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History weighs heavily on
. For more than a decade, reportage of the war that racked the country portrayed it as a savage netherworld, yet, only twenty-odd years after the war's end, this incredibly resilient nation is beginning to emerge from the shadows.
As the number of tourists finding their way here soars, the word is out that this is a land not of bomb craters and army ordnance, but of shimmering paddy fields and sugar-white beaches, full-tilt cities and venerable pagodas. The speed with which Vietnam's population of 77 million has been able to transcend the recent past comes as a surprise to visitors who are generally met with warmth and curiosity rather than shell-shocked resentment and war fatigue.
Inevitably, that's not the whole story. The adoption of a
has polarized the gap between rich and poor: average monthly incomes for city dwellers remain at about $50, but drops to $15 in the poorest provinces.
For the majority of visitors, the furiously commercial southern city of
Ho Chi Minh City
provides a head-spinning introduction to Vietnam, so a trip out into the rice fields and orchards of the nearby
makes a welcome next stop - best explored by boat from
My Tho, Vinh Long
. Heading north, the quaint hill-station of
provides a good place to cool down, but some travellers eschew this for the
. A few hours' ride further up the coast, the city of
has become a crucial stepping stone on the Ho Chi Minh-Hanoi run. Next up comes the enticing little town of
, full of wooden shop-houses and close to Vietnam's greatest Cham temple ruins at
. The temples, palaces and imperial mausoleums of aristocratic
should also not be missed. One hundred kilometres north, war-sites litter the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
, which cleaved the country in two from 1954 to 1975.
has served as Vietnam's capital for close on a thousand years and is a small, absorbing city of pagodas and dynastic temples, where life proceeds at a gentler pace than in Ho Chi Minh. From here most visitors strike out east to the labyrinth of limestone outcrops in
Ha Long Bay
, usually visited from the resort town of
, but more interestingly approached from tiny
Cat Ba Island
. The little market-town of
, set in spectacular uplands close to the Chinese border in the far northwest, makes a good base for exploring nearby ethnic minority villages.
Vietnam has a tropical monsoon
, dominated by the south or southwesterly monsoon from May to September and the northeast monsoon from October to April. Overall, late September to December and March and April are the
if you're covering the whole country, but there are distinct regional variations. In
southern Vietnam and the central highlands
the dry season lasts from December through April, and daytime temperatures rarely drop below 20°C in the lowlands, averaging 30°C during March, April and May. Along the
the wet season runs from September through February, though even the dry season brings a fair quantity of rain; temperatures average 30°C from June to August. Typhoons can hit the coast around Hue in April and May and the northern coast from July to November, when flooding is a regular occurence.
Hanoi and Northern Vietnam
are generally hot (30°C) and very wet during the summer, warm and sunny from October to December, then cold and misty until March.
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