By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk
For many who fought or lost friends or family there, the name Vietnam evokes memories that may best be left in the past.
For others, curiosity about what Vietnam is today, much akin to World War II veterans returning to Normandy or other horrific battle sites, is driving a new wave of tourism.
For the generation too young to remember the outcome of the war over three decades ago, it is largely a non-issue with respect to their travel planning.
Notwithstanding the negative images of the war dispensed by the media, Vietnam is a very interesting and scenic country.
Verdant patchworks of rice paddies, pointed lampshade-style hats, a country ravaged by war and economic repression are the international images of Vietnam, seen on worldwide television and read about in the newspapers.
But there are other scenes to be found, ones of natural beauty, ethnic culture and imperial history. There are timeless traditional villages, beautiful sea resorts and dynamic cities developing into a new economic power in the region.
Shaped like an elongated letter S, Vietnam stretches along the east coast of the Indochinese Peninsula and is likened by its people to a long bamboo pole hung with two baskets of rice, represented by the two fertile regions at either end of the country.
Between the lush Red River Delta and the highlands in the north, known for their magnificent scenery and colorful hill tribes, and the agricultural plains and floating markets of the Mekong Delta in the south, rest miles of white sandy beaches, towering mountains, rivers and dense forests.
There are thousands of bizarre rock and cave formations on the islands of Halong Bay.
The impact of Japanese and Chinese trade, French occupation and American intervention has left its stain on Vietnam, smeared over a period of more than 2,000 years of recorded history.
However, the country has also been left with a vivid legacy from different cultures evident in the character of its towns, as well as in the architecture and food.
The quaint town of Hoi An, once a major trading port, boasts the perfectly preserved architectural influences of the Asian merchants from the north, while the broad leafy boulevards of the capital, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City are reminiscent of France. Menus offer Chinese variations of spring rolls, steamed dumplings and noodles.
Hué is the old imperial capital of Vietnam with its royal palaces and palatial mausoleums, and nearby the battle sites of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are reminders of the brutality of war.
The DMZ and Vinh Moc
Under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Vietnam was split into North and South along the 17th parallel. The Ben Hai River was selected as the temporary demarcation line.
A three-mile strip of no-man’s land on either side of the border was known as the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, that was bombed into a desolate wasteland, riddled with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire during the war.
The area surrounding the DMZ and the land in between was the worst affected, and the amount of explosives, napalm and chemicals used, including Agent Orange, has left the once heavily forested land with stunted growth and infertile soil.
Historical sites and landmarks include the Hien Luong Bridge spanning the river, entry to the Ho Chi Minh Trail that bypassed the border, the American firebase at Con Thien, U.S Marine base at Khe San, and the Truong Son War Martyr Cemetery dedicated to the thousands who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A guided tour is strongly recommended as there are no signs and the area still contains unexploded land mines.
Vinh Moc is known for the extraordinary complex of tunnels constructed by the villagers as an underground village in which to seek shelter from the American bombardments.
Faced with the total destruction of their village in 1965, they dug an underground network consisting of three layers starting at a depth of 33 feet with room for 300 people, including wells, a school, clinics, storerooms, observation posts, ventilation shafts and a maternity room where 17 babies were delivered during the war.
A section has been restored and is open to visitors, and there is a small museum at the entrance.
Ancient temples and colorful pagodas are scattered throughout the urban centers, while among them stand hotels of modern luxury, and the development of tourism infrastructure is a booming business.
Vietnam is a perfect balance between ancient times and the here and now, a country that reveres its past heroes, a nation that has collectively put the woes of war behind it, and people who welcome visitors to their country with open arms and friendly smiles.
The climate varies greatly from north to south. The north has a cool and dry season from November to April and a hot rainy season from May to October.
The central coast north of Nha Trang has a similar climate with the winter monsoon bringing cool, wet weather between December and February.
The south is hot and humid all year round, especially from February to May. The rainy season lasts from May to November.
The central highlands have a similar climate to the south, but it is cooler and temperatures can be freezing in winter. The official peak season in Vietnam is from September to April.
Travel to Vietnam by U.S. citizens requires and valid passport plus a visa.
Next week: The cities and sights of Vietnam.
Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way. To learn more, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.