the manipulation of wealthy foreigners. In the worst cases, tourists may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking.

Child sexSex tourism: Sex tourism in Vietnam can trace its origins to the presence of American military on rest and recreation leave during the Vietnam War from 1962. Today it is part of a burgeoning sex industry that includes prostitution, pornography and human trafficking. Although local men make up the majority of the purchasers of sex, foreign tourists are a significant proportion of these. Due to the hidden nature of child sexual abuse reliable figures are hard to compile and cases difficult to document. 

gail (1)Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Taking photos of the friendly people of Vietnam is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities. 

elephant riding resizedElephant rides: So-called elephant “joyrides” are anything but joyful for the elephants who are forced to give them. An investigation of elephant training revealed that elephants who are being used to give rides are physically and emotionally abused every step of the way.

When they are just 2 years old, baby elephants are torn away from their loving mothers and tied up out of reach. The frantic babies cry and struggle for days to reach their mothers, who are also tethered. Elephant calves are restrained during training for as long as 14 hours at a time with ropes that cause painful burns and with heavy chains.

Over and over again, calves are put through terrifying “desensitisation” sessions, in which trainers tie the elephants tightly to a pole, surround them, startle them with loud noises, hit them, prod them with sticks and wave flaming torches at them – often singeing the elephants’ skin.

Trainers routinely pierce the animals’ sensitive ears and yank on them with hooks in order to force elephants to walk a certain way. To control the elephants, restraints studded with iron nails, which dig into elephants’ skin and cause infections, are used on their feet. Barbed shackles are also frequently placed around the elephants’ legs during rides, with the other end of the shackles attached to the saddle so that riders can punish the elephants for any misstep. Trainers routinely beat elephants on the head with sticks to punish them for “mistakes,” leaving many elephants with open wounds. 

Ha Long Bay – Mass Tourism destroying a UNESCO listed destination:

Ha Long Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin (Northern Vietnam), 165 km from the capital city of Hanoi. Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most ecologically sensitive regions. – home to eight diverse ecosystems and an extensive collection of limestone outcrops with steeped cliff faces rising like columns from the sea.

The Vietnamese tourism sector is continuing to grow and thousands of tourists flock to visit this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site to experience its majestic beauty. One of the most popular tourism activities in Ha Long bay is to take a sail journey for multiple nights in a traditional ‘houseboat’ which is commonly staffed with a chef, captain and deckhands.

Ha Long bay sits in close proximity to a major shipping route and is also home to growing manufacturing, mining and aquaculture industries. There is also more than 600 boathouses that provide permanent residence for local fisherman. The weight of these visitors, combined with rapid regional industrialization, is placing a great strain on the bay’s environmental health. Key environmental challenges being faced in Ha Long Bay include deteriorating water quality, solid waste management and houseboat wastewater management.

In early 2014, the U.S. government, in partnership with the provincial (Quang Ninh) People’s Committee, launched the Ha Long Bay Alliance. The alliance is funded by the ‘U.S. Agency for International Development’ (USAID) and aims to improve environmental management along with fostering stronger cooperation and communication among stakeholders. Furthermore, the many residents of the floating villages in Ha Long Bay have been relocate inland to assist in improving the health of the bay.

If you consider visiting Ha Long bay, be sure to research the social and environmental credentials of your tour operator,  ensure they are licences and contributing to sustaining and protecting the UNESCO listed site. 

Useful Information

Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate with humidity registering an average of 84 % throughout the year. The climate tends to vary considerably from place to place because of differences in latitude.

The coolest months are October to April and known as the winter period (or dry season) – temperatures range from a low of 5 °C (41 °F) in December and January, with snowfall experienced occasionally in northern mountains). May to September is the summer period (monsoon season) with temperatures reaching more than 37 °C (98.6 °F). The average summer temperature in the capital of Hanoi is 29.2c.

Annual rainfall ranges from 1,200 to 3,000 millimeters (47.2 to 118.1 inches), with nearly 90 % of the precipitation occurs during the summer.

