Author: paul daley
Photography: chris chen
The travel cognoscenti love pointing out that the place to which you've just been, or, worse, to which you're about to go, has been ruined by tourism.
And so it was that my travel agent warned me about Vietnam. "It is," she said, "like a theme park - over the top, wrecked by tourism and development."
Having travelled extensively in Vietnam 15 years ago, when an American trade embargo continued to cruelly isolate a country still crippled by its longest recent war, I had my own niggling reservations.
I jealously guarded my first Vietnam experiences, resonating as they still do with memories of markets, restaurants and museums where few Westerners wandered. But it was the people - beautiful and generous, though desperately poor - and their joie de vivre despite years of pain that left the biggest mark on me.
There was little mass tourism when I first visited Vietnam. The Communist cadre was still only flirting with market economics and the security apparatus was paranoid about Westerners.
So forewarned, I landed at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport anticipating a super-size culture of tasteless hotels and girlie bars, a Krispy Kreme on every corner and legions of "Als" and "Betsies" from Florida, cramming the footpaths as they filed after the man with the pink umbrella.
The ultra-modern airport itself confirmed how much things had changed. But I soon came to realise that not all change has been bad for Vietnam.
The roads are much better, making it safer and easier to move around. Domestic air routes (once the domain of dodgy ex-Aeroflot Tupolevs that coughed smoke and more than occasionally crashed) now includes new competitors such as Jetstar, making it easier than ever for budget-conscious Australians to holiday in luxury at unbelievably affordable prices.
Sure, there are more tourists. But most visitors to Vietnam these days come to sample a rich culture, street life and architecture that point to a complex, fascinating amalgam of influences - Chinese, French, Malaysian and American - that have shaped it.
Vietnam is alive with signs (a skyline ragged with cranes and a coastline dotted with countless resort developments) that tourism is booming. Indeed, if it's done right, it will be a boon for the Vietnamese economy and its people, many of whom are taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn new languages and skills in the burgeoning hospitality industry.
There are encouraging signs, too, that the current development is sympathetic to Vietnam's culture and its abundant natural beauty. Wiser foreign tourism operators, mindful that this is a country rich in human as well as natural capital, have been quick to incorporate Vietnamese attributes of diligence, courtesy and friendliness into their guest services.
Maybe I'm just older and, yes, softer. With hindsight, visiting Vietnam in the early 1990s was a culturally rich but often physically challenging experience. Today, visitors to Vietnam can enjoy the very best of modern European comforts and amenities.
Vietnam is also a foodies' heaven, especially for seafood lovers. Combined with the staples of rice, rice noodles, leafy vegetables, spices and herbs, you'll not get fresher, more traditional fish dishes anywhere. Then, of course, there's the ubiquitous rice-noodle soup pho (arguably Vietnam's national dish) and spring rolls which, washed down with a Vietnamese beer while perched on a plastic stool at Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Thanh Market, are all yours for just a dollar or two.
Those uncomfortable about seeing their food au naturel should steer clear of the stalls toward the back of the markets, which were built in 1914 and boast a grand clock tower. For out the back you'll see the slaughter of fish and birds and the dismemberment of frogs and crustaceans, even dogs.
Westerners are often distressed by the sight of caged puppies at Vietnam's food markets. But in a country where every part of every animal is eaten, everything non-human is fair game to the chef.
The day I arrived in the country, I lunched with a group of friends at Quan An Ngon - a bustling institution in Ho Chi Minh City, featuring a central dining hall surrounded by external kitchens making all variety of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. We ordered a dish of green papaya with sliced pig's ear. It wasn't too bad. Together with eight other dishes and drinks for seven people, our feast cost a total of about $40.
It's just as easy to spend more money on dining out, however, because upmarket Vietnamese and European restaurants vie for business alongside the street stalls in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Needless to say, the big hotels also have fine-dining restaurants that offer the best of Vietnamese and European cuisines.
