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Vietnam Country

It can be said that there were three layers of culture overlapping each other during the history of Vietnam: local culture, the culture that mixed with those of China and other countries in the region, and the culture that interacted with Western culture. The most prominent feature of the Vietnamese culture is that it was not assimilated by foreign cultures thanks to the strong local cultural foundations. On the contrary, it was able to utilize and localize those from abroad to enrich the national culture.
The Vietnamese national culture emerged from a concrete living environment: a tropical country with many rivers and the confluence of great cultures. The natural conditions (temperature, humidity, monsoon, water-flows, water-rice agriculture ...) exert a remarkable impact on the material and spiritual life of the nation, the characteristics and psychology of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese nation was formed early in the history and often had to carry out wars of resistance against foreign invaders, which created a prominent cultural feature: a patriotism that infiltrated and encompassed every aspect of life.
With the Declaration of Independence on September 2nd 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the first independent republic in Southeast Asia, was born. On January 6, 1946, the first universal suffrage general election was held to elect the National Assembly, the supreme organ of power of the new Vietnam.
In November 1946, the National Assembly adopted the first Constitution of the Republic. The Constitution clearly pointed out that "Vietnam is an indivisible and monolithic bloc; it is a democratic republic; power belongs to the whole Vietnamese people irrespective of race, gender, property, social class and religion."
Most visitors to Vietnam are overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the country's natural setting: the Red River Delta in the north, the Mekong Delta in the south and almost the entire coastal strip are a patchwork of brilliant green rice paddies tended by women in conical hats.
There are some divine beaches along the coast, while inland there are soaring mountains, some of which are cloaked by dense, misty forests. Vietnam also offers an opportunity to see a country of traditional charm and rare beauty rapidly opening up to the outside world.
Despite its ongoing economic liberalization and the pressures of rapid development, this dignified country has managed to preserve its rich civilization and highly cultured society.
It has discarded its post-war fatigues and the boom in budget traveling, coupled with the softening of government control, have enabled more contemporary and relevant portraits of the country to gain currency in the West.
Full country name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Area: 329,566 sq km
Population: 81.62 million
Capital City: Hanoi (pop 3.5 million)
People: 84% ethnic Vietnamese, 2% ethnic Chinese, also Khmers, Chams (a remnant of the once-great Indianised Champa Kingdom) and members of over 50 ethnolinguistic groups (also known as Montagnards, 'highlanders' in French)
Language: Vietnamese, Russian, French, Chinese, English
Religion: Buddhism is the principal religion but there are also sizeable Taoist, Confucian, Hoa Hao, Caodaists, Muslim and Christian minorities
Government: Communist state
Head of State: President Tran Duc Luong
Head of Government: Prime Minister Phan Van Khai
GDP: US$24 billion
GDP per capita: US$300
Annual Growth: 8%
Inflation: 8%
Major Industries: Rice, rubber, food processing, sugar, textiles, chemicals
Major Trading Partners: China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: Bureaucratic hassles will be your first problem in getting a visa - expect delays of five days or more; Bangkok is the best place to get one. It's usually best to get your visas through a travel agency. Expense is the other problem; tourist visas valid for a single 30-day stay cost about US$40 in Bangkok.
Health risks: Dengue Fever, Hepatitis, Malaria, Rabies, Typhoid, Tuberculosis
Dialing Code: 84
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric
When to Go
There are no good or bad seasons to visit Vietnam. When one region is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else that is sunny and pleasant. Basically, the south has two seasons: the wet (May to November, wettest from June to August) and the dry (December to April). The hottest and most humid time is from the end of February to May. The central coast is dry from May to October and wet from December to February. The highland areas are significantly cooler than the lowlands, and temperatures can get down to freezing in winter. The north has two seasons: cool, damp winters (November to April) and hot summers (May to October). There is the possibility of typhoons between July and November, affecting the north and central areas.
Travellers should take the Tet New Year festival (late January or early February) into account when planning a trip. Travel (including international travel) becomes very difficult, hotels are full and many services close down for at least a week and possibly a lot longer.
Events
Special prayers are held at Vietnamese and Chinese pagodas on days when the moon is either full or the merest sliver. Many Buddhists eat only vegetarian food on these days. Some of the major religious festivals follow a lunar calendar. They include: Tet (late January or early February), the most important festival of the year, which lasts a week (with rites beginning a week earlier), marking the new lunar year; Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen), held on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon (August), is the second-largest festival of the year, when offerings of food and gifts are given to the wandering souls of the forgotten dead; Tiet Doan Ngo (Summer Solstice Day) in June sees the burning of human effigies to satisfy the need for souls to serve in the God of Death's army; and Holiday of the Dead (Thanh Minh) in April commemorates deceased relatives.
Money & Costs
Currency: dong
Meals
  • Budget: US$1-2
  • Mid-range: US$3-8
  • High: US$20+
Lodging
  • Budget: US$3-10
  • Mid-range: US$15-40
  • High: $US50+
Travelers staying in budget accommodation and eating in small cafes should be able to get by on around US$20 to US$25 per day, plus long-distance transport costs. Those wanting to stay in mid-range hotels, eat out at moderate restaurants, charter occasional taxis and enjoy the nightlife should budget on around US$65 a day.
Until recently, many up market hotels insisted that you pay in US dollars, but now all businesses (except Vietnam Airlines) must accept payment in dong. In practice, many still display their prices in US dollars. It's advisable to bring traveler's checks in US dollars as well as a little US currency.
US dollars and travelers cheques are your best bet. There are four ways to exchange currency: at a bank; through authorized exchange bureaus; at hotel reception desks; and on the black market. The best rates are offered by the banks, but the exchange bureaus are generally more conveniently located and have longer opening hours. The black market rate is worse than the legal exchange rate, so if you're offered better rates than a bank it's bound to be some sort of scam. Visa, MasterCard, American Express and JCB credit cards are accepted in the major cities and towns popular with tourists.
It's virtually impossible to exchange travelers cheques outside the major cities and tourist areas. Visitors heading off the beaten track will either need to stock up on dong, or conduct a private cash transaction on the black market. It's a good idea to bring a small calculator with you for currency conversions, unless you're the kind of person who can divide or multiply by large numbers in your head.
Government-run hotels and tourist restaurants usually add a 5% service charge to bills so there's no need to tip (although staff may not get any of it). Leaving a small tip in other restaurants will be greatly appreciated by the staff. You should consider tipping hired drivers and guides, and it's polite to leave a small donation at the end of a visit to a pagoda. Bargaining is commonplace but should be engaged in with a smile and considered a form of social discourse rather than a matter of life and death.
ATTRACTIONS
Hanoi
Hanoi has shaken off its hostile attitude to travelers and has become one of the most beguiling cities in Asia. It is slow-paced and pleasant, with a lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks, colonial French houses and astounding modern skyscrapers.
Hanoi's enchanting Old Quarter is rich with over a thousand years of history. Surface from its thronged labyrinth to explore the city's lakes, pagodas, historical houses and strange preponderance of turtle imagery. The museums will help make sense of it all.
Da Lat
The city of Dalat is the jewel of the southern Central Highlands region. The cool climate and park-like environment (lathered with Vietnamese-style kitsch) makes it one of the most delightful cities in Vietnam. Dalat is also a good base for trips into the surrounding highlands, which remain tranquil. Make sure you visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, nicknamed the Crazy House by locals. It's a counter-cultural gem created by artist and architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga (known as Hang Nga).
Emperor Bao Dai's Summer Palace is stuffed with interesting art and artifacts, and is well worth a look. It's also interesting to stroll around the old French Quarter, which is little changed since the French departed. The Valley of Love, 5km (3mi) north of the city centre, is a bizarre place with a carnival-style atmosphere where you can hire a paddle boat on the lake, or a horse from one of the Dalat Cowboys (no relation to the Dallas Cowboys), who are, indeed, dressed as cowboys.
There are some pleasant walks or rides (on horseback or bicycle) in the countryside around the city, but be aware that areas signposted with a C-sign are off-limits to foreigners. Further out, you can visit the villages of some of the hill tribes, such as Lat Village and the Chicken Village (with a huge statue of a chicken).
Da Lat is famous for its cafes and is a paradise for people who love fresh vegetables. It's extremely popular with domestic tourists and honeymooners, so there's a wide range of accommodation options. You can fly to Da Lat from Ho Chi Minh City, but the airport is 30km (19mi) from town; express buses also link the two cities.
Halong Bay
Magnificent Ha Long Bay, with its 3000 islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is one of Vietnam's natural marvels. The tiny islands are dotted with innumerable beaches and grottoes created by the wind and waves. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers, while the Thien Cung Caves are also very impressive. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea', and refers to a legend about a dragon who created the bay and islands with its flailing tail. There's even a modern legendary creature, the Tarasque, said to haunt the area.
Taking a tour of the bay is the main activity here; most book a tour at a cafe or hotel in Hanoi. If you want to arrange things independently, be ready for lots of hard sell from touts in Halong Bay City. To see a lot, choose a fast boat. If you want a romantic experience but with the risk of getting hardly anywhere, look for one of the old junks. You have to charter the whole boat, but there are usually enough travelers around to make up a party and keep costs down.
The main town in the region is Ha Long City, which is in two halves, bisected by a bay. Bai Chay (the western part) is the more scenic and has the most hotels, restaurants and persistent touts. Hon Gai (the eastern part) is connected to Haiphong by a ferry. Masochists might try seeing the bay on a day-trip from Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon is the heart and soul of Vietnam. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture.
Ho Chi Minh City - Saigon has several excellent museums that explore its dramatic history; the best of them can be visited on foot. Inside you'll find everything from harrowing images of the war and revolution to political art. Botanical gardens, temples, pagodas and churches also await.
Hue
Traditionally, Hue has been one of Vietnam's main cultural, religious and education centres. Its Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the most famous structures in Vietnam. The remains of the huge, moated Citadel (Kinh Thanh), constructed by the Emperor Gia Long from 1804, contain many interesting sights, such as the Ngo Mon Gate, Nine Holy Cannons, Thai Hoa (the Palace of Supreme Harmony), Nine Dynastic Urns and the Halls of the Mandarins. Sadly, the intriguing Forbidden Purple City was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War. About 15km (9mi) south of Hue are the splendid Royal Tombs, of the Nguyen emperors. Hue has many other places of religious and dynastic importance, and some good museums.
You can do sampan trips up the Perfume River, which include visits to some of Hue's main attractions. If you want to get out of the city for a swim, head 13km (8mi) northeast to Thuan An Beach, where there's a lagoon and a hotel. It can be reached by sampan or bus.
There's a range of accommodation in Hue to suit most budgets, and the city is famed for its fine restaurants. Hue has a long tradition of vegetarian food, which is prepared at pagodas for the monks. Stalls in the markets serve vegetarian food on the 1st and the 15th days of the lunar month, and there are also several restaurants serving it all the time.
Hue is about 700km (430mi) from Hanoi and 1100km (680mi) from Saigon. The Reunification Express train running between those cities stops here, and there are frequent flights and buses to both cities.
Nha Trang
Although it has the potential to develop into a flashy resort such as Thailand's Pattaya Beach, Nha Trang is still a good place to go for sun and partying. But see it while it lasts. With very clear turquoise waters (except for the wet season), snorkelling, diving and fishing are prime activities, and just lazing on the town beach is an experience in itself. You'll be offered everything from lunch to a manicure.
Nha Trang's dry season runs from June to September (which is different from Saigon). To cater for the growing influx of visitors, many new hotels have been built in town. Nha Trang is a major fishing port, so excellent seafood is available. The exotic dragon fruit (thanh long) grows only in the Nha Trang area. It's about the size and shape of a small pineapple, but tastes something like a kiwifruit. The fruit is in season from May to September, when you can find it served as a drink.
Express and regular buses link Nha Trang with Saigon; express buses take about 12 hours. Express trains run to both Saigon and Hanoi, and there are daily flights to Saigon and Hanoi.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu, in the heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley near the Lao border, is in one of the remotest parts of Vietnam. The valley is surrounded by steep, heavily forested hills and the area is inhabited by hill tribes, notably the Tai and H'mong. Dien Bien Phu was the site of that rarest of Vietnamese military events, a battle that can be called truly decisive. It was here in 1954 that Viet Minh forces overran the beleaguered French garrison after a 57-day siege, forcing the French government to abandon its attempts to re-establish colonial control of Indochina. The site of the battle is marked by a small museum, which eloquently tells the story of Vietnamese determination to be rid of the colonial forces.
You can fly to Dien Bien Phu from Hanoi, but getting to the town overland is half the fun since the surrounding mountains are so beautiful. Buses are generally too crowded for you to appreciate the splendid scenery, though, so do yourself a favor and hire a jeep. It's a two-day, 420km (260mi) trip from Hanoi, so count on hiring a jeep for five days.
Hoi An
An important, picturesque and enchanting river port 30km (19mi) south of Da Nang, Hoi An is rich in history and has a unique character. It was a contemporary of Macau, attracting Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese trading vessels, and it retains the feel of centuries past. Its magnificent collection of almost 850 older structures and intact streetscapes just beg to be explored. They include merchants' homes, pagodas, public buildings, a Japanese covered bridge and a whole city block of colonnaded French buildings.
National Parks
Cuc Phuong, 140km (87mi) from Hanoi, preserves 222 sq km (87 sq mi) of primary tropical forest. It's home to an amazing variety of animal and plant life, with animals such as the yellow macaque and the spotted deer, 320 species of bird and has many grottoes, one of which has yielded prehistoric stone tools. Hiking is possible here.
Even more beautiful though, is Cat Ba Island, 30km (19mi) east of Hai Phong city. Its diverse ecosystems include tropical evergreen forests, freshwater swamp forests, coastal mangroves, freshwater lakes and waterfalls, grottoes, caves, sandy beaches and offshore coral reefs. It's home to monkeys, boars, deer, squirrels and hedgehogs, is on the migration route for waterfowl and its offshore waters are also heavily populated by fish, molluscs, arthropods, seals and dolphins. It is hoped that plans to designate further areas of land as national parks in Vietnam go ahead
Sam Mountain
In the Mekong Delta, 3km (2mi) from the riverine commercial centre of Chau Doc and not far from the Cambodian border, this area is known for its dozens of pagodas and cave temples. Favored by ethnic-Chinese pilgrims and tourists, the shrines feature tombs and fine examples of traditional Vietnamese design and artisanship. The views from the top of the mountain are spectacular.
Sapa
Located at an altitude of 1650m (5400ft) in the remote northwest, Sapa entrances most visitors with the spectacular scenery that exists nearby. Built as a hill station for the French in 1922, Sapa went into a long decline from which it has only recently recovered. More and more travellers are braving the bad (but improving) roads and flocking here for the climate (cold in winter, though) and to visit the hill tribes (mostly H'mong, Dao and Kinh people) who live in the area. The Saturday market is the best place to buy handicrafts. Accommodation can be tight, especially on weekends when tour parties visit. Just 9km (5.5mi) from Sapa is Fansipan (3143m/10,309ft), Vietnam's highest mountain. A hike to the top and back takes about four days, and you'll need a guide and decent equipment, as it is usually wet and cold. You can get to within 30km (19mi) of Sapa by train from Hanoi. Once you reach Lao Cai, you'll need to transfer to a local bus.
Western Central Highlands
The western region of the Central Highlands area, along the border with Cambodia and Laos, still sees few visitors. Although much of the forest has been destroyed, the region's varied agriculture and the presence of up to 31 distinct ethnic groups make it a fascinating destination. Towns such as Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku and Kon Tum are peopled by ethnic minorities, while Tua and Ban Don (a gateway to Yok Don National Park) society is matrilineal and matrilocal.
Activities
Vietnam has 3450km (2140mi) of coastline, and you can hire snorkelling and diving gear at most beach resorts. The most popular beaches include Vung Tau, just north of the Mekong Delta (which suffers from polluted water, although there are cleaner beaches nearby); Nha Trang, near Dalat; and the 30km-long expanse of beaches named China Beach, near Danang - but be careful of the currents. There is good hiking, horse riding and cycling in the beautiful countryside around Dalat, while some of the national parks are also good for hiking. Vietnam is a favourite place for long-distance cycling because much of the country is flat and the shortage of vehicles makes for light traffic off the main highways.

Spelunkers should head for the spectacular Pong Nha river caves, northwest of Dong Hoi. Those interested in the Vietnam War can walk part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of roads, trails and paths used as supply routes by the North Vietnamese during the war. It ran from North Vietnam southward through the Truong Son Mountains and into western Laos. Those with a 4WD can drive a 60km (37mi) stretch between Aluoi and Hue. The network of tunnels at Cu Chi (35km - 22mi - from Saigon) and Vinh Moc (near the old border between North and South Vietnam) enable visitors to experience the claustrophobic life led by villagers and guerrillas during the war.
History
The sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Son culture emerged around the 3rd century BC. From the 1st to the 6th centuries AD, the south of what is now Vietnam was part of the Indianised kingdom of Funan, which produced fine art and architecture. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and had spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century. The kingdom existed in part through conducting raids in the region. The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century and their 1000-year rule, marked by tenacious Vietnamese resistance and repeated rebellions, ended in AD 938 when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.
During the next few centuries, Vietnam repulsed repeated invasions by China, and expanded its borders southwards from the Red River Delta, populating much of the Mekong Delta. In 1858, French and Spanish-led forces stormed Danang after several missionaries had been killed. A year later, Saigon was seized. By 1867, France had conquered all of southern Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochin china.
Communist guerillas under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh resisted French domination during and after WWII. Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnamese independence in 1945 sparked violent confrontations with the French, culminating in the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The Geneva Accords of 1954 temporarily divided Vietnam into two zones (the Communist north and the anti-Communist, US-supported south). Political and ideological opposition quickly turned to armed struggle, prompting the USA and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and signaled the withdrawal of US troops. Saigon eventually capitulated to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975.
Going straight from the fat into the frying pan, Vietnam had barely drawn breath from its war with America when it found itself at loggerheads with Khmer Rouge forces along the Cambodian borders. A protracted round of fighting eventually saw China enter the fray in support of Cambodia and the killings continued until the UN brokered a deal, with Vietnamese forces being pulled out of Cambodia in 1989. Although the Khmer Rouge continued to snipe from the borders, it was the first time since WWII that Vietnam was not officially at war with any other nation. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused Vietnam and Western nations to seek rapprochement.
In July 1995 even the intransigent USA re-established diplomatic relations with Hanoi, although Hanoi initially refused to sign trade agreements with the US in 1999 (this was finalized the following year). The US, on their part, talked about normalizing relations but over 25 years later there's still a lot of soul-searching, hand wringing and post mortems going on, accompanied by a slather of angst-ridden films and a handful of unplugged guitar tunes. John McCain, on a visit to Hanoi, talked about 'the wrong guys winning the war'. Vietnam went through something of a postwar economic boom, before suffering the economic setbacks that plagued the entire region when the foreign investment bubble burst in the late 1990s. It has recently recovered part of this ground with some pundits predicting it will be the next Asian 'tiger' economy.
Culture
Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. Over the centuries, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have melded with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as Tam Giao (or 'Triple Religion').

Vietnamese (kinh) is the official language of the country, although there are dialectic differences across Vietnam. There are dozens of different languages spoken by various ethnic minorities and Khmer and Laotian are spoken in some parts. The most widely spoken foreign languages in Vietnam are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French and Russian, more or less in that order.

Popular artistic forms include: traditional painting produced on frame-mounted silk; an eclectic array of theatre, puppetry, music and dance; religious sculpture; lacquer ware and ceramics.
Vietnamese cuisine is especially varied - there are said to be nearly 500 different traditional dishes that include exotic meats (but think twice before you eat a rare animal) and fantastic vegetarian creations (often prepared to replicate meat and fish dishes). However, the staple of Vietnamese cuisine is plain white rice dressed up with a plethora of vegetables, fish (which is common in Vietnam), meat, spices and sauces. Spring rolls, noodles and steamed rice dumplings are popular snacks, and the ubiquitous soups include eel and vermicelli, shredded chicken and bitter soups. Fruit is abundant; some of the more unusual ones include green dragon fruit, jujube, khaki, longan, mangosteen, pomelo, three-seed cherry and water apple. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe phin) is very good; it's usually served very strong and very sweet.
Environment
Vietnam borders Cambodia, Laos and China and stretches over 1600km (1000mi) along the eastern coast of the Indochinese Peninsula. The country's two main cultivated areas are the Red River Delta (15,000 sq km/5400 sq mi) in the north and the Mekong Delta (60,000 sq km/23,400 sq mi) in the south. Three-quarters of the country is mountainous and hilly; the highest peak at 3143m (10,310ft) is Fansipan in northwest Vietnam.
Vietnam is made up of equatorial lowlands, high, temperate plateaus and cooler mountainous areas. The country lies in the intertropical zone and local conditions vary from frosty winters in the far northern hills to the year-round subequatorial warmth of the Mekong Delta. At sea level, the mean annual temperature is about 27°C in the south, falling to about 21°C in the far north.
Although Vietnam has diverse wildlife, it is in precipitous decline because of the destruction of habitats, illegal hunting and pollution. Fauna includes elephants, rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, black bear, snub-nosed monkey, crocodile and turtle. Less than 30% of the country remains forest-covered, and what remains is under threat from population pressure and the growth of industry. The situation has improved since 1992, following the banning of unprocessed timber exports, education programs and reforestation projects.
Despite being little visited by travelers, Vietnam has 10 national parks and an expanding array of nature reserves. The most interesting and accessible national parks are: Cat Ba, Ba Be Lake and Cuc Phuong in the north; Bach Ma in the centre; and Nam Cat Tien and Yok Don in the south. In an attempt to prevent an ecological and hydrological catastrophe, the government has plans to improve existing parks and open up new ones.
Getting There & Away
Ho Chi Minh City's (Saigon) Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam's busiest international air hub, followed by Hanoi's Noi Bai Airpot. A few international flights also serve Danang. Bangkok has emerged as the principle embarkation point for Vietnam but it's still possible to get direct flights from a number of major Asian cities and a few Australian cities. Buying tickets in Vietnam is expensive. Departure tax is US$14, which can be paid in dong or US dollars.
There are currently six border crossings for travelers coming to Vietnam, but more may open soon. All crossing points suffer from heavy policing and often requests for 'immigration fees'.
For getting to/from China, it's become very popular to cross the border at Friendship Pass, or Dong Dang, 20km (12mi) north of Lang Son in northeast Vietnam, to get to/from Nanning. There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi that stops at Friendship Pass. The other popular border crossing with China is at Lao Cai in northwest Vietnam, which lies on the railway line between Hanoi and Kunming in China's Yunnan Province. There's also a seldom-used crossing at Moi Cai.
It's possible to enter Laos from Lao Bao in north-central Vietnam; there's an international bus from Danang to Savannakhet (Laos). The other crossing is at Keo Nua Pass/Cau Treo, west of Vinh. The only crossing to Cambodia is via Moc Dai; an international bus links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City.
Getting Around
Vietnam Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, which are relatively expensive. The departure tax on domestic flights is about $US1.50, payable in Vietnamese dong only.
Ultra-cheap buses and minibuses criss-cross the country in an impressive network of routes but you should think long and hard before taking one. Apart from being ramshackle, extremely slow and hugely overcrowded, the notion of safety on Vietnam's roads is a loose and hazy concept that doesn't bear too much investigating. There are 'express' buses, but even these rarely average more than 50kmh (31mph). The alternative, used by many foreigners, is to charter a minibus. They cost more but are much more comfortable; ask at budget hotels and cafes for details.
While sometimes train travel can be slower than bus travel, it is safer, more relaxed and you're likely to have decent legroom. There are several types of train, including the famous Reunification Express; but think twice before you take a crowded, snail-paced local train. Petty theft can be a problem on trains, especially in budget class. Children throwing things at carriages, everything from rocks to cow dung, is another problem, and you're advised to keep the metal shield on the window in place.
Hire cars and drivers are available at reasonable prices. You'll still be stopped by the police to pay all sorts of 'fines', but at least you'll have a local with you to do the negotiating. You can hire a motorcycle to drive yourself if you have an International Driver's Permit endorsed for motorcycles, but you'll need nerves of steel.
Traveling through Vietnam, and around the towns and cities, by bicycle is worth considering, though the traffic is still a hazard on highways without wide shoulders. Trains and buses will carry your bike when you want a break.

Other than a few ancient and infrequent buses, local transport is by taxi (some metered, some not) or cyclo (pedal-powered vehicles that are cheap and plentiful). If you're in a hurry and have nerves of steel, try flagging down any passing motorbike. Many people will be happy to give you a lift for a fee a little higher than the equivalent cyclo fare.
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