“Aren’t Vietnam and Thailand, like, the same?”
I’ve been asked this more than once. My answer has always been an emphatic “NO!”
If you’re trying to choose between ‘Nam and the Land of Smiles, this guide is here to break it all down for you. I’ve been living and teaching in Vietnam for the past two years and, like any traveller worth their salt, have of course partied my way through Thailand. Both are beautiful, vibrant countries. But which is better? Read on to find out…
Thailand is the more established of the two countries on the backpacker trail, so we’ll start with that. When building your itinerary you should consider:
- Bangkok’s notorious (in a good way, promise!) Khao San road
- The temples and rolling hills of Chiang Mai
- Island hopping in the Andaman Sea
- Koh Phi Phi’s wild beach parties
- Diving in Koh Tao
- Partying in Phuket
- A full moon party on Koh Phangan
- Having a mud bath at an ethical elephant sanctuary
- Rock climbing in the Similan Islands
- Stunning ancient temples
- Traditional dance performances
- Vibrant night markets
- Delicious street food
Vietnam hasn’t yet reached backpacker paradise status just yet, but it’s getting there. Some of the following suggestions are a little more off-the-beaten-track than their Thai alternatives.
- Hanoi’s Old Quarter for heritage, hidden bars and bia hoi.
- Hoi An ancient town
- The beautiful beaches of Da Nang
- Make like Top Gear and drive the Hai Van Pass
- Ha Long Bay
- Phu Quoc Island
- The sand dunes of Mui Ne
- Hiking in Sa Pa
- Ninh Binh
- The Imperial Capital of Hue
- Dalat for cool weather and stunning mountain scenery
- A boat ride down the Mekong Delta
- Embrace the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City
This is a difficult one to decide. There’s enough in both countries to keep you occupied for weeks on end, but you can’t deny that Thailand has better beaches. Much of Vietnam’s coastline is covered in trash. Thailand’s been in the tourism game long enough to know to clean their act up and that’s what tips the scales here.
Thailand vs. Vietnam Tourism Winner: Thailand
Both Vietnam and Thailand have cheap domestic flights and even cheaper bus services. They’re pretty much the same in terms of reliability – and, unfortunately, crazy driving when it comes to the night bus! Of course, Vietnam has developed a reputation as the ultimate road trip destination ever since that episode of Top Gear, and it really does have some of the most scenic roads in the world. So in this particular battle, Vietnam comes out on top.
Hopefully you won’t need one, but in terms of hospitals, Thailand crushes Vietnam. The World Health Organisation ranks Thailand among the top 50 countries for health service, whereas Vietnam is stuck at the opposite end of the spectrum. Whomp whomp.
As for supermarkets, you’d be hard pressed to find a street in either country that doesn’t have a convenience store. However, Thailand has a clear edge thanks to its legendary toasties. Seriously, they’re a life-saver. Vietnamese convenience stores usually offer microwavable sushi, but it just ain’t the same.
Thailand vs. Vietnam Infrastructure Winner: Thailand
Thailand is known for being a party paradise, but that doesn’t mean Vietnam’s out of the running. Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien easily rivals Bangkok’s Khao San Road and definitely puts Phuket’s Bangla Road to shame. Meanwhile in Hanoi it’s all about bia hoi corner where you can get a cold one for as little as $0.15 per glass.
That being said, Vietnam lacks the huge festivals and events that tourists flock to Thailand for. The Land of Smiles boasts insane full, half and black moon parties and hosts the largest water fight in the world in April. So, all things considered, the winner still has to be… THAILAND!
Thailand vs. Vietnam Nightlife Winner: Thailand
Nature and Hiking
Vietnam’s scenery is the kind that sends shivers down your spine. Whether you take a cruise in Halong Bay, drive around the Ha Giang province or hike in the Moc Chau valley, you’ll have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. Vietnam’s Phong Nha national park even boasts the largest cave in the world – Son Doong. Admittedly, there’s a two-year waiting list and $3000 entrance fee, but the surrounding caves are equally stunning – and you can even zipline into them!
Lots of people say that Thailand’s all about the beaches, but trekking through the rainforests of Khao Sok national park isn’t an experience you’ll forget anytime soon. Hiking Pai Canyon and feeding the monkeys on your way up Khao No are both wonderful, slightly hair-raising experiences for thrill seekers, but perhaps Thailand’s best trail is the Hang Nak Nature Trail in Ao Nang. It’s a four-hour hike that is rewarded with stunning views of Krabi.
Both countries have a lot to offer outdoor adventurers, but Vietnam’s magic is beyond compare.
Thailand vs. Vietnam Nature and Hiking Winner: Vietnam
Thailand’s Chiang Mai is digital nomad heaven, whilst Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City is rapidly rising in popularity among remote workers. Both are very cheap places to live with thriving expat communities. Chiang Mai boasts mountains and rice fields, whereas Ho Chi Minh City is a concrete jungle if ever there was one. Both have an abundance of cafes and coworking spaces, but the internet in Uncle Ho’s town is decidedly better and the coffee is beyond compare. (Seriously. I can’t stand to drink it in any other country.) Plus, it’s easier to wangle yourself a longer visa in Vietnam.
Thailand vs. Vietnam Remote Work Winner: Vietnam
Vietnam and Thailand are pretty similar in terms of safety. Violent crime is low but petty theft is common – particularly snatching. The best thing you can do is not walk around with your phone or wallet in your hand and keep them in a backpack or bum-bag (what? They’re making a comeback!)
Scams are also common. They’re more widespread in Thailand just simply because it’s much more popular with tourists. Thailand also has a higher road mortality rate but honestly, the traffic situation is pretty mental in both countries!
Thailand vs. Vietnam Safety Winner: Vietnam
You can’t enjoy your holiday on an empty stomach, but luckily both Thailand and Vietnam are home to some truly delicious dishes. Vietnam is famed for pho and banh mi sandwiches, whereas it’s all about curries, pad thai and papaya salad in Thailand.
Thailand is definitely an easier country for vegetarians to travel. In Vietnam, when a dish is labelled vegetarian it doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks meat, but just involves a lot of vegetables.
This one is for the vegetarians. Both countries are a taste sensation, but Thailand takes the cake when it comes to food!
Thailand vs. Vietnam Food Winner: Thailand
And the winner is…
This is a little bit of a surprise. I’ve spent two years living and working in Vietnam and love it dearly. But facts are facts, and it’s 4-3 to Thailand. It’s definitely got more to offer the average traveller and its beaches are some of the best in the world. Saying that, Vietnam’s the clear choice for a traveller who likes to take the road less travelled and wouldn’t be caught dead at a full moon party.
Ultimately, the choice is yours but hopefully, you’re now a little clearer on which destination is the best fit for you. Safe travels!
Hannah Stephenson is an English expat living and teaching in Vietnam. Follow along with her travels on her blog at howfarillpho.com!