One of the obstacles with vacations is that they’re never as long as you want them to be – there’s always that one extra country you could have seen, that one province that was just a bit too far away, the last attraction that didn’t make your final cut.

But one of the great things about Vietnam – beyond the amazing food, the wonderful people, and the rich culture – is that it’s almost like getting three totally separate countries for the price of one visa.

The thing that makes Vietnam so unique is how much distance it covers in terms of latitude – about 1,600km north/south – which gives it a vast range of climate conditions. This variety is also helped by the fact that it’s quite varied east/west as well, with the ocean on the east and rugged mountains in the west.

So let’s go ahead and break up Vietnam into three chunks – north, south and middle. This does a bit of a disservice to the country, as it’s actually quite a bit more complex than that, but it’s the easiest way to get a rough idea of what’s available. So let’s start with the south.

Southern Vietnam

Two men on the streets of Saigon.
Two men on the streets of Saigon.

Biggest City: Ho Chi Minh City (often still used interchangeably with Saigon), is the largest city in Vietnam and one of its financial, transport, and trade hubs.  There are just over 8 million people in HCMC, and of the two main commercial centers in the country (the other being Hanoi), it’s definitely the glitzier, busier, hotter one.

Climate & Geography: Southern Vietnam is where the mighty Mekong River empties into the sea after a journey of 4,350km, so it’s no surprise that the vast delta area is one of the lushest and most thoroughly cultivated in the region. Indeed, there are some villages where the only way in is by boat! There are generally only two seasons here – dry and wet, and both of them are very warm, so be prepared to sweat no matter what time of year you’re here.

Culture: Cultural differences are not uniform – some are more pronounced and others are less easy to spot. Cuisine is the biggest one though northern Vietnamese food tends to be more traditional and less exotic, while southern Vietnamese food is heavily inspired by Chinese and Cambodian recipes, so they often have a bit more of a spicy tang.

Central Vietnam

Biggest City: There’s a lot of great things to see in the long, thin crescent that makes up central Vietnam, but if it’s a big city experience you’re looking for, you have to hit Da Nang. About 975,000 people live here, but it’s still got a homey kind of vibe, not to mention great beaches and plenty of notable attractions just a short trip out of town. Da Nang is a major port, with the popularly known My Khe beach or nicknamed by the American and Australian soldiers as “China Beach”, during the Vietnam War. Now it has a growing industry to back it up, with some heavy tourism infrastructure going up in the past few years, making Da Nang a beach resort getaway.

Climate & Geography: Surrounding Da Nang and working their way west toward Cambodia away from Da Nang’s beaches are the edges of the lush Annamite Mountain Range, which contain many of the area’s top sites. These include the ancient Cham ruins at My Son, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail and former DMZ (demilitarized zone), relics of the devastating Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s known here). Between July and November this area is hit with rain storms, so plan for the wet accordingly.

Culture: Central Vietnam is sort of stuck between the ‘cultural capital’ of the north and the bustling modernity of the south, but it’s still got plenty to offer for culture-seekers. Due to its links with royalty, central Vietnamese food is often more complex and varied than north or south. We mentioned My Son already, but don’t miss Hue and Hoi An, all three of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Hoi An - UNESCO Heritage City
Hoi An – UNESCO Heritage City

Hoi An: This beautiful and quaint historical city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 because of it’s well-preserved trading post and port from the 1600s. This city is still attracting the trader and buyer who’s looking for affordable tailors or traditional lanterns. The People’s Committee has been taking many steps to preserve the town such as the first Car Free Day in Vietnam and an action programme to stop the use of plastic bags. This year the committee selected the bicycle as vehicle of choice to help it become an eco-friendly destination. This is the perfect small town to joy ride around traditional house, rice paddies, fishing villages, and monasteries. If you’re not keen on bike riding we recommend trying your hand at Vietnamese cooking!

Northern Vietnam

Biggest City: The north’s largest city has also been Vietnam’s capital for over 1,000 years – Hanoi. The mad, bustling, scooter-clogged roads will make even professional pedestrians sweat, but there’s a great deal of history and culture to be found behind the noise. The city of 7 million loves markets and loves their cafes, and you’ll have no problem finding a thick, sweet cup of coffee to wash down the amazing street food that’s available everywhere.

Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam
Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam

Climate & Geography: Beyond Hanoi, one of northern Vietnam’s biggest attractions is the gorgeous Halong Bay, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Giant limestone cliffs with dense canopies of green shoot up from the blue water as boats of all sizes drift lazily among them. During the summer months northern Vietnam is generally hot and muggy, but in the winter, it can get downright cold – especially in Halong Bay and most definitely up in the mountains around Sapa, the famed trekking destination. Dress warmly if you’re coming then!

Culture: As the traditional center of art, literature, and education, northern Vietnam – especially Hanoi – one can find a large number of museums, monuments, parks, and plenty of temples going back hundreds of years. Even Ho Chi Minh himself is entombed here (and for a small fee, you can see him!). Food-wise, the colder climate means that spices and chilies aren’t as widely available as they are in the south, so northern-style food tends to be less fiery, but no less delicious. In fact, one of the country’s most famous dishes – pho noodles – originated in the north.

So clearly, a visit to Vietnam can provide a variety of different elements to make your trip a diverse and exciting one. With a bit of planning (and some inside knowledge) you can feel like you’ve visited three distinct countries when in fact, you’ve been in Vietnam the whole time.

See all three regions in Smiling Albino’s Vietnam Grand Slam 

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