Tourism is an important industry for Vietnam. Few countries have changed so much over such a short time as Vietnam. Only thirty-odd years after the savagery and slaughter of the American War, this resilient nation is buoyant with hope. It is a country on the move: access is now easier than ever, roads are being upgraded, hotels are springing up and Vietnam’s raucous entrepreneurial spirit is once again alive and well as the old-style Communist system gives way to a socialist market economy. As the number of tourists finding their way here soars, the word is out that this is a land not of bomb craters and army ordnance but of shimmering paddy fields and sugar-white beaches, full-tilt cities and venerable pagodas – often overwhelming in its sheer beauty.

The speed with which Vietnam’s population has been able to put the bitter events of its recent past behind it, and focus its gaze so steadfastly on the future, often surprises visitors expecting to encounter shell-shocked resentment of the West. It wasn’t always like this, however. The reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975, ending twenty years of bloody civil war, was followed by a decade or so of hardline centralist economic rule from which only the shake-up of Chính sách Đổi Mới – Vietnam’s equivalent of perestroika – beginning in 1986, could awaken the country.

This signaled a renaissance for Vietnam, and today a high fever of commerce grips the nation: from the flashy new shopping malls and designer boutiques to the hustle and bustle of street markets and the booming cross-border trade with China. From a tourist’s point of view, this is a great time to visit – not only to soak up the intoxicating sense of vitality and optimism, but also the chance to witness a country in profound flux. Inevitably, that’s not the whole story. Đổi Mới is an economic policy, not a magic spell, and life, for much of the population, remains hard. Indeed, the move towards a market economy has predictably polarized the gap between rich and poor. Average monthly incomes for city-dwellers remain at around US$50, while in the poorest provinces workers may scrape by on as little as US$15 a month – a difference that amply illustrates the growing gulf between urban and rural Vietnam. There is an equally marked difference between north and south, a deep psychological divide that was around long before the American War, and is engrained in Vietnamese culture. Northerners are considered reticent, thrifty, law-abiding and lacking the dynamism and entrepreneurial know-how of their more worldly-wise southern compatriots. Not surprisingly, this is mirrored in the broader economy: the south is Vietnam’s growth engine, it boasts lower unemployment and higher average wages, and the increasingly glitzy Ho Chi Minh City looks like Bangkok and Singapore than Hanoi.