The French influence is omnipotent, on the plate and in the cellar. The most positive legacies of French colonialism are, perhaps, coffee, fine architecture and, of course, the pâtisserie. Consequently, you won't get a better croissant or latte anywhere in the Asia-Pacific.
Shopping is also superb these days, with an ever growing selection of boutiques and designer stalls, markets displaying tourist goods (you can take home a Ho Chi Minh T-shirt or pith helmet) and antique shops. (Fifteen years ago, when my luggage was lost by my airline, the only jacket I could find in my size came from a war surplus market, an unexpected reminder of the conflict between Vietnam and America.)
We call it the Vietnam War but the Vietnamese (who've endured battles with the French, the Chinese and the Cambodians, not to mention civil wars of their own, during the past century) refer to the devastating conflict that killed four million of their own civilians between 1959 and 1975 as the "American War".
Reminders of this past are everywhere, from the Dan Sinh Market, a war surplus market on the edge of Ho Chi Minh, to the War Remnants Museum in town. When I first visited this museum, which graphically records the conflict with a superb collection of photographs, memorabilia and military hardware, it was called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. It's been renamed since then, signalling a significant improvement in relations with Washington.
During the Vietnam War, Western correspondents haunted the bars along the infamous Dong Khoi Street (formerly Rue Catinat) and the hotels around Lam Son Square, including the Continental, the Rex and the Caravelle. From the Caravelle's rooftop bar, reporters such as Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter Arnett, who returned earlier this year to help the hotel celebrate its 50th anniversary, watched the fire fights of the ever-approaching front line during the closing stages of the war. The bar on the 10th floor of the original 1959 hotel, once the tallest building in the city, remains the perfect place for a drink on a fragrant evening. The Caravelle was relaunched in 1998 and, after an extensive redesign, a 24-storey tower has now been added to the original structure.
Just a few hours north of Ho Chi Minh City you will find stunning beaches and low-rise family resorts on the edge of traditional Vietnamese cities and towns.
Phan Thiet is a sprawling traditional fishing town 200 kilometres north-east of Ho Chi Minh City off Highway 1, a road that has, I was pleased to experience, been widened and sealed since I last drove on it. Virtually untouched by tourism, despite its proximity to the city, Phan Thiet is situated on a river mouth and close tounspoilt white sandy beaches.
For instance, the Novotel Phan Thiet Ocean Dunes & Golf Resort is a charming but understated resort set on a private stretch of beach. Set amid an 18-hole, Nick Faldo-designed golf course, Ocean Dunes is an ideal spot for a family break. The beach is clean, the water is clear and the seafood in the hotel restaurant is inexpensive and excellent.
Those wanting a bit more life should try Mui Ne Beach, 13 kilometres further east along the South China Sea coast. Mui Ne, considered to be the wind-surf-sports capital of Vietnam, is itself a small fishing village at the eastern end of a long strip of beach. Again, the beach and the sea are clean and a good swell rolls in from August to December, making it popular with windsurfers, kite surfers and board-riders.
The Blue Ocean Resort in Mui Ne, managed by the Life Resorts chain, recently reopened after a major renovation last year. Situated in sprawling gardens with pathways leading to a swimming pool, an excellent restaurant and the beach, the Blue Ocean has an ambience and understated style that belies the remarkably inexpensive room rates. Besides luxurious standard double and twin rooms, the Blue Ocean has two family bungalows each featuring two bedrooms, an individual plunge pool and a sala.
Those wanting to flex their wallets should travel further north-east to Hoi An, near Danang on the central coast, to The Nam Hai resort. It's hard to add to the effusive praise already awarded this resort, which opened in 2006, except to say it has the most breathtakingly beautiful swimming pool, which at sunset appears to extend, like a sheet of smoky Murano glass, straight into the South China Sea. (Young children are perhaps more tolerated than encouraged to be young children at places like this. Leave them at home if you're going to splurge, and take one of the luxury spa treatments while you're at it.)
