Vietnam has always had an air of mystery. I knew vaguely about the war; after it, hard-line communism kept everything under wraps. But in the late 1980s, tales began to filter back from the first intrepid travellers to visit for recreation rather than profit, and I struggled to reconcile the images of wartime cruelty and peacetime beauty.

In 2019, I finally went to see what the fuss was all about. And there’s good news: Although there’s been phenomenal growth in 30 years, it’s not too late. Vietnam is still beautiful, the prices are still doable, and the people haven’t turned into New Yorkers yet.

The streets of Hanoi

Just the name “Hanoi” is redolent of the mysterious East. But my wife and I were underwhelmed initially: As we stood in a slow-moving queue at Noi Bai International Airport waiting to collect our visas, the elderly PA system crackled into life. “Your attention please,” it said. “We announced earlier that there was a fire. Do not be alarmed. There is no fire. Thank you.”

Less reassuring than the message was meant to be.

But soon forgotten. Half an hour on a huge four-lane highway took us from modern air travel to the Old Quarter, the ancient heart of Hanoi. It’s touristy, but with limited time it’s the best place to be – much of what you want to see is within walking distance, once you’ve got the hang of negotiating the terrifying traffic.

The area is dominated by Hoan Kiem Lake, a serene (“fresh beer”) along the way was just the respite we needed before plunging back into furious sightseeing.

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