Whether you’re backpacking around Southeast Asia or you’re planning a holiday to the region, Vietnam and Thailand are likely to feature on your hit list. Both destinations offer variety of pleasures, from fabulous coastlines with idyllic islands to mountainous regions and breathtaking natural wonders. But when it comes to exploring Vietnam or Thailand, which one should you visit first? We’ve whittled it down by category to help you decide where to go based on your interests.
Thai food has all the classics known the world over, like pad Thai or massaman curry, and is heavy on the coconut milk and shrimp paste. But Vietnamese cuisine is gaining in popularity too, thanks to its simplicity and healthy nature – try bánh mì (sandwiches) filled with raw vegetables and sweet minced pork, or enjoy a comforting pho (rice noodle broth).
Vietnam’s nightlife scene is a little more subdued, and while you will find clubs in its big cities, the after-dark highlight here is bia hơi. Brewed in small bars, or sometimes even in people’s living rooms, this local lager is sipped from small glasses while sitting in tiny plastic chairs, often on a street corner as a frenetic city buzzes around you. There’s no more Vietnamese experience than this.
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Vietnam’s coastline is long, and there are a few fun stops along it (Hoi An is delightful and Nha Trang and Da Nang make great enjoyable city breaks), but the beaches here can often be polluted and facilities are nowhere near as sophisticated as its neighbour. In Thailand, you’ve got an overwhelming choice of beach break destinations, from the coast spreading east and west from Bangkok and the islands strung out in the Andaman sea.
Read our guide to Thailand’s best beaches here.
There are hundreds of religious and cultural festivals throughout Thailand too, which offer an insight into the country’s traditions and beliefs like nothing else – Songkhran, the Thai New year, is the most exciting of all.
Modern culture abounds in Bangkok, too. The Bangkok Art & Culture Centre is a great place to start, then you can delve into the local art scene at independent galleries like Kalwit Studio and 100 Tonson Gallery.
Trekking here is utterly superb, with hardcore multi-day hikes and less challenging day walks available. You’ll pass terraced rice paddies, limestone mountains and get to meet some of the country’s ethnic minorities in the rural hill stations. Try the trek to Sa Pa, or for something a little more off-beat, head to Phong Nha-Ke Bang where you can trek deep into caves or sleep under canvas in thick jungle (guided only due to unexploded ordnance).
With two major cities – Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south – it’s the ultimate destination for a holiday sandwiched by two thrilling city breaks. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has the gripping but devastating War Remnants Museum which details the horrors of the Vietnam-American war, and the capital Hanoi is home to the mausoleum of the country’s embalmed former dictator and a beautiful lake with a pretty pagoda at its centre.
Both have great bars and restaurants, good accommodation options and an addictively frenetic vibe – plus, they’re much more affordable than Thailand’s capital.
If you have your heart set on visiting Vietnam, we recommend you check out our guide to the best things to do in Vietnam to start planning your trip here.
Top image: Wat Rong Khun (White temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand © PhotoGraphic/Shutterstock