There are lots of good reasons for wanting to visit Vietnam. Some, like Ariel Palacios Rodríguez, who is to Argentina what Michel Roux Jr is to the UK – which is to say, a famous chef with a TV series of his own – come to explore the buzzy markets and the food. Some, like the Canadian we met while sharing bánh xèo pancakes at the Tra Que village outside Hôi An, come because they want to introduce two of their 12 (that’s right, 12) adopted “boat” children to their ancestral lands. Some, mostly former GIs, come to expunge the ghosts of a terrible war. And some, the sybarites, come to bliss out in Vietnam’s legendary seas and to roam its beaches. For the country is long. Very long. Its almost absurdly photogenic coastline stretches for some 3,260km and is dotted with seductive bays and a growing band of haute-luxe hotels that offer the ultimate treat: the chance to spill out straight from bed onto a sandy beach and into a postcard-perfect sea.
Back in grey and soggy Britain, this was what I had been dreaming of: the sun on my skin, the sun glinting on the sea, the sun high in the sky – and miles and miles of sandy beaches. What we got (in January) was what some said was the chilliest winter for 30 years. Up in Hanoi it was snowing. At the Banyan Tree Lang Co resort in central Vietnam, midway between two of the country’s most charming cities, Hué and Hôi An, we arrived to find the clouds heavy and the rain pouring down. This is a delightful resort right on the coast, with the forested Truòng Son mountains behind it and with many of its 49 own-pool villas and 17 beach-pool villas looking out over the South China Sea, which Vietnam these days prefers to call the East Sea. Outside our lovely room, our swimming pool was being doused with rain and beyond the dripping foliage the sea churned brown and angry onto a sandy beach. I very nearly cried. Management sent a heater to cheer us up. The gym, spa and yoga provided some solace and the resort’s splendid Saffron restaurant even more – it was the most stunning food of our whole trip (although it turned out to be Thai: deep-fried soft-shell crab, banana-blossom salad, salmon and pomelo salad). But chilling out didn’t seem an attractive option. We had to do something. Which meant discovering a little of the living, throbbing, real Vietnam.
We ventured into the nearby Imperial City of Hué, once the capital but these days a slightly crumbling, provincial place. It runs along the banks of the Song Huong, the Perfume River, and it was here that we found that