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Vietnam and Thailand are two of the most visited destinations in Southeast Asia, and for good reason. Both have delicious food, ancient temples, tropical islands and beautiful scenery. However they each have their own historical influences that make them unique in their own way.
So which one is better to visit? In this guide I’ll compare Vietnam vs Thailand in terms of food, landscapes, transportation and many other factors that might assist you in deciding where to go.
Vietnam vs Thailand: A General Comparison
- Vietnam is situated on the east side of the Indochina peninsula, whereas Thailand occupies the central west part.
- Both countries have long stretches of coastline. Thailand has 2,000 miles (3219km) of coastline, while Vietnam has 2,030 miles (3260km).
- Vietnam boasts around 2,800 islands, while Thailand has around 1380.
- Vietnam has French colonial influences and a complex, turbulent history with the Vietnam War. Thailand’s culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and you’ll see lots of Buddha statues all over the country. .
- Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok feels more westernized and cosmopolitan with more luxury hotels than Ho Chi Minh City.
- Both destinations are affordable, although Vietnam is cheaper to visit than Thailand.
Vietnamese Cuisine vs Thai Cuisine
Both Thai food and Vietnamese food are very popular throughout the world. Both taste great, although my personal favorite is Vietnamese. Thai cuisine tends to feature curries and coconut milk, whereas Vietnamese cuisine has an emphasis on noodle soups.
Vietnamese cuisine is pretty healthy, with tons of fresh vegetables, low sugar, minimal cooking and very little oil or fat. Dishes are packed with vitamins and minerals, and tend to be very fragrant, with a lot of fresh herbs and spices.
Recipes tend to include things like cilantro, lemongrass, ginger, mint, chili, lime and Thai basil. A lot of dishes feature rice paper or rice noodles, which is perfect for people who are gluten intolerant.
Vietnam is one of the few places in Asia where bread is pretty popular – the French introduced baguettes to Vietnam in the 19th century, and today the banh mi sandwich is one of Vietnam’s most iconic foods.
Popular Vietnamese dishes include:
- Pho – Noodle soup available in all kinds of dining establishments all over Vietnam. Pho contains broth, rice noodles, and meat such as beef or chicken. It’s often served with garnishes such as beansprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges, chili and chili sauce.
- Gỏi cuốn summer rolls – Raw vegetables and sometimes shrimp, wrapped in a fresh rice paper roll. Unlike spring rolls, summer rolls are raw.
- Banh Mi – Short baguette filled with meats, vegetables, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled daikon. This tasty sandwich is usually served with condiments such as pâté, red chili and mayonnaise.
Thai cuisine is well-known throughout the world, and was primarily influenced by Indian cuisine, although it incorporates the culinary traditions of many neighboring countries. Rice and chili pepper are the two most important ingredients in Thai cuisine, which is spicy and fragrant.
Other common ingredients include pineapple, papaya, cashews, peanuts, and coconut milk. Thai menus feature lots of mild curries and stir-fries, with plenty of fresh vegetables.
Here are some common Thai dishes:
- Pad Thai – stir fried noodles made with rice noodles, shrimp, peanuts, crunchy bean sprouts, vegetables and scrambled egg.
- Tom Kha Gai – very flavorful coconut soup with chicken.
- Pad Kra Pao Moo – minced pork stir-fried with chili and basil.
- Som Tam – spicy green papaya salad with tomatoes and peanuts.
- Gaeng Daeng – curry made with red curry paste and coconut milk.
Verdict: Thai food and Vietnamese food both contain staples like rice and noodles, but they have a lot of differences.
- Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of raw vegetables, whereas Thai food features more stir-fried veggies.
- Vietnamese cooking methods include more boiling and steaming, whereas Thai cooking methods mainly involve deep frying and stir frying.
- Thai food tends to be a bit spicier than Vietnamese food, and the spices are usually included in the cooking process. In Vietnamese cuisine, the spices are often served separately and added by the person eating it.
- Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by neighbors such as China, Cambodia and Laos. The cuisine also has some French influences, hence the love of baguettes and banh mi sandwiches. Thailand’s cuisine is mainly influenced by its neighbors India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Personally I just love Vietnamese food. Pho is so flavorful and heartwarming, and summer rolls are very fresh and healthy. I love how Vietnamese food always tastes simple and clean, with lots of raw vegetables and fragrant herbs. Don’t get me wrong, Thai food is amazing too, but Vietnamese cuisine has the edge for me.
Vietnam vs Thailand: Beaches
Beaches in Vietnam
With 2,030 miles of coastline, Vietnam has a wide choice of beaches to lay on. The country sits on the South China Sea and has numerous resorts and islands to discover.
