VIETNAM IS A LAND of stunning natural beauty and rich ancient heritage, and the Vietnamese people—more than half of who were born after the war—look to the future with relentless optimism. Backpackers rediscovered Vietnam in the early 1990s; today it’s popular with all types of travelers, from budget to deluxe. Modern Vietnam is a safe and accessible travel destination for just about anyone in search of adventure.
A short ride along Vietnam’s backbone, coastal Highway 1, offers a glimpse of this bustling, burgeoning nation of more than 80 million. You’ll pass motorbikes balancing a family of four, stacked 10 feet high with bamboo fish traps or carrying a gaggle of plucked geese in front and back. Traffic is chaotic. In a clearing, a child absent-mindedly gnaws a switch of grass while riding astride a water buffalo; the beast lumbers across a marshy rice paddy as bright sun glints off the surface of the water. Workers nearby are bent at the waist, replanting delicate rice shoots. Fisherman cast their nets. Elderly women paddle small boats no bigger than buckets as they tend to a floating garden of white lotus.
All of these scenes are typical in Vietnam—a country whose colorful landscape is matched by the vibrancy of its history, its rich traditions and the indomitable spirit of a people who have endured so much yet look eagerly to the future.
Adventures abound—trekking among hill tribes in the far north, riding the spine of the Annamese Cordillera on a motorbike or in a rented car with driver, enjoying a languid city tour by ‘cyclo’ (pedicab), dining street-side or exploring a local market.
A visit to Hanoi, the capital, is a cacophonous romp. Start in the Old Quarter, a 15th-century trade center where streets are named for the crafts once plied there. Many visitors choose to visit the body of Ho Chi Minh, lying in state, or to take in Hanoi’s famous water puppet show.
Hanoi is the gateway to the far north, an area populated by diverse groups of ethnic hill-tribe people from the south of China. Most popular are the luxury overnight trains from Hanoi to the town of Sapa. Ha Long Bay, just a few hours east of the capital, is a stunning area of high limestone karst peaks, now visited by luxurious overnight cruise boats and kayak excursions.
South of Hanoi is the city of Hue, the old royal capital, a popular stop that offers a glimpse of life under Vietnam’s last royal dynasty. Farther south, near Da Nang, is Hoi An, a 15th century trading port and cultural center; it’s a great place to shop, especially for individually tailored clothes, and to enjoy Cua Dai Beach.
Closer to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the city of Nha Trang, Vietnam’s ocean city, with long, sweeping beaches, picturesque outlying islands and a gaggle of good up-market resorts. Inland from Nha Trang is the town of Dalat, a former French colonial hill station and gateway to the rural roads of the central highlands. This is a region where some of the Vietnam War’s toughest battles were fought (Pleiku and Kontum might ring bells). A newly paved road now traces what was once the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Ho Chi Minh City—the old southern capital still known as Saigon to most (“Saigon” refers to the central business district)—is a heady mix of cobblestone streets (in areas such as Cholon, the city’s Chinatown), contemporary hotels and office towers constructed of concrete and glass. The city offers some great, inexpensive shopping and a large central market (Ben Thanh). Unforgettable day trips from HCMC include a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where North Vietnamese guerrillas hid out, and a tour of the headquarters of the Cao Dai sect, a unique interdenominational faith. A mandatory trip to the Mekong Delta (south of HCMC), best done in an organized tour, includes visits to large floating markets, mangrove swamps and boat rides along rural canals to tiny fishing and craft villages.
Despite the expense and hassle of the long flight, travel in Vietnam is a bargain, and luxury hotels, fine dining and exciting adventure tours come at a fraction of the cost of similar services back home. Explore, enjoy and get there before everybody else does!