Across the world, Vietnam is famous for a number of things: Pho, Egg Coffee, Halong Bay, having Robin Williams scream morning salutations and of course, the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam). But there’s so much more to this dynamic country.
Did you know Vietnam is consistently voted as the cheapest country to travel in Southeast Asia or that it’s one of the worlds largest coffee producers? Before visiting the country, I didn’t have a clue – to be honest, I hadn’t even heard of Pho at the time! Don’t be like me. Start your education now with these 20 amazing facts about Vietnam!
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20 Astounding Facts About Vietnam
1. Vietnam is actually a combination of two words, Viet and Nam, both of which predate the common era by at least a thousand years
While nobody can put an exact date on when these words came to describe Vietnam, it’s well accepted that in ancient Chinese, ‘Viet’ was used to describe a group of people from outside the country’s borders and ‘Nam’ meant to the south. So in the Chinese language, Viet Nam would’ve meant the people to the south.
However, in ancient Vietnamese, ‘Viet’ is used to refer to fairies and dragons. Scholars believe this is referencing how the Vietnamese people came into being. According to legend, they are descended from dragons and fairies!
Even though it’s been used for thousands of years, Vietnam only became the official name of the country in 1804, during the Nguyen dynasty.
Today, the two word variant of Vietnam is used by Vietnamese nationals, neighbouring countries and even the UN. It’s only in western writing that we use the single word Vietnam.
2. Sitting at 3143 metres, Fansipan is Vietnam’s tallest mountain
Fansipan is located in Sapa, an area famous for its layered rice terraces and colourful indigenous groups. To get to the region, you can either brave a six-hour bus journey from Hanoi or take the much more comfortable overnight train!
The mountain is known as ‘The Roof of Indochina’, which from time to time can cause a little confusion as definitions of Indochina vary. The most commonly accepted refers to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Good job too because if you expanded Indochina out to Thailand and Myanmar – the nickname for Fansipan Mountain would no longer be true. Myanmar has several peaks well over 5000 metres!
In 2016, a 6292-metre cable car was built to take tourists to the top of the mountain. Prior to this, the only way to reach the top was via a multi-day trek, which easily ranks as one of Southeast Asia’s best treks!
3. Among certain niche circles, Vietnam is referred to as ‘The King Of Cashews’
As the world’s largest exporter of cashew nuts, Vietnam produces more than 55% of the global supply and makes well over two billion dollars a year from the industry.
Cashew plants were brought to Vietnam during the 19th century and were originally grown in gardens to provide shade. In 1990, the Vietnamese government spotted the potential of cashew nut production and invested heavily in the industry. It didn’t take long for this investment to pay off and by the mid-1990s, Vietnam was the world’s largest exporter.
4. As well as being THE major exporter of cashew nuts, Vietnam takes the top spot in black pepper exports
Over a third of the world’s black pepper comes from Vietnam and the industry has grown to be worth billions of dollars each year.
Black pepper has been grown in Asia for centuries. Native to India, the spice spread across the continent and has been used in local dishes for time immemorial. However, it was not until the 1980s that Vietnam started producing pepper on an industrial scale.
In recent years, the Vietnamese Dong has depreciated in value significantly against the US dollar but the costs of producing pepper are all domestic so unaffected by this depreciation. The profit margin for exporters has grown significantly because of this and the industry continues to thrive in Vietnam.
5. Vietnam has 3,444km of coastline
According to the World Factbook, Vietnam’s coastline is the 33rd longest in the world – assuming the calculations are correct of course!*
This epic stretch of coast has enough to keep travellers busy for months on end – just watch you don’t spend so much time on the beach that your visa expires!
Cities like Nha Trang and Da Nang are popular with tourists for their stunning beaches and great nightlife. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An also draws crowds due to its stunning beaches and of course, its cheap tailors.
The famous Halong Bay and less-visited Lan Ha Bay also make up an impressive stretch of the country’s northern coastline.
*It’s notoriously difficult to measure the exact length of a coastline – If you’re bored one day, this is a fractal filled rabbit hole well worth diving into!
6. Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries in the world to get a tailor-made outfit
In the coastal city of Hoi An, you can get a bespoke suit or dress made for well under $100.
Hoi An seems an unlikely spot to find more than 500 tailors but the industry arose when the city was a bustling trading port along the silk route. With a ton of material being traded on the city’s markets, those skilled with a needle and thread saw the opportunity to acquire cheap fabrics and pass those savings onto their customers. The tradition stretches back over 1800 years but tourists have only taken advantage of the cheap wares in the last couple of decades.
7. Vietnamese New Year is known as Tet
It’s the largest Vietnamese festival and one of the most popular festivals in Southeast Asia. Over 90 million people celebrate Tet, which is usually held on the same day as Chinese New Year. However, occasionally the one hour time difference between the two countries means the new moon occurs on different days and therefore New Year is celebrated on a different date…
Tet is celebrated by cleaning the house, reuniting with family and giving offerings to ancestors.
8. Almost every household in Vietnam has a motorcycle
There are more than 60 million motorbikes in the country. Not bad when you consider the population is around 90 million. By comparison, the UK with a population of around 60 million has just one million motorcycles!
Vietnamese plans to reduce the number of bikes or completely ban them in cities like Hanoi rely heavily on new public transport systems being integrated but by all accounts, that isn’t going smoothly!
Due to the number of motorbikes and other vehicles on the road, every traveller knows that crossing the road in Vietnam can terrify newcomers! It’s one aspect of culture shock that you’ll need to get used to pretty fast, especially if you’re planning to visit one of Vietnam’s major cities.
Also read: Transportation Guide to Vietnam.
9. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s first President and Prime Minister can be viewed in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The embalmed body of Uncle Ho (as he is lovingly referred to in Vietnam) is on display in Hanoi from January to September and is under the watchful eye of armed guards 24 hours a day.
Ho Chi Minh is moved from Hanoi to Moscow every October where he spends a few months undergoing maintenance before being put back on display in January.
10. Sepak Takraw is a traditional sport played in Vietnam. It’s also known as ‘kick volleyball’
Participants must pass a ball over a net, slightly smaller than a badminton net, using only their feet and heads. It is also played in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
11. Snake Wine has an almost legendary status in Vietnam
It’s one of the stranger gastronomic choices in Southeast Asia. Bottles of wine with snakes coiled inside, as if ready to strike, can be seen in shops and on markets throughout the country.
Generally, it’s made by putting a live snake into the full bottle and leaving it to drown. Just before dying the snake will revert to a defensive coiled position, which is attractive to potential customers as it implies the snake was a feisty and powerful creature.
Sometimes the snakes are stunned, gutted and sewn back up before being placed in the wine. This process has to be done quickly to ensure the snake is still alive when it enters the alcohol.
Snake wine is thought to improve health and vitality as well as enhancing sexual performance although this is not verified.
12. Vietnam is home to the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong
Stretching over three miles, Hang Son Doong is a natural marvel. It’s wide enough to fly a Boeing 747 through and many of the cave’s chambers are large enough to house an entire block of New York City skyscrapers!
In a couple of places, the roof of the cave has collapsed, inviting the jungle into its depths. Trees, plants and wildlife fell into the hole and have made the cave their home. Today these trees reach over 30 metres high and create an ecosystem unique to Hang Son Doong. It is said, under the right conditions, clouds can even form within the cave system!
If one didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume Jules Verne used Hang Son Doong was the inspiration for Journey To The Centre Of The Earth!
13. The Hoan Kiem Turtle was one of the most endangered animals in the world
The famous Hoan Kiem Turtle, known as Cụ Rùa (Great Grandfather Turtle), made Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi its home. It was revered by Hanoians for the role it played in freeing Vietnam from the Chinese.
It is said that the Hoan Kiem Turtle was the living embodiment of the Great Turtle God, Kim Qui. After the Vietnamese ruler Lê Lợi defeated the Chinese, using a magical sword borrowed from the gods, Kim Qui rose out of the lake in central Hanoi and asked for the sword to be returned. Lê Lợi did as he was asked and named the lake Hoan Kiem Lake, Lake of the Returned Sword.
Whether or not you want to believe in the mythology of the lake’s turtle, the facts themselves are equally as astounding. In 2016, the last Hoan Kiem Turtle was found dead in the lake. It was around 2 metres in length and weighed more than 200kg! Upon examination, international scientists determined that the Hoan Kiem Turtle was a Yangtze Soft Shell Turtle and not a different, albeit similar species as had been speculated by Vietnamese authorities.
If the Hoan Kiem Turtle was, as is widely believed, a Yangtze Soft Shell Turtle then it would’ve been just one of four remaining in the world. There are now only three known specimens in existence, two in China and one in Vietnam.
14. The Vietnam War
Known as the American War to the Vietnamese, this conflict is what most people think of when you mention Vietnam. It lasted close to twenty years and more than 3,000,000 Vietnamese and 60,000 American lives were lost.
As well as dropping huge amounts of incendiary devices in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam during the war, US forces sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides on the dense Vietnamese jungles. This was to reduce the cover offered by the jungles and prevent enemy forces from moving unseen through the foliage. Even though the conflict ended close to 50 years ago, many of the jungles have never returned to their pre-war state.
The war ended in 1975 when Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the North Vietnamese forces but the US had already pulled their troops and financial support out of the country by this point.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the USA and Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations.
15. The name Nguyen is the most common surname in Vietnam
Reportedly 40% of Vietnamese folk are Nguyen – including Ho Chi Minh himself! The surname is pronounced ‘win’.
16. The largest Vietnamese island, Phu Quoc is actually closer to Cambodia than Vietnam
Just a one hour flight from Ho Chi Minh, Phu Quoc is making a name for itself among backpackers. Clear waters, friendly locals and beautiful beaches draw in Vietnamese and foreign tourists year-round!
17. The Vietnamese flag is a yellow star on a red background
The star represents the five main classes in society: intellectuals, farmers, workers, youth and military personnel. The red background represents blood lost during years of conflict in the country.
18. Banh Mi Sandwiches are King
When it comes to Southeast Asian street food, you might be used to spicy noodle dishes, fried insects and questionable meat skewers but in Vietnam, the Banh Mi sandwich rules the roost.
This baguette filled with meat, cheese, pickles and seasonal veg is a Vietnamese staple and one that has been filling the bellies of backpackers and locals for generations.
At less than a dollar for a filling sandwich, it’s easy to see why Banh Mi are such a popular Vietnamese staple.
19. Vietnam is home to one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls
Ban Gioc Waterfall is Vietnam’s widest waterfall and one of the least visited natural wonders in the country. It is fed by the Quay Son River which marks the border between Vietnam and China. The falls have several terraces and stand over thirty metres tall. In the wet season, there’s so much water cascading down the falls that the terraces completely disappear and take on the appearance of a single waterfall.
20. Vietnam is the cheapest place in the world to grab a pint
We’ve saved the best for last!
This is thanks to the Vietnamese institution of Bia Hoi. If you’re happy to sit on tiny plastic stools crammed into any available space on the busy Vietnamese sidewalks, then you’ll easily get Bia Hoi for around 20 cents a glass – they may even be a buy one get one free offer if you visit during happy hour!
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