One of the most popular beach resorts is Nha Trang, which is located in the south of Vietnam about 400km north of Ho Chi Minh City. The main beach stretches for 6km, and is backed by a promenade lined with hotels and restaurants. Many visitors take a boat or travel by cable car to Hon Tre island, which boasts an amusement park and a beautiful sandy beach called Bai Tru Beach.
About half way up the coast lies Da Nang, which is home to one of Vietnam’s most famous photo spots – Golden Hand Bridge. If you want to soak up the sun here, head over to My Khe Beach, which boasts a 20-mile stretch of sand as well as a plethora of high-end resorts and seafood restaurants.
The largest and most visited island in Vietnam is Phu Quoc island, which can be reached by domestic flight. The island is known for its seafood restaurants, which serve some of the freshest seafood in all of Vietnam. Sao Beach is the most popular beach on the island, featuring powder white sand and aqua blue waters.
Beaches in Thailand
Thailand is home to lots of famous beach resorts and islands, including Krabi, Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Lipe, Koh Lanta, Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan.
The 2000 movie “The Beach”, starring Leonardo DeCaprio was shot at Maya Bay, which lies on the island of Phi Phi Leh. This island is accessible by boat from nearby islands such as Phuket or Phi Phi.
Thailand also boasts tons of white, sandy beaches, including Klong Dao in Koh Lanta, Railay Beach in Krabi, Chaweng in Koh Samui, Sunset Beach in Koh Lipe, and Thong Nai Pan Noi in Koh Phangan.
If you’re really into diving, then you’ll want to visit the Similan Islands, which are known for their abundant coral reefs and clear blue waters.
Verdict: Both countries have excellent beaches and thousands of miles of coastline, although Thailand’s beaches are more famous and more beautiful. Vietnam’s beaches are still amazing and definitely underrated, but Thai beaches are a bit cleaner and more scenic. If you enjoy diving or want to get your PADI certificate, you really can’t beat the diving opportunities in Thailand.
Vietnam vs Thailand: Culture and History
- Vietnam’s culture is more closely linked with China, whereas Thai culture has been largely influenced by India.
- Vietnam’s main religion is a combination of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, whereas the main religion in Thailand is Buddhism.
- The two countries also have different political systems – Vietnam is a communist country, whereas Thailand has a constitutional monarchy.
Vietnam has been through a lot of war in the last hundred years, including a civil war and the war for independence from France. Tales of the country’s turbulent history are told in the various war museums throughout the country, including the War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison. Due to these wars, a lot of buildings and landmarks have been destroyed and reconstructed over the years.
Throughout the country you’ll see evidence of French colonial architecture left over from the French colonization. The country’s cuisine also has some French influences, with one of its major foods being the banh mi (baguette sandwich).
Vietnam formally became integrated into French Indochina in 1887, and remained under French rule until World War II, when the Pacific War led to an invasion by Japan. After Japan’s military defeat in World War II, France attempted to regain control of Vietnam once more, leading to the First Indochina War (1946-1954).
Vietnam emerged victorious, but it wasn’t long before a full scale civil war broke out between the north and the south. The Vietnam War was a long and arduous war that lasted from 1955 to 1965 – a period of twenty years.
Thailand, on the other hand, is the only country in Southeast Asia that wasn’t colonized by the Europeans. The rest of its neighbors were either colonized by the British or the French.
The country hasn’t had any civil wars like Vietnam has, which means its economy and infrastructure advanced at a faster rate. Thailand’s former monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was one of the longest reigning monarchs in the world, reigning over Thailand for 70 years from 1946 to 2016.
In addition to Buddhist temples and statues, Thailand is known for its exuberant festivals, such as Songkran and Loy Krathong Festival, known as Thailand Lights Festival,
Verdict: Both countries have very interesting cultures, histories and traditions. However, if you’re very interested in modern history, particularly the Vietnam War, then you’ll learn a lot by visiting Vietnam.
Vietnam vs Thailand: Landmarks & Scenery
Both Vietnam and Thailand have very diverse landscapes, with mountains, beaches and beautiful green rice fields. They do have their differences though. Vietnam is famous for its karst landscapes, French colonial architecture, the Mekong Delta and the historic town of Hoi An. Thailand, meanwhile, is known for its Buddhist temples, glittering palaces, elephant sanctuaries and ancient rainforest.
Famous Attractions in Vietnam
Chu Chi Tunnels – An extensive network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. These tunnels were used to house troops, transport supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks on enemy forces.
Ha Long Bay – Ha Long Bay is a beautiful bay located in the north of Vietnam, known for its emerald green water, limestone islands and impressive caves. Most visitors explore Ha Long Bay by booking a multi-day cruise on a junk boat.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter – At the heart of Hanoi lies its charming Old Quarter, which dates all the way back to the 13th century. The area is filled with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street stalls where you can order pho and other Vietnamese dishes. d
War Remnants Museum – Located in Ho Chi Minh City, this museum features exhibits documenting the Vietnam and First Indochina wars.
Hue Imperial City – Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty and Vietnam’s capital from 1802 to 1945. The city’s most impressive landmark is the Forbidden Purple City, which was based on China’s Forbidden City.
Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage Site – With its yellow-hued buildings, historic footbridges and scenic river, Hoi An is one of the prettiest places to visit in Vietnam. The town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and is known for its cooking schools and street food market.
Famous Attractions in Thailand
The Grand Palace – Constructed in 1782, this opulent palace was the official residence of the Kings of Siam, and later Thailand. Today the palace is mostly used for official events and state functions, and is Bangkok’s most visited attraction.
Khao Yai National Park – Khao Yai National Park is the third largest national park in Thailand, covering more than 2,000 square kilometers of forest and grassland. The park is home to all sorts of plant life and wildlife, including elephants, macaques, gibbons, and bears.
Wat Arun – Wat Arun is a beautiful Buddhist temple located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. The temple features a central prang (spire), which is decorated in colorful porcelain.
Phang Nga Bay – A famous bay in the Strait of Malacca, with interesting limestone cliffs and small islands. Phan Nga Bay is home to one of the most photographed spots in Thailand – James Bond Island.
Sukhothai Historical Park – Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring 193 ruins. The city was the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Ayutthaya – Founded in 1340, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom and flourished from the 14th to the 18th centuries, before it was bulldozed by the Burmese. This archeological site consists of ruined palaces, temples, statues and monasteries.
Verdict: Vietnam has a lot of attractions and museums focused on the Vietnam War and the French colonization period. Thailand is best known for its impressive palaces, ornate pagodas and Buddha statues. Both have very impressive things to see and do, but my personal preference here is Vietnam since I find modern history quite fascinating.
Vietnam vs Thailand: Infrastructure
Getting Around Vietnam
When it comes to getting around Vietnam, the main options are train, bus and flight.
The main domestic airlines in Vietnam are Vietnam Airlines, VietJet Air and Bamboo Airways. You can fly to places like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Hue for pretty cheap, but certain destinations require overland travel.
To get to Hoi An you’ll either have to travel by bus or book a private car from Da Nang. Sapa also requires overland travel, and most visitors book multi-day tours that depart from Hanoi. I recommend checking GetYourGuide or Viator for the best Sapa tours.
If you’re traveling on a budget, Vietnam has deluxe night buses that have sleeper beds, WiFi and TV. Buses can be booked online using a site called Baolau. I traveled by bus all the way up the country and found them to be pretty comfortable.
The country also has more than 2,600 kilometers of railway, with trains stopping in main cities like Hanoi, Hué, Danang, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh City. The train is a bit more comfortable than the bus and allows you to see some pretty epic scenery along the way. Tickets can be booked through Baolau.com or through 12Go.asia.
Getting Around Thailand
Thailand has a good infrastructure and a pretty well trodden tourist route. The main domestic airlines are Air Asia, Bangkok Airways, Lion Air, Nok Air, Thai Smile, Thai Airways and Orient Thai.
You can reach a number of destinations by air, including the major cities and islands like Phuket and Koh Samui. If you want to visit some of the other islands, you’ll usually need to fly into Phuket or Koh Samui and then catch a boat or ferry.
When it comes to overland travel, there are two main options; train or bus. For getting between cities, Thailand has lots of tourist style buses with air conditioning, WiFi, comfy chairs and sometimes entertainment onboard. The best way to book is by using 12Go Asia.
Alternatively, you can catch a train. The train is usually a bit quicker, but also more expensive.
For shorter distances you can use a taxi, or hire a private driver for the day. If you want to visit certain attractions, you can also book tours with GetYourGuide or Viator.
Once you’re in the big cities, usually the best way to get around is by tuk tuk or taxi. Thailand doesn’t have Uber, but cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai do have a ride sharing app called Grab. Bangkok also has a metro system, plus the Sky Train which goes to and from the airport.
Verdict: Both countries have multiple modes of transportation for getting around. If you aren’t on a tight budget, then you can easily get around both countries by taking domestic flights. If you’re on a strict budget or you want to reduce your carbon footprint, then both Vietnam and Thailand have tourists buses and trains to get you from A to B. .
Vietnam vs Thailand: Flights
Most visitors traveling to Thailand fly into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which is a major transportation hub and has thousands of connecting flights to destinations all over the world.
Places like Phuket, Chiang Mai, Krabi, Chiang Rai and Koh Samui all have international airports too, making Thailand a very easy destination to fly to.
Vietnam’s two busiest airports are Hanoi and Phnom Penh, which are located at opposite ends of the country. Destinations like Da Nang, Nha Trang, Hue and Phu Quoc also have airports, but if you want to get to Hoi An, you’ll need to arrive by car, train or bus.
