Thailand or Vietnam: Which Is Right for You?
So, you’re ready to explore Southeast Asia! But when as you look at the map, you begin to realise that there are so many great destinations to visit.
Two of the biggest contenders for backpackers are Thailand and Vietnam. If you don’t have time to travel both of these exciting countries, then which one is best for you?
From the islands of southern Thailand to the jungles of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, we decided to put that question to the test. Thailand or Vietnam: which is right for you?
Thailand is easily one of the most popular beach holiday destinations in the world, so it’s safe to say that the nation boasts an excellent array of beaches.
You can find beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear waters all along the coastline in the south of the country. Destinations such as Krabi, Phuket, Koh Lipe and Koh Samui are all well known for their excellent beaches; you will quite literally be spoilt for choice in Thailand.
Those beaches and resorts can be crowded though, because millions of tourists visit them every year. Plus, in peak season, prices can be overwhelmingly high. Vietnam on the other hand, isn’t exactly known for its beaches. However, with one of the longest coastlines in the world – if you look at a map, you’ll see that Vietnam is mostly coastline – then you may realise a little more investigation is required.
Vietnam has some glorious beaches. They just aren’t well advertised or haven’t yet been taken over by resorts and package holidaymakers. Head to the island of Phu Quoc in the south for a tropical getaway to rival anything Thailand can provide, or head to the long, wide beaches of Danang or Hue, where you can enjoy the next big beach destinations in Southeast Asia for a fraction of the cost of Thailand and with a fraction of the crowds.
Thailand and Vietnam are two of the most cultural travel destinations that you could pick in Southeast Asia. Choosing between the two countries in this respect will always be a challenge!
In Thailand, you have a unique culture that has seen very little outside influence over the centuries. In Bangkok, you can admire the splendour of the royal palaces, while in every town or village you will find temples and statues dedicated to Buddhism and the Buddha.
There are some wonderful festivals in Thailand, the highlight being Songkran or the Thai New Year. This incredible event sees the streets filled with water guns and water fights as tourists and locals alike celebrate.
Vietnam has a more eclectic set of influences, ranging from French to socialist. But there is still a fascinating culture to delve into.
The Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, is the biggest festival of the year here, but you’ll also find smaller festivals any month you choose to visit. The Vietnamese War, or the American War as it’s called here, is still very fresh and in living memory, and many of the tourist sights will revolve around battlefields or museums. You can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City to see where the guerrilla fighters used to live, or you can take battlefield tours around the DMZ that divided the north and the south, a place that became the scene of fierce fighting during the war.
Food and Drink
Asked to choose between two phenomenal foodie destinations anywhere in the world, then the choice between Thailand and Vietnam will always be one of the toughest.
Both countries offer some of the best food in Southeast Asia. If you have the time and the space in your stomach then any true foodie shouldn’t choose one over the other, but should visit both.
If that’s not a luxury that you have, then perhaps let your personal tastes make the decision for you. Thai food is more international and is best known for its steaming hot (and spicy) curries that are cooked using a delicious coconut cream base. You can try red curries, green curries or massaman curries, while you’ll also find the likes of Pad Thai or fried rice everywhere.
In Vietnam, the cuisine is slowly making a name for itself in outside circles, as more and more travellers return home raving about the food.
The biggest dish in Vietnam is Pho, a delicious noodle soup that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The French influence is apparent in the baking, and you can pick up a Banh Mi – essentially a stuffed baguette – from the street food vendors, packed with all manner of fresh herbs and fillings.
Both countries have some wonderful street food markets to visit, and the best food is always cooked the local way and served up simply and inexpensively.
If you’re looking for adventure, then Vietnam is an explorer’s dream. This is the most ‘off the beaten track’ destination, in comparison to the well-worn tourist trails of Thailand, and there’s so much opportunity to uncover raw nature and rarely visited sights and attractions.
In the north of Vietnam, you can cruise through the karst rock scenery of Halong Bay, or trek deep into the hills and mountains of Sapa where you’ll find misty rice terraces. There’s endless jungle and Vietnam is even home to the Hang Son Doong Cave, which is purported to be the largest cave in the world.
However, Thailand doesn’t lack for adventurous pursuits. You can go diving in Koh Tao, rock climbing in Krabi, or trekking in the highlands and jungles around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
Vietnam and Thailand are very biodiverse countries, however in both nations you need to be careful when visiting tourist attractions involving animals, such as tiger temples or elephant rides, as neither have stellar reputations when it comes to animal rights.
In Thailand, there is excellent snorkelling and scuba diving around the islands, while in Vietnam you can head into the jungles or the highlands in search of Southeast Asian wildlife.
In Thailand, it’s impossible to visit the country without at least passing through Bangkok, the vibrant, noisy and chaotic capital. Bangkok is a destination in itself, and you can spend days enjoying the historic sights and temples, the endless street food markets or the late night partying.
Outside of Bangkok though, the northern city of Chiang Mai is the only other city that really makes an appearance on the tourist trails, and Thailand isn’t that great for urban adventurers.
Vietnam has more to offer in the way of cities. Most journeys start or end in either Ho Chi Minh City in the south or Hanoi in the north. HCMC is a chaotic, motorcycle-strewn city that never seems to sleep, while Hanoi is the more conservative, yet laidback and historic of the two. In between you have the foodie delights of Hoi An, the history of Hue, and many more urban delights to discover.
Thailand is the place to go if your number one priority is finding a good party. The country has some notoriously good nightlife, and because there are so many backpackers and travellers, you can find bars and parties in almost any touristy destination. Thailand is a LGBT friendly destination, perfect for those searching out gay travel experiences with party as well as cultural elements.
Bangkok has nightlife that never ends, while in Koh Phangan you can time your visit to coincide with the infamous Full Moon Party that takes place on the beach.
Vietnam is a little less intense when it comes to partying, although there always seems to be a north-south divide in this respect. While Ho Chi Minh City is packed with bars and clubs, Hanoi is much quieter, and not really a place for partying.
Of course, with more and more travellers and tourists, you can find bars and beers in more destinations in Vietnam than ever before, but the nightlife still pales in comparison to Thailand.
Both countries offer a wide range of accommodation for travellers, but because Thailand has been a more established tourist destination for many more decades than Vietnam, it has much more choice.
You can find hostels in cities and popular beach destinations in Thailand and Vietnam, and these are great places to meet other travellers. They usually offer good deals and can arrange onward transport and tours too.
In cities you can find most major international hotel brands, and anything from simple Airbnb flats up to luxury five star hotels with rooftop swimming pools.
Thailand takes the crown when it comes to resorts though, and you can find excellent accommodation on almost any island or beach in the south.
It’s easy to travel around both Thailand and Vietnam, but just remember that journeys between cities and destinations can take a long time, as these are not small countries.
The quickest way to travel is by plane, and Thailand and Vietnam both have large domestic flight networks and inexpensive ticket prices from the likes of Air Asia.
In Thailand, you have the choice between buses and trains and, of course, a few ferry rides to get to the islands. Trains range from crowded first class carriages to more comfortable sleeper cabins. Overnight buses are often quicker though, but make sure to book the more expensive but much more comfortable sleeper options.
In Vietnam, the easiest way to get around is by bus. The long distance night buses are a great choice, often offering fully flat beds to lie out on. The train network stretches all the way from north to south but, while it’s a beautiful rail journey, tickets can be hard to come by, especially in peak season.
For shorter journeys, both countries have tuk-tuks or motorcycle drivers that will happily take you from A to B.
While most travellers will have a great experience in Thailand or Vietnam, there are unfortunately always a few dangers and annoyances to be aware of.
In Thailand and Vietnam you will need to haggle when hiring drivers, or even at the local market. Vietnam tends to have a worse reputation for this, and even the street food vendors will make the pieces higher as soon as they see you are a tourist. This can get very frustrating.
In Thailand, you need to be careful at the parties, as it’s not uncommon for drinks to be spiked. In both countries you need to be mindful of pickpockets and petty thieves.
So, which is right for you? Vietnam or Thailand? Despite our detailed breakdown of the cultural differences of each country and the adventurous activities to be had in each destination, it’s still a difficult choice.
Both Southeast Asian nations are powerhouses when it comes to food and culture, while both have fascinating histories to uncover. If you’re interested in ancient Buddhist sites then Thailand is for you, while if you’re more inclined to learn about 20th century history, then you can’t miss the battle sites of Vietnam.
Ultimately though, if you’re looking for a little more adventure and to visit a less established tourist destination, then Vietnam should be your first choice. Tourism is relatively new here in comparison to Thailand and it’s a lot easier to get off the beaten track.
Of course, if you prefer a more established tourist destination, then Thailand is much easier to travel around, and there so many more resorts where you can enjoy a more relaxed holiday than you ever could in Vietnam.
When’s the best time to visit Thailand and Vietnam?
The best time to visit is during the dry season, which will generally be between November and April in Southeast Asia.
Which is more expensive?
Both countries are inexpensive in comparison to Western destinations, but Thailand can be significantly more expensive than Vietnam, especially in the touristy areas.
How much time do I need to visit?
If you have two weeks then you can explore most of the coast of Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City up to Hanoi. Two weeks in Thailand, and you can travel from Bangkok and explore most of the islands, or even take a quick trip north to Chiang Mai too. If you’ve got one whole month, then you won’t have to choose and you can travel to both Thailand and Vietnam!