Vietnam’s history is one of war, colonisation and rebellion. Occupied by China no fewer than four times, the Vietnamese managed to fight off the invaders just as often. Even during the periods in history when Vietnam was independent, it was mostly a tributary state to China until the French colonisation. Vietnam’s last emperors were the Nguyễn Dynasty, who ruled from their capital at Hue from 1802 to 1945, although France exploited the succession crisis after the fall of Tự Đức to de facto colonise Vietnam after 1884. Both the Chinese occupation and French colonisation have left a lasting impact on Vietnamese culture, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese social etiquette, and the French leaving a lasting imprint on Vietnamese cuisine.
After a brief Japanese occupation in World War II, the Communist Viet Minh under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh continued the insurgency against the French, with the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicating in 1945 and a proclamation of independence following soon after. The majority of French had left by 1945, but in 1946 they returned to continue the fight until their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Geneva Conference partitioned the country into two at 17th parallel, with a Communist-led North and Ngo Dinh Diem declaring himself President of the Republic of Vietnam in the South.
The tank that ended the war, Ho Chi Minh City
US economic and military aid to South Vietnam grew through the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the Southern Vietnam government, escalating into the dispatch of 500,000 American troops in 1966 and what became known as the Vietnam War – although the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. What was supposed to be a quick and decisive action soon degenerated into a quagmire and US armed forces were only withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank drove into the South’s Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the war ended. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese and over 55 thousand Americans were killed.
The American Vietnamese war was only one of many that the Vietnamese have fought, but it was the most brutal in its history. Over two thirds of the current population was born after 1975. American tourists will receive a particularly friendly welcome in Vietnam, as many young Vietnamese aspire to American culture.
Vietnam is a one party authoritarian state, with the President as the Head of State, and the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. The Vietnamese legislature is the unicameral National Assembly, from which the Prime Minister is selected. In practice, the President’s position is only ceremonial, with the Prime Minister wielding the most authority in government.
Bustling central Hanoi
Economic reconstruction of the reunited country has proven difficult. After the failures of the state-run economy started to become apparent, the country launched a program of đổi mới (renovation), introducing elements of capitalism. The policy has proved highly successful, with Vietnam recording near 10% growth yearly (except for a brief interruption during the Asian economic crisis of 1997). The economy is much stronger than those of Cambodia, Laos, and other neighbouring developing countries. Like most Communist countries around the world, there is a fine balance between allowing foreign investors and opening up the market.
In practical terms, you’ll find rampant capitalism at the “retail” level, with shopkeepers and sellers from carts exercising great flexibility in pricing and how they do business. As those business people go up levels of permissions to operate (e.g., where they do business), government controls quickly take over.
There are extreme restrictions on foreigners owning property or attempting to sell. It is very difficult for them to trade without negotiating ‘fees’. Business can be done via local partnerships with all the attendant risks.
Power and services is another issue. There are often ‘rolling blackouts’ when there is not enough electricity at times. For this reason, many shops have portable generators.
According to government estimates Vietnam sees 3.3m tourist arrivals each year. Vietnam has a return rate of just 5% compared to Thailand’s whopping 50%.
Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there is a sizeable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most who are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. There are also numerous other ethnic groups who occupy the mountainous parts of the country, such as the Hmong, Muong and Dao people. There is also a minority ethnic group in the lowlands near the border with Cambodia known as the Khmer Krom.
Buddhism, mostly of the Mahayana school, is the single largest religion in Vietnam, with over 85% of Vietnamese people identifying themselves as Buddhist. Catholicism is the second largest religion, followed by the local Cao Dai religion. Other Christian denominations, Islam, and local religions also share small followings throughout the southern and central areas.
Due to its long history as a tributary state of China, as well as several periods of Chinese occupations, Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by that of Southern China, with Confucianism forming the basis of Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese language also contains many loan words from Chinese, though the two languages are unrelated. Buddhism remains the single largest religion in Vietnam, though like in China but unlike in the rest of northern South east Asia, the dominant school of Buddhism in Vietnam is the Mahayana School.
