Simon Calder: A warm, exotic paradise – with a dark underbelly

Some visitors are attracted by the chance to fire an AK47, others by the illicit drugs on offer in Vietnam

Life in Vietnam is alarmingly cheap. "At least 30 people die each day from transportation-related injuries," warns the US State Department. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs adds: "Unexploded landmines and ordnance are a continuing hazard in former battlefields, particularly in central Vietnam." And Foreign Affairs Canada warns that typhoons "can result in significant loss of life".

Most of the 80,000 British visitors to Vietnam each year are blissfully unaffected by such threats. They discover a warm, welcoming nation whose exotic culture and cuisine is complemented by sublime landscapes. Yet some – particularly young, adventurous backpackers – discover this notionally communist land is the ideal location to try out activities that would simply not be allowed at home.

Want to fire a Kalashnikov? A fistful of dollars buys a handful of bullets and a few minutes with an AK47. The principal spot for this diversion is Cu Chi, the tunnel complex where you get a claustrophobic introduction to tunnel warfare as practised by the Viet Cong. Some travellers prefer to indulge in illicit narcotics, despite a Foreign Office warning that "Drugs are much stronger and of a higher potency in Asia than in Europe and British tourists have suffered fatal overdoses". An overnight boat trip around the seascapes of Halong Bay seems benign. This Unesco Heritage Site is the leading attraction in northern Vietnam, with dramatic limestone outcrops soaring from a (usually) serene sea.

Competition among operators is intense, which means you can buy a two-day trip for as little as $50 (£32). Many vessels cater for older travellers, but some target backpackers by offering hard-core drinking, beginning on the bus to the port.Would the average backpacker heed Foreign Office advice to "Check with your tour guide about the safety record and registration of boats before setting off and ensure you receive a full safety briefing when joining any boat"?

One contributor to The Independent's website yesterday, wrote: "I'm pretty sure I was on that boat two months ago." He added: "You can be sure that a sinking boat would not have woken me that night. RIP."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...