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6 Reasons to Visit Vietnam: An Insider's Guide

Vietnam holds a special place in my heart. It's where I fell in love with motorbike travel, street food, and the subtle charms of electric cities. It's also where I began to recognize the importance of cross-cultural connections. I spent five years living there, and I'll forever be grateful for the people I met, the adventures I had, and the memories I made along the way.

Home to a smiling, young population with all eyes set on the future, this is a nation of contrasts where ancient traditions somehow coexist with a rapid push toward the modern world, and a sweltering all-out assault on the senses is just as likely as a calming, spiritual connection with untouched natural beauty. Whichever Vietnam you find, you'll quickly realize this may be the most fun you can have in Asia.

It certainly was for me; that's why I tell anyone who will listen to add Vietnam to their travel list. Read on to find out why you should visit Vietnam.

Street Culture of Vietnam

In Vietnam, life takes place on the street. Bò né sizzles in peanut oil over open flames as endless swarms of motorbikes scream past technicolored Buddhist temples. Grandmothers clad in floral pajamas mix oxtail into simmering broth beneath conical hats of dried and woven palm fronds. Tiny red plastic stools fill narrow alleyways, and friends and family laugh the afternoons away while live frogs jump into mesh netting and butchers filet tilapia along the narrow alleys of wet markets.

It's a foreign concept for western visitors accustomed to closed front doors and any semblance of privacy—one I found exhilarating, chaotic, and instantly likable.

Nature in Vietnam

With twisting canals carrying boatloads of fresh jackfruit, durian, and mangos in the Mekong and towering rocky mountainsides in Ha Giang falling precariously toward the Chinese border, the natural world in Vietnam is spectacular and diverse.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, which borders Laos in the center of the country, is home to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, as well as vast swathes of untouched jungles and endless limestone peaks soaring as far as the eye can see; it's one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. To the north, hundreds of near vertical craggy, jungled mounts fill Ha Long Bay which branches out across the northernmost part of the East Sea.

While the cities are vibrant and energetic, the natural world in Vietnam is breathtaking and enthralling; it’s filled with wildlife, rugged jungles, and scenery torn from Hollywood movie sets.

Food in Vietnam

It's hard to mention Vietnam without discussing the bold colors, flavors, spices, and aromas of the food.

The nation is the proud home of numerous deliciously complex soups. Phở, a breakfast staple, is made with beef, rice noodles, shallots, ginger, basil, and coriander. Mì Quảng, my personal favorite, mixes bright yellow egg noodles, quail eggs, pork belly, shrimp, bean sprouts, and crispy rice crackers.

There are even simple street snacks like hard-boiled quail eggs served with a mix of salt and pepper to dip in that are hard to ignore. And, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention world-famous bánh mì, airy baguette sandwiches filled with anything from pâté to pork belly, pickled carrots, cucumber, fish sauce, and chili sauce.

The Vietnamese also have a concept known as "nhau," which means eating and drinking together; some of the most fun you can have anywhere in the country is finding a sidewalk restaurant to nhau with friends. Grab a seat at a tiny plastic stool, pour a beer, drop a giant chunk of ice into your glass (you'll get used to it), and split plate after plate of barbecue octopus, pork, and rice.

Astoundingly, this is hardly scratching the surface. Vietnam is a foodie's paradise; when you visit, you should try everything you see. As most dishes cost less than three or four dollars, you certainly won't break the bank.

People in Vietnam

The Vietnamese are just about as welcoming as people could be. Whether in a sprawling megacity or a tiny mountain village, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to sit and drink or share a meal. You’ll hear shouts of “Một, hai, ba, dzô!” or “1,2,3, drink!” ringing out from sidewalk bars, and you may very well be pulled into the action. However, more often than not, you’ll have no idea what’s being said, and it won’t matter.

A smile goes a long way, and the Vietnamese from Lào Cai down to Phú Quốc are full of them. So, if you make it to this beautiful stretch of mountains, city, and sea, smile back and say yes whenever you have the chance. You won’t regret it.

Visiting Hanoi

Hanoi is the lively gateway to Vietnam for millions of travelers and often a fan favorite. A fast-paced fusion of new and old, it's filled with historic charm from the Old Quarter to the Temple of Literature.

Spend an early morning walking around picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake and join a Tai-chi session with the locals. Then, grab a Cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) and soak up the scene along the shady alleyways of the Old Quarter. Don't be surprised if a gregarious high school student or two tries to spark up a conversation; teenagers throughout Vietnam look for any chance to practice their English.

After the sun sets, head to the bustling, joyous intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets for some fun. Lovingly known as "beer corner," plastic stools and tables spill out onto the old streets as a cheerful mix of locals and foreigners put down a few too many 50-cent libations.

Visiting Ho Chi Minh City

In the south of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is the nation's largest city and its economic powerhouse. And although somewhat lacking in terms of historic charm (especially compared to its older brother to the north), it's undoubtedly the country's most energetic urban center.

The neighborhood around Bui Vien in District 1 serves as the main jumping-off point. As night falls, the (somewhat) subdued walking street and surrounding alleyways morph into neon madness where bright-eyed travelers and tattooed Vietnamese 20-somethings drink the night away. A chaotic fusion of gaudy three or four-floor nightclubs blasting the latest western hits and tiny local sidewalk joints serving traditional rice dishes to diners in plastic chairs, it's a hedonistic paradise of contradictions. For the most fun, head to the easy-to-miss, minuscule family-owned bar at 96 Bui Vien.

If you're after more of a local vibe, explore the bars, restaurants, and cafes along the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, which twists between Districts 1, 3, and Binh Thanh. Filled with deliciously smoky aromas throughout the day, these are some of the best places to nhau in the city.

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is also the most cosmopolitan city in Vietnam, and that means that numerous expat pockets have popped up. For some great izakayas, sushi, and Japanese-flavored nightlife, head to Japan Town's maze of alleyways tucked behind Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung Streets. If that won't quite cut it, cross the canal and roam the alleyways of Binh Thanh's Pham Viet Chanh neighborhood to explore the other Japan Town and its ever-growing list of eclectic expat haunts.

If you’re interested in an immersive Vietnamese experience, check out FTLO’s group trip. It's a nine day window into the culture, history, food, cities, and natural world of this beautiful country.


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