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.
Best for: food
Food influences so many of our travel decisions these days, so if you plan your trips based on cuisine you’ll have a hard time deciding between Vietnam and Thailand. Both countries have excellent eats on offer, with plenty of zingy, fresh flavours and comforting hot noodle dishes.
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).
Best for: nightlife
If you love a good party, both Thailand and Vietnam present excellent options. Full moon parties abound on Thailand’s islands (the original being Ko Pha Ngan), and even when there is no full moon, beach bars and nightclubs keep the good vibes going every night. In the capital of Bangkok, the party scene is equally wild, with bars serving beer towers and cocktails in buckets down the main backpacker thoroughfare, Khao San Road – though avoid its seedier side and ignore the tuk-tuk drivers offering lifts to less salubrious late-night activities.
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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Best for: beaches
Both Thailand and Vietnam have a coastline, the former lapped by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, and the latter washed over by the South China Sea. But there is one clear winner here: for its pristine sands and sheer variety of beaches, Thailand is the place to go.
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.
Best for: culture
Both Thailand and Vietnam have fascinating culture, but the Thailand’s temples win out for their sheer splendour. Bangkok’s Grand Palace is a striking introduction to Buddhism for any first-time visitor, with its shimmering gold stupas and serene-faced Buddhas, and elsewhere in country you’ll find incredible structures like the pristine Wat Tham Pha Plong surrounded by jungle just, or the intriguing Wat Rong Khun at Chiang Rai. Entirely white on the outside, it’s painted with eye-popping, colourful murals depicting modern vices on the inside – a fascinating commentary on modern life.
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.
Best for: active adventure
If getting outdoors is your bag, head to Vietnam. This country’s natural beauty is astounding, from the astonishing karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long (both stunning kayaking destinations) to the undulating valleys among its northern hills.
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).
Best for: urban adventures
Bangkok is a sprawling, glitzy city with its own unique blend of chaos and an abundance of great accommodation options, but for dynamic, ever-surprising and fascinating urban adventures, Vietnam wins this round.
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