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Vietnam Travel Guide | Itineraries and Highlights

To the point Explore Vietnam with our ultimate guide: discover must-see places, plan your itinerary and learn how to save on your trip with reward points.

This post is also available in: FR

Vietnam is a captivating travel destination, offering a combination of breathtaking scenery, rich history and delicious cuisine. Heare are some of the best places to visit for an unforgettable adventure in thisSoutheast Asian country.

What’s more, the guide includes practical tips on how to organize your trip and how to save with points.

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Travelling to Vietnam - Highlights

Vietnam is divided into three main regions: the north, center and south. Here’s what to see and do in each of these regions.

The currency used in Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong (₫ or VND). Prices in this guide are converted to Canadian dollars (1 CAD is equivalent to approximately 18,000 VND in January 2024).

The north

Hanoi

Start or end your trip to Vietnam by exploring Hanoi, the country’s capital. This city is known for its lively atmosphere, narrow streets full of motorcycles, colorful markets and French colonial architecture. A change of scenery guaranteed!

The foodies will be delighted by the abundance of street food and the myriad of small local cafés. Don’t miss a visit to the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake and Hô Chi Minh’s mausoleum. If you’re looking for some late-night action, Ma Mây Street in the Old Quarter is packed with restaurants and bars.

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Ha Long Bay

The famous Ha Long Bay is the most photographed place in Vietnam, and with good reason. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this natural wonder is made up of thousands of limestone islands and islets emerging from emerald waters.

The best way to visit the bay is on a one, two or three-night cruise. There are cruises to suit all budgets and comfort levels, starting at $70 for one night and going up to over $1,000 for a 5-star cruise. Most packages include the cabin, meals and activities such as kayaking and swimming.

Be sure to check whether transport from Hanoi is included, as the port is a 2.5-3 hour drive away.

If you have time, I recommend cruises that also stop off at Cát Bà Island, the largest in the bay. I loved the bike ride through the rural countryside.

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Ninh Bình

Nicknamed the “terrestrial Ha Long Bay”, Ninh Bình was a last-minute addition to my itinerary, and what a pleasant surprise! From May to July, during the harvest season, the rice paddies offer a breathtaking natural spectacle. You can admire the golden fields crossed by the river and framed by mountains. Go to the Hang Mua lookout for a breathtaking view of the region.

Even out of season, Ninh Bình has much to offer visitors. Points of interest lie a little outside the city, mainly around the village of Tam Coc. The Tràng An landscape complex is another UNESCO World Heritage site. The site is made up of rocks, caves and temples linked by a network of rivers. For around $14, a leisurely punt takes you around the complex in two to three hours.

Some cruise packages cover the Hanoi-Ha Long Bay-Ninh Bình triangle. So it’s easy to add this region before or after your cruise. Alternatively, Ninh Bình can be reached from Hanoi by van in 2-3 hours for around $15. Some visitors also opt for a day trip from the capital (from $75).

Sa Pa

The small town of Sa Pa is perched in the mountains near the Chinese border. Here you can admire rice terraces and hike to explore the tribal villages of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. I recommend a day trip with a local guide to fully immerse yourself in the culture and traditions.

Before going there, I’d heard a lot of negative comments about Sa Pa’s popularity and overtourism. I was surprised because my visit in December 2022 was very peaceful. The pandemic has certainly put a damper on tourism, but it’s still a pleasant place to visit for the time being.

To reach Sa Pa from Hanoi, you have two choices: train or bus. The two options are similar in terms of comfort and price: expect to pay around $20 for a one-way ticket. I recommend taking the night bus, as the journey is shorter and you’ll arrive directly in the center of Sa Pa in six hours.

Currently under construction, an airport at Lào Cai should open in a few years’ time, facilitating access to Sa Pa.

Hà Giang

This region has been gaining in popularity in recent years. It mainly attracts visitors looking for an experience similar to Sa Pa, but without the mass of tourists. The main attraction is the Ha Giang Loopa three-day, 350 km adventure on a motorcycle. Most visitors join a group with a company that takes care of all the arrangements. You have the choice of driving your own motorcycle or riding as a passenger with an experienced driver. All-inclusive packages start at $250.

Hà Giang can be reached from Hanoi by night bus in 6 hours for around $20. Prices and journey times are similar from Sa Pa.

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The center

Da Nang

Da Nang is the largest city in the central region. In recent years, tourism has developed strongly in the area, and there are now many large hotels (new or under construction) along My Khe beach. Wave-hunters will be happy to know that surfing is possible here, and autumn is the best time to indulge in this activity.

