Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country on the South China Sea known for its beaches, rivers, Buddhist pagodas and bustling cities. Hanoi, the capital, pays homage to the nation’s iconic Communist-era leader, Ho Chi Minh, via a huge marble mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has French colonial landmarks, plus Vietnamese War history museums and the C? Chi tunnels, used by Viet Cong soldiers.
1. Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.
2. Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.
3. Most people in Vietnam are ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), though there are many minority groups who tend to live in the highlands or big cities. The three biggest minorities are the Tay people, Thais and Muong. Others include the Khmers and Hmong. There is a sizable ethnic Chinese community in Ho Chi Minh City, most of whom are descended from migrants from Guangdong province and are hence bilingual in Cantonese, Teochew or other Chinese dialects and Vietnamese. The Chams, who live in the southern coastal areas of the country, represent the bulk of Muslims in Vietnam.
4. For most visitors who ascend to these altitudes, the main target is Dalat, an erstwhile French mountain retreat that appears very romantic from afar, when the mists roll over its pine-crested hilltops, though some find it disappointing close-up, with its dreary architecture and tacky tourist trappings. The city itself is not without its charms, among them a bracing climate, some beguiling colonial buildings, picturesque bike rides and a market overflowing with delectable fruits and vegetables.
5. Ha Tien, a remote border town surrounded by Khmer villages, is the best place to hop on a boat to Phu Quoc. The town has also become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast from Phu Quoc Island to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa.