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
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The Independent Travel

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."