Diverse, unspoilt and inexpensive, Vietnam is luring Australians — be they families, adventurers or cruisers — away from larger Asian destinations.
Move over, Thailand, Vietnam is coming through. Australian visitor numbers to this small but culturally rich country are up almost 130 per cent, according to official figures, and wholesalers are reporting surging demand.
Vietnam has a persuasive combination of cheap prices, cheap airfares, quality hotels and diverse experiences to add to its reputation for having some of the most welcoming people in the world.
The Vietnam War is taking less of the focus (see box) and the country suffers none of the unrest that plagues some of its neighbours.
Vietnam is far from beating main competitor Thailand in terms of numbers - Thailand receives about 670,000 Australian visitors a year, while Vietnam gets about 280,000 - but many in the industry say it is the destination du jour.
The huge increase in traffic is especially noteworthy given Vietnam has no tourist office in Australia, which limits the amount of promotion it gets.
Vietnam has been one of Intrepid Travel's best-selling destinations in recent months, with a 185 per cent increase in bookings. The general manager of sales for Intrepid, James Thornton, says the country appeals to a broad audience.
"As with many emerging destinations, the backpackers have laid the foundation and now other types of travellers want to see what all the fuss is about," he says. "Vietnam is now slowly catering for these other markets - for example, families, people seeking beach getaways and sports enthusiasts who are interested in diving and golf holidays.
"In addition, we've seen an increase in low-cost carriers flying into Vietnam from Australia."
The managing director of Discover Asia, Trevor Lake, says Vietnam's swelling popularity is due to the realisation the country has good tourism infrastructure.
"There never really was a problem but there is always an apprehension towards a 'new' destination," Lake says.
He says Vietnam has lower comparable prices than neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand, yet has kept its focus on creating quality product, such as opening hotels in converted heritage buildings.
"They're making good money out of tourism so they're not being greedy," he says. "Vietnam isn't being ruined like some places in Asia. It may happen eventually but it isn't happening at the moment."
Vietnam also benefits from being a relatively small country, so travelling from one place to another is easy and inexpensive.
Lake says the country has just as much scenic and cultural diversity as larger Asian countries, along with sincere warmth towards visitors.
"Everything is just going in its favour; there are no negatives with Vietnam," he says. "It's such a pleasant place to go. You don't feel threatened; you feel comfortable, feel safe."
Lake says Jetstar flights have helped to raise awareness of the country, though few passengers opt for the cheapest fares.
Upgrading is common among travellers heading to Vietnam because of such low prices and the strength of the Australian dollar.
"People are looking for the quality rather than the cheapie holidays," Lake says.
Travellers are also starting to go much further afield, immersing themselves in the country rather than doing the "eight-day highlights of Vietnam" kind of trip.
Growing quickly in popularity are cruises on the Mekong River, which are being added on to land-based trips and attract people who might not otherwise travel to Vietnam.
"It's a new market and it's being catered for by good vessels, it's a good product," Lake says.
APT says demand for luxury river cruising in Vietnam has been such that it has added new departure dates this year. There are now 57 departures a year for its 12-day Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong and Angkor package, which includes eight days of cruising.
A new product for Discover Asia is traditional sampan boat trips. The rattan-covered boats have a bedroom and living area and are staffed by a small crew, with passengers able to design their own itinerary and dine at restaurants along the way. Lake says sampan trips are ideal for families, for a few nights or longer.
Intrepid Travel says its most popular trip is the 10-day Vietnam Express Southbound, from Hanoi and Halong Bay, taking in Hoi An and Hue on the way to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta.
Many travellers also choose to combine travel to Vietnam with neighbouring Cambodia, to take in the Angkor Wat temple complex.
FEW Australian travellers to Vietnam are looking for war history and sites, says the managing director of Discover Asia, Trevor Lake. Apart from Vietnam veterans, who travel to specific places, the war is not a major focus.
"People rarely consider that nowadays, it's certainly not part of the normal sightseeing," Lake says. "We have a generation of people who never lived through the war in Vietnam."
Australia's military involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1962 and ended in 1973. The Australian War Memorial museum confirms almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam; 521 died as a result and more than 3000 were wounded.