The assignment is: Go find out what all this bucket-list buzz about Vietnam is; why this country is atop so many hotspot lists. Cut to the end of a 10-day trip, and the answer can start with: This is a surprising place of dramatic landscapes, fascinating history, pulsating energy and epic food. And if you follow your nose and eat often and delectably in the local street markets, you meet a lot of outgoing and hardworking Vietnamese people. Some 70 percent of them were born after the American War, as it is called locally, and they tend to look forward rather than back. And imagine, I had nary a personal encounter with anti-Americanism when dining around in outdoor kitchens, or riding around in open cyclos or on backs of motorbikes.
ho chi minh city
My travels in Vietnam first had me sailing on the Mekong with AmaWaterways; then I went happily urban on my own in Vietnam’s three largest cities. I started with only a day in Ho Chi Minh City (its official name, but everyone still calls it Saigon), a metropolis on the move, galloping ahead in the last 25 years to change its image from a war-torn wreck to economic success: “A phoenix risen from the ashes,” to quote our guide.
Visitors can get a bird’s-eye view of the city’s French Colonial architecture, pagodas and Soviet-style housing blocks from the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s tallest building. Back on the ground, I learn if you have just one temple to see in this city, make it the Jade Emperor Pagoda, where through a fog of incense emerge beautifully carved woodwork and a collection of weird and wonderful deities—both Taoist and Buddhist—beneath a roof that groans under the weight of dragons and birds. Another essential stop is the Ben Thanh Market, where among a tight grid of aisles, there’s the souvenirs section, with conical hats, lacquerware and “Good Morning, Vietnam” t-shirts.
Next, I head downtown for a quick look into the just-opened Reverie Saigon. With a sleek contemporary exterior and an extravagant Italianesque interior, this 286-room luxury property is one of the newest additions to The Leading Hotels of the World portfolio. I walk farther, passing two prime examples of French colonial architecture—the handsome Notre Dame Cathedral, whose rosy red bricks were shipped in all the way from Marseille, and the Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel.
When I get to my next stop, Hue, I do all my touring by motorbike, seated behind guide par excellence Xuan Hoa. It’s really the finest (and coolest) way to explore this perfectly gorgeous city. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, and her centerpiece site is the 19th century walled Citadel, enclosing the Imperial City, where the Emperor and his entourage presided over an extraordinary complex of palaces, pavilions, temples, gardens and fortifications. Following the bitter battle fought during the Tet Offensive in 1968, the task of rebuilding the enormous destruction got a boost when UNESCO listed the city as a World Heritage Site. Again spectacular today is the Thai Hoa Palace, whose interiors glow with red and gold lacquers. Special, too, is The Mieu complex, with its elaborate ancestral altars, and Dien Tho, the queen
By motorbike, I, along with my guide, speed out of town, heading to the pine-covered hills, where, in the Royal Mausoleums—eclectic architectural confections set in gardens—the spirits of the Nguyen emperors live on. I cool off on a boat trip along the languid Perfume River, with views of Hue’s oldest pagoda, the 7-story Thien Mu.
While in Hue, I’m ensconced in the rambling La Residence Hue Hotel & Spa (rooms from $192), incorporating the former Art Deco residence of the French governor into an expanded, graceful, 122-rooms and -suites luxury boutique hotel. Guestrooms in the original residence are particularly appealing, as are the garden-embraced saltwater pool, spa and Le Parfum restaurant.
I fly north to Hanoi and check into the 364-room Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (rooms from $300). Opened in 1901 and located close to the Old Quarter, it has hosted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda and Mark Zuckerberg. Guests have a choice of staying in the Historical Wing rooms with original grandeur (good choice) or the newer Opera Wing, a study in neoclassic luxury. Facilities include a splendid spa and outdoor pool; among the choice bars and restaurants, tops in my book is the Spices Garden, elegantly serving Vietnamese specialties. And heads-up: A guest-only bonus is a 50-minute Path of History guided stroll that recounts the hotel’s storied history, topped by dropping down into a wartime air raid shelter, discovered recently when renovating the Bamboo Bar.
