the Bamboo Curtain'
country too long associated with war, has at last won its final
battle – to capture the imagination of the traveller. Elegant
Hanoi now competes with its powerful sister Ho Chi
Minh City (still affectionately called Saigon
by its residents) for the attention of tourists seduced by the a wide range of old and new.
Elsewhere the ambiance is timeless. Early morning on the Mekong
Delta brings the lively floating markets where fruit and
vegetables are sold straight from the boats. The greenery of rice
paddies spreads endlessly into the distance, interrupted only
by the silhouette of water buffalo and peasants wearing conical
hats tending to the young plants. In the
north of the country, the colossal mountains soar over small villages where life remains
the same as it has done for centuries, with traditional costumes
still worn with pride. Old French hill stations
survive all over the country and offer welcome refuge from the heat
of the plains below. And in the South China Sea, the 3,000 chalk
islands in Ha Long Bay should not be missed.
Hue, the ancient former imperial capital, transforms
you back to a time of eunuchs and concubines. In every town, young
women dressed in the plain but feminine national dress, the Ao
Dai, weave their way through traffic on motorbikes. Only
Vietnam could encapsulate the past and the present so perfectly.