With nod to past, Vietnam looks ahead to travel boom

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Always destined to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and pay the price for it, the Vietnamese could easily be portrayed as the doomed heroes in a romantic tragedy. French, American and Chinese troops have all traipsed through their country in a little over 60 years, yet the Vietnamese have dusted themselves off and ungrudgingly rebuilt.

Vietnam is an extraordinary country, and not only for its history. Despite their past the Vietnamese are impressively friendly and, more importantly, they approach life with a can-do attitude.

This attitude now sees the country in the midst of an economic miracle that has surpassed even that of China. And topping Vietnam's to-do list is attracting more tourists.

Over the past five years the country's stagnant tourism industry has creaked into action, and now that the wheels are rolling its seems they will only gather pace.

A number of hotels have opened their doors in recent years, including the five-star Park Hyatt in Ho Chi Minh City, often informally referred to by its prewar name of Saigon; several more hotels are planned or under construction, in both Saigon and capital city Hanoi.

Reaching the country has also been made easier. United Airlines has recently started direct flights from San Francisco to Saigon, and Vietnam Airlines plans the same, an indication of big things to come.

This investment in tourism is not unexpected; more adventurous travelers have included Vietnam on their itinerary for years. The country has a wealth of attractions. From charming Hanoi to teeming Saigon, there is enduring tradition, ancient culture and matchless charm.

Above all this is Vietnam's breathtaking beauty; which has meant mainstream tourism has been a matter of when, not if.

Handsome Hanoi

The obvious place to start any tour of the country is Hanoi.

Nicknames like "Paris of the East" are often thrown around carelessly, but Hanoi is the real deal. Its combination of colonial charm and ambling speed make it undeniably romantic.

Sitting in one the city's flourishing cafes takes visitors back to a bygone age, and it's easy to wile away an afternoon, as late-model motorbikes meander past and marketgoers pack the streets. By sundown you're expecting Humphrey Bogart to storm in and take a neighboring seat.

Hanoi's charm is firmly rooted in its history. While bulldozers have erased the colonial past in many of Asia's major tourist cities, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi has harnessed its past, and many of its old French colonial-era buildings are still standing.

There are also many beautiful Vietnamese-style buildings and temples as well as the decidedly less beautiful but equally interesting socialist architecture, including the morbid Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can view the late president of North Vietnam himself.

The best way to enjoy the city's charm is to stay in a hotel that has bags of it: the Metropole. Combining classical elegance in design with matchless service, the Metropole has character and at no expense to the quality of the hotel, which is unrivaled. 

For those who enjoy the culture and history of European cities, Hanoi is easily their equal and is unsurpassed within Asia.

Saigon revisited

Hanoi may be Vietnam's capital, but Saigon is its beating heart, a heaving metropolis that dwarfs the capital. People and motorbikes make the city bulge, and the cacophony of car horns along with suited businessmen hollering into mobile phones is a slice of modern Asia.

As Vietnam develops, Saigon leads the way. Many of Asia's cities are developing at breakneck speed, and Saigon is a fine example. Shimmering skyscrapers, seemingly constructed overnight, tower over fruit markets and one-story residences. Communism may be the system, but capitalism is the religion.

Bona-fide five-star hostelry, in the form of the Park Hyatt, has set up shop in Saigon, and brought some much-needed quality to the city's hotel scene. Soon to follow will be InterContinental, which has announced a 300-room property slated to open in 2009.

Saigon is missing much of Hanoi's charm, but history buffs will find plenty to keep them busy. The Vietnam War Museum -- or War Crimes Museum as they call it there -- offers a unique, if one-sided, view of the Vietnam War.

The former presidential palace, where South Vietnamese troops surrendered, is also a fascinating look behind the scenes of the former south, as the palace has been left largely "as was" on the day of the surrender.

Just outside Saigon are other famous war sites such as the Cu Chi Tunnels and the former Demilitarized Zone.

Vietnam and its people show no bitterness over the strife of the war, and the era is now being turned into a big tourist money-spinner, as sights are developed and money pumped in. Several tour operators have developed tours tailored around the war.

The energy and bustle of Saigon can be overwhelming, but for those who like their cities manic, it will be love at first sight.

Vietnam au naturel

Outside the cities, tourism is also on the rise, and much of the new money being invested in the country is finding its way into new resorts and spa complexes.

Asia has a reputation for quality resorts at reasonable prices, thanks to Bali and Thailand. However, Vietnam is hot on their heels; Bali has slipped off many travelers' radar due to gross overdevelopment, while Thailand's political uncertainty is leading many tourists to have second thoughts. Added to that, Vietnam is a bargain.

Vietnam has a number of top-notch resorts along what is inarguably a stunning coastline. These resorts offer a high quality of service and amenities and are more secluded than most other resorts in Asia.

Vietnam as a whole also offers wary U.S. travelers the bonus of security, as the country suffers from no internal conflict.

One of the most well-developed areas for resort tourism is Nha Trang, just a 45-minute flight to the north of Saigon. Tourism has been pouring into the area for years now, and the town and surrounding areas have seen heavy investment and support a well-developed tourism industry.

One of the newcomers to the area has been Evason Hideaway at Ana Mandara, accessible only by boat from its sister hotel on the main peninsula.

Bathed in sunshine for most of the year, these beach huts offer perfect isolation with plenty of water sports on offer, a fully equipped spa and fantastic scenery and coral to explore, all at half the price of similar properties in the region.

For more information, visit www.vietnamtourism.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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