On the map, Vietnam resembles a bamboo pole with baskets of rice at each end: the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south.
An S-shaped country stretching 1600 km long along the South China Sea, it’s slightly bigger than Italy, but at its narrowest point in the centre is only 50 km wide.
Vietnam has always been known as a country of two parts – North and South – and even now, 36 years after reunification, there are stark differences between the two. After the war, which killed or injured 10% of its population, it took decades to rebuild the country.
Now, however, it is ready to compete with all other major tourist centres. With direct flights to Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, you can be there in around 13 hours without having to change in Hong Kong or Bangkok. This means that Vietnam is no longer just on the backpacker route but can be visited as a separate destination in its own right.
The greatest attractions of Vietnam are the differences between the French colonial feel of Hanoi, with its lakes and tiny streets, and the more cosmopolitan urban feel of Ho Chi Minh City, and the diversity in the countryside and coastline. There are many temples and palaces in both cities as well as Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City. The War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan, Ho Chi Minh City) provides a very strong message of how futile war can be and the destruction it can cause.
Away from the main cities you can take trips to one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Halong Bay (halongbay-vietnam.com) with its 3,000 islands is a UNESCO heritage site and features in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
From Ho Chi Minh City you can also visit the Mekong Delta and travel by rowing boats along the canals and visit the floating market, which is a working market and not just a tourist attraction. A two-day trip can cost around $30 with guides, lunches and accommodation – $5 extra for aircon!
There are now also frequent sleeper buses – you get a bed and your own TV – to Nha Trang which has some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. Internal flights are relatively cheap now with more low cost airlines operating domestically and to nearby cities such as Bangkok and Singapore.
If you’re very adventurous and have more time, you can take the Reunification Express train between Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City. It takes around 33 hours but you can stop off at Huế (the ancient capital), Da Nang and Nha Trang. Hanoi to Ho Chi Ming City costs around £50 one-way for a soft sleeper berth.
Shopping is great in Vietnam but be careful of the street markets and the huge Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Ming City. Most of the clothes here are cheap Chinese copies and you really need to bargain.
However, in Hanoi near the lake and in Ho Chi Minh City there are many fine silk shops and tailors, who can provide you with excellent made-to-measure items in a couple of days. Many items such as sports clothes, rucksacks and Calvin Klein underwear are made in Vietnam so prices are much cheaper.
One of the best features of Vietnam is its food. Many people know pho, the cooked meat and rice noodles dish, but there are many other wonderful dishes, particularly the fresh spring rolls. You can eat very well for around £10 a head with drinks.
However, do go to one of the more upmarket restaurants, which are usually housed in old colonial houses. It’s better in a group because you can sample a wider range of dishes but a meal will usually cost less than £20 with drinks. Beer and cocktails are relatively cheap but wine is much more expensive.
One memorable aspect is the number of motorbikes on the road, particularly in Hanoi where crossing from one side of the street to the other is a real test of determination and skill. You just have to walk. Don’t stop or hesitate – and they will avoid you.
A must is to ride on the back of a motorbike either with a friend or one of the many operating as taxis but be prepared to bargain. There are over 20 million motorbikes in Vietnam and are used to transport everything from whole families to plates of glass, computers and even animals!
Although there are no official laws against same-sex relationships the gay scene in Vietnam is very limited. It is still a conservative country and Vietnamese do not display affection publically.
In Hanoi the GC (Golden Cock) bar (5 Bao Khanh Street) near Hoan Kiem Lake has a lively mixed crowd with quite a few ex-pats. Local gay men and lesbians tend to frequent the more upmarket discos and bars and blend in. There are no problems staying in hotels as a couple as this is very common for locals too.
Ho Chi Minh City now has a very attractive small spa just outside the centre but very cheap to get to in a taxi. And the cost is around £10 for a massage with a tip! It’s very clean and although the facilities are quite basic compared to more Western spas it is very friendly and you can choose your masseur from a picture menu (NaDam Spa, 12/29/1 Highway 13, Hiep Binh Chanh, adamspa.com.vn).
Vietnam is still relatively cheap. Local currency, the dong, is now 33,944 to the pound which makes you a millionaire with £30! Hotels can range from hostels to the five-star International chains but there are many smaller hotels with excellent service for around £25 a night. Hanoi has a chain of Elegance hotels which have different rooms but often include your own laptop. Some have no windows so make sure you check!
Tourist info: vietnamtourism.com
Gay info: utopia-asia.com