Nevertheless, Vietnamese culture remains distinct from Chinese culture as it has also absorbed cultural elements from neighbouring Hindu civilizations such as the Champa and the Khmer empires. The French colonization has also left a lasting impact on Vietnamese society, with baguettes and coffee remaining popular among locals.
Vietnam is large enough to have several distinct climate zones.
* The South has three somewhat distinct seasons: hot and dry from March to May/June; rainy from June/July to November; and cool and dry from December to February. April is the hottest month, with mid-day temperatures of 33°C (91°F) or more most days. During the rainy season, downpours can happen every afternoon, and occasional street flooding occurs. Temperatures range from stifling hot before a rainstorm to pleasantly cool afterwards. Mosquitoes are most numerous in the rainy season. December to February is the most pleasant time to visit, with cool evenings down to around 20° (68°F).
* The North has four distinct seasons, with a comparatively chilly winter (temperatures can dip below 15°C/59°F in Hanoi), a hot and wet summer and pleasant spring (March-April) and autumn (October-December) seasons. However, in the Highlands both extremes are amplified, with occasional snow in the winter and temperatures hitting 40°C (104°F) in the summer.
* In the Central regions the Hai Van pass separates two different weather patterns of the North starting in Langco (which is hotter in summer and cooler in winter) from the milder conditions South starting in Danang. North East Monsoon conditions September – February with often strong winds, large sea swells and rain make this a miserable and difficult time to travel through Central Vietnam. Normally summers are hot and dry.
By far the largest holiday of the year is Tết, celebration of the New Year (as marked by the lunar calendar), which takes place between late January and March on the Western calendar. In the period leading up to Tết, the country is abuzz with preparations. Guys on motorbikes rush around delivering potted tangerine trees and flowering bushes, the traditional household decorations. People get a little bit stressed out and the elbows get sharper, especially in big cities, where the usual hectic level of traffic becomes almost homicidal. Then a few days before Tết the pace begins to slow down, as thousands of city residents depart for their ancestral home towns in the provinces. Finally on the first day of the new year an abrupt transformation occurs: the streets become quiet, almost deserted. Nearly all shops and restaurants close for three days, (the exception being a few that cater especially to foreign visitors; and hotels operate as usual.)
In the major cities, streets are decorated with lights and public festivities are organized which attract many thousands of residents. But for Vietnamese, Tết is mostly a private, family celebration. On the eve of the new year, families gather together and exchange good wishes (from more junior to more senior) and gifts of “lucky money” (from more senior to more junior). In the first three days of the year, the daytime hours are devoted to visiting — houses of relatives on the first day, closest friends and important colleagues on the second day, and everyone else on the third day. Many people also visit pagodas. The evening hours are spent drinking and gambling (men) or chatting, playing, singing karaoke, and enjoying traditional snacks and candy (women and children.)
Visiting Vietnam during Tết has good points and bad points. On the minus side: modes of transport are jammed just before the holiday as many Vietnamese travel to their home towns; hotels fill up, especially in smaller towns; and your choice of shopping and dining is severely limited in the first days of the new year (with a few places closed up to two weeks). In Saigon, most shops are closed for a whole week after new years day. Restaurants may charge a higher than normal price, e.g. adding a 20% “happy new year” fee. Beware that crowded places are ideal for pickpockets. On the plus side, you can observe the preparations and enjoy the public festivities; pagodas are especially active; no admission is charged to those museums and historical sites that stay open; and the foreigner-oriented travel industry of backpacker buses and resort hotels chugs along as usual. Visitors also stand a chance of being invited to join the festivities, especially if you have some local connections or manage to make some Vietnamese friends during your stay. When visiting during Tết, it’s wise to get settled somewhere at least two days before the new year, and don’t try to move again until a couple of days after.
Lesser holidays include May 1, the traditional socialist labor day, September 2, Vietnam’s national day, King Hung celebration on April 12th, commemorating past kings, and Liberation Day on April 30th, marking the fall of Saigon in 1975. Around those times, trains and planes tend to be sold out, and accommodations at the beach or in Dalat are hard to find. Best to book far in advance.