Planning a trip can be time consuming and stressful. If you’re traveling a long distance, or have a limited amount of time, you want to make sure you choose the right destination. Southeast Asia is one of those places – far enough from North America and Europe that, when you go, you want to make sure you have an incredible time. So the question is – if you have limited time, should you visit Thailand or Vietnam? Well, it all depends on your interests and what’s important to you. We think both countries are amazing and worth visiting for their own reasons. We hope our post helps you decide!
One of the main reasons travelers go to Thailand is for the beaches. The country has numerous soft, sandy beaches stretching for miles, and warm, calm waters. With so many islands easily accessible from Phuket, there are plenty of options. Further afield, the beaches of Khao Lak, north of Phuket, provide another option with lesser crowds. Southeast of Bangkok, the islands of Koh Chang and Koh Mak provide even more options if you’re willing to brave the 5-hour bus ride and ferry to get there.
The downside is you’re not exactly breaking virgin ground. It’s often difficult to escape the crowds, or feel like you’re “getting away from it all” in Thailand. Calls from local vendors echo on most beaches.
Vietnam, on the other hand, isn’t really known as a beach destination, but that’s changing. Phu Quoc and Nha Trang are probably the best known beach destinations in Vietnam. Da Nang and Hoi An, in particular, have long, beautiful stretches of beach. They’re near the towns, so there are plenty of amenities, and they’re easy to get to. The scenery can be just as beautiful as Thailand, but without the crowds. But we’re putting you on notice – Vietnam is an up-and-coming beach destination. Check it out before the waterfronts become overbuilt with luxury resorts.
Advantage: We have to give it to Thailand.
As long as you like rice and noodles, you’ll be more than happy with either country! Just kidding – sort of. The abundance of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in cities around the world means that most people are at least partially familiar with the cuisines of each country.
Thailand is obviously famous for its pad thai, spring rolls, and coconut milk based curries. However, there are also plenty of regional dishes, and noticeable differences between cuisines in northern and southern Thailand. As a more developed country than some of its neighbours, travelers can feel a bit safer ordering fresh food such as papaya and mango salads, and fresh fruit smoothies when their all-carb diet is weighing them down (literally). As with anywhere, the quality of dishes can vary wildly. The best pad thai we ate our entire trip was one we cooked ourselves in a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai. Our favourite dish across the country was probably the Khao Soi, a noodle soup specialty in northern Thailand.
When most people think of Vietnamese cuisine, they think of pho – the often imitated noodle soup available from take-out restaurants and food courts around the world. However, that’s just the start of it. We found many more rice dishes than we saw elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and much more of a Chinese influence, especially in the North.
It’s also very interesting to see the French influence, on the overall culture, but specifically with the food. Bahn mi sandwiches, with fresh ingredients piled on top of crusty French baguettes, made for a fantastic and inexpensive lunch in Hanoi for us. We also found the spring rolls in Vietnam were consistently better than any we had in Thailand. Plus, unique dishes, like egg coffee, really set Vietnam apart. And, similar to Thailand, there are significant regional variations and differences, even for a basic dish like pho.
Although, our hands-down favourite dish in Vietnam (and probably all of Southeast Asia) is the Cao Lau, a noodle dish local to Hoi An. In fact, we’ve made it from scratch (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) many times since returning to Canada.
Advantage: The food in both countries is amazing, but we think Vietnam wins.
Both countries have a ton of natural beauty. But in both cases, it’s the coastline that provides the most stunning views. Thailand has its beautiful beaches and stunning islands.
However, we found the scenery in Vietnam is often more dramatic than Thailand. It’s also quite diverse, from the mountain ranges, karst peaks, and huge caves in the North, to the beaches and sand dunes in Central, to the maze of rivers of the Mekong Delta in the South. Our scenery highlights were the gorgeous mountains of Sapa and the karst limestone peaks of Ha Long and Lan Ha bays. Ha Long Bay is a well known destination to go for a day trip or overnight from Hanoi. We preferred spending some time at nearby Cat Ba island instead.
The island itself is stunning and mountainous, and best explored by motorbike. From Cat Ba town, we took a daytrip cruise into both Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. Lan Ha was quieter and no less beautiful than Ha Long, and by basing ourselves in Cat Ba, we could see everything and go for a long kayak and still be back in town for dinner.
Advantage: In our opinion, Vietnam.
