How Vietnam Lured American Tourists in the 1960s: 'Shapely' Women, Hunting

A strange brochure from 1961 touts Vietnam's attractions for U.S. citizens, whose government wanted them to spend more time among Southeast Asians.
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Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 4.32.23 PM.pngBefore Vietnam became synonymous to 1970s Americans with a seemingly endless war, it might have conjured images of French wines and big game hunting. In the early 1960s, the U.S. government tried to encourage tourism in Vietnam in elsewhere in Southeast Asia as a sort of travel diplomacy.

"Tourism's proper development, it was believed, could serve important U.S. geostrategic objectives," writes University of Minnesota history professor Scott Laderman in his 2009 book Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory. Friendly American faces could soften the reputation of the U.S. overseas, it was thought, and their souvenir purchases might bolster emerging economies.


 "Americans are eagerly searching out new areas to visit and their travel expenditures could be of great assistance to the developing countries," wrote Clarence B. Randall, a special assistant to President Dwight Eisenhower in a 1958 report.
 

Randall also hoped that roaming Americans could teach Southeast Asians a thing or two about  law-abiding capitalism, and likewise, that Americans could also learn from foreigners', "customs, manners, and philosophy of life."

"At a time when American officials were deeply invested in planting the seeds of liberal capitalism in much of the decolonizing world, this was no small concern," Laderman wrote.

With that, here are some highlights from a 1961 travel brochure for the country, aptly titled "Visit Fascinating Vietnam," stored at archive.org and apparently housed at one point by the University of Texas. It's not clear whether it was made with government support (at least to me it's not ... feel free to weigh in in the comments if you know otherwise), but it certainly provides a unique look into the "attractions" of pre-war Vietnam:

(Clicking on the "full screen" icon will take you to the Internet Archive site, from which you can zoom in and get a closer look.) 

Saigon is "the cleanest, most fascinating city in the Orient," it says, with traffic jams made "not by cars, but by scooters," and it comes complete with "vendors of soup, dried meat, and sugar cane juice," "the best French cooking in the Orient," and, "above all, the doe-eyed shapely Vietnamese girls dressed in the most gracious way." (Emphasis theirs.)

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And at a time of stepped-up volatility and troop presence in the region, these pamphlets doubled as "a means of selling military service in Southeast Asia."

That might be why the brochure focuses on some of Vietnam's manlier recreations, such as looking at attractive women and hunting extremely large animals at very low fees:

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 4.31.59 PM.png

In Dalat, 55 minutes from Saigon, a weary traveler can find, for example, "one nightclub with a small band and quite a number of pretty Vietnamese hostesses who wear their own dashing native costumes of neck-to-ankle gowns -- split to the waist -- and ankle, length, pajama-type silken pantaloons."

What's more, "Vietnam is a hunter's paradise," the brochure claims, with plentiful game that includes, "elephant, tiger, leopard, wild buffalo bear, deer, and pheasant." A fee for killing "wild and harmful beasts" would set one back $22:

Tourism to Vietnam peaked in the early 1960s -- the sweet spot between the proliferation of airlines and the escalation of the war -- and few Americans ventured back to the country for decades after that.

***

These days, Vietnam touts nature, water sports, and its traditional culture in its tourism commercials:

The messaging isn't markedly different from the 1957 Holiday magazine depictions of Vietnamese beaches with tides like "the roar of a tiger" and where the city of Hue sits on a "river the color of celadon," as later described by Laterman.

Not quite a doe-eyed, shapely girl, but 'fascinating' regardless.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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