March 30, 2010

Tourism is booming in Vietnam

At a tourist booth at the international airport, arriving foreigners are offered enticing brochures, including a thick little booklet with a lovely pastel urban lake scene on the cover and the incongruous title: "Hanoi, City of Tourism."

Sapa field, Vietnam

Sapa field,

Incongruous, because for many Americans, what was once the capital of North Vietnam evokes different images. Not too long ago, this was a city of fanatical communists and the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison where downed U.S. fliers were held.

For decades after the war, which ended in 1975 with the reunification of the country, Vietnam ranked with Somalia, North Korea and Albania on the bottom rung of American tourist destinations.

But now, Vietnam is getting very different reviews.

"Great food, great people, great adventure," was the assessment of Al Bergstrom, a college professor in Rhode Island who in January made his third trip there with a group of other American veterans.

"I will be taking my family there, my kids are 9 and 10, as I want them to see the unregulated congestion of the cities and the beauty of places like Quang Tri, Hue and lots of other places I have only read about and seen in James Bond movies," he wrote in an e-mail.

In December, Sheila Schlesinger, 72, an experienced traveler who lives in Florida, made her first visit while on a cruise. A war protester during the 1960s, she had long resisted even thinking about going to Vietnam.

"I'm so glad we went. I was able to cleanse my soul. Especially at the War Remembrance Museum in Saigon. It stirred emotions in me that I thought could not be evoked again," she said.

"The people were warm and made us feel welcome. No one gave us a dirty look. There was none of the gloominess you feel when you travel in Eastern Europe," she said.

Her two days in the country only whetted her appetite.

"Would I go back to Vietnam? In a heartbeat. It's a beautiful country. I felt as comfortable in Saigon as I've ever felt in a big city," she said.

Much has changed since a harsh U.S.-led economic embargo was lifted in 1994, although it was not until 2006 that diplomatic relations between U.S. and Vietnam were completely normalized. The current mood could be described as cordial.

And, as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has already demonstrated to hundreds of thousands of Western tourists, this brand of laissez-faire communism mixes quite nicely with five-star hotels, elephant rides, golf courses, casinos and other Western tourist indulgences.

Travel to Vietnam is easy, cheap and even mellow. Hotels are clean. English is widely spoken. The war is almost never mentioned, and, most tourists report, the Vietnamese seem to genuinely like Americans.

And there are a lot of choices. Just Google "Vietnam vacations" and dozens of tour options come rolling in.


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