Confronting and enchanting, Vietnam seduces travellers with its gritty charm. Neither sullied by tourism nor an immovable world too stubborn to change with the times, the country buzzes with motorbikes and rickshaws, and offers polished (genuine) Louis Vuitton and roadside fake handbags.
Allens Arthur Robinson has an office in Ho Chi Minh and many global firms have a presence there. Vietnam has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and is now a booming travel destination. In 2008 nearly 230,000 Australians visited Vietnam. Double that visited from the United States, including veterans, the children of refugees and those looking for business, holiday and, perhaps, reconciliation. Despite the onslaught of visitors, the country is mostly unaffected by tourism compared with many of its Asian neighbours.
Vietnam has a wide offering of chic new beach resorts, colonial and boutique hotels, adventure travel and luxury at relatively affordable prices. You can buy a tailor-made cashmere suit for $90 in Hoi An, and a designer dress for under $100 in Ho Chi Minh City (often HCMC), the former Saigon.
While many tourists use Ho Chi Minh City as a base from which to explore the country, it is the relatively untouched North that is pulling in a new breed of traveller – those looking for the “real” Vietnam. The North’s Red River floodplain is inundated by women in conical hats balancing lychees and lotus blossoms, while the mountain village of Sapa is a gateway to a world of minority cultures who still wear traditional dress. In northern Vietnam, French colonial buildings meet makeshift shops of tarpaulin, and marble hair salons contrast with men on the street wielding scissors and a mirror who offer cuts for less than a dollar.
Start your exploration of the northern Vietnam at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, Grahame Greene’s home while he wrote portions of his 1955 novel The Quiet American. The building was restored by the Sofitel hotel chain (don’t get it confused with the other Sofitel in town), and has maintained a colonial ambiance with its hardwood floors, ceiling fans, and staff in traditional dress.
But times have changed since Greene’s romantic, albeit tumultuous, portrayal of the war-torn country. Hanoi is no longer an untouched French colonial town, polished and ornate, but a buzzing and noisy city. The Metropole stands out in its polished luxury, and almost no other French-style building in the city is so well-kept and untouched by modern local Vietnamese culture – or mildew.
Hanoi’s old quarter is the Vietnam we dream of in the Western world. Steeped in its French history, this part of town is pulsating with life, rich in luxurious and sometimes overpowering scents, noisy with motorbikes. The narrow streets are congested and crossing the road is an artform perfected by locals.
Hawkers own the streets and sizzling baskets, hot coals and huge pots hide meals at all hours for locals. Stock for pho bubbles in massive pots on the roadside and locals and daring tourists sit on tiny plastic seats, slurping up the hot soup.
Start your day with a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short walk from the Metropole and next to Hanoi’s old market district. Early morning, exercise enthusiasts gather along the lakeside: supple old women doing tai chi, young men playing badminton, joggers.
The choked old market offers dried fish, fake Yves Saint-Laurent bags and scarves and massive inflatable Winnie the Poohs. Hanoi is best spent wandering, or get your bearings via a rickshaw, or cyclo, outside any of the hotels (or they will find you).
HEAD FOR THE HILLS
Travel on an overnight train to the north-west mountains and world of bamboo forests and rice terraces, all blanketed in mist. For a more luxurious overnight (10-hour) journey, book all beds in a four-bed sleeper to save yourself from fellow travellers of all types.
In the valleys around the town of Sapa, local minority people – Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dao – still wear traditional dress. The locals live in scattered hamlets linked by muddy streams and the paths trenched by their “pet” water buffalo.
The local people are one of the main attractions of the area. They are named after the colour and pattern of their clothes, which they wear without exception. Some younger locals will wear the long black cloth boots and intricately pleated skirts of their tribe, but add a touch of modern fashion with a baseball cap or designer jacket. But in the main, the minorities resist assimilation and are unyielding in their determination to hold off modernisation.
A guided trek in the area is likely to include an encounter with the local Red Dao, whose apple-cheeked women, with their shaved eyebrows long foreheads and silver-tasselled red turbans will follow tourists up mountainsides to ensure they have first dibs on any buys of trinkets. The friendly women, even those in their 70s, will make easy work of the sharp mountain sides, while tourists slide and trip up the slippery paths.
The best place to stay, by some margin, is just outside Sapa, where an eco-lodge welcomes discerning travellers from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The Topas Eco Lodge comprises 25 bungalows made from white granite from a nearby quarry. Roofs are thatched with palm branches, but this is not your average rustic accommodation. Wooden beams, tiled floors and mosquito nets complete the elegant internal décor, while quaint paved paths connect the lodges. Each bungalow has a stunning view across the valley and into the mist, but the rooms starting with the number 200 are perhaps the most extraordinary. Vietnamese meals are served in a communal, Scandanavian-style lodge overlooking the rice terraces and local people working from sunrise.
The hosts are welcoming and helpful, and will help you with finding a guide to explore the local area.
After soaking up Vietnam’s natural beauty, including an overnight trip to Halong Bay as a natural wonder must-do, make your way further south, to the ancient trading town of Hoi An. In this UNESCO-preserved architectural jewel, you can buy a raw silk dress for $40 and have a suit fitted for under $100. You can stay in the converted Chinese merchant’s house that Michael Caine used as a dressing room while filming The Quiet American for $50 a night, and buy a hand-embroidered silk scarf for a
If you haven’t arrived in the 40-degree heat of June, the best thing to do is wander the streets, exploring the intricate alleyways and shops. The town largely escaped the destruction of successive wars, so it has maintained the quaint charm of a riverside village. But tourism has definitely also had an impact, and the 500 tailor shops rely on tourists to sell their wares. You will probably need to buy an extra bag to store all the clothes you have had made, even if you hadn’t planned to.
If you have arrived in June (in which case you will repeatedly be told by locals that you’re crazy) you’ll need somewhere to hibernate during the day. Tackling the dusty street of Hoi An in the middle of summer is indeed crazy, and you will soon wish you hadn’t. The best place to hide away, or indeed spend an entire week with no worries at all, is the Nam Hai Hotel. A short bus ride out of Hoi An, this world-class resort is extraordinarily luxurious, making for a sharp contrast to its nearest town. With three communal pools (heated, lap and main pool), as well as a library, beach, and a range of restaurants, there is much do.
The hotel’s villa-style rooms include a raised platform containing a futon bed, a bath and a collection of white pillows to just laze about on. Each room has an outdoor shower, a view to the beach, and intimate white linen room dividers. If you are going to get a funny tummy during your stay in Vietnam, try and time it so you get to endure it at the Nam Hai, where staying in the hotel is hardly something to suffer.
In the mountains of Sapa, the Topas Eco Lodge is luxurious in its simplicity. Truly natural, built using local stone and allowing locals to farm on the surrounding land, the Lodge is a world-class destination despite its low prices and simple charm. For its views and unspoiled beauty alone, the Lodge is outstanding. In peak season (December), room charge is about $110. See www.topas-eco-lodge.com.