Vietnam

A tropical paradise of charming people, delightful beaches, brilliant green rice paddies and lush emerald rainforests. Like the rest of Indochina, Vietnam, a former French colony, has been independent since 1954. It retains a strong French cultural influence, with wide boulevards, magnificent Belle âpoque architecture and fresh baguettes sold on every corner. Good espresso coffee and fine Bordeaux wines are widely available.

The Vietnamese are much closer culturally to China, with Confucian ethics valuing age, education and hard work. This nominally communist country is an absolute pleasure to visit and the people exceedingly warm and hospitable.

Hanoi

Hanoi, the capital city, provides a rich blend of new and old Vietnam, from thousands of graduates on scooters streaking down wide Parisian-style boulevards, to chic fusion restaurants in former colonial buildings. Hanoi’s young citizens, lacking the attachment to the old days of their elders, are eager to remake the city as a commercial hub. As the city prospers, visitors and locals alike continue to enjoy Hanoi’s tranquil parks and lakes, browse galleries filled with emerging Vietnamese artists and sample the city’s remarkable cuisine and nightlife.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage-protected environment and an amazing landscape of 1,969 densely clustered limestone islands, arches and pinnacles rising right out of the water. A cruise through the islands, exploring their secrets reveals hollow islands hiding caves and grottoes, and floating villages of fishermen plying the shallow waters for many species of fish and molluscs. Many of the islands have names reflecting their unusual shapes, such as Voi (elephant), Ga Choi (fighting cock), and Mai Nha (roof).

From 1802 to 1945, the city of Hue once claimed Hanoi’s place as the capital of Vietnam, and it was here the Nguyen Dynasty of Emperors lived, ruled and were buried. The seat of the Nguyen Emperors was the Citadel, occupying a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River, inside of which was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines and members of their households were permitted; death was the penalty for trespassing. Reconstruction efforts are in progress, though little of the Forbidden City now remains.

The atmospheric old trading port of Hoi An’s most distinctive feature is its mix of cultures, a result of its commercial history. Once known as Faifo it was a major trading hub in Southeast Asia between the 15th and 19th centuries. By the 17th century, the town’s foreign settlers included people from China, Japan, the Netherlands and India. When the river silted up the harbour became too shallow, the city lost its significance and trade moved north to Da Nang. Today it is home to the Nam Hai resort, a fine place to unwind and enjoy Vietnam’s natural beauty. In town, admire the confluence of architectural styles left behind by the early settlers, take a cooking class from a master Vietnamese chef and cruise to Cham Island to snorkel and have lunch with a salagne (swallow) nest taker and his family.

Saigon

Officially, it is Ho Chi Minh City, but the Southern Vietnamese still call Saigon by its imperial name. While it is best to do as the locals do, it is politic to use the official name when speaking to government officials. The city encompasses an enormous area 81 square miles and 90% of which is rural, it presents a multitude of activities, in both the city and its outskirts.

Can Tho, the capital of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, is known as the rice basket of Vietnam and produces over 50% of the country’s rice. Historically, it was the last city to yield to the North Vietnamese Army, a day after the fall of Saigon on May 1, 1975 the date representing the reunification of Vietnam.

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