Compiled by MICHAEL GORNCHA, The New York Times
Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi has experienced extraordinary growth over the last three decades, evolving from a grim, famine-ravaged place into a sophisticated metropolis with high-rises, sensational cuisine and world-class art.
Those shaking their heads at the disappearance of local culture, though, should think twice. For every glitzy mall, there’s an incense-filled temple nearby, and cultural influences of the past are still part of the modern-day fabric, from revered Confucian monuments to trendy French restaurants. In fact, it’s this zeal for barreling toward the future while always looking back that defines this city.
The ghosts of the American War, as the Vietnam War is known in Vietnam, have not entirely vanished in Danang, a coastal city that was host to a U.S. air base during the war.
The conflict killed an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese. The legacy of the American War is particularly resonant in Danang.
In 1965, the Ninth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first conventional American combat unit deployed in Vietnam, landed on a beach in Danang. Hundreds of thousands more troops would follow over the next few years alone.
Danang’s prettiest stretch of sand, known then as China Beach, gave American troops a sun and surf respite from the war, even as the Communist forces closed in.
Today Danang’s beaches once again lure visitors, and a building frenzy of resorts has brought five-star luxury to one of the world’s five remaining Communist nations.
And signs of a warming relationship between the United States and Vietnam are in evidence down the coast from Danang, where an American aircraft carrier made a call in 2018 at Cam Ranh Bay, the naval base once used by the Americans.
“When we fight, we must use everything we have, the ancient jungle and the deep ocean, the rivers and the mountains and our bones and flesh,” said Dao Kim Long, a veteran of the American War who also fought the French as a 14-year-old guerrilla. “But when we shake hands, we can begin a friendship with all our heart.”
Vietnam’s tilt toward the United States owes much to the looming shadow of a far more enduring and challenging antagonist: China. Like many countries in the region, Vietnam is keen for an American counterweight to balance against the growing heft of China.
Buzz, buzz, buzz. Whether it’s the roar of motorbikes, the near constant opening of bars and restaurants, the chatty nature of its inhabitants, or the abundance of great coffee, there’s just something invigorating about Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), Vietnam’s largest metropolis.
It’s no surprise that Saigon, as most locals call it, exudes a youthful, inventive energy — after all, over half of its more than eight million dwellers are younger than 35. This dynamic spirit shines through in quirky cafes, innovative cuisine and boutiques selling homegrown fashion. And when you need a breather from all that’s new and fabulous, it’s easy to steal quiet moments in crumbling colonial buildings and contemplative art spaces.
Vietnam is one of the world’s hot spots of biological diversity.
Hundreds of new-to-science species of plants and animals have been discovered in Vietnam during the last three decades, and more are recorded each year. The antelope-like saola, for example. Its gentle, streaked face looks as if it has just escaped from a jungle-dream painting by Henri Rousseau. Heralded as “the last unicorn” for its rarity, the saola is the largest land-dwelling animal discovered anywhere since 1937. A small herd of long-lost rhinos, a barking deer and a striped rabbit have also turned up. So has a giant, 21-inch-long walking-stick insect, and many kinds of birds — laughing thrushes! — fish, snakes and frogs hitherto unknown or thought to be extinct.
Vietnam’s forests shelter two dozen species of primates — gibbons, macaques, lorises and langurs, often in colors that make the human tribe look banal by contrast.
However, while the country is an epicenter for wild species diversity, Vietnam has also become a world center for criminal wildlife trafficking.
Its wild populations, already hemmed in by habitat destruction because of an exploding human population, are also being shot, snared and live-captured so efficiently that national parks and other natural areas are now mostly afflicted with “empty forest syndrome”: suitable forest habitat from which even small animals and birds have been hunted into local extinction. Other Asian countries are in various stages of the same convulsion. It’s frequently said that many new species vanish before science can even discover them.