From her vibrant cities to her palm-fringed beaches and her hill-top retreats, Vietnam's tourist appeal is broad. And despite a long history of colonisation and fighting, her people are gracious, gentle and welcoming.
Bordering China and geographically a stone's throw from the Asian economic tiger nations of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Vietnam's economic development over the past twenty years has been staggering. Nowhere is this change more evident than in bustling, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon — the largest city in Vietnam and the pre-war former capital of South Vietnam. Featuring bustling street markets and glistening high rises, it's a fascinating mix of the old and the new with plenty to offer the visitor.
With the fug of incense smoke thick on the air and a boggling selection of intricately carved Taoist and Buddhist deities on offer, the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Phuoc Hai) has been enlightening locals and visitors alike since it first opened its doors back in 1909. Take in the Hall of Ten Hells with it's carved depictions of all ten layers of the netherworld. Be sure to check out the slimy pond to the right of the courtyard where hundreds of tortoises—some with auspicious inscriptions carved into their shells—compete for air.
For lovers of architecture, there are more than a couple of remnants from Vietnam's colonial days as French Indochina that are well worth a look. The Notre Dame Cathedral is a magnificent red-brick, neo-Romanesque church with twin spires that dates back to the late 19th century. Across Công xã Paris and based on designs by Gustave Eiffel's —yes, he of Parisian Tower fame—the Saigon Post Office dates from the same era. With spectacular vaulted ceilings and a magnificent tiled floors, the working post office is still a major tourist drawcard.
Got a pocket full of Dong and looking for somewhere to spend it? Flag down a cyclo, agree on a price, then make haste for the Ben Thanh Markets for a cornucopia of knick-knacks, food-stuffs and Vietnamese fashion. Be prepared to barter hard, prices are often higher than you'll find elsewhere but there's always a little haggle room.
A hugely popular draw for tourists to Ho Chi Minh and the fertile south of Vietnam is the Mekong Delta—Vietnam's rice bowl. It's a lush world of farmland and waterside towns and villages where the mighty Mekong River empties into smaller tributaries. Take in Can Tho, the epicentre of the Mekong Delta or visit the floating markets at Cai Rang or Cai Be. For a little slice of South East Asian luxury, board a Mekong river cruise tour and take in local life along the shores of the seventh largest waterway in the world.
About 30 kilometres north east of Ho Chi Minh City—made easily accessible by a number of tourist companies that provide day trips to the region—the Củ Chi Tunnels provides a fascinating glimpse as to what life was like for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The tunnels are just a small sample of a complicated network of tunnels that criss-cross the country. As well as offering hiding spots during combat, the tunnels served as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for a huge number of North Vietnamese fighters. Although not for the claustrophobic, the section of the Cu Chi tunnels open to tourists have been enlarged and strengthened to cater for visitors.