Few countries have changed so much over such a short time as Vietnam. Less than forty years since the savagery and slaughter of the American War, this resilient nation is buoyant with hope. It is a country on the move: access is now easier than ever, roads are being upgraded, hotels are springing up and Vietnam's raucous entrepreneurial spirit is once again alive and well as the old-style Communist system gives way to a socialist market economy. As the number of tourists visiting the country soars, their talk is not of bomb craters and army ordnance but of shimmering paddy fields and sugar-white beaches, full-tilt cities and venerable pagodas; Vietnam is a veritable phoenix arisen from the ashes.
The speed with which Vietnam's population has been able to put the bitter events of its recent past behind it, and focus its gaze so steadfastly on the future, often surprises visitors expecting to encounter shell-shocked resentment of the West. It wasn't always like this, however. The reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975, ending twenty years of bloody civil war, was followed by a decade or so of hardline centralist economic rule from which only the shake-up of doi moi – Vietnam's equivalent of perestroika – beginning in 1986, could awaken the country. This signalled a renaissance for Vietnam, and today a high fever of commerce grips the nation: from the flash new shopping malls and designer boutiques to the hustle and bustle of street markets and the booming cross-border trade with China. From a tourist's point of view, this is a great time to visit – not only to soak up the intoxicating sense of vitality and optimism, but also the chance to witness a country in profound flux. Inevitably, that's not the whole story. Doi moi is an economic policy, not a magic spell, and life, for much of the population, remains hard. Indeed, the move towards a market economy has predictably polarized the gap between rich and poor. Average monthly incomes for city-dwellers are around US$100, while in the poorest provinces workers may scrape by on as little as US$30 a month – a difference that amply illustrates the growing gulf between urban and rural Vietnam.
There is an equally marked difference between north and south, a deep psychological divide that was around long before the American War, and is engrained in Vietnamese culture. Northerners are considered reticent, thrifty, law-abiding and lacking the dynamism and entrepreneurial know-how of their more worldly wise southern compatriots. Not surprisingly, this is mirrored in the broader economy: the south is Vietnam's growth engine, it boasts lower unemployment and higher average wages, and the increasingly glitzy Ho Chi Minh City looks more to Bangkok and Singapore than Hanoi.
Many visitors find a vast number of places to visit that intrigue and excite them in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the other major centres; but despite the cities' allure, it's the country's striking landscape that most impresses. Vietnam occupies a narrow strip of land that hugs the eastern borders of Cambodia and Laos, hemmed in by rugged mountains to the west, and by the South China Sea – or the East Sea, as the Vietnamese call it. To the north and south of its narrow waist, it fantails out into the splendid deltas of the Red River and the Mekong, and it's in these regions that you'll encounter the paddy fields, dragonflies, buffaloes and conical-hatted farmers that constitute the classic image of Vietnam.
In stark contrast to the pancake-flat rice land of the deltas, Ha Long Bay's labyrinthine network of limestone outcrops loom dramatically out of the Gulf of Tonkin – a magical spectacle in the early morning mist. Any trip to the remote upland regions of central and northern Vietnam is likely to focus upon the ethnic minorities who reside there. Elaborate tribal costumes, age-old customs and communal longhouses await those visitors game enough to trek into the sticks. As for wildlife, the discovery in recent years of several previously unknown species of plants, birds and animals speaks volumes for the wealth of Vietnam's biodiversity and makes the improving access to the country's national parks all the more gratifying.