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Vietnam is indeed a very interesting and culturally rich country. However, it is also a very poor and poorly governed country where tourism has grown at a much rapid pace than the infrastructure needed to support it. I read so many great things about Vietnam, but it is important to also think of the challenges you may face if you decide to visit, especially if you travel there with an expectation of quality that may be above that of the average backpacker or mass tourist.
A few notes from a first (and probably last) visit to Vietnam:
- Halong Bay: The weather is not always clear and you have a high chance of going here and not seeing anything, especially if you travel during the Fall/Winter period. Keep in mind also that parts of Halong Bay are now polluted due to poor tourism management. The place is overrun by boat tour operators and some of these are questionable operations. Also keep in mind that the journey from/to Hanoi is grueling, not so much due to the state of the roads (which is passable), but the driving habits. Driving in Vietnam is very slow and very noisy.
- Hanoi: This city contains a few interesting attractions and is worth visiting. Do not be put off by the old airport (a new terminal is being built), or the unattractive drive into town. However, do keep in mind that the Winter period is cold and cloudy, and it can also be rainy. Much of what is attractive in Hanoi is also dating to the French colonial period - if you live in Western Europe, you may not be so impressed by this architecture as you are probably surrounded by better examples of the style. There are a few interesting Chinese/Vietnamese sites, the HCM Mausoleum, etc. There is very limited shopping, however, especially of high quality Vietnamese crafts. The condition of local museums, e.g., the Ethnography Museum, also leaves a lot to be desired.
- Food: Vietnamese cuisine is delicious and famous all over. But you need to keep two things in mind when you visit Vietnam: 1) hygiene standards are low and eating street food may put you at risk of illness - if you are risk averse, you are unlikely to venture and try out real local food. 2) Vietnam is a poor country and as such, the more authentic local cuisine is likely to disappoint when compared to the Vietnamese fare you may have tried at upscale eateries or restaurants in the West. No question that the Vietnamese food experience is good, but just keep in mind that you may have already experienced the best of Vietnamese cuisine is you happen to live in New York, London or Paris.
Anyone who is is young and adventurous and has low expectations of quality and comfort should feel comfortable visiting Vietnam. However, those with higher expectations of service and experience may want to think twice. Also, Vietnam compares unfavorably versus Thailand when it comes to friendliness - Thai people are much more welcoming than Vietnamese - but then again, Thailand has a much longer tradition of tourism than Vietnam.
If you are accustomed to the Orient-Express level of service and experience, consider deferring travel to Vietnam for about a decade or so. The country may be ready for a higher standard of tourism in the coming years, assuming they implement a sustainable strategy to handle the increasing amount of visitation and invest in improving the museums, the food sanitation, the driving style, etc.