Verdant patchworks of rice paddies, pointed lampshade-style hats, a country ravaged by war, and economic repression - these 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, of timeless traditional villages, idyllic sea resorts and dynamic cities.
Shaped like an elongated '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 colourful hill tribes, and the agricultural plains and floating markets of the Mekong Delta in the south, lie miles of white sandy beaches, towering mountains, rivers and dense forests, and the 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 two thousand 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 Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are reminders of the brutality of war.
Ancient temples and colourful pagodas are scattered throughout the urban centres, 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.