The clamour and charisma… of Vietnam

| February 12, 2017

For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, there are many different itinerary choices, including a cruise up the Mekong. We decided to travel from the south to the north of the country. In late October, this meant travelling from sticky-heat in the south to the clear-skied cool of the north.

Ho Chi Minh City

We began in Saigon. I say ‘Saigon’ because our guide told us on arrival, “We who live here always call it Saigon, not Ho Chi Minh City”. The name Ho Chi Minh City was imposed by the Communist government when Hanoi was named the country's capital after the Vietnam War. The romantic image of Saigon may linger in some of the celebrated hotels such as the Majestic and the Grand, but in most other respects you are plunged abruptly into the noise and pollution of the 21st century. There are ten million inhabitants in Saigon, said our guide, and seven million motorbikes!  When you attempt to cross a road in the city, you have the impression that all of them are hurtling towards you; but if you step without hesitation into the fray, the bikes swerve like birds or fish en masse, and seem unconcerned by your predicament, allowing you to reach the other side in one piece.

Motorbikes in Vietnam

Fruit stand and motorbikes, Vietnam

When you have had your fill of absorbing the horrors of war on exhibit in two or three of the main museums in Saigon, you can retire to Cholon, the old quarter where Chinese and others ply their trade in a bewildering maze of alleys and stalls. The Notre Dame Cathedral and the vast General Post Office are also worth visiting.

Notre Dame cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City

Notre Dame cathedral and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) skyline

The Park Hyatt, where we stayed, was a haven of peace and luxury with an outstanding restaurant, Square One. It was managed by a young Australian who described every dish in detail and recommended some marvellous food. The outdoor pool is large and surrounded by plenty of sun loungers.


Park Hyatt Saigon

When you land in Hué, half way up the long coastline of Vietnam, you have the impression that you are in the ‘real’ Vietnam, even if the ubiquitous (and, for Americans, notorious) red flag flutters from every monument.

The old citadel, Hue

Hue citadel (© Françoise Cowie)

The mood is relaxed and the avenues on the banks of the Perfume river are gracious and cool. Our hotel, La Résidence, a former governor's mansion, was a small miracle of restored art deco with marble floors and spacious public rooms.

La Residence Hotel and Spa, Hue

A magical evening had been conjured up for us by the local agency: we were driven at dusk to a discreet private house at the end of a slender driveway. At the gate, we were greeted by servants and presented to our host, Mr Vinh, and his charming wife Tu, a descendant of the Nguyen royal family. We were shown the house, with its traditionally furnished rooms, and then servants lit torches and braziers to keep the mosquitoes at bay as we ate, alfresco, in the central courtyard. The menu had been written out on a fan, presented to us proudly by Mr Vinh, and consisted of a succession of home-cooked dishes, each more flavoursome than the last. When the meal came to an end, our guide Ky arranged for two cheerful rickshaw cyclists to pedal us home through the balmy night to the hotel, along the Perfume river.

Cycle rickshaw vietnam

The author, Peter Cowie, in a cycle rickshaw (© Françoise Cowie)

The Fusion Maia Resort, on the coast midway between Da Nang and Hoi An, proved the perfect refuge in which to unwind for two days and to enjoy free treatments in the spa. All the rooms are quiet and sumptuous: a personal outdoor pool with terrace, a sitting area away from the bedroom, a walk-in shower, and a vast, sunken bath from which I feared I might never arise. As you stroll through the gardens down to the rolling surf, there is a massive outdoor pool, which is open from dawn to late at night.

Fusion Maia resort

Fusion Maia Resort, Da Nang

While we were eating on our second evening at Fusion Maia, a storm swept in from the sea and the palm trees swayed and hissed; we might have been in a story by Somerset Maugham.

In the picturesque town of Hoi An, we found that we could have clothes tailored inexpensively and at short notice. Once the prerogative of the merchants in Kowloon, this practice has spread throughout south-east Asia. In one of the best establishments, Be Be, we were measured carefully from top to tail and then asked to select our cloth or fabric from the hundreds of bolts on display. We returned after lunch the next day for a first fitting. Final adjustments were noted, and when we came back to our room at Fusion Maia after dinner, all we had ordered was laid out neatly on the sofa.

Thu Bon river, Hoi An

Thu Bon river, Hoi An

Our flights in Vietnam left on the dot, and the aircraft were modern and efficiently serviced. We landed in Hanoi on a rather murky morning, but the weather soon improved. We were quite unprepared for the elegance and old world charm of the city. It embodies the spirit of the former Indochina, with a strong French influence in the official buildings and especially in our hotel, the Sofitel Metropole. Chaplin and Graham Greene once wandered within its spotlessly maintained, cream-coloured walls and corridors.

Sofitel Metropole hotel, Hanoi

Sofitel Metropole hotel, Hanoi

In the early afternoon, we added the Museum of Art to our itinerary and discovered many excellent paintings from all periods of history. Not many tourists were in the galleries, but we would urge any independent traveller to visit the museum.

As we awaited the start of our water puppets show, we ambled along the banks of the Hoan Kiem lake and watched groups of young, middle-aged and elderly men working out, lifting weights, balancing on narrow beams or just unaffectedly bending and stretching. Then, inside a crowded theatre, the water puppets were manipulated underwater by concealed puppeteers to the accompaniment of live music and song. Unfortunately everyone was taking photographs, which meant that heads in front of you were bobbing this way and that. Nonetheless, a feast for the eyes.

Water puppet show, Vietnam

Water puppet show

Our final excursion was to Halong Bay, where you stay for a night and a day aboard a comfortable cruise vessel (ours had just 20 cabins) offering good food, amusing activities (learning how to cook Vietnamese-style!), and the occasional visit to some of the myriad islands that surge up from the sea in this miraculous location.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay

As the boat lay at anchor at dawn, we watched the sun rise into a cloudless sky – not only the crowning moment of our sojourn in Vietnam, but somehow the most romantic experience you could imagine.

Peter and Françoise Cowie travelled on a tailor-made tour to Vietnam. See more about holidays to Vietnam >

Dawn over Halong Bay

Sunrise over Halong Bay (© Françoise Cowie)

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