Vietnam today is a far different place from the Vietnam we Americans may hold in memory. And it is emerging as an appealing retirement option, especially for adventuresome retirees on a budget.
The northernmost Vietnamese coast is simply spectacular. Known as Halong Bay, it covers 600 square miles, with thousands of jagged limestone karsts rising like castles out of the ocean. There are dozens of caves, deserted beaches of fine white sand and almost 2,000 islets extending far into the Gulf of Tonkin.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is Vietnam's most popular tourist destination. Monkeys and other wildlife are the only inhabitants of most of the tiny islands. There are only two towns of any consequence on the larger islands, and a few small floating villages, where permanent residents farm fish and pearl oysters, traveling by boat to visit neighbors. Gorgeous any time of day, the islands of Halong Bay become stunningly beautiful in the evening, when the silhouettes of the karst formations morph into surrealistic splendor.
As you head south along the coast from Ha Long Bay and the Gulf of Tonkin, there are several other beach areas worth exploring. The China Beach area between Da Nang and Hoi An on the central coast is becoming a popular resort area. Nha Trang's white sandy beach stretches for six miles, while many peaceful, quiet beaches are found to the north and on the outlying islands. This is a great town for seafood.
You will also find many scuba outfitters based out of Nha Trang. Mui Ne Beach, 120 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon), is considered one of Vietnam's more beautiful beach areas. It is a popular international spot for wind and kite surfers. The Ha Tien area near the Cambodian border and Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Thailand offer superb, isolated soft sand beaches and excellent diving opportunities.
A trip through Vietnam reveals graceful women dressed in flowing, ankle-length silk ao dai and woven cone hats, terraced rice fields and serene mountains. Despite outward appearances, though, this is not a laid-back country. These people, who have lived through oppression and poverty, are determined that hungry times are behind them for good. People are working in the fields and in their shops from daybreak until well after dark. Commerce, even in the smallest villages, keeps markets busy and lively.
This is a country where motorcycles outnumber automobiles by a wide margin, and it's common to see entire families precariously seated on a single tiny motorbike. Traffic rules are almost non-existent, with busy roads and intersections packed in a barely controlled chaos of people, bicycles and noisy engines.
Chinese-style Daoist temples are busy all hours, as people wander in to pay their respects to their ancestors or to pray for prosperity and family blessings. Almost every house has a family altar, tended daily with offerings of incense and fresh fruit. Pictures of elders and ancestors are clustered here.
The food is fantastic. There are more than 500 Vietnamese dishes, which tend to be healthy and to emphasize fresh ingredients. Although there are recognizable Chinese and French influences, Vietnamese cuisine is unique. Meals tend to have small portions of lean, often char-grilled, meat with generous helpings of fresh or raw greens, pungent herbs, vegetables and rice, and usually include fresh fruit for dessert. It's a healthy, low-fat diet, which explains why it's so rare to see an overweight Vietnamese person. With its emphasis on clean, distinct flavors, Vietnamese food is some of the most varied cuisine to be found in all of Asia.
The French occupied Vietnam for many years, and you would expect that most Vietnamese would be fluent in French, but that's not the case. The French withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, and only those old enough to have lived under the French rule have retained the language. English, on the other hand, is rapidly becoming widely spoken throughout the country. With the energy so characteristic of Vietnam, English-language schools are popping up everywhere and are packed full of young Vietnamese who are convinced that learning English is critical to their success.
The Vietnamese have a consuming desire to be connected to the rest of the world, and Internet is ubiquitous throughout the country, perhaps more so than in any other country in Asia. Cities have Internet cafes on almost every corner, and they are always full of locals chatting, e-mailing and surfing. Even the smallest villages have at least one Internet cafe, packed full of youngsters, teenagers and their parents.
Despite Vietnam's turbulent history, the Vietnamese are perhaps surprisingly gracious and friendly to Westerners. Tourists from France and the United States are arriving in growing numbers, and, even in Hanoi, once the stronghold of North Vietnam, Westerners are made to feel welcome.
Many Vietnamese believe that bringing a wealthy foreigner (common thinking is that all foreigners are wealthy) to their home will bring them good luck. Having a foreigner at a wedding is auspicious. If you happen to walk past a wedding, don't be surprised if you're invited in to celebrate the happy occasion.
The days of a battered, violent war-torn Vietnam have passed, and this country today vibrates with vitality. After so many years of war, this new peace and prosperity bring hope and promise to the land and its people, and create an interesting new overseas retirement option for every retiree with a sense of wanderlust and an appreciation of the exotic.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 28 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her newest book, How To Buy Real Estate Overseas, published by Wiley & Sons, is the culmination of decades of personal experience living and investing around the world.