The Vietnam name often triggers associations with the ravages of modern warfare. Having been a French colony from the mid-19th century, there had been a long period during which Vietnam was trying to shake off the ties of colonialism. In 1945, while licking their wounds after the humiliations imposed on them by World War II, the French insisted upon clinging to their colonial empire at any cost. In Indochina - Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos - French and colonial troops fought and were losing a murderous nine-year war against Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese guerrillas.
Yet those were the days when communism was spreading in the world. As France stood on the brink of bankruptcy as well as defeat, the French convinced panicky Americans in Washington that "saving" Indochina from the Communists was a vital Western interest. The USA soon started paying the bills Paris could no longer afford and shipping a mass of weapons and munitions to Indochina. By 1954, the French were fighting a war they were still losing in American helmets, jeeps, fighters and trucks, firing on the Vietnamese with mostly American guns. France eventually lost and following a tense, bitter Geneva summit conference, a deal was struck whereby Vietnam was split into two parts. The communists were left to do as they chose in North Vietnam, while South Vietnam was in the hands of a French puppet emperor.
Both North and South were under brutal dictatorships, but Ho Chi Minh's victory over the French had given him an unchallengeable claim to become the voice of the Vietnamese people, and he wanted to reunite the partitioned Vietnam. Communist guerrilla war escalated and developed into the "American War" – in which it was the USA that was directly engaged in the conflict from 1965 until 1975. The USA lost the war, with nearly american 60,000 soldiers killed in the process. But it's nothing compared to what Vietnam suffered. Millions of military and (in particular) civilian casualties – and a landscape scorched and poisoned by chemical warfare.
While still officially a communist country, Vietnam has, like China, embraced a more capitalist economy, and in the wake of this also opened up to tourism. Today the tourism infrastructure can cater for virtually any type of travel, from basic to luxury.
Home to a temple that mixes Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Buddhism into a single sect — with a lenghty prayer ceremonies.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
The first thing that will make your eyes widen in HCMC is the number of motorbikes. There are thousands of scooters sharing the roads that crossing the street will seem very daunting. The trick is to walk slowly non-stop and maintain eye contact, the riders will go around you. HCMC is split into 19 districts, with the Saigon River curling its way across the middle. Much of the action takes place in District 1, which boasts most of the trendy restaurants and cafes, plus the major market, Ben Thanh. District 5 is home to Chinatown. Visitors spend most of their in District 1 - I rented a motorbike and decided to check out District 9 (I picked randomly). While District 1 is fast entering the age of modern Asia with many skyscrapers sprucing up, in District 9 you get to see a more traditional HCMC. Unofficial cafes and restaurant are set up on the street with tiny plastic chairs and tables that can be folded away at the first sign of police. Men sit in groups and play cards while women watch toddlers pee into the gutter.
There's a saying that "if lions could write, history would not always glorify the hunter". A visit to the Vietnam War museum in HCMC gives a poignant recount of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. It actually used to be called "Museum of American War Crimes", but was renamed as a nod to the growing number of American tourists. The museum's central theme are the war crimes committed by the Americans and is far less propagandistic than could have been expected, but it's not for people of a weak disposition. There are many gruesome images and exhibits. The most poignant ones are the carpet-bombing campaigns that left huge craters behind. Such carpet-bombing did not only kill directly, but destroyed crops and farmlands, ie the livelihood of the civilian population. That was, of course, its intended use. The landscape was then scorched and poisoned by chemical warfare. A particular focus is placed on the defoliants used to eliminate forest cover, of which "Agent Orange" is the most widely used variety. Agent Orange led to long-term poisoning and to birth defects for decades after the war was "over". The heavy use of landmines, which to this day maim and kill civilians. So the "Vietnam War" is not quite "over" yet for the Vietnamese people.
Apart from the museum, there's also the Cu Chi tunnels. Built by the Viet Cong during the war as protection from air raids, the Cu Chi is an underground network of tunnels that were so small and well camouflaged that the Americans sweeping the area during the day often walked overhead with no idea of what was beneath.
The capital city is a fascinating place. There's the traditional remnants from golden days (temples, pagodas, etc), city lakes, and the bustling but enchanting Old Quarter. At first it may feel a bit hectic with the constant honking of motor scooters that fill the streets, but after a short while you somehow naturally sink into the rhythm.
Halong is a bay with gorgeous waters with limestone stacks and forested isles. The name Halong mean "where the dragon descends into the sea". Legend states that gods sent dragons, who dropped jewels & jades from their mouths into the bay, creating the islets.
Mai Chau is a village 150 kilometres southwest of Hanoi. It is a mountainous region with plenty of verdant landscapes and towering mountains. While the scenery of green rice paddies and emerald mountains is certainly a big draw, Mai Chau is also worth a visit because it is home to seven ethnic minority groups. Mai Chau also boasts lots of stilt houses made from bamboo, and underneath them it is not unusual to see cows or chickens avoiding the rain. Lot of agriculture to see and you'll encounter many water buffaloes strolling among the homes.
Sapa is a beautiful, mountainous town in northern Vietnam along the border with China, home to several ethnic minority groups. Rolling rice fields, nature and sweeping vistas every corner you turn. Only a few hours by train or bus from Hanoi.