There's growing excitement about Vietnam these days: The economy is booming, the weather is warm, the history is rich, and the country is eager to lure Americans. U.S. tourists, it seems, are just as eager to get to one of Asia's most diverse travel destinations. "I have to go before it gets real touristy," says Melissa Blossey, a 42-year-old New Yorker flying to Ho Chi Minh City on a recently launched United Airlines (UALAQ ) flight, the first by a U.S. carrier since the Vietnam War. "It seems like such a beautiful place, and I've always heard great things about the people and the shopping. The cuisine is supposed to be incredible. Plus, you get good value for the dollar."
She's right on the money. The food and shopping are fantastic. And the dollar, which has risen 3% over the past six months against the dong, definitely goes far. A silk jacket custom-made by a tailor along the fashionable Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, costs all of $29. Just $40 will buy dinner for two, including wine, at the city's top-rated restaurant, the Mandarin, while a room at the restored luxury Caravelle Hotel can be had for $97 via discount hotel Web sites. Some will remember the Caravelle as the setting for the "Five O'Clock Follies" news conferences during the Vietnam War.
Vietnam isn't just cheap. Tourism officials like to promote it, in contrast to Bali or Thailand, as a safe haven from terrorist attacks. The country, located on the Pacific Ocean side of Asia, was also unaffected by the December tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean. Don't be deterred by reports of bird flu either: It is largely limited to rural areas and farms.
The resumption of the first direct flights from the U.S. to Vietnam since the war is making it easier for Americans to get there. The daily B-747, originating at Washington Dulles International Airport and passing through San Francisco and Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, has been so popular since its Dec. 9 launch that discount round-trip economy fares in the $1,000-to-$1,200 range have been selling out quickly. American Airlines (AMR ) and Continental (CAL ) plan to follow suit.
Although many Americans are drawn to Vietnam because of their interest in the war, the country has a rich and varied culture. A good way to sample all the facets is to start in the former capital of South Vietnam and work north. Ho Chi Minh City is the commercial center of the country, sort of the New York of Vietnam, compared with the capital city of Hanoi, which is akin to Washington.
Those in search of war history will find it in places such as the Rex Hotel. What was its rooftop U.S. Officers' Club in the 1960s and '70s is now a restaurant and bar offering fine views of the city. Also on the must-do list is a guided tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong built an extensive underground network. At the War Remnants Museum, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes until Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995, captured American Huey helicopters sit forlornly outside, and jars of preserved fetuses deformed by Agent Orange are on display inside. It's a sobering but worthwhile trip for those who want to understand the Vietnamese perspective.
The province of Tay Ninh, a day trip northwest by tour bus from Ho Chi Minh City, is home to the Cao Dai religion, which reveres as saints Jesus Christ, Buddha, Victor Hugo, and Joan of Arc, among others. Its cathedral, with its all-seeing eye similar to that on a dollar bill, draws hundreds of worshippers each week. Southern Vietnam also offers Mekong River excursions, where tourists can see floating markets and visit villages that make baskets and lacquerware.
CHINA BEACH REVISITED
A short $49 flight from Ho Chi Minh City takes you to Danang, close to the gorgeous China Beach made famous in Apocalypse Now and the 1990s TV series. The number of Americans staying at the five-star Furama Resort Danang has gone from a handful of mostly Vietnam vets five years ago to about a third of its 83,000 guests in 2004, says manager Paul Stoll. From the hotel grounds, you can see the former U.S. military base, with its crumbling cement walls and lookout towers. The USO China Beach, a stage area to entertain troops, was a couple hundred yards north.
Danang is a convenient point from which to hire a driver and explore the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Road. It goes through the Marble Mountains, the five hillocks that were the scene of heavy fighting during the war; Hoi An, an ancient port founded by seafaring Portuguese, where century-old Chinese traders' houses have been converted to hotels and where oil painters' studios abound on the narrow streets; and Hue, the ancient imperial capital graced with emperors' palaces and tombs. Danang boasts coral reefs for scuba diving and deep-sea fishing, as do the more southern beach resorts of Nha Trang.
The capital, Hanoi, two hours by plane from Ho Chi Minh City and an hour and 15 minutes from Danang, is one of the most European cities in Asia. That's partly the result of the colonial-style buildings dating back to the 1920s and '30s, when Vietnam was a French colony. Hanoi is filled with tranquil lakes and greenery that stand in serene contrast to the city's roaring motorbike traffic. The Old Quarter, north and west of Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword), has richly atmospheric streets lined with shops selling crafts, silk clothing, silver jewelry, and art. You can bargain down prices by as much as 30%.
Hanoi also has become a draw for foodies. In addition to the traditional light, healthy fare at restaurants such as Emperor and Wild Rice, the city offers chef Bobby Chinn's hip nouveau eatery at the foot of Hoan Kiem Lake, featuring his fabulous fusion cuisine. His menu includes blackened barramundi on braised banana blossoms. Even his meals, among the more expensive in Vietnam, cost less than $50 for two.
If you're interested in Vietnam's geographic and ethnic diversity, go to Sapa, home of the Montagnard minority peoples living on the mountainous border with Laos. An overnight train ride from Hanoi, Sapa is largely rural. The hill tribes, which include the Tay and H'mong, wear colorful clothing and silver buttons and jewelry, which they hawk to tourists.
Excursions outside Hanoi should also include Halong Bay, with its rock formations, coves, cliffs, caves, and lagoons plied by wooden fishing vessels along the Gulf of Tonkin. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long means "dragon in the sea."
With so much to see and with flying there getting easier for Americans, the saying about Vietnam, that "it's not a war, it's a country," rings truer than ever.
By Sheridan Prasso