Top experiences in Vietnam
Snaking down the easternmost coast of the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country (~90 million). Vietnam today has long outgrown its former image as synonymous with war—either the “Vietnam War” or “American War,” depending on your audience. With its youthful population (roughly 44 percent under 24 years old), Vietnam now exists beyond the shadow of past violence: it is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies (second to China), a newly christened middle-income country, and an increasingly mighty player in the globe’s political-economic playing field.
From large-scale industry to street hawkers, the unfettered capitalism in Vietnam often makes one forget that the country is indeed a socialist republic. Along with China, Cuba, North Korea, and Laos, Vietnam is one of the world's five remaining Marxist-Leninist one-party states. Vietnam’s journey to socialism was bloody. After 1000 years of Chinese imperialism, nearly 70 years of French colonialism, and over 20 years of war with the US, South Vietnam and North Vietnam united under the latter’s mandate. After 1975, post-war policies nationalized property and collectivized land, introducing massive relocation and reeducation campaigns. Due to grim results and a disgruntled citizenry, the state eventually replaced these policies, starting with Đổi Mới economic reforms in 1986, and gradually opened the market to allow for free(er) trade. By the 1990s, tourism started to grow.
For travelers, Vietnam is the dreamland of backpackers, photographers, and foodies. With seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, rice paddies galore, motorbike-laden cityscapes, and over 3000 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam has glorious vistas in nearly every direction. Many even see beauty captured in the dust and steel of the construction zones that increasingly pervade Vietnam, as real estate industrializes and transforms into golf courses, luxury malls, and gated communities to cater to nouveau riche consumption.
The beaten path includes the capital of Hanoi (with side trips to Sapa or Halong), Hue’s imperial ruins and tombs, Hoi An’s lantern-lit cobblestones, and Ho Chi Minh City’s vibrant streets (with detours to beaches like Nha Trang, Mui Ne, or Phu Quoc Island). All top destinations have hostels and cheap eats for budget travelers as well as boutique renovated French villas and spanking new five-star resorts for those with deeper pockets. Adventures off the beaten path are equally abundant--from the back roads to ethnic minority villages in the northeastern highlands of Ha Giang to hidden beaches near Quy Nhon to homestays in Ba Be Lake.
While Vietnam is a country that is rapidly outgrowing the past, it is still haunted by its ghosts. So no matter where or how or when you travel, for the best experience make sure to grab a history book first.
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