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In just about every major city in Vietnam, simulated GI canteens with names like Apocalypse Now and DMZ dominate a good chunk of the nightlife. With stereos blaring the Rolling Stones and house drinks like the “B-52,” these bars offer Western tourists a taste of the Vietnam they’ve come to expect from books and movies about the war. They’ll find it in few other places. In truth, aside from tacky bars and souvenir stands, the “American War” is barely a presence in today’s Vietnam. Most of the population of 80 million was born after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The country has seen enormous economic growth in the decade since the United States lifted its trade embargo, and there is no discernible bitterness toward Americans. Rather, Vietnam is one of Asia’s most welcoming destinations for American tourists. Along with a friendly reception, visitors to Vietnam will find no shortage of sights and delights. Hanoi, with its charming Old City and French colonial ambience, certainly beckons. So does nearby Ha Long Bay, where tourist junks ply the clear waters around imposing limestone monoliths. The beautiful and still mostly unspoiled beaches outside of Danang offer yet another option. The city officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, but still called Saigon by locals and foreigners alike, is Vietnam’s largest city. Gleaming new hotels, banks and shopping centers now tower over much of the city’s older French colonial architecture, and foreign businesses, including American law firms like White & Case and Baker & McKenzie, are an increasing presence in the city. This juxtaposition of old and new is most apparent on the Dong Khoi, formerly the Rue Catinat, which bisects the downtown commercial and entertainment district. A stroll along this road from the impressive French-built Notre Dame Cathedral to the Saigon River is an excellent way to get acquainted with the city and check out such landmarks as the Continental Hotel and the Cafe Givral, both featured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” The Continental, unfortunately, has not been renovated with care, but the city’s best hotels are all nearby, with the Caravelle and a brand-new Sheraton vying for top honors. Saigon does contain a number of interesting sites relating to the war. The Reunification Palace, formerly the seat of the U.S.-backed southern regime, sits right off the Dong Khoi and is well worth a visit for its singular 1960s design. The nearby War Remnants Museum, known in less friendly times as the War Crimes Museum, contains bracing exhibits on My Lai and Agent Orange. There is also plenty of interest for the itinerant wanderer. The bustling Cholon district, Saigon’s Chinatown, contains jewel-like Confucian temples hidden in its midst. Saigon also has dozens of smart cafes where tourists and locals alike enjoy coffee from Vietnam’s central highlands, topped with a generous dollop of sweetened condensed milk, and take in the endless parade of Vietnam’s youth streaming by on prized Honda scooters. Saigon is the culinary capital of Vietnam and home to several world-class restaurants. Mandarine is justly famous for its delicious crab in tamarind sauce. Blue Ginger and Lemon Grass are other top choices for Vietnamese food, and Camargue offers an excellent if somewhat pricey French option. If Saigon is the future of Vietnam, Hue, an hour’s flight north, is the carefully preserved past, and the perfect antidote to the southern city’s bustle. Most famous to Americans as the site of fierce fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam. The walls of the royal enclave still enclose much of the city, and imperial tombs and Buddhist pagodas dot the landscape. Many of the more impressive pagodas and tombs are located along the Perfume River that runs through the city. Boats are easily hired to visit these sites, but the rest of Hue, a low-rise city of 300,000 with narrow streets and vast expanses of greenery, is best seen from a bicycle or, better yet, a cyclo (a pedicab in which the passenger sits before the driver). Cyclos gather in droves outside of the Saigon Morin Hotel, a reasonably priced French colonial pile that offers the city’s top accommodations. The drivers follow a fairly standard but scenic route around the city and charge as little as $2 an hour. It’s a surprisingly fun way to see most of the Citadel, the walled imperial city that includes what’s left of the imperial palace. It’s also a great way to see a cross section of modern Vietnamese society: farmers carrying foodstuffs to market, businessmen chatting on mobile phones, schoolgirls dressed in the traditional ao dai. In these white silk garments composed of trousers underneath a form-fitting gown, bike-riding teenage girls quite literally sail by. It’s nice to think that the only DMZ they’ll ever know is a bar for foreign tourists.
AIR: Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways International all fly to Saigon, connecting through other Asian cities. Vietnam Airlines operates modern jets on its frequent domestic flights. TRAVEL AGENTS: Absolute Asia and DiscoverMekong for custom itineraries; discount rates at Asia-hotels.com.

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