Vietnam has overcome prolonged Chinese, French and American occupation to emerge strong and fiercely proud. And there is much to be proud of, from the many UNESCO-listed sites to a cuisine that is now making its mark on the world stage thanks to its emphasis on fresh ingredients and mountains of herbs.
The national dish, pho, with its perfectly balanced blend of flavours with hints of star anise is just the tip of the iceberg. Every lunchtime the capital’s streets are filled the irresistible scent of barbecuing bun cha, while all along the coast seafront restaurants serve up the very freshest of seafood. Meanwhile, in the former royal capital of Hué, a whole other world of food awaits with delicately prepared dishes originally created for bygone emperors now served up to us mere mortals.
While it remains a Communist state, the economic reforms of ‘doi moi’ in 1986 provided a springboard towards Vietnam’s blistering growth. In recent years scores of gleaming high-rises have risen from paddy fields and whole new districts have grown from swampy wastelands. Among this development stand the pagodas and temples of old, the scent of incense wafting onto streets still padded by conical hat-wearing fruit sellers and pedalled by cyclos, albeit against the heavy tide of motorbikes and rising number of SUVs.
And then there are the country’s utterly beautiful and diverse landscapes. The dramatic mountains of the Far North are dotted with ethnic minority villages and criss-crossed by a network of roads which serve up mountain passes that road trip dreams are made of. East of Hanoi the islands of Halong Bay compete for attention with a coastline bursting with peaceful, pristine beaches.
Elsewhere, adventure beckons in Central Vietnam with the world’s largest caves now open for exploration, while further south the seas of Mui Ne are renowned for world-class kitesurfing, just minutes away from Sahara-like dunes.