Thailand is a well established tourist destination. Getting around the country is easy. English is widely spoken, at least in any area even remotely dependent economically on tourism. Buses and trains are generally comfortable, with some bus routes boasting high-end, pimped-out long distance buses that are fancier than anything we’ve ever seen in North America.
While a tourist still needs to negotiate for many purchases and taxi rides, that’s standard in this part of the world. And while there is always a 2-class (or even a 3- or 4-class) pricing system, where foreigners pay more than locals, we never felt like we were getting ripped off or scammed.
And then there’s Vietnam. We had heard many horror stories of tourists being scammed before going. See our Vietnam guide for first time visitors. Even when booking our hotel in Saigon, the hotel felt it necessary to recommend that they book our transfer from the airport, because there is no guarantee that if you hail a taxi yourself, it will take you to the right hotel.
It’s common (or at least not uncommon) for multiple hotels to have the same or similar names, confusing travelers and allowing lesser hotels to sponge off the good reputations of better hotels. There are cases of hotels paying taxi drivers to bring unknowing tourists to their hotel. And that’s just one of the many foreigner scams we were warned about. We heard of many other scams involving boat cruises (pay for the ultra luxury cruise, then show up to find an old, decrepit junker), copy-cat tour companies, and tour guides in cahoots with locals to essentially “force” foreigners to buy souvenirs (cough Sapa cough).
Here’s an interesting figure. Apparently, over 50% of Thailand’s tourists return. The return rate for Vietnam, meanwhile, sits around 5%. The abundance of scams is probably a leading cause of that discrepancy. It’s really too bad. We loved our time in Vietnam and really want to go back. Many of the issues we talk about are easily preventable with a bit of local enforcement. But, until then, we’ll keep our wits about us and enjoy the smaller crowds as many travelers continue to be scared away.
Both countries have a wide range of accommodations to suit all budgets. From backpackers traveling on a strict budget to families to luxury couples retreats, you’ll be able to find it all. Thailand likely has more choices given it is generally a more built-up and well established destination. But in either country, travelers will be able to find accommodation that suits their needs and budgets. As with anywhere, it just takes a bit of diligence to make sure you get the best value for money and don’t have any surprises on check-in.
You want to see shrines and temples? Fantastic! Thailand has you covered. Want something different? Check out an old temple. That not your thing? There are many newer temples that are beautiful. They are beautiful to see. But we have to admit – after a few days/weeks/cities, we were a bit “templed out”. If you want temples without all the crowds, we highly recommend Sukhothai, the ancient Thai capital.
If you want to see something other than beaches or temples, and have even a passing interest in WWII history, here’s a tip: Go to Kanchanaburi.
And for something a bit more sporting, check out some Muay Thai kickboxing.
Now, don’t get us wrong, Vietnam has its share of temples and shrines as well. But in addition to that, the influence of French colonization, and later the Vietnam War and communist rule, added layers of non-religious influence that shaped Vietnam’s culture into something unique in Southeast Asia.
Thailand has a hot season, running from March/April to June/July. That then turns into the hot & wet season that continues to October as the southwest monsoon impacts the country. The cool season is drier and more comfortable, but don’t let the name fool you – temps are still easily in the 20s celsius and higher.
Vietnam has a more diverse climate. The south divides the year between wet and dry seasons, similar to Thailand. In central Vietnam, the mountain ranges have an impact. Da Lat and the central highlands have their dry season from December – March until the southwestern monsoon rolls in. Areas in the central lowlands, such as Nha Trang, are protected by the mountains and enjoy a long dry season from January – October.
The north has an actual winter and summer, completely different to much of Southeast Asia. The winter, from November – March, is wet and cool. The summer, from May to October, is hot with the occasional typhoon. Since many travelers hit Southeast Asia in January/February for the dry season, arriving to winter in Hanoi and cold, wet days in places like Sapa can be a shock to the system.
Advantage: If you like really hot weather, Thailand. If you don’t mind a bit of variety, Vietnam.
So who’s the “winner”? Well, it depends. For someone on their first trip to Southeast Asia, we’d have to recommend they go to Thailand. It’s an easier, more comfortable trip for sure. For a traveler with experience, who wants to go somewhere a bit less touristy and a bit rougher around the edges, absolutely go to Vietnam. Or better yet, quit your job, take more time off, and go to both!