Tourism in Vietnam was slow in coming, for reasons obvious to anyone with even an inkling of the country's war-torn past.
The first hotels in Vietnam catered to the colonial French society, not so much to tourists but to administrators and families. The Continental opened in Saigon in the 1880s and long reigned as the city's foremost hotel. In Hanoi, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened in 1901 as le Metropole and endures today as the country's foremost address in hospitality.
During the era of the steamship, tourism was restricted to the upper classes and to travelers. To Americans like Harry Franck, who visited Vietnam in the 1920s and wrote about the country in EAST OF SIAM. And to Brits like Norman Lewis, one of the 20th Century's greatest travel writers, who wrote A Dragon Apparent after a trip to Vietnam in 1950. One could hardly call Franck and Lewis tourists; they were travelers with a literary purpose.
The colonial French were the first to exploit Vietnam's natural wonders for tourists. In the grottoes of world-renowned Halong Bay, passengers on the bay's excursion boats carved their names in limestone 100 years ago. Between 1906 and 1937, a service boat called the Emeraude plied the waters of Halong Bay, catering to well-heeled colons. Nearly, 100 years later, a French entrepreneur built a near-replica of this old steamer, running modern travelers past the same karst formations.
By the time the French finally gave up on Vietnam in the mid-1950s, jet travel was opening up Asia to tourists like never before. Indeed, when the Caravelle Hotel opened in 1959, it did so with a name that paid tribute to one of the sleek Air France jetliners of the day.
The war was a hindrance to travel, but it was happening nevertheless. Here's an excerpt on tourism during the war from a book published by the Caravelle Hotel.
In 1969, Saigon was no place for tourists. The embassies of South Vietnam continued to circulate brochures that illustrated the delights of tiger hunting in the highlands and yachting on the Saigon River. “Don’t believe a word of it,” Peter Arnett cautioned readers of the Fodor’s guidebook to Japan and East Asia in 1969.
Still, despite the war, the tourists would come. Forty-six thousand tourists showed up in 1966, according to the Vietnamese authorities, but Arnett reckons that most of that number were journalists and businessmen coming in under the cover of an easy-to-get tourist visa.
It wasn’t easy to stay in Saigon then. Taxi drivers charged 20 times the normal fare. Journalists and soldiers took up most of the hotel rooms. The garbage collectors went AWOL, and the streets were dirty. But still, the “elderly folk” would drop in, marshaled about by a frantic tour guides.
“No one seems interested in discouraging the occasional tourist, simply, perhaps, because of the political necessity to pretend that all is going well in Vietnam. But all is not going well and hasn’t been for years.”
In those days, the main tourist attractions were Tu Do Street (Dong Khoi), the botanical gardens and zoo, the tomb and temple of Marshal Le Van Duyet, Cholon, the Ben Thanh Market and the flower gardens. American travelers didn’t need a visa if they planned to stay less than seven days; and anybody could stay in Vietnam for three days if they could show they had a flight out within that time period.
The modern era of tourism in Vietnam really begins with the emergence of doi moi (economic renovation) in 1986. By 1990, travelers were coming into Vietnam on careful orchestrated 'shopping tours.' None of the hotel stock ranked above two-star caliber then. Independent travel was limited. Travel between provinces required special permits by provincial administrators until 1993.