The famous bridge held up by giant hands can be found in the Sun World Ba Na Hills theme park ($43 for a day ticket). Located about 45 minutes from the city, you’ll need to take a cab to get there ($20) or join a day trip that usually includes round-trip transportation, park admission and lunch.

Although the bridge is impressive, I found the entrance fee and transportation to be expensive for what the park has to offer. I’d only recommend the visit if you’re going with children.

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For a less expensive activity outside Da Nang, head for the Marble Mountains. You can visit caves, temples, pagodas and gardens across five hills of marble and limestone. The entrance fee is $3 and cab transport from Da Nang should cost around $12.

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Hoi An

This charming little coastal town is one of my favorites in Vietnam. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with well-preserved colonial houses, temples, Japanese bridges and colorful lanterns on every corner.

If you’re lucky enough to visit the city on a full moon day, you can take part in the lantern festival. During this evening, all the lights in the houses and shops go out, and the river is filled with lanterns floating on the water. A truly magical show! You can also admire Hoi An from the river on a short boat trip (around $10 for 20 minutes).

The town is also renowned for its excellent tailors. You’ll find countless boutiques where you can have tailor-made clothes made for you at very low prices. Men’s suits are particularly popular. Expect to pay around $130 for a suit (pants, shirt and jacket).

Hoi An is easily accessible from Da Nang, either by a 1.5-hour bus ride ($10) or a 30-minute cab ride ($20).

Hué

Vietnam’s historic city, Hué is the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. History and architecture buffs will love visiting iconic sites such as the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and the Celestial Lady Pagoda. Access to all monuments inside the citadel is subject to a fee (around $9). What’s more, there are numerous mausoleums and tombs of former kings outside the city, accessible via a boat trip on the Perfume River.

Hué is almost three hours by train ($10) or bus ($15) from Da Nang.

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Phong Nha

If you’re looking for a place off the beaten track in Vietnam, Phong Nha-Ke Bàng National Park is for you. Nicknamed the kingdom of caves and caverns, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is home to the world’s largest cavern and longest underground river. Adventure-seekers can discover several cave systems by boat and on foot. Expect to pay around $100 for a day trip that visits two caves.

The village of Phong Nha is about an 8-hour bus ride from Da Nang ($25). A faster option is to take a domestic flight from Hanoi to Dong Hoi airport (1 h, $60), then a cab (45 mins, $23) or bus (1 h 30, $2) to Phong Nha.

Please note that most caves are inaccessible from October to December during the rainy season.

The south

Ho Chi Minh City

Formerly Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city was renamed in honor of Vietnamese hero Ho Chi Minh when the war ended in 1975. Start or end your trip by exploring this metropolis. This is where you’ll find Vietnam’s tallest skyscrapers, such as the Landmark 81 and its luxurious 5-star Vinpearl hotel.

Visit the Reunification Palace, Notre-Dame de Saigon Cathedral and Ben Thanh market for a taste of Vietnamese urban life. Don’t miss the War Remnants Museum for an insight into the country’s history.

The Cu Chi tunnels are another interesting place to learn more about the Vietnam War. Located on the outskirts of town, you’ll need to take a 1.5-hour cab ride ($35) or a 2.5-hour bus ride ($1) to get there. Access to the site costs around $6.

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Mekong Delta

Located south-west of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta is a labyrinth of rivers, islands and marshes surrounding the river of the same name. The most important towns for tourism are Can Tho and Ben Tre.

The Mekong Delta is famous for its floating markets, including Cai Rang in Can Tho. It’s an experience to be had in the morning, when hundreds of loaded boats ply the river to sell and trade their fresh produce.

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Near My Tho is the impressive Vinh Trang pagoda. This superb Buddhist temple is the most famous in the region, blending Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese styles.

Many travelers explore the region on day trips from Ho Chi Minh City. Guided tours are affordable (from $30) and mainly visit My Tho and Ben Tre.

Can Tho, the region’s main city, is about a 4-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City ($10).

Nha Trang

Vietnam’s leading seaside resort, Nha Trang attracts visitors with its long white sandy beaches and diving sites. There are many large hotel chains and all-inclusive resorts.

After a day or two at the beach, visit the Ba Ho and Fairy Spring waterfalls, the Po Nagar historic site and the Long Son pagoda.

Nha Trang is more than ten hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City ($20) or an hour’s flight ($40).

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Da Lat

I loved my few-day visit to Da Lat. Surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and a small lake, this town has a romantic, peaceful charm. Renowned for its cool, pleasant year-round climate (or polar climate, if you ask people from the south!), it’s popular with local tourists.

Every two years, in December, the town takes on magnificent colors for the Da Lat Flower Festival.

