Many travellers want to feel they're the first exploring the possibilities of a new destina¬tion; chasing the dream of being the first to dive unseen reefs, or the first to climb unbolted rock. In Vietnam, with its wide river deltas, glistening bays and beaches, craggy islets and roll¬ing hills, the opportunity for ad¬venture is now open. Although in¬creasing numbers of tourists have added Vietnam to their itineraries in recent years, the coun¬try's infrastructure is still undeveloped in many areas, making a journey there a real adventure. But whether you want to dive, cycle, trek, sail or boardsail, Vi¬etnam offers almost endless pos¬sibilities if you're prepared to look for them. Your rewards in¬clude unspoilt countryside, a glimpse of lifestyles unchanged for centuries, friendly faces, a wide range of accommodation and the thrill of blazing a trail in a place that's sure to become more and more popular as increasing numbers of visitors uncover Vietnam's potential.
Increasing numbers of tourists are heading to Vietnam to experience its unique culture, but there's also great potential for adventure travel exploration
Vietnam is home to a whole series of urban myths and travelers cliches, amongst them the notion of there being a quiet American and the fact that if your name happens to be Charles then you don't know how to surf. But perhaps the most apocryphal of all the rumours is that Vietnam is a country that is still desolate after decades of war and repressive rule by one of the world's few remaining hard-line communist governments. To the man on the street, Vietnam's name conjours up an image of a remote and inaccessible Southeast Asian nation which hardly counts as a cub amongst its neighbouring Asian tigers. As a travel destination many still rate it as little more than a name to tick off their list as they tour the region. But Vietnam does have much to offer that other more developed and accessible destinations nearby don't.
Vietnam offers adventure and the opportunity to explore a country with as much action potential as anywhere else in the region — plus the thrill of blazing a trail.
In addition, travelling to and within Vietnam is an adventure in itself. Tourism in the country is in its infancy, the roads and railways are rough and ready, and accommodation in all but a few major hotels is Spartan. Yet the countryside is pristine and stunningly beautiful and the people warm and welcoming. For a country which was condemned for so long as an international outcast, the hospitality of its people is over whelming. About 15 percent of the Vietnamese population are hill tribes people. Most of the remaining 85 percent the great majority of the population are indigenous "Viets", who either live in the major cities Hanoi, Saigon and Hue or cultivate rice and other agricultural products.
By 1996, six years after Vietnam reopened its doors to visitors and the first curious travellers ventured in to explore, the annual number of tourists had risen to 1.6 million. The majority of visitors still come from Southeast Asia to join organized tours of cultural and historical usually war scarred sites. Battlefield tours for French and American veterans are proving very popular. There's also a wide range of comfort levels in which you can travel around the country. Coastal resorts at places such as Vung Tau or Phan Thiet, neither of them far from Ho Chi Minh City, are attracting increasing numbers of independent travel¬lers. If you're on a lower budget, access to all areas is made cheap and easy by a nationwide network of enterprising 'Travellers' Cafes".
Higher profile tour operators, based in Vietnam and abroad, are developing more adventurous trips, from trekking to kayaking to bicycling. There are also some domestic ventures which can organize activi¬ties on the spot. At present such enterprises seem to be hampered by strict government controls and an apparent lack of imagination. However, a number of small companies have succeeded in setting up inno¬vative tours and adventures, and more are eagerly awaiting the chance to follow their example. Some subsidiaries of the official Tourist Agency are break¬ing away and catering to smaller scale group travel¬lers. As an understanding of this market grows, the number of such operations is sure to increase.
Vietnam is not yet well developed as a commer¬cial adventure travel destination. In general, if you are into something small-scale or technical, say rock climbing, independent cycling, paragliding or surfing, then you should bring your own gear, and in some cases make arrangements in advance. This advice even applies to river rafting. It can be arranged, ac¬cording to one official tourist agent, but you will need to bring your own raft. However, if your interest lies in more commercially established sports such as div¬ing or sailing, then you'll find it easier to hire equip¬ment and find facilities in Vietnam. It's not difficult to organize a tour with a combination of activi¬ties, such as a guided trek or mountainbiking ex¬pedition, but it's advisable to arrange something like this in advance.
A wide although not comprehensive choice of outdoor pursuits already exists in Vietnam. Mountainbiking, caving, climbing, dying, four wheel drive, kayaking, paragliding, sailing, surfing, trekking and boardsailing are great ways to get off the well-trodden trail of war cemetaries and battlefields.
Vietnam is still a land of mystery and untouched which travellers are only now beginning to discover themselves
If you choose to explore Vietnam on two wheels, you won't he alone bicycles are still the most popular form of transport in the country. This is an excellent way to travel: the roads are good, it's easy to hire bikes if you haven't brought your own, and you can get close to the people while moving at your own pace Photo : Peter Danford Long gone are the days when action in Vietnam meant dodging bullets.
Geography and climate
The long, thin "S" shape of Vietnam borders three countries — China to the north, Laos to the north¬west and Cambodia to the west — and faces east into the China Sea. Vietnam stretches 1650km from north to south, and is just 600km across at its widest point in the north, and only 50km wide at the narrowest point in the centre of the country. The geography and climate of Vietnam are as chequered as its his¬tory. Micro climates and mini seasons throw up mist and fog in the dry season, or bring drought to one province while its neighbour is saturated by rain. Depending on the month, typhoons can sweep all the way from the Pacific to strike with uncanny accuracy at different locations along the coast just hundreds of kilometres apart leaving areas in between un¬touched. If you are planning an adventure holi¬day to Vietnam, it's important to ensure that your timetable coincides with that of the weather gods.
The Mekong delta and south
Southern Vietnam is probably the least developed part of the country in terms of adventure travel, at least for the moment. The silted delta of the Mekong and the swampy surrounding coastline offer a wealth of water way to explore, but currently this can only be done as part of an organized "touristy" trip. Some people have tried to explore independently, but find¬ing accommodation can be a hit and miss affair. The coastal islands of Phu Quoc and Con Dao both of Vietnam is finally making it onto the adven¬ture travel map, as action-seekers explore the country's Potential fey potential for diving or snorkelling. But they are currently awkward to get to and still undeveloped —which will make them a very attractive destination for hard-core exploration divers. Some areas on the southern peninsula have been set up as bird sanctu¬aries; one is specifically for storks and one is for cranes, and there are also 150 other species. The beach resorts of Vung Tau and Phan Thiet cater mainly to weekend tourists from Ho Chi Minh an offer most popular watersports except diving.
The main feature of the south is the Mekong delta, a maze of waterways weaving their way through low plains and coastal mangrove swamps, a, South China Sea. The alluvial soil is rich and the area is heavily cultivated, producing more than 50 percent of the country's rice. The river carries a great quantity of silt, which runs into the sea and muddies the water along much of the coast in this area. until you get around to the islands of Con Dow and Phu Quoc, near the Cambodian border in the Gulf of Thailand, that you encounter clear. Diveable sea water. The climate in the south is subtropical: the rainy season which last from May to October is hot and humid. The best weather is from Noverber to April, when the humidity drops, the skies are clear and the heat is not so intense. The temperature can top 30 degee all year round but is most consistently high in march and April prior to the start of the rain.