Animals. The best place for a glimpse of Vietnam’s 54 animal species is one of its 30 national parks. The largest is Cuc Phuong, 120 km south-west of Hanoi. It is home to 307 bird species, 133 mammal species, and 122 reptile species. On Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, the golden-haired langur, the world’s most endangered primate, can be found. Only 65 of these langurs remain on this earth, and most are on Cat Ba.
Beaches. With 3,444 km of coastline, Vietnam has its fair share of stunning beaches. Nha Trang Beach, voted by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the world’s best, is the most popular. China Beach in Danang is a breath-taking 30-km stretch of spotless white sand and clear blue water. Also worth a visit are Mui Ne Beach and the beaches at Vung Tau, Cat Ba Island, Phu Quoc Island, Con Son Island … the list is endless.
Climate. From sweltering 40oC days in the south to early-morning frosts in the north, Vietnam has it all weather-wise. Two annual monsoons dictate the weather patterns, bringing with them rain, and lots of it. In HCMC the rainy season is from May to November and in Hanoi from May to September.
Diving. Cham Island, 21 km off the coast of Hoi An, is a popular destination for diving and snorkelling. There are 135 species of coral, 202 species of fish, five species of lobster, and 84 species of mollusc to admire. The best time to visit is between March and September, as at other times the sea is too rough. Other areas favoured by divers are Nha Trang, Phu Quoc Island and Vinh Hoa.
Elephants. According to the ‘Elephants in Vietnam - Eleaid Conservation Charity’ project, in 1990 there were 1,500-2,000 elephants in Vietnam’s wild but today, thanks to deforestation and poaching, less than 100 remain. If you want to see some of these magnificent beasts, go to Buon Jun and Buon Don villages in the central highlands.
Family. The average Vietnamese family comprises two or three children, down from an average of eight three decades ago. Family ties are strong. Raising children is very much a family affair. Children, right up to their early teens, sleep in the same room as their parents, often sharing the family bed.
Golf. Membership of a golf club doesn’t come cheap: would you believe $10,000 for a country club? But you don’t have to sign up for full membership. Most will allow you to pay a guest fee for a round or two. The best golf clubs are in Dalat and Phan Thiet.
HCMC. Saigon, as most people still call it, has it all, including 7,500,000 people, 7,000,000 motorbikes, numerous skyscrapers, pagodas, malls, hotels from no stars to five stars, street stalls, gourmet restaurants … you name it, Saigon’s got it, as 4 million visitors each year confirms.
Insects. The insect world provides a rich harvest for Vietnamese chefs. Originally only ethnic minorities saw insects as a food source, but the concept has now caught on among the mainstream population. Deep-fried crickets, termites, centipedes, silkworm pupae, stink bugs, wasp larvae (cooked or live), and raw, wriggling coconut worms are all considered delicacies.
Jellyfish. Very occasionally, when you go swimming you’ll feel a prickly sensation on your arms or body. The most likely culprits are jellyfish. Most jellyfish in Vietnam are not dangerous, just plain irritating. If you’re stung, rub vinegar on the affected site and postpone your swim until another day.
Kids. The Vietnamese fondness for children isn’t just limited to their own kids. Foreign kids tend to love it here because of the inordinate amount of attention they receive. Everyone wants to gaze at them, tickle them under the chin, and pinch their cheeks.
Love and marriage. Traditionally, a young man and woman were not able to choose their future partner; that decision was made by the parents and grandparents. In many cases the man and woman were completely unaware of each other’s existence until the news of their betrothal was made known to them. Today, arranged marriages are all but a thing of the past.
No-nos. Don’t summon someone with a curled index finger as you would in the West - do it with palm down and by curling all fingers. Don’t give public displays of affection. Don’t take photos of airports or ports.
Old Quarter. The narrow, congested streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter give the visitor a taste of life as it was lived in days gone by. Food stalls, hawkers, shoppers, strollers, and countless motorbikes throng the streets, and crossing the road is not for the faint of heart.
Population. Vietnam has a population of 94,600,000. In the 1980s it was increasing by 22.7% a year. Now, with the advent of family planning, the increase is 1.4%. It’s a remarkably young population; well over half are under 30 years of age.
Quang Tri. Quang Tri’s former glory days are no longer. After four months of shelling and carpet-bombing during the American War the city was levelled. All that remains of Quang Tri’s once-proud citadel are the remnants of its gates and a moat.
Religion. Ask most Vietnamese what their religion is and they’ll probably tell you Buddhist. But it’s Buddhism tinged with a mix of Confucianism and Taoist beliefs. The country is dotted with Buddhist pagodas, and monks are invited along to consecrate important ceremonies.
Snakes. US soldiers used to say that of Vietnam’s 100 species of snake, 99 were poisonous and the other one could crush you to death. The Americans underestimated the number of species; there are actually 140, 30 of them poisonous (James E. Fitzgerald, ‘Vietnam War Stories’). If you come across a snake with a triangular head, make yourself scarce; they are the most dangerous.
Tet. The timing of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is dictated by the lunar calendar. It’s usually in early- or mid-February. In the first few days, business grinds to a halt. Tet eve is spent burning incense, praying, and burning votive paper money, and on the next day the family visits their ancestors’ graves. Then, once the traditional obligations have been observed, there’s just one thing left to do: Party.
Unicorn Island. Unicorn Island is a small (1,200 ha) river island in the Mekong Delta. Don’t get too excited, there are no unicorns there, just honey bees and the occasional python.
Vietnamese. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, so strictly speaking the name of the country should be written as Viet Nam, not as one word. Ditto for Sai Gon and Ha Noi. The practice of contracting these to one word was started by American war correspondents wanting to shave a few cents off the cost of the cables they sent.
War. Many tourists travel to the places where well-documented battles once raged, seeking out visual reminders of the war. There’s not much to see at many of these sites: just barren hillsides, ordinary-looking bridges, neglected cemeteries, or overgrown bomb craters. But there are some places evocative enough to conjure up the clamour of battle, the whomp-whomp-whomp of chopper blades, the crackle of machine gun fire, and the deafening crump of bombs.
Xe om. Cheaper than taxis and only slightly more expensive than cyclos, xe om are a convenient alternative for around-town transport. Xe means motorbike and om means hug - I’m sure you get the picture.
Yok Don National Park. One of Vietnam’s biggest parks, it stretches from Buon Ma Thuot up to the Cambodian border. The picturesque Serepok River flows through it, and it has four minority villages. Elephant trekking is a popular attraction.
Zoos. Saigon Zoo on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street in District 1 was established in 1864 and is the eighth-oldest zoo in the world. It’s not only a zoo but also a botanical garden, and is well worth a visit, especially if you have children in tow. In the peaceful grounds are 590 animals (including a small pride of white Bengal tigers) and 1,800 trees and plants.