Given its bloody 20th century history, it's easy to forget that Vietnam has a history as a nation going back over a thousand years, with centuries of self-governance, culture, and civilization that rival anything the rest of the world has to offer.
Vietnam is full of ancient buildings, awesome food, and beer traditions, and natural wonders that the 20th century's wars couldn't erase. In this list, we'll enumerate 10 reasons why Vietnam is worth a visit.
The Architecture & Archaeology
Vietnam's location at the crossroads of multiple civilizations has left its mark on the land.
The Dai Viet civilization ruled the north and later became dominant throughout the country — the remnants of their Chinese-influenced culture can be seen in historic buildings like the Temple of Literature, an ancient university that educated Vietnam's elite centuries ago.
The Cham people lived south of Dai Viet territory, carving out an empire that corresponds to today's central Vietnam and parts of south Vietnam. Unlike the Buddhist Dai Viet, the Cham were Hindu (many later converted to Islam), with a culture that put them at odds with their northern neighbors.
The Local Culture
The Vietnamese nation has been around for over a thousand years, and doesn't look as if it will be going away anytime soon.
The passing centuries have left Vietnam with a rich culture that manifests in many interesting ways. Architecture? Hanoi delivers with the temple in Hoan Kiem Lake; Hoi An responds with its Japanese Bridge and the venerable Tan Ky House. Entertainment? Catch a performance of Vietnamese Water Puppets. Fine art? Visit Kim Bong Village and take home an intricate carving or two.
The Vietnamese are obsessive foodies to the point of conflict; a local from Saigon will disagree vehemently with a Hanoi resident on the proper way to prepare the noodle dish pho. (For the latter's food perspective, check out our Menu of Must-Try Dishes in Hanoi.) It's hard to pin down what exactly makes Vietnamese food great, but the influences from China and France come through in foods like cao lau noodles and banh mi.
The Vietnam War History
When most Americans think of Vietnam, they think of the tragically bloody Vietnam War. Vietnamese, on the other hand, see the Vietnam War a part of a successful process of decolonization: the defeat of the French and retreat of the Americans is as much part of their national creation myth as the American Revolution is part of America's.
Many Vietnam War sites in the country reflect this view. Historic war sites in Saigon have been turned into memorials or museums depicting the inevitable triumph of the Vietnamese nation — the Cu Chi Tunnels depict the covert struggle of the Communist guerrillas against the invading American forces, the War Remnants Museum focuses on the savagery of the war effort, and the Reunification Palace marks the site where the South Vietnamese government finally submitted to Communist forces.
Further north in Hanoi, Ba Dinh Square has become ground zero for the deification of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh — the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Stilt House on the grounds of the Presidential Palace all depict different pictures of the life of Vietnam's George Washington.
A former French prison in the middle of town has been converted into a museum honoring the struggle of Vietnamese against colonialism — the Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the "Hanoi Hilton") depicts the horrors that Vietnamese prisoners had to undergo at the hands of their French jailers. A single room is dedicated to the American POWs who were confined here, but that picture is studiously airbrushed to present the Vietnamese in the most humane light possible.
All these sites are invaluable pilgrimage destinations for war history enthusiasts and Vietnam War veterans alike. The Vietnamese are gracious hosts — GIs visiting Vietnam War sites are treated with respect and kindness.
The Natural Beauty
Vietnam's embarrassment of geological riches varies as you go from north to south. Up north, the karst (limestone) geology creates natural wonders like Ha Long Bay and Hanoi's many lakes. In Central Vietnam, near the town of Mui Ne, sand dunes in red and white hues attract curious travelers.
In the south, the Mekong Delta allows visitors to look at an ancient riverside lifestyle and a habitat that provides plenty of fodder for biologists — the Delta has yielded about 10,000 new species since scientists started to study the area.
The Adventure Activities
Whether your tastes run as tame as sledding down the Mui Ne sand dunes, or as extreme as riding through Vietnam on a Russian-made motorcycle, there's something in Vietnam that suits your appetite for adventure. Adventure activities around Ha Long Bay, among other things, include kayaking on the bay and climbing up the many natural karst walls in the area.
Vietnam can be very rewarding for lovers. Visit Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, for instance, and you'll find plenty of locals going a-courting around the lake's edge. (Hoan Kiem is a favorite spot for Vietnamese getting their wedding photography done.)
Further north, the karst landscape of Ha Long Bay makes an excellent backdrop for couples going on a dragon boat cruise. And in Central Vietnam, the Hoi An Old Town truly comes into its own as a romantic destination during the full moon: electric lights give way to old-school lanterns, transforming the ancient trading town into a magical spectacle that seems made to be shared with a loved one.
The Low Cost
Thanks to its lower cost per experience, Vietnam has certainly earned a spot on backpackers' itineraries: you can spend eight days exploring Vietnam without breaking the bank.
Backpackers can economize throughout their trips by traveling overland by rail, by bus or by budget airline. They can also cut costs by selecting their hotel in Vietnam carefully — plenty of budget options exist in the country's top destinations.
Cheap travel through Vietnam has a downside: the tourism industry is rife with scam artists (read all about scams in Vietnam), so you really have to watch your step when making travel arrangements. (Read more: Dos and Don’ts of Hiring a Travel Agency in Hanoi, Vietnam.)
Here's a budget tip you can use: avoid traveling during Tet Celebrations in Vietnam, as everyone else in the country will be on the road, making cheap travel between points difficult and expensive.
The Easy Ground Transport
If you're in no hurry, Vietnam's land transportation system is an excellent travel option — you don't get there as fast, but you enjoy the view and the relaxation you get from journeying at a more leisurely pace.
Vietnam's central location in Southeast Asia allows travelers to travel to neighboring countries in a blink; in Saigon, for instance, you can book tour packages that include overland travel to Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. The "Reunification Express" is connected to China's own rail system, so you can take the train from Hanoi to the Chinese city of Nanning. All told, travelers have multiple border crossings to choose from between Vietnam and China, Laos and Cambodia — making multi-country hops on a budget very feasible.
Air travelers benefit from the short distances between air hubs in Vietnam to the rest of the region — flyers traveling out of Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi have the entire region within reach, give or take a few hours' travel time.
But before you travel in, you've got to straighten out your visa situation – read about getting your Visa for Vietnam, or read about Southeast Asia visa requirements for US passport holders.