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The Just Student Jobs Country guide for gap year travel in South East Asia - Vietnam

Where to Go - South East Asia

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Population : 86m

Literacy rate : 90.3%

Life expectancy at birth : 71.33 yrs

Infant mortality rate : 6.18 deaths/1,000 live births

Population growth rate : 0.99%

GDP growth rate : 8.5%

GDP per capita : £1,275

Unemployment : 5.3%

Inflation : 8.3%

Climate : tropical in south, monsoonal in the north

Time : GMT +7 in Hanoi

Electricity : 220v AC. 50Hz.

Capital city : Hanoi

Currency : Vietnamese Dong, US dollar

Language : Vietnamese, English, older population speak some French


The official Vietnam Government site is at

The tourism homepage is at

Impressions of Vietnam are for the most of us based on the glut of war movies that emerged during the 1980s and 90s depicting the long drawn out struggle for power between the communist North and US supported anti-communist South. Whilst Vietnam has certainly moved on - rebuilding itself from a conflict ravaged post civil war economy to one of the fastest growing in the world - the aftermath is still very dominant in the nation's psyche. A fierce national pride ripples through the country and no where is this more evident than in the North Vietnamese city, Hanoi where Vietnamese icon, Ho Chi Minh, rests, embalmed in his Mausoleum (based on a model of Lenin's resting place). One of the most influential men of the 20th Century Ho Chi Minh, whose self adopted moniker translates as 'he who enlightens', struggled to gain and maintain independence for the Vietnamese people, firstly from the French in 1954 and then against the US assisted anti communist South Vietnamese. The long drawn out struggle against the anti-communist American invaders cost the country a great deal, around 3.5 million Vietnamese died , but was critical to the resistance. It was Ho Chi Minh who said, 'if the tiger does not stop fighting the elephant, the elephant will die of exhaustion'. Unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh he did not live to see the 1975 victory. Nowadays the ex President's image is omnipresent across Vietnam where he is considered a great hero.

Vietnam is a long thin country winding itself around Cambodia, Laos and bordering China in the North. At its narrowest point the country is only 50km across. The terrain is varied with mountainous forests dominating the North, white sandy beaches along the east coast and the waterways of the Mekong delta in the South. The temperature can range between -5 degrees in the hills to 37 in the run up to the wet season (May to October - November). Weather conditions can be extreme here, and typhoons can brew up between May to January. There is a high level of biodiversity although the density of the population in the major towns means you have to travel to see it. Pleasant excursions from the buzz of city life include Halong Bay in Quang Ninh Province in the North, where limestone karsts and floating fishing villages pepper the peaceful blue bays and inlets .

Vietnam is the 13th most populous country in the world and any visitor to the large cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in the South will be find themselves immersed in vibrant bustling market towns where the locals chomp chicken skewers in the street as they rest on their haunches and rice paper hatted ladies from the countryside harangue you to buy their wares. The merchandise on offer, if you don't care about the authenticity of a brand, is incredible and bargaining hard is imperative. Choices for dining range from street markets to fine French cuisine or funky cafes. Crossing roads can be daunting as the pedestrian faces a veritable wall of mopeds intent on ignoring traffic lights and stop signs. The best bet is to use a local as an airbag and wait for the traffic to weave itself around you. Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi and the surrounding park offers a reprieve from the mayhem. Surrounded by pleasant cafes the lake is back drop to hundreds of locals doing tai chi or playing badminton and there is a die hard chinese chess playing community near the Ngoc Sun Pagoda.

Ho Chi Minh city is less beautiful, perhaps as it lost so many of the french colonial buildings during the war. The city wears some of the scars of its former role as capital of the defeated South Vietnam. The 3 wheel rickshaws, known as cyclos, where the driver sits up high and passengers sit in deep metal bucket seats, are often the only way former doctors and teachers can make enough to survive. Punished for siding with the South Vietnamese and the Americans, these former professionals have no work rights or citizenship. Their plight made harder by the government's intent to phase out the cyclo business. The Chu Chi tunnels, 45 miles from Ho Chi Minh city, show the incredible bravery and plight of the fighters and villagers. The 75 mile long underground maze of dark and claustrophobic tunnels give some idea of how, despite the massively superior fire power of the Americans, the Viet Cong took control by night. The Museum of War Remnants, which recently changed it's name from the more controversial, Museum of American War Crimes', also offers a harrowing account of the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the war.

Nowadays the struggle is economic and the state socialist government faces the challenge of providing employment for a work force growing 1.5 million people per year. A demographic skew in the population with the ratio of over 65 year old men to women at 0.63 is also not helpful as older women may become a burden on their families. The 1980s were spent in the economic doldrums as the reunified country struggled under a state planned communist economic policy and it was only in 1986 that the more free market reforms under the name 'Doi Moi', meaning renovations, were introduced. The result has been the gradual transformation of Vietnam into an export driven competitive power with industry ranging from the traditional agricultural exports to computer chips and other hi tech products. Joining the ASEAN free trade agreement, a bilateral trade pact with the US and membership of the WTO as improved the lot of the average Vietnamese and the percentage of the population living in deep poverty, defined as less than 1US$ per day, is now below China, India and the Philippines.

Altogether Vietnam is a fun and vibrant place to spend time and often a gap year or backpacker destination. The country's pride and self identity is infectious. Historically Vietnam is fascinating and there are vastly different terrains on offer for excursions. English is widely spoken. With a train network spanning 2600km getting around is easy and will give opportunities to chat to the locals. Like most of the tropical South East Asia diseases such as Dengue Fever and Malaria are rife so protecting one's skin with deet is essential and your travel injection programme should be up to date.

Gap Year Programmes

Click here to find gap year programmes and placements in Vietnam

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