Vietnam has an incredible mix of stunning sandy beaches, densely vegetated forests and mountains. In regards to Vietnams topography, there are five main land regions:

1/ the Northern Highlands,

2/ the Red River Delta,

3/ the Annamite Mountain Range,

4/ the Coastal Lowlands,

5/ the Mekong Delta.

Vietnam has a large mountain range in the northwest (an offshoot of the Himalayas), which is heavily forested. The northern mountains provide extensive limestone scenery with several areas of mature ‘Karst’ landscape. The mountainous landscape makes it challenging for the ~70% of the population that still work the land. Agriculture in the region has adapted to the land in the form of bright green paddy patchworks, vertiginous mountain terracing, tea and coffee plantations, pepper and pineapple fields, salt pans, flood dykes and drainage canals.

In regards to bio-diversity, Vietnam is in the worlds top ten for the highest rate of biodiversity, taking into account fauna, flora, birds and marine life. Large National Parks, forests and marine coastal zones are home to endemic species of Elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, black bears, crocodiles are some of the larger species still living in remote areas.

Turning to marine life, endemic species to Vietnamese waters dolphins, sharks, rays and the occasional whale. Turtles and dugongs visit some of the more remote islands in the south. Corals and marginal plant species such as mangroves and sea-grasses can be seen in many locations.

Plant life varies from wild rainforest flowers to deciduous trees in the mountainous. You can also find cactus plants and pines in the dry central areas, dripping vines, exotic orchids and ancient trees in the primitive forests, and lush palms and fruits in the tropical south. 

The teachings of Confucius influence the Vietnamese and describe the position of the individual in Vietnamese society. Confucianism is a system of behaviors and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honour, filial piety, respect for age and seniority, and sincerity. Similar to many other south east Asian nations, Vietnamese society places a great deal of emphasis on:

a/ family; Confucian tradition says that the father is the head of the family and it is his responsibility to provide food, clothing and shelter and make important decisions.

b/ keeping face; a quality that reflects a person’s reputation, dignity, and prestige.

c/ collectivism; The individual is seen as secondary to the group – whether the family, school or company.

d/ hierarchy; group-orientated societies based on age and status.

In regards to public etiquette, there are a handful of important behaviours to keep in mind:

  • Avoid public displays of affection with a member of the opposite sex.
  • Do not touch someone’s head.
  • Pass items with both hands.
  • Do not point with your finger – use your hand.
  • Do not stand with your hands on your hips or cross your arms on your chest.
  • Do not pass anything over someone’s head.
  • Do not touch anyone on the shoulder.
  • Do not touch a member of the opposite sex.
  • Typically, shorts should only be worn at the beach.

Vietnam is a typical ‘wet rice’ country, therefore rice is strongly worshipped here. Rice is the basis for most meals in Vietnam and can be found in many forms such as steamed rice (com), glutinous rice cake (banh chung), rice noodle, rice vermicelli, steamed rice pancakes (banh cuon) and many others.

Vietnamese food is typically very fresh and tantalizes the taste buds with a fantastic blend of lemon grass, ginger, chilli and Vietnamese mint. Meat and seafood is also commonly integrated into many dishes in Vietnam, be sure to wander the many street markets and explore the unique flavors of the region. A couple of must try dishes include:

– bánh cuốn; a member of the bánh family which includes a number of steamed rice cake-like dishes.

– Pho: the Vietnamese national dish that comes in various forms, it’s a noddle soup cooked in incredible broth with meat, seafood or vegetarian.

– Gỏi cuốn: literally means “salad rolls” in Vietnamese, served in a clear wrap filled with prawns, vegetables and dipping sauce. Don’t be confused with the fried rolls, which are commonly known spring rolls (or chả giò – also delicious!). 

Vietnamese is the official language with English becoming increasingly favored as a second language. There is also some French, Chinese, and Khmer spoken, along with mountain area languages such as Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian. In written form, Vietnamese uses the Roman alphabet and accent marks to show tones. 

Vietnam is officially a Buddhist nation, however Vietnam also has followers of Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism and Islam, as well as indigenous religions such as Caodaism. Ethnic groups include Kinh (Viet) 85.7%, Tay 1.9%, Thai 1.8%, Muong 1.5%, Khmer 1.5%, Mong 1.2% and Nung 1.1%. 

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