In fact there are places so far off the beaten path that few attempt the trip. To get from Hanoi to Sa Pa, near the Chinese border, requires a no-frills nine-hour train trip followed by an hour-long van ride up a winding mountain road. "You need a sense of adventure," says Laura Rutherford, 29, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., marketing manager who found that the magnificent views made the effort worthwhile. In Ha Long Bay in the northeast, where visitors can take kayaking tours of the ethereal islands, Manhattan investment banker Tim Laslavic, 45, reports, "The first time we went into the lagoons, we were awed into silence."
The tourist boom in Vietnam was first fueled in part by veterans (including director Oliver Stone) who came in the late '80s to reconnect with their pasts. Locals happily obliged with war-themed tours of sites like the Cu Chi Tunnels, from which the Viet Cong launched surprise attacks against U.S. forces. But for most visitors now, Vietnam calls to mind pleasure, not pain. "The beauty, the sounds, the smells," rhapsodizes Joni Goldman, 55, a Newton, Mass., psychologist who spent two days on a boat, gliding up and down the canals of the Mekong Delta. "I don't think of Vietnam in terms of the war anymore."
Even in wartime, American GIs loved the powder-soft sand and azure waters of China Beach, the coastal strip near Da Nang in central Vietnam where they often spent their R&R (and the setting for the hit 1988-91 TV series). Today, it's troops of travelers who are signing up for tours of Vietnam's still untouched (and relatively inexpensive) hot spots. Some 1.8 million tourists, including 210,700 Americans, visited the country last year, and the estimated $560 million they spent makes tourism one of Vietnam's burgeoning industries. "People have a curiosity about Vietnam because of its history," says Cynthia Arrotti, 24, a Chicago travel agent. "But for all of the foreign presence and struggles, it has a culture all its own. There are no McDonald's on every street. It's different from what you see elsewhere."