Often dubbed the most Asian city in Asia, Hanoi is a millennium-old capital of crumbly pagodas, labyrinthine streets, tree-lined boulevards and French colonial villas—all undergoing a werewolf-like transformation into a 21st century metropolis. Founded at a bend of the Red River, the city mixes it up with Vietnamese, Chinese and French influences, while also boasting glitzy megamalls, wine warehouses and seriously expensive cars cruising along within the tsunami of motorbikes. Open cyclos are my vehicle of choice, as my super-guide takes me to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh in his solemn mausoleum at monumental Ba Dinh Square. Farther west is the outstanding Museum of Ethnology, which colorfully details the traditions of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. On the way between the two, we pass the remains of a downed U.S. B-52 bomber upended in Huu Tiep Lake. Continuing to mix it up, we pass the French-built Hoa Lo prison, named Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners of war. Nearby, the tranquil 11th century Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s foremost Confucian sanctuary, invites quiet contemplation.
Hoan Kiem Lake, the city’s spiritual, cultural and commercial heart, is at its best in the early morning when walkers, joggers and tai chi enthusiasts limber up. To the north is the Old Quarter, also known as “the 36 Streets” after the guilds—medicine, tin, silver—that used to operate here. It’s noisy, bustling, entangled in power cables and motorbike traffic, and it’s essential Hanoi. Stop here at a tea stall or head to Coffee Street for classic ca phe sua chua (hot coffee with yogurt) at Cong Caphe, a multi-storied cafe clad in communist memorabilia. Silk Street and the lanes around St. Joseph’s Cathedral provide rich picking for shoppers: silk prints, lacquer, ceramics and embroidered silks. And in Hanoi, you’ll want to join the locals for pho bo, the traditional beef noodle soup, as well as a performance of water puppets.
And if we need just one more reason Why Vietnam Now!: It’s undiscovered by McDonalds and Starbucks.
TOUR OPERATOR INTEL
pacific delight tours
Long before all the buzz began, Pacific Delight Tours was already aboard the “visit Vietnam” bandwagon. As president Eric Oborski points out, “We’ve been specialists in all of Asia and China for 43 years, and while Thailand led the way into demand for Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia expanded the region’s appeal for mature seasoned travelers, for upscale and affordable luxury travelers, for off-the-beaten-track adventurers, for group tours and special interest itineraries.”
While new to Pacific Delight Tours presidency, Oborski is really an old Vietnam hand. He tells the story of representing in the mid-1990s the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce & Industry in the U.S. “Central to our promotion of doing business in Vietnam, we designed a trip for industry leaders and journalists to introduce the country’s investment potential. It featured top-of-the-line-hospitality in hotels, banquets, high-level meetings, even business class air aboard Japan Airlines. The all-inclusive cost was $995. We sent out 2,500 invitations, we got two takers. Nobody cared about Vietnam.”
Some 25 years later, how things have changed. Oborski points out that today there is “good access by air from many international gateways; good roads for overland travel; and the accommodations are stylish and affordable. What hasn’t changed is that in Vietnam, the food has always been delicious and the people unbelievably friendly.”
Pacific Delight Tours offers the 13-day Highlights of Indochina Escapade Experience, a Hanoi-to-Bangkok itinerary whose highlights are Indochina culture, including Angkor Wat and Ha Long Bay. Priced from $4,299, the tour is available for a minimum of two people on monthly departures.
Of course, we have all learned that Pacific Delight Tours has recently expanded beyond Asia to South America, with programs in place for Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. The new product comes under a new brand called PDT Tours (pdttours.com). “We plan to eventually put all our products under PDT Tours, says Oborski, “phasing out the name Pacific Delight Tours.” pacificdelighttours.com