Travelling further up the coast, you'll arrive at the northern city of Hanoi. Its charms have been evident to travellers for hundreds of years but only since the mid- to late-1990s have the major hotel chains begun taking advantage of the burgeoning market for top-quality, affordable accommodation.
The InterContinental Hanoi Westlake is the most obvious case in point. Situated on the lake and with all 359 rooms and 18 suites offering views of either the water or Hanoi street life, this is much more a resort than a luxury city hotel. It's perfectly located close to the heart of Hanoi, and is just a taxi ride from the major sights and shopping strips.
Take a cyclo-ride through the old town and don't miss the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070, it is perhaps the finest example of traditional architecture still standing in Hanoi. Make sure, also, that you visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is a revered and holy site for many Vietnamese people because the body of Ho Chi Minh - former revolutionary, Communist party leader, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and spiritual founder of modern Vietnam - is still on display there.
Get lost in Hanoi's bustling old city. Look skywards at the stunning French colonial façades (many of which have been lovingly restored in recent years, thanks to massive international aid efforts), and shop for silk and wooden carvings including genuine, much-loved Hanoi water puppets.
Then return to the InterContinental. A late afternoon drink at The Sunset Bar, which occupies its own island reached by a torch-lit promenade, is a must. The hotel boasts two fantastic restaurants on the mezzanine level - Milan and Saigon - which offer the best of European and Asian cuisines. For this sort of quality, the prices are exceptional.
If you make it to Hanoi, take the opportunity to visit the stunning natural phenomenon that is the World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay, where some 1600 towering islands rise like giant limestone cenotaphs from the brilliant jade green water. Everyone wants to see it. This is probably why tourism has not been as kind to this part of Vietnam as it has to others. Little more than a decade ago just a handful of boats took tourists. Today more than 400 tourist boats are competing for elbow room out there.
Tragically, in parts the water is dirty; some boats pump their effluent directly into the sea, where it floats in a pitiful slick with plastic bags, drink bottles and other detritus. Reputable tour operators are aware of the problem and are working on measures to ensure Ha Long Bay's pristine beauty is preserved.
Spending a night on Ha Long Bay is nonetheless a magical experience. I was fortunate enough to stay on the Emeraude, a 55-metre replica of a French paddle-steamer that cruised these waters from 1906 to 1937. I usually baulk at such "ye olde" experiences but the Emeraude - with its brass fittings, polished wooden floors, wicker chairs on the sundeck, and topnotch restaurant - is fun and relaxing.
Ha Long Bay is, perhaps, a sign of what awaits Vietnam if tourism is not ecologically managed. Government tourism authorities are, it is said, slow to engage with the problems. Foreign tourism investors, however, know business will be short-term unless they lead the way. The doomsayers are wrong. As Vietnam tourism develops, its future looks assured.
THE FINE PRINT
Jetstar flies from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City via Darwin. One-way JetSaver Light fares start at $389. Jetstar Pacific offers domestic connections in Vietnam. 131 538.
SEE & DO
Ben Thanh Markets
Cnr Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao & Le Lai Sts, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Dan Sinh Market
104 Yersin St, Ho Chi Minh City
War Remnants Museum
28 Vo Van Tan St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Cnr Pho Ngoc Ha & Pho Doi Can Sts, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi
Temple of Literature
Pho Quoc Tu Giam, Hanoi
STAY & EAT
Quan An Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St, Ho Chi Minh City
Deluxe rooms from $397.
19 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Thiet Ocean Dunes and Golf Resort
Deluxe rooms from $180.
1 Ton Duc Thang St, Phan Thiet
Standard rooms from $99.
54 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Ham Tien, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet
One-bedroom villas from $1050.
Hamlet 1, Dien Duong Village, Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province
InterContinental Hanoi Westlake
Deluxe rooms with lake views from $320.
1A Nghi Tam, Tay Ho, Hanoi