Welcome to Vietnam, our near northern neighbour, where a spirit of adventure and a sense of humour are useful travel companions. Vietnam, whose past – and future – is more closely linked to Australia than most of us realise. Why not lay yourself open to a gentle barrage on your senses, and drink in the best this country has to offer.
Today, just as every day, the ambiance here in Ho Chi Minh City (still endearingly referred to as Saigon by locals) is fractured by the constant beeping of horns that have a language of their own; some sharp and accusing, others softly staccato but somehow friendlier – all uninterrupted 24-hours a day. While your brain tends to ‘adjust the volume’ after a short while, the raw energy of the place doesn’t loose its vitality. The longer you stay in Vietnam the more mesmerising the local life becomes as you appreciate the rich tapestry of the place: the colourful markets and street stalls; the array of fruits – persimmon, star apple, rambutan, dragon fruit and custard apple – on sale; the tasty regional cuisine on offer, subtly spiced and distinctly Asian, and the honest, open and hard-working character of its people – all serving to make this melting-pot so unique.
Serving as a southern gateway, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city and a wonderful introduction to the countries riches, a world away – in both geography and personality – from northern Hanoi. With language barriers and movement sometimes a challenge, tour guides are thoroughly recommended to assist you in best enjoying the city sights.
As for accommodation, Vietnam has an increasing number of top quality options, both in the cities and dotted through the coastal and interior regions. In town, Renaissance Riverside Hotel, Saigon, is a 21-storey hotel with 349 deluxe rooms, many with views over the bustling Saigon River. Centrally located, it is ideal for strolling to markets, and nearby restaurants.
Ask any English-speaking local where they go to escape the hustle, bustle and heat of HCMC, and their tone quietens as they fondly speak of the mountainous university city of Dalat, only a short half hour plane journey north. It has been a source of cool-climate romantic escape for locals since the 1930s, now undergoing a resurgence of appeal with numbers of key natural, architectural and cultural sights.
While the Sofitel Palace and Novotel have been the standout hotels in Dalat for many years, the recent opening of The Evason Mandara Villas and Spa brings a fresh, sophisticated flavour to town. Located on the city fringes, the gently sloping resort is made up of around 20 restored French colonial villas set among tall stands of pines. Each villa houses ensuited rooms, providing guests a peaceful, simply decorated base; some choose to do nothing more than visit the outstanding holistic spa, rest by the pool or savour the signature restaurant (Nine) and bar villa, while others take time to visit local temples, walking tracks or lakeside gardens, or the famed ‘Crazy House’ – an architectural anomaly worth a peek. Ask about the day tours in the resort’s restored vintage cars: what better way to explore the sense of local history.
Perhaps the best-known drawcard in Vietnam, other than the bustling cities, is the picturesque coastline. A favourite venue with the holidaying locals, who intriguingly (and sensibly) get up to swim and exercise before dawn, and come back and linger after dark to avoid the heat of the day, Nha Trang, an hours flight north of HCMC, and an adventurous three hour drive from Dalat, is home to number of five star resorts, none better located than Evason Ana Mandara, sitting right on the beach strip off Tran Phu Boulevard. Blessed with tropical gardens, a fine spa, 74 pretty low slung rooms, and thatched umbrella stands that dot the brilliant white sand, this is sunny-day holiday heaven. For those who like the best in privacy and indulgence, Six Senses Resorts ultimate Vietnam location is the Evason Hideaway and Spa at Ana Mandara. Arrive by high-speed boat, be whisked away to your own two-storey private villa, complete with personal butler, plunge pool, indoor outdoor bathroom, and beachfront setting, and before you know it, time stands still and everyday life seems a long way away. Highlights include a rock-hewn cellar, and vegetable and herb garden large enough to dine in, a spa to-die-for, and indoor/outdoor dining options overlooking the picturesque curve of the bay, it’s easy to totally stop and do nothing. My recommendation
if you have the chance to visit Vietnam – save this for last. Without doubt, the ideal finish to your surprise package.
Evason Mandara Villas and Spa, Dalat; Evason Ana Mandara, Nha Trang; and Evason Hideaway and Spa at Ana Mandara. Bookings, 0414 257 749, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sixsenses.com;
Renaissance Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, +848 822 0033, www.renaissancehotels.com
Luxury Travel has an Essence of Luxurious trip that highlights the growing array of outstanding luxury hotels and small group tour options available throughout Southest Asia. Details: www.luxuryprivatetravel.com
Don’t miss the chance to get the ‘insiders view’ of Vietnam’s city life. The best way? Make sure a guide shows you around, either for a day or for a full tour. For all of Vietnam’s ‘charming chaos’, day-to-day transport and infrastructure frustrations can be a menace. Travel Indochina is an Australian-based operator that has been specialising in small group travel into this region for close to 15 years. In Ho Chi Minh City itself, a guide can give you a wonderful insight into the rich historic past and changing future fortunes of the country, with highlights including a visit to the former President’s Palace, now known as the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral (celebrating years of French influence, also reflected in the wide tree-lined boulevards), and the colourful temples of Chinatown. For some, the remarkable Cu Chi tunnels used by Communist Guerrillas during the French and Vietnam wars are a memorable feature, but I found the visit to the sobering War Remnants Museum a simply presented yet heart-wrenching reminder of the trials of war in general, and a poignant reminder of the suffering of our own Australian troops. Travel Indochina organizes small groups of up to 15 travelers: from visa applications, airport transfers, hotel bookings, to tours, or 21-day multi-country packages. For more info: www.luxuryprivatetravel.com