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A decade after tourists began returning, Vietnam's Cultural Revolution is in full swing. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a new generation is taking over.
So, have you been yet?
You have no idea what you're missing. After years of false starts, Vietnam is finally having its moment, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, designers, club owners, and artists—many born after the war. This is no longer the hermetic nation of a generation ago: two-thirds of the population is under 30 and eager to engage the world at large. The country is still nominally Communist, and its leaders remain socially conservative. But young Vietnamese are enthusiastically absorbing and remixing global culture. I first fell for Vietnam in the mid-nineties, and have returned every year or two since—yet until my most recent visit, I'd never seen the country so visibly charged.
Foreign arrivals in 2002 shattered all previous records, while bookings on Vietnam Airlines rose by 80 percent—even as terrorism concerns cut into travel elsewhere. Indeed, post-9/11 anxiety played a part in the country's surging popularity. "Vietnam, poor but orderly, is now tourists' safe haven," declared the New York Times in January. Almost 30 years after the war, Vietnam was being touted as the safest place in Asia, owing to its stable population, effective security, and negligible crime rate. Luxury hotels were booked solid, and developers were seizing the day: Sheraton opened its first property in Ho Chi Minh City this spring, while the much delayed Park Hyatt resumed construction up the street. Restaurants and boutiques sprang up in newly trendy neighborhoods. A gleaming airport terminal opened in Hanoi, with passenger Jetways (no more trudging across the 98-degree tarmac) and actual air-conditioning. After a fitful decade, Vietnam was at last enjoying a legitimate boom.
Why such intense interest? Because Vietnam teeters giddily between fast (Saigon nightclubs) and slow (bicycle rickshaws); traditional (silk ao dai tunics) and cutting-edge (fur and vinyl ao dai tunics); exotic (barbecued goat nipples?) and familiar ("You from L.A.?My cousin's from L.A.!"). Add to the mix one of the world's great cuisines, stylish boutiques, inviting resorts, and a buzzing nightlife. Moreover, Vietnam is surprisingly accessible now: English is spoken everywhere, prices are low, and there's more to see and do than you can possibly imagine.
So, when are you going?