The road from Hue, past China Beach and south to Hoi An is scenic—bicycle enthusiasts consider this one of the best rides in the world. In Hoi An, clients will find a preserved UNESCO World Heritage village of ancient Chinese dwellings and walkable streets lined with dozens of silk shops and sewing dens, custom shoe shops, lantern boutiques, handmade jewelry and craft shops, even a place called the Reaching Out shop with artistic crafts created by the town’s handicapped and disabled residents. Here, there are shops selling silk paintings of painstaking needlepoint, taking the process from worm to wall. Other shops sell books or artifacts from the town’s lengthy history. But it is the clothing that catches most eyes. Anything can be created or copied by the town’s talented tailors. Clients should allow at least 48 hours with time for repeated fittings and not hesitate to bargain hard.
To the south, an exploration of Ho Chi Minh City requires at least two days. The attractions here include Reunification Hall—the Presidential Palace that housed the last three doomed presidents of South Vietnam and was the scene of tanks crashing the gates on April 30, 1975. The 1960s vintage rooms, the hidden bunkers and the rolling film that ties it all together make this a worthy expense of time. The War Remnants Museum, too, is an emotional scene as visitors go through room after room of disturbing photography, haunting exhibits and dioramas, and films of maimed citizens still fighting the effects of Agent Orange.
A tour that puts much of the missing history of the war together is a half-day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour outside the city. The tour provides a rare view of the world lived by the resistance fighters who fought, survived and staged the war from a hand-hewn web of tunnels fanning out for more than 100 miles.
tour options Although a trip to Vietnam can be handled independently and, with an exchange rate of 17.8 VN dong to the U.S. dollar, quite cost-effectively, a guided tour of Vietnam makes the most sense to get the full sense of the depth in culture and history. Indochina Travel organizes custom travel experiences to Vietnam for individuals and groups—specializing in bicycle tours, culinary, art encounters, photography and festivals. A photography tour running Oct. 12-24 and led by known travel photographers, for example, spends two days in Hanoi, two days in Halong Bay, three days in Sapa and three days in the Mekong Delta for rates of $3,980 pp dbl, land-only.
Exotissimo, a well-known in-bound company based in Ho Chi Minh City, can set up tours from day trips to Cu Chi to several weeks of exploration, depending on client interests and time. For instance, a Saigon to Hanoi tour by train, bike and motor scooter runs 10 days for $1,190 pp before air arrangements. The company is a member of Virtuoso.
SITA World Tours has a comprehensive 12-day Mystic Marvels of Indochina package that offers visits to Hanoi (plus Halong Bay), Hoi An, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City and legendary Siem Riep. Guests get two meals daily as well as a host of tour inclusions, and are offered the option of a 5-day visit to Laos with time on the Mekong. Land-only rates are $3,625 pp dbl (single supplement runs $1,770) through 2009.
accommodation options Nam Hai in Hoi An is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and is easily Vietnam’s most luxurious resort spread. Here, service is summarily Asian—a 24-hour concierge handles anything that comes up and often with pro-active consideration—and each of the resort’s 60 one-bedroom villas and 40 multi-bedroom pool villas stands on their own as a testament to sophisticated south Asian design mixing indoor and outdoor environments with local woods, fabrics and decor. Spacious quarters often divide into levels with the bed placed on a raised platform and surrounded by gossamer netting and opening to a view of the gardens or South China Sea. Each villa can accommodate up to three adults comfortably with a variety of cushiony lounging spots. A deep-soaking tub abuts the living quarters for the grand resort vantages. A large desk area includes an iPod dock, and iPod stuffed with all manor of interesting music.