Tropical beauty and booming cities. Mountains and beaches. Great food. A young country with an ancient culture. All in one of the world’s cheaper travel destinations.
Thailand is the tenth most visited country in the world. It’s beautiful, it’s friendly, its social scene is “lit” and it’s spectacularly cheap. Small wonder that a lot of Thailand’s 35 million foreign visitors a year are repeat customers, especially young travelers whose backpacks are bigger than their budgets.
Sooner or later, however, even the best destinations start to feel a little tired, shopworn, played out.
In that case, allow me to introduce you to Vietnam. Same mountainous tropical beauty. A coastline 2,000 miles long. Same mix of dynamic cities and serene countryside. Same amazingly low costs.
Just nowhere near as familiar.
Its Buddhist temples and pagodas may not quite rise to the level of, say, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, but Vietnam has worthy attractions of its own.
BAY OF DRAGONS
One of them is Ha Long Bay, about a two-hour drive from the national capital, Hanoi. Even if you’ve never heard of it, there’s a good chance you’ve already have seen a bit of it. Filmmakers love this place, and you don’t need to be Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese to see why.
A lot of its 1,600 limestone islands are hollow, creating vast caves that you can easily explore on foot or by kayak.
Ha Long translates to “descending dragon.” According to the legend, when a young Vietnam faced an invasion fleet from the north (translation: China), the Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her children to bombard the invaders with fire and giant emeralds that battered their warships and shielded the outnumbered defenders.
Over time, those giant emeralds formed the islands and inlets of what is now Ha Long Bay.
Speaking of caves, Vietnam is home to the largest cave on Earth, Son Doong. It’s millions of years old but was only discovered in 1991. It’s big enough to comfortably house a 40-story building and a Boeing 747. Big enough to generate its own weather. Explorers reported finding pearls the size of baseballs.
And it stretches for miles.
Everything about Son Doong is gigantic, including the cost of admission. Tourists are allowed to visit the cave, but the required visitor’s permit will set you back about US$3,000.
For an amazing sight that won’t send your wallet into cardiac shock, head for <strong>Da Nang</strong> and the Golden Bridge — a meandering footbridge in the mountains, held aloft in the palms of giant hands.
The urban side of Vietnam is dominated by its two largest cities — Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south.
If Hanoi is where the power is, Ho Chi Minh City is where the money is. Beijing may be the only city in Asia, or the world, with more neon per square foot. Every upscale brand of everything is for sale here and touted 24/7.
(NOTE: Although its official name since 1975 has been Ho Chi Minh City, no one will get overly stressed if you slip and call it Saigon. Even its airport code remains SGN.)
You’ll find plenty of fresh pubs, nightspots and restaurants — not just in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but also in Da Nang, Hoi An, Da Lat, Nha Trang and even Ha Long Bay.
Vietnam also offers plenty on the cultural side, especially in Hanoi and locations like the ancient imperial capital city of Hue, or the old quarter in Hoi An, a short drive from Da Nang along what used to be known as “China Beach.”
(What a generation of US war veterans know as “China Beach” is actually Mỹ Khê Beach. Decades later, many tourists and even some Vietnamese travel agencies still use the nickname the GIs gave it — to the chagrin of Vietnamese tourism officials.)
In-country expenses are so low, it seems almost misleading to call them expenses. The cost of one dinner at a stylish resto in the US could feed you for a week in Vietnam. At least. The equivalent of 3-star hotels can be had for as little as $30 a night, and hostels almost for pocket change.
At the other end of the scale, Vietnam has spent the last several years binge-building luxury all-inclusive resorts up and down the country, mainly along the coast. Along one seven-mile stretch of road in Cam Ranh last summer, I counted almost a dozen, going up simultaneously.
Want a villa with a patio larger than some hotel rooms? Not a problem. For those who like to travel with their family — or their posse — you could score a 3-bedroom villa, with a swimming pool for each bedroom and your own butler.
Your meals might be prepared by a Michelin-decorated chef or the mother of the kid who carried your bags — and both would be equally amazing.
I could go on and on about Vietnam. But it’s better if you just go — before the Vietnamese realize what a jewel they’re sitting on and raise their prices to match.