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With a current population of 300,000, the country of Vietnam offers a rich mix of history and cultures. In fact, it has one of the oldest continuous histories in the world, with a cultural history researchers believe could be more than 20,000 years old. Several of the world’s earliest societies called ancient Vietnam home, and its location along the Red River Delta made it a hub for transportation and trade from the earliest days.
The first Vietnamese states were created in 2,879 BC, but developed in relative seclusion for thousands of years due to its geographic isolation. Those groups who did try to attack the ancient Vietnamese were easily defeated in the earliest years. However, once the Hans took over in 111 BC, the Vietnamese found it difficult to get out from under foreign rule. Several Chinese dynasties ruled Vietnam for the next 1,000 years, greatly impacting the culture of the people.
Several revolts were attempted throughout the Chinese rule, but none led to long-term independence. The Chinese were always able to easily regain control of Vietnam. It was not until 939 that Vietnamese soldiers under Ngo Quyen were able to defeat Chinese control when China was experiencing chaos on the home front. By the early part of the 11th century, the first of Vietnam’s dynasties, the Ly Dynasty, was established.
The Ly rulers held the country until 1225, but things in the country were still decidedly Chinese in regards to the culture and the style of ruling. Under the Ly dynasty, the Vietnamese began expanding, until by the end of the 17h century, they ruled the lower Mekong delta.
During this period of expansion, China once again tried to take over Vietnam, and in 1407 it was conquered. However, rebel leader Le Loi restored independence in 1428, establishing the Le dynasty. This dynasty lasted until the 18th century, when peasants who were angry over the problems created by feuding lords revolted. Emperor Gia Long established a new dynasty in 1802 after a lengthy period of unrest.
It was under this new dynasty that France came onto the scene. Missionaries brought Christianity to the country, but it was met with great persecution. These violent actions led France to use their military to push Vietnam into accepting French protectorate status, and the French eventually won, making Vietnam their colony. It did not take long, however, before the intense nationalism of the Vietnamese people led to unrest. By the 1920s, nationalists began to demand independence, which led to Ho Chi Minh and his Indochinese Communist Party.
World War II brought battles between the French and the Japanese for control of Vietnam. When the Japanese were defeated, the Vietminh declared independence, but the French refused to acknowledge it. This led to an eight year conflict where the Vietnamese attacked the French using their guerilla warfare techniques. Eventually, through the Geneva conference, the country was split, and the Vietminh were given the North and the French the south. North Vietnam established rule under the Communist Party. When the time came for elections to unify the country, the South refused, as they feared the Communist influence. This led to the Vietnam War, which eventually gave the Communists control of a unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
- Because Vietnam has one of the oldest cultures in East Asia, it has many festivals throughout the year celebrating various aspects of its history. These are important to the local people and are celebrated with much vigor and colorful pageantry.
- Of all of the ceremonies and festivals the Vietnamese celebrate, the wedding is the most important. Vietnamese wedding ceremonies are steeped in traditional practices and are quite colorful. One of the hallmarks of the Vietnamese wedding is a ceremony wherein the groom’s family asks the bride’s family for permission for the wedding.
- Vietnamese people believe strongly in feng shui, or the art of living in tune with the environment. This belief filters into every area of life and business.
- Instead of Christmas or New Years, the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, or the Festival of the First Day. This is celebrated on the Lunar New Year and is one of the most important days in Vietnamese culture. It is filled with time with family and tributes to the spirits.
- Human chess is a popular form of entertainment in Vietnam. This game is regular chess performed with live people as the pieces. When someone’s piece is taken out, the players will have a mock battle on the huge outdoor game board.
- Ruou Ran, or snake wine, is a specialty in the country. This drink is made from rice wine containing a pickled snake. It is believed by the locals to have medicinal properties.
- In Vietnam, people don’t just fish for fish. In some of hill locations, they actually fish for lizards as well.
- Some of the rarest animals on the planet live in Vietnam, including the Indochinese tiger, Saola antelope and Sumatran rhinoceros.
- Halong Bay – This World Heritage site offers the chance to sail among mist-enshrouded cliffs dotting over 3,000 uninhabited islands. The mystical landscape is the stuff of legends, and well worth the cost of an overnight cruise.
- Dalat – Imagine the French Alps with an Asian flair. This is what you will experience with a trip to this mountain town, along with breathtaking views of the country.
- Phong Nha Cave – Vietnam’s largest underground cave is also its most visually appealing, so be sure to book a tour.
- Hoi An – Hoi An and the Mango Rooms are the place to try Vietnamese cuisine with a modern style.
- Hanoi – Art lovers find the galleries in Hanoi to be a wealth of local artistic culture.
- Ho Chi Minh City – This riverside city is a city known for its fast pace of life. Known as Saigon to the rest of the world, this is the center of commerce and culture for Vietnam.
- Nha Trang – As a coastal country, Vietnam has its share of beaches, and Nha Trang is one of the best, not only in the country, but also in all of Asia.
- Mai Chau – Go native with a stay in a traditional Thai stilt house in this unique location. You will be surrounded by some of the lushest countryside in Vietnam.
- Sapa – This mountain retreat offers endless views of the valley. It is an excellent place to stay if you wish to explore the Tonkinese Alps
- Quy Nhon – If you want to experience the beach without all of the tourists, this city is the place to go. In addition, you can see excellent examples of Cham architecture.
- Cat Tien National Park – See some of the native wildlife of Vietnam at this lush park. It is an excellent place for bird watching as well.
How to Get Cash
- Exchanging money is difficult outside of the country due to the low value of the dong. The best option is to exchange your money when you arrive, then change it back when you leave. Prices may be advertised in US dollars, but retailers will expect you to pay in dong, with the exception of large tourist areas.
- You can use credit cards in most major locations, like hotels and restaurants, but you will typically pay a 3 percent surcharge.
- Traveler’s checks from well-known companies are widely accepted, but there is usually a fee charged for using these.
- If you have a credit card, you can go to a local bank and get a cash advance against that card. If you need U.S. dollars during your trip, this is a good way to get them.
- ATMs are fairly common in large cities, and you will find one at almost every tourist location. You will pay a service fee at most of these, with the exception of EXIMBANK ATMs.
- Freelance moneychangers sit at most land borders, but you need to know the exchange rate if you are going to use these services, because they will try to take advantage of you.
- In an emergency, you can find money transfer companies in the major cities. However, this is one of the more expensive ways to get cash while in Vietnam. If you have a credit card, the cash advance option is probably cheaper.