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The Best of Vietnam Now

So, have you been yet?

You have no idea what you're missing. After years of false starts, Vietnam is finally having its moment, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, designers, club owners, and artists—many born after the war. This is no longer the hermetic nation of a generation ago: two-thirds of the population is under 30 and eager to engage the world at large. The country is still nominally Communist, and its leaders remain socially conservative. But young Vietnamese are enthusiastically absorbing and remixing global culture. I first fell for Vietnam in the mid-nineties, and have returned every year or two since—yet until my most recent visit, I'd never seen the country so visibly charged.

Foreign arrivals in 2002 shattered all previous records, while bookings on Vietnam Airlines rose by 80 percent—even as terrorism concerns cut into travel elsewhere. Indeed, post-9/11 anxiety played a part in the country's surging popularity. "Vietnam, poor but orderly, is now tourists' safe haven," declared the New York Times in January. Almost 30 years after the war, Vietnam was being touted as the safest place in Asia, owing to its stable population, effective security, and negligible crime rate. Luxury hotels were booked solid, and developers were seizing the day: Sheraton opened its first property in Ho Chi Minh City this spring, while the much delayed Park Hyatt resumed construction up the street. Restaurants and boutiques sprang up in newly trendy neighborhoods. A gleaming airport terminal opened in Hanoi, with passenger Jetways (no more trudging across the 98-degree tarmac) and actual air-conditioning. After a fitful decade, Vietnam was at last enjoying a legitimate boom.

And then SARS hit. When Vietnam reported cases in February, tourism screeched to a halt. But the virus was contained within two months, and Vietnam became the first affected country to be declared SARS-free. Tourism has been picking up where it left off.

Why such intense interest?Because Vietnam teeters giddily between fast (Saigon nightclubs) and slow (bicycle rickshaws); traditional (silk ao dai tunics) and cutting-edge (fur and vinyl ao dai tunics); exotic (barbecued goat nipples?) and familiar ("You from L.A.?My cousin's from L.A.!"). Add to the mix one of the world's great cuisines, stylish boutiques, inviting resorts, and a buzzing nightlife. Moreover, Vietnam is surprisingly accessible now: English is spoken everywhere, prices are low, and there's more to see and do than you can possibly imagine.

So, when are you going?

The Lay of the Land

• HANOI AND HO CHI MINH CITY Rarely are a nation's two poles so opposite. With its mist-shrouded lakes, faded colonial façades, and cooler climate, Hanoi is the moody, reflective older brother, harboring a rich intellectual and artistic life. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the brash younger sibling: faster, newer, hotter in every sense—Miami to Hanoi's Boston. In the nineties Hanoi was said to be 10 years "behind" cosmopolitan H.C.M.C., with fewer high-rises and discos. But the capital's culinary scene now rivals H.C.M.C.'s, and many restaurateurs and designers have outposts in both cities. Still, the two remain perfect antipodes—and antidotes—to each other.

• THE BEACHES Development has been limited to a few key areas, though the current tourism boom has quickened the pace: acres of oceanfront outside Da Nang (whose China Beach is the setting for the splendid Furama Resort) are earmarked for future hotel sites. Just 20 miles away is tranquil Hoi An, the prettiest village in Vietnam despite its increasing commercialization. There's now a nascent resort scene on the coast. Farther south, Nha Trang draws backpackers to its seaside bars and cheap guesthouses, and weekending expats to the Ana Mandara resort. Travelers seeking a less manic scene prefer Phan Thiet, an emerging resort hub close to tranquil Mui Ne Beach. Also on the radar is remote Phu Quoc Island, near Cambodia, which will surely become a full-fledged beach mecca, but for now is just a slow-paced retreat.

• HUÉ AND CENTRAL VIETNAM The old imperial capital, Hué, is sleepier than Hanoi and H.C.M.C. but compensates with a wealth of historic landmarks (the city is a World Heritage Site). Many visitors use it as a base for touring the former Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. Hué is as famous for its cuisine as for its monuments, though some of the best Hué-style cooking is actually served in Hanoi. Still, architecture aficionados and war historians will find the city compelling.

• THE MEKONG DELTA The delta is popular with tour groups and day-trippers from H.C.M.C. Endless rivers and canals wind past dripping green jungle, fruit plantations, and fishermen's shacks—but it's not as uniformly beautiful as it sounds. The marketplace at Can Tho (the delta's largest city) is a maelstrom; the Victoria Can Tho, nearby, is a pleasant riverfront resort.

• FARTHER AFIELD Those with more time might consider excursions to Dalat, a French-era mountain retreat surrounded by lakes and tea plantations; Sapa, a remote northwestern hill station populated by colorful tribal minorities; and Halong Bay, where re-created Chinese junks carry tourists past the limestone islets that jut out of the blue-green water.

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