Vietnam is a diverse country where the colours are vivid, the landscapes are striking, the coastline is full of drama, the history is compelling and restaurants provide a truly authentic dining experience. It’s been shaped by its war-torn past and its status as a Communist country, but there’s much more to Vietnam than that, and if you’re prepared for an adventure as well as a holiday, it’s full of extraordinary experiences.
My journey began in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, with a stay at the Park Hyatt on Lam Son Square, which overlooked the impressive Opera House. My first impressions were of a cosmopolitan, glamorous, fast-paced city – certainly not quite what I was expecting. The city has a long and fascinating history – Saigon originally grew from a small fishing village into a thriving settlement. Conquered by the French in 1859, it became known as the ‘Pearl of the Far East’. In 1954 Ho Chi Minh’s communist Viet Minh forces defeated the French, and Vietnam was partitioned into North and South Vietnam, with the government of the South, the Republic of Vietnam, holding its seat in Saigon. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, ending the Vietnam War. At the Reunification palace, you can see the tank that drove through its gates, ending the war. Following North Vietnam’s victory, Vietnam was unified and the capital of the reunified Vietnam became Hanoi, while Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
After a few days of exploring and making the most of what the city had to offer, I made the five hour road trip to Phan Thiet, one of the only beach resort style destinations in Vietnam. My base, the Blue Ocean Resort, was as relaxed as I was hoping it would be, and its location in the centre of the resort made it ideal for the beach and the local restaurants. Another destination worth a visit is the ‘Fairy Stream’, a scenic creek winding through sand cliffs from deep in the dunes out to the beach. Nearby Bai Rang (Rang Beach), nestled in the middle of a coconut palm forest, is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the area of Phan Thiet.
Next stop was Nha Trang, around a 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City. The Six Senses Ninh Van Bay is not on an island, but the only way to reach it is by launch. Each villa boasts its own pool or plunge pool, and a garden terrace or large sundeck. With a truly fabulous spa, and activities from windsurfing and waterskiing to tennis, volleyball and snorkelling, this is a spectacular five star resort ideal for the whole family. An hour north of Nha Trang is Da Nang, the third largest city in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
On arrival in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, the first thing I noticed was the total contrast to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s less glitzy, more traditional – lots of people eating street cafes, sitting on small stools eating lunch and gossiping. The historical Old Town and the colonial French Quarter sit beside thousand year old temples in a vibrant city that embraces old and new. Must-see sites include the Temple of Literature, the site of the oldest university in Vietnam dating back to 1070, the iconic One-Pillar Pagoda, and the Flag Tower of Hanoi, which is almost all that remains of the old Hanoi Citadel.
Of all Vietnam’s many World Heritage Sites, the one that has left me with the most enduring memories has got to be Ha Long Bay, where I boarded a junk around the islands. Many visitors opt to stay on a junk overnight, and if I were going back I’d certainly aim to do so too. While many trips focus on the country’s outstanding monuments, this is a reminder that Vietnam also boasts some of the most outstanding landscapes. The bay is dotted with around 2,000 limestone islets rising from the water, formed over millennia. Erosion has also meant that the islands are full of caves, many of which can be explored. The formations in the bay and the stalactites and stalagmites in the caves are often named after the animals they resemble – elephants, penguins and so on. The islands are largely free of human settlers, and this unspoilt part of the country is home to extensive wildlife. Overall, Vietnam offers something to delight every traveller, whether you’re looking for fantastic food, beautiful beaches, world-class culture or an extraordinary adventure.
Iain Bell travelled to Vietnam with Kuoni and Travel Bureau Gosforth www.travelbureaugosforth.com
Travel time: 13 1/2 hours from London
Passports and Visa: Visa required
Weather: The south is warm all year round, whereas central Vietnam is cooler and wetter in the winter months. The summer in the north is much hotter, wetter and humid but you will also get blue skies.