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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bargain Vietnam Combines Beauty and Bustle




For travelers who seek a well-marked but not well-trod path, it is probably the time to book that trip to Vietnam.


Now, while Asia's economic crisis offers some of the world's best travel bargains and first-class hotels that still boast the kind of friendly service you never knew existed.


Now, before industrialization finally takes hold and brings traffic jams and foul air to Ho Chi Minh City as it did to Bangkok and gobbles up the verdant rice paddies that still line either side of the highway connecting Hanoi to its airport.


And, yes, now, before the big hotel chains discover the splendid beaches south of Da Nang, the dramatic scenery of Hai Long Bay and the enchanting mountainsides around Dalat and Dien Bien Phu.


As a bonus, you'll discover you can eat like a minor prince for $20 a day and for a reasonable price find people willing to take you anywhere you want to go. You can also become the favorite relative in your family next holiday season with the inexpensive and fabulous silk robes, lacquer trays and embroidered tablecloths you carry back.


And, in case any Americans are wondering, it seems everyone in Vietnam really likes Americans, all those B-52 sorties notwithstanding.


But Vietnam is not for everyone. The list of cautions will be familiar to anyone who has experience with Third World travel.


The first thing any Western visitor notices is the poverty. It assaults you visually and confronts you in the form of persistent postcard and candy hawkers and begging children.


Just getting around Vietnam can also be difficult. Airplane service around the country is expensive and, between secondary cities, infrequent. Trains are old, slow, hot and dirty. For tourists, that usually means getting from place to place by hiredcar in a country where roads are narrow and badly paved and must be shared with a wide assortment of carts, tractors, trucks, motorcycles, children on bicycles, pedestrians, farm animals and ingeniously overpacked minivans. For the moment, tourists are still not allowed to drive their own cars, but no matter - you'd be crazy even to try.


Yet, for all its shortcomings, I came away from a three-week stay thinking it satisfying and worthwhile. Today's Vietnam remains a physically beautiful country of friendly and energetic people who are in the midst of a transition from communism to democratic capitalism. From dawn until well past sunset, they seem always to be on the move and open for business. Modern and traditional, Eastern and Western, capitalist and communist ... all are thrown together in a wonderfully entertaining daily drama.


Ho Chi Minh City is the best place to begin a Vietnam tour, not only because it is the largest city but also the least Vietnamese. Even in the midst of the Asian economic crisis, it remains a city bustling with capitalist possibility.


That said, there isn't really that much to see to sustain a long visit there.


You'll do well to spend an hour at the Palace of Reunification, the seat of government of the South Vietnamese government before the surrender in 1975. You'll also want to take in a Buddhist temple or two, and the Ben Thanh Market in the center of the city, a lively covered bazaar.


Mostly, though, Ho Chi Minh City is about soaking up the atmosphere - and eating. What Ho Chi Minh City lacks in key attractions it makes up for in good restaurants. The national meal of Vietnam is a clear beef soup with egg noodles, meat and spices known as pho, most often eaten for breakfast and lunch at sidewalk cafes. A heaping bowl with a beer will set you back about $2.


Don't leave Ho Chi Minh City without a meal or drink at the rooftop of the Rex Hotel, where the American military command once lived - it's kitschy and fun and the food is very good if a little overpriced.


And no trip to Ho Chi Minh City would be complete without lunch at Madame Di's, where the former speaker of the South Vietnamese legislature holds court in her home amid antiques, wonderful spring rolls and her remembrances of Paris in the '20s.


Ho Chi Minh City has lots of good hotels, most of them nearly empty these days and willing to offer deep discounts if you walk in off the street (but probably not if you book in advance). My own preference is for the three beautifully renovated hotels along Dong Khoi Street in the heart of the city that still retain the flavor of French colonial Saigon - the Majestic, the Grand and the Continental, where Graham Greene is said to have written "The Quiet American."


Beyond Ho Chi Minh City, your top priority should be getting a car to take you west for a tour of the Mekong Delta. You'll have to be pushy because all tours are supposed to be booked through the provincial tourist organization run by the People's Committee, which will insist on shuttling you around in noisy boats to see candy-making, fruit-growing and craft shops you could easily pass up. Insist on a tour by private car and boat of the most productive and beautiful rice paddies anywhere in Asia, where plows are still pulled by oxen, irrigation water is transferred from big canal to little by ingenious basket contraptions and harvesting is done by hand by armies of women in conical hats.


Another day trip will take you north of Ho Chi Minh City to two must-see sites: the tunnels of Cu Chi and the Caodai Temple.


The tunnels are part of an elaborate, three-story underground network that the Viet Cong used as home base and launching pad in their campaigns against French and American troops. Spend even a few minutes in the tunnels, which have been fortified and enlarged for tourists, and you'll come away with an enhanced admiration for the determination and cleverness of the fighters.


Another hour's drive to the northeast from Cu Chi, close to the Cambodian border, is the Vatican of the Caodai religion, which combines elements of Catholicism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism in a set of beliefs that proved particularly appealing to the Vietnamese middle class during the early 20th century. At noon every day, dozens of toga-clad monks file in - men on one side, women on the other - to chant their daily prayers inside a fantastically colorful temple.


The old imperial capital of Hue might have been the country's top tourist spot if its numerous historical sites had not been so thoroughly damaged in the French and American wars and neglected since by the communist government. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty that was the first to consolidate the country under a single ruler, Gia Long, in 1802. In its day, the moated imperial citadel, modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, must have been quite a sight, complete with lakes, an imperial palace, several temples, tea houses and accommodations for hundreds of court mandarins. Outside of town, the 19th-century emperors constructed elaborate tombs for themselves. Sadly, what remains can be surveyed easily in a day.


Finally there is Hanoi, the pleasant and charming French-Asian city most people fantasize about when they think of Vietnam. Just driving in from the airport along a smooth, divided highway, you realize how far you are from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. As you cross the Red River into the city proper, you proceed down broad, tree-lined avenues, past ocher, colonial-style government buildings, around the city's peaceful lakes and spacious parks and through the old commercial district. As the capital of French Indochina and later the centrally planned economy of Vietnam, this is a city that clearly prides itself on history, decorum and control.


The heart of the old city is Hoan Kiem Lake. From early morning, when the seniors come out for their morning exercise, to late-night strolls by young couples looking for a little privacy outside the family dwelling, the paths around the lake are the best place to observe everyday life.


Every major city in Vietnam has a Ho Chi Minh museum, but the only one worth visiting is here, part of a complex that includes his modest stilt house and fruit orchard and a Lenin-like mausoleum where Ho's body is preserved (against his wishes) in a glass coffin. It is clear that, whatever the Vietnamese may think about the government, or whatever they may know about his sometimes harsh regime, Ho is widely revered.


If it's not too hot (and in the summer, it can be unbearably so), Hanoi is the kind of city that's fun just to walk around, taking in the buildings and the flow of daily life, browsing through silk and lacquerware shops in the old quarter or stopping for coffee or ice cream.


And backpackers rave about the scenery of their treks through the mountain villages of ethnic hill tribes. You could put together a great sailing vacation from Ha Long Bay down the coast to Nha Tran, taking in the largely deserted sand-and-dune beaches and unvisited offshore islands.


The point is simply that now is the time to snatch this vacation diamond in the rough. There's the opportunity to put together a private tour tailored to your own tastes and interests, at reasonable prices, in a country that offers most of the elements of a good vacation - but hasn't quite figured out how to put them all together.


How to Get There


Aeroflot and Vietnam Airlines have direct flights from Moscow to Ho Chi Minh City on Mondays. Aeroflot charges $951 for a round-trip ticket, while Vietnam Airlines charges $900 and says a price reduction is planned after Feb. 15.