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History weighs heavily on Vietnam. 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 market economy 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 Mekong Delta makes a welcome next stop - best explored by boat from My Tho, Vinh Long or Can Tho . Heading north, the quaint hill-station of Da Lat provides a good place to cool down, but some travellers eschew this for the beaches of Vung Tau and Phan Thiet . A few hours' ride further up the coast, the city of Nha Trang has become a crucial stepping stone on the Ho Chi Minh-Hanoi run. Next up comes the enticing little town of Hoi An , full of wooden shop-houses and close to Vietnam's greatest Cham temple ruins at My Son . The temples, palaces and imperial mausoleums of aristocratic Hué 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.
Hanoi 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 Bai Chay , but more interestingly approached from tiny Cat Ba Island . The little market-town of Sa Pa , set in spectacular uplands close to the Chinese border in the far northwest, makes a good base for exploring nearby ethnic minority villages.
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