Vietnam is long and thin, so the best way to do it is fly into Phnom Penh and work your way north to Hanoi. Or you could do it the other way round, starting in Hanoi and working your way south to Phnom Penh.
Running a quick search on Google Flights, I can see that a round-trip ticket from London to Phnom Penh or Hanoi costs roughly $1000, with a stopover in Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
A round-trip ticket from London to Bangkok on the same dates (May) costs around $800 round-trip if you’re willing to have a stopover in Helsinki, Zurich, Dubai or Vienna. If you’d prefer a direct flight, expect to pay around $1000 round-trip with Thai Airways.
I also ran a similar search for flights from New York. A round-trip ticket from New York to Bangkok costs from $1100 to $1600, while a ticket to Phnom Penh costs around $1200 to $1700.
Flights to Thailand seem to be a bit cheaper, and there’s generally more availability.
Vietnam vs Thailand: Visas
Visitors from places like the US, Australia and the UK do not need a visa to enter Thailand. On arrival at the airport, Thai immigration officials will place a stamp in your passport that allows entry for up to 45 days depending on the country.
Vietnam is different in that it requires a visa for entry. Citizens of 80 countries (including the United States) can apply for an eVisa online before arrival. This single-entry visa allows entry for up to 30 days, and requires a payment of $25. E-visa holders may enter and exit Vietnam through 33 designated international border gates, including all international airports. Here’s the official website where you can apply for an eVisa. The visa takes 3 working days to process, so make sure you do it in advance.
If you’re arriving by air, it’s also possible to apply for a Visa on Arrival using an online visa company. You’ll be issued a visa approval letter, which you can show to immigration officials in Vietnam.
When it comes to visas, Thailand is clearly the winner here, since a visa isn’t required for entry.
Vietnam vs Thailand: People
In terms of friendliness, I preferred Thailand over Vietnam. Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” because there are at least 13 different smiles that a Thai person might use to convey different messaging.
Thailand is known for its hospitality, and wherever you go, the Thai people tend to be friendly, smiley and polite.
There are some scams though that you need to watch out for. When I first went to Bangkok, we fell for the classic scam, where a tuk tuk driver tells you the palace is “closed” and tries to take you to a bunch of different tailor shops and smaller attractions. Make sure you read up on all the scams before you go, to avoid getting ripped off.
In Vietnam I often felt hassled and sometimes ripped off. We took quite a few night buses, and when we arrived at our destination, the bus would often be swarmed by locals offering transportation, accommodation etc. Sometimes they were quite persistent and followed us down the street. In Hoi An, I remember being followed by someone wanting me to get something tailored, and even after I said no, they continued to pursue.
I’m used to hassle when traveling, but it just felt a lot more intense in Vietnam than it did in other Southeast Asian countries.
When we rode the bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, some tourists had been sold tickets to Vang Vieng, except there was no stop in Vang Vieng. They were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, miles from Vang Vieng, and ended up having to hitchhike to Luang Prabang.
I’ve heard quite a few stories about people being ripped off or overcharged in Vietnam, and Nomadic Matt wrote an article about it here. Some of the local restaurants in Vietnam have special menus for tourists that have higher prices than the local menus. However, it’s important to remember that the people there are very poor, so tourism is their bread and butter.
On a final note, fewer people seemed to speak English in Vietnam than in Thailand, so there was a bit more of a language barrier. This sometimes led to mix ups and confusion, especially when trying to find our way around.
A Final Word…
If you have the time, I’d recommend you do both. If you can only visit one, that’s a tough one. According to Statista, Thailand is the most visited country in southeast Asia, and welcomed nearly 6.7 million tourists in 2020. Vietnam was the fourth most visited country in Southeast Asia in 2020, welcoming around 3.7 million tourists.
Thailand is clearly very popular. It’s a great country for first-time visitors, with a very well-trodden tourist route and very friendly and welcoming people.
Bangkok is one of the world’s most iconic cities, with lots of affordable, yet luxurious hotels to stay at. It’s worth spending a few days in the capital, before heading north to Chiang Mai, or south to Thailand’s beautiful islands. If you’re a beach lover, you’ll love islands like Koh Tao, Koh Lipe, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
Yet somehow, Vietnam wins for me. Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is incredible and worth visiting at least once in your lifetime.
However, I prefer Vietnamese cuisine over Thai food, and could eat pho and summer rolls for days. I also found Vietnam’s history very fascinating, and loved the French colonial architecture and cultural influences. Hoi An was one of the most memorable cities I visited on my jaunt through Southeast Asia, and I’d happily recommend it to friends.
While Vietnam is still touristy, it feels a bit more authentic than Thailand, and I just found the country to feel a bit more edgy. Sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on it, but some destinations you just fall in love with more than others. Vietnam was one of those for me.