An amalgam of historical, cultural, political, and religious forces makes Vietnam one of today's most intriguing places. Most visitors, though, are more than content with the extraordinary physical beauty of the land and the energy and resilience of the people who live there. Whether as a source of relaxation, activity, contemplation, or history, Vietnam has moved into the forefront of world travel destinations.
Vietnam's 1,000-mile coastline connecting the Red River and Mekong River deltas has become one of its most attractive assets for international visitors, who have been arriving in increasing numbers for a decade. The white sand beaches of Vung Tau, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, and Da Nang boast resort hotels and facilities that are well within the budget of most travelers, and sunning, snorkeling, and diving are popular and supported.
In the north, Halong Bay on the Gulf of Tonkin is a World Heritage site of around 3,000 small chalk islands with grottoes and seclude little beaches everywhere. Kayaks, sailing junks, and motorboats get you around.
Cycling trips along the flat-to-rolling country roads were some of the first ventures into the tourism market for the Vietnamese, and they remain a popular way to see the beautiful land, meet the people, and explore the cities. Mountain bike trips have been added recently, and some will take you along parts of the well-noted Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Hanoi lies at the heart of the northern Red River Delta. The variety of influences that have characterized the tumultuous history of the country are at play in this attractive city with its mixture of traditional, colonial, and modern constructions. Here you'll find shaded boulevards, pagodas, museums, open markets, skyscrapers, the Opera House, and the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh City, though, sits on the edge of the sprawling Mekong River delta in the south of Vietnam. The capital, formerly Saigon, is Vietnam's largest city, and it often appears that all 3.5 million are out in the streets at the same time. In the midst of the motorcycles, bicycles, street markets, cafes, discos, bars, mobile vendors, and non-stop noise are museums, palaces, pagodas, and places of worship.
The nearby Cu Chi tunnel system, where Viet Cong soldiers lived in secret during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, has become one of the most visited “vestiges” of that conflict and is a stop on almost all package tours.
In the Central Highlands, home of several ethnic minorities, you can trek with elephants around Pleiku or visit the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, Dalat, whose wonderful French Quarter once gave it the name Petit Paris.
In the central region, Hoi An, an early colonial trading port just south of Da Nang, has retained much of its 17th and 18th century charm. Hue, the Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty, is not far north of Da Nang and may be the country's most attractive city.
Though over 70% of the population is nominally Buddhist, many Vietnamese have been attracted to more recent sects that combined elements from several beliefs. The most popular is Tam Giao, which enfolds principles of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Appearing in the late 1920s, the Cai Dai belief gathers more eclectically from Christianity, tribal animism, and Islam as well as from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. A revealed religion, Cai Dai revered saints include Victor Hugo, Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc, Jesus, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and Lenin.
Almost as fascinating as the religious varieties appearing in Vietnam are the economic reforms that began with the doi moi (renovation) of the 6th Party Congress in 1986 and continued in the increased economic freedom of the new state constitution of 1992. The Bilateral Trade Agreement with the U. S. in 2000, if ratified by the U. S. Congress, would make Vietnam more attractive for international investment.