Don’t miss a visit to the Linh Phuoc pagoda and a gondola ride ($6) over the mountains. This leads to a station near a lake, a monastery and a magnificent garden.

If you’d like to try a local dish, goat meat (dê) is a local specialty and is eaten in hot pots or grilled.

Da Lat is a four-hour bus ride from Nha Trang ($20), an eight-hour night bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City ($20) or a one-hour flight ($40).

Phú Quoc

This island is nicknamed “The Pearl of Vietnam” because of its magnificent scenery and the pearl farms that can be found everywhere. The country’s most beautiful beaches can be found here, including Sao Beach, Long Beach and Starfish Beach.

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Tourism is growing steadily, and there are two Marriott Bonvoy hotels here, with others under construction.

Don’t miss a visit to the night market at Duong Dong, the cable car over the sea at An Thoi ($34), a tour of a pearl farm and a pepper plantation. It’s also a great destination to visit with the kids, with the VinWonders and Vinpearl Safari theme parks ($77 for both).

Located in the Gulf of Thailand, it can be reached by ferry from Hà Tiên (1 h 15, $20) in the extreme south of the country, or by air, which is by far the most popular option (two hours and $60 from Hanoi or one hour and $40 from Hô Chi Minh City).

Planning your trip to Vietnam

Itinerary suggestions

Vietnam has a lot to offer in terms of magnificent landscapes and culture. To make sure you don’t run out of time and have time to visit all three major regions, I recommend at least a two-week trip.

If you are arriving in Vietnam from a neighboring country by land, please note that it is NOT possible to obtain a visa at the border. To obtain an electronic visa (eVisa), you need to apply online in advance. This is a very important piece of information to note if Vietnam is part of a larger Southeast Asian travel itinerary.

The question on everyone’s mind when planning a trip to Vietnam: should you travel from north to south or from south to north? The answer depends on the season and the time you spend in the country. The weather is very distinct between the northern, central and southern regions.

For example, if you’re visiting the country in February (the month with the best weather in all regions), the direction of your itinerary won’t matter much. Likewise, if you’re traveling for seven to ten days, the weather won’t have time to vary much. So choose the direction of your itinerary according to which flights suit you best.

Second example: your trip lasts a month, from May to June. The rainy season is fast approaching in the south of the country, while the climate remains favorable in the center and north. In this case, it’s best to take a south-to-north route.

I really like this site, which can help you choose the best time to visit Vietnam.

1 week

One week is a very short time to visit Vietnam‘s main attractions. If you don’t have more time, I recommend you focus on a single region. Here are my suggestions for places to discover:

  • North: Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa
  • South: Hô Chi Minh and its museums, Mekong delta, Mui Né

2 weeks

In two weeks, you’ll have time to explore the country’s three main regions and points of interest. Spend around five days in each region, choosing domestic flights to save time on transport. Here’s an example of an itinerary that’s fairly busy, but takes in all the major attractions:

  • Day 1: Arrival in Hanoi
  • Day 2: Visit Hanoi and its picturesque districts
  • Day 3: Departure for the Ha Long Bay cruise
  • Day 4: Ha Long Bay cruise
  • Day 5: Return to Hanoi, night bus to Sa Pa
  • Day 6: Visit Sa Pa and hike through the villages
  • Day 7: Return to Hanoi, flight to Da Nang
  • Day 8: Visit to the imperial city of Hué
  • Day 9: Visit Hoi An
  • Day 10: Visit My Son and/or the Marble Mountains
  • Day 11: Flight to Da Lat, city tour
  • Day 12: Flight to Hô Chi Minh City, city tour
  • Day 13: Mekong Delta excursion
  • Day 14: Return flight
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Vietnam-42 – Crédit Marie-Ève

1 month

For an itinerary of more than three weeks, I suggest the same route as the two-week itinerary, but staying longer at each destination. You can also add off-the-beaten-path places like the three-day motorcycle trip to Hà Giang, a visit to the caves of Phong Nga and a night or two on the island of Cát Bà in Ha Long Bay.

For beach lovers, consider a visit to Phú Quoc, Nha Trang or Mui Né.

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An organized tour with G Adventures

If you’re short on time, traveling solo and want to explore the country without the hassle, my colleague Marie-Ève suggests you opt for a G Adventures tour. Because she wanted to maximize her time and visit the country from one end to the other, she opted for this 12-day tour.

G Adventures circuit Vietnam

G Adventures favors small groups and offers tours with a wide range of optional activities, giving you the freedom to travel in your own way, despite the group aspect. The company is committed to supporting local businesses and offering authentic experiences with local guides. This one was a bit more for backpackers, with accommodation sometimes in hostels, a few nights on trains and a few nights in shared hotel rooms.

Travelling to Vietnam with points

Vietnam has two major airports at opposite ends of the country: Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) in Hanoi and Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Ho Chi Minh City. As there are no direct flights between Canada and Vietnam, you’ll need to make a stopover in Europe, the Middle East or Asia.

Aeroplan

On Aeroplan from Montreal, you have a few options with a stopover in Frankfurt or Tokyo. Prices vary from route to route, and you’ll be faced with dynamic pricing for the segment operated by Air Canada.

It is also possible to use Aeroplan points to fly with Emirates to Vietnam, with a stopover in Dubai. Fares range from 60,000 to 110,000 Aeroplan points for a one-way trip in economy class, and 120,000 – 225, 000 points in business class.

Availability is rare, but Turkish Airways also connects Montreal to Ho Chi Minh City via Istanbul for 60,000 Aeroplan points in economy class and 87,500 in business class.

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Avios

The easiest and cheapest option is to book on Qatar Airways with Avios. Availability with Qatar Airways is generally easy to find, and points pricing follows a fixed chart according to distance.

A one-way flight from Montreal to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City costs just 47,500 Avios plus $211 in taxes. This flight has a cash value of $1662. The valuation calculation yields more than 3¢ per mile, making it an excellent use of Avios!

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Avios are easy to accumulate in Canada with credit cards. Here are the main options:

Of course, you don’t have to book your round trip with the same program. For example, you can book your outbound flight with Aeroplan points and your return with Avios.

Getting around Vietnam

Vietnam may look small on a map, but this country stretches over 1,650 km from one end to the other! To get from one destination to another, you can choose between short domestic flights or long-distance buses (mainly overnight journeys).

Buses

Night buses are a very popular means of transport in Vietnam. They are frequent and fairly reliable, but punctuality can leave something to be desired. A journey that was supposed to take three hours ended up taking five. You’ll need a lot more time than the information you’re given.

I found these buses comfortable, but you may not have the same experience as me depending on your size. Each seat is fully reclinable and converts into a bed. I was able to stretch out my legs completely, but not everyone was. One last detail: there’s no toilet on board. However, stops at rest areas are frequent on long journeys.

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The best way to book transport in Vietnam (and throughout Southeast Asia) in my opinion is 12Go Asia. It’s a handy search engine that lets you find different options and even book your ticket directly.

Domestic flights

If long bus journeys aren’t your cup of tea, domestic flight options abound. Four airlines operate in Vietnam:

Vietnam Airlines offers the most comprehensive range of services. As a member of SkyTeam, you can use FlyingBlue or Delta SkyMiles points to book award tickets. Vietnam Airlines serves almost every destination in Vietnam, with an impressive number of flights every day.

Bamboo Airways is a new Vietnamese airline. Having tried it on the Da Lat-Da Nang route, I was just as pleased with the service as I was with Vietnam Airlines. Bamboo Airways is partnered with Air Canada, so you can book these flights with Aeroplan points.

I also tested VietJet Air from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Because of the traffic in Hanoi, I missed my originally booked flight. I had no trouble changing my ticket on-site, and there was no charge. The flight itself is a classic low-cost experience, with no fuss and very friendly cabin crew.

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There’s no need to book domestic flights months or weeks in advance. Prices are always low, even at the last minute. It’s best to keep a little flexibility in your itinerary in case anything goes wrong (or if you fall in love with Ninh Bình like me and want to stay longer!).

Here’s a comparison of travel time and cost between flight and bus on popular routes:

  Duration Cost
Trip Flight Bus Flight Bus
Hanoi – Da Nang 1 h 20 4:00 p.m. $65 $25
Da Nang – Nha Trang 1 h 10 10 h $70 $30
Nha Trang – Hô Chi Minh City 1 h 5 11 h $50 $20

The plane saves a lot of time, but the savings are not substantial with the bus. I therefore recommend taking domestic flights when possible and taking the bus for destinations that don’t have an airport nearby (such as Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay and Ninh Bình, among others).

Trains and other means of transport

The train network links Hanoi to the north and Ho Chi Minh City to the south along the coast. The whole trip takes 31 to 35 hours! Several stops are made along the train route, mainly in the major cities of Dong Hoi, Hué, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and others. Various classes are available, but I recommend taking the upper class with a berth and air conditioning for a long journey.

Scooters and motorcycles are the preferred means of transport for getting around towns and villages. Southeast Asia’s equivalent of Uber is Grab, where it’s very common to simply hop in behind the driver. Rest assured, the helmet is included…

Regular cars are also available, but these are more expensive and there are fewer drivers.

I’ve also met travelers who rented a motorcycle in Hanoi and rode all the way to Hô Chi Minh! If this is an adventure you’re interested in, check with local tourist agencies for the best prices.

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Accommodation in Vietnam

With Marriott Bonvoy points

There are also a number of luxury hotels under the JW Marriott and Autograph Collection brands, such as the Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa and the Vinpearl Landmark 81 in Ho Chi Minh City. If you book with points, don’t forget the 5th night free trick!

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Marriott Bonvoy hotels can be found in major cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. At the time of writing, there are 20 hotels open and more under construction. As tourism continues to expand in the country, we can expect further additions to the Marriott Bonvoy collection in the coming years. These hotels are very affordable, with nights starting at 10,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.

With flexible travel points

In addition to the major hotel chains, Vietnam is also full of small, independent hotel options. Rates are very low, and it’s easy to find accommodation for under $50 a night. You can book your hotels on platforms such as Booking.com or Expedia for TD. For example, the generous welcome bonus of the TD First Class Travel® Visa Infinite* Card could cover most of your accommodation expenses.

Travel to Vietnam - Vietnamese cuisine

As a food lover, I couldn’t write a travel guide to Vietnam without mentioning the food. Vietnamese cuisine seduced me with its flavors and variety from one region to another. I liked it so much that I took a course at the Rose Kitchen in Hanoi, an experience I highly recommend.

Here are the essential dishes to try:

  • Bánh mì: sandwich in a baguette with meat, pâté and pickled vegetables.
  • Pho: soup with a highly aromatic broth, rice noodles, herbs and a beef or chicken filling.
  • Bún cha: rice noodles with charcoal-grilled meatballs in a sweet-and-sour broth. My favorite Vietnamese dish!
  • Nem rán: fried spring rolls.
  • Bún bò Hué: spicy soup in sweet and sour broth with rice vermicelli and beef garnish.
  • Cà phê: Vietnamese coffee, much stronger than American filter coffee and usually served with sweetened condensed milk. The coconut iced coffee and the egg coffee are also a must-try.
  • Lâu: Vietnamese version of fondue or hot pot. Served with a variety of meats, seafood, noodles, herbs and lots of vegetables.

Bottom Line

Vietnam is a magnificent country offering a rich diversity of landscapes, cultures and memorable experiences. It’s also an excellent destination for maximizing the value of your reward points. With a good variety of points in your wallet, such as Aeroplan points, Avios and Marriott Bonvoy points, you’ll have a fabulous trip at a great price.

Read on for our other articles on Southeast Asia:

Practical information

Do Canadians need a visa to visit Vietnam?

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Yes Canadian passport holders need a visa to enter Vietnam. Electronic visa applications (eVisa) are made online in advance. It will be processed within three working days, and the visa is valid for a single entry into the country, for a maximum stay of 30 days. To apply for a visa extension, contact local tourist agencies. If you are arriving in Vietnam by land from a neighboring country, please note that it is NOT possible to obtain a visa at the border.

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When is the best time to visit Vietnam?

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It all depends on the region you want to visit, as the weather is very different in the north and south. Generally speaking, February, March and April are the months with the best weather in the whole country.

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What is the recommended length of stay in Vietnam?

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For a satisfying experience and to discover the country’s main attractions, a minimum duration of two weeks is recommended. Depending on your preferences and travel style, you may need three weeks or even a month. Vietnam is full of places to discover!

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What currency is used in Vietnam?

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The currency used in Vietnam is the dong (₫ or VND). This currency is not available outside the country. The easiest way to get dongs is to exchange them for US dollars at local jewelry stores. Larger denominations (100 USD and 50 USD) are preferred to smaller ones.

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What are the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam?

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Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches are on the island of Phu Quoc, in the Gulf of Thailand. Nha Trang, Da Nang and Mui Né are other popular seaside resorts.

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Are vaccinations required to visit Vietnam?

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No vaccinations are required to enter Vietnam. Routine travel vaccinations are strongly recommended (hepatitis A and B, tetanus, typhoid fever). Rabies vaccination is also recommended for visits to rural areas. Consult a travel health professional or your pharmacist for advice tailored to your medical situation.

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Is there a risk of malaria in Vietnam?

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The risk of contracting malaria in Vietnam is low, especially in areas popular with visitors (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Long, Da Nang, Phu Quoc). Preventive treatment is generally not necessary. However, preventive measures against insect bites are still recommended.

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Alexandrine
Always on the lookout for exotic destinations, Alexandrine shares her strategies for traveling while saving with points and miles. She's an avid cook, both at home and abroad.

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