What is it about Vietnam that lures westerners?

With no Disneyesque attractions, what is it about Vietnam that lures westerners? To some, it’s merely another developing country full of poor people. For others, it’s something more. Perhaps it’s curiosity — a desire to see how the Vietnamese have progressed in the 25 years after they lived so many bomb-blasted and napalmed years in our living rooms.

Before heading off to find souvenirs in Hanoi, curious travellers often prefer to see some of the capital city’s most famous – or infamous – sights. For almost nine years, Hoa Lo Prison was a grim home to American pilots shot down in what the Vietnamese call the American war. Better known to North Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, it’s a must-see. Visitors can view cells where people were shackled to wooden beds, shudder at the guillotine, and see the sparse cells that later held the Americans. Displays in English are minimal.

A welcome respite from the claustrophobic prison is the open expanse of Ba Dinh Square, where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the Republic of Vietnam independent of French rule. The square is dominated by Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, an imposing gray structure housing the embalmed body othe father of modern-day Vietnam. Although his will stipulated he was to be cremated, his body has been relentlessly preserved. The mausoleum is closed for three months each fall when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.

History and the present

While in the Ho Chi Minh Quarter, catch an occasionally surreal glimpse of Vietnam’s past and future in the massive Ho Chi Minh Museum. A short stroll away, the enchanting One-Pillar Pagoda, built nearly 1,000 years ago by an emperor, rises like a lotus blossom from a pedestal in a small pond.

Tourists and locals wander about the shrine amiably, looking for just the right angle for a memorable photo. Suitably respectful visitors may also enter the adjacent temple where monks come to study. Like many places in this enduring city, it’s venerable and worn, but spotlessly clean.

A tour in the countryside

If there’s time, venture out into the countryside. Your tour operator can arrange a stay at a hill tribe village where you’ll see how people live beyond the urban area of Hanoi. Foreigners must have government approval to stay with a Vietnamese family.

Travelling west beyond the Red River delta region, the flat farmland gradually rises. Along the highway, buffalo-drawn carts deposit harvested rice at the side of the highway where it’s threshed, then spread to dry on the edge of the pavement. Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of rice.

Tea and company

Tea plantations ring the foothills. Stop for a photo and local people will appear to sell packages of tea. It’s here the singular limestone formations similar to those found to the east in the Halong Bay area begin to march through the scenery in spectacular fashion.

Past the town of Hoa Binh, a visit to Giang Mo, a hill tribe village, provides a brief opportunity to see how the Muong people live. Visitors can walk freely around the village, eventually taking tea in one of the homes which are all built on stilts.

Rice wine is offered — sip from one of several hollow bamboo shoots that arch gracefully from the pottery wine vessel. Walking back to the tour bus, villagers try to make a last minute sale of their weaving and basketry. Babies’ hats, with their colourful pom-poms are appealing, especially when modelled by a shy little tyke anchored on his mother’s hip.

As the bus winds higher through the mountains, the journey becomes a leap of faith — much like crossing a Hanoi street. The driver sounds the horn vigorously as the bus approaches a blind curve. Occasionally, bus and oncoming truck squeeze slowly past one another, with inches to spare, while the edge of the road drops off hundreds of feet to the green valley below.

At the peak of the climb, your bus rounds a curve and stops to allow a breathtaking glimpse of its destination, Mai Chau, looking like a Shangri-la on the valley floor below, between jungle-covered mountains. Later in the evening dusk, it’s an eerie feeling to walk about in this quiet village where aircraft once bombed the bridge over its small river.

Sleeping in a house on stilts

Accommodations in a family’s traditional longhouse, which is built on stilts, is basic but welcoming. The food, cooked over an open circular hearth, includes spring rolls, chicken dishes and fragrant rice, all uniformly delicious. Strolling through the village before bedding down for the night, a visitor is invited to watch villagers performing local dances.

Tourists sleep under mosquito netting on padded quilts made by the young hostess and spread on the split bamboo flooring. During the night, pigs occasionally snuffle below and with the dawn, roosters begin to crow.

Before heading back to the bustle of Hanoi, there’s just enough time to wander through the village and purchase several pieces of colourful cotton cloth woven by the village women. Back at home it will serve as a reminder of time spent with a dignified and industrious people. As Arthur Frommer writes: “Such is the classic travel experience, exhilarating and enlarging; the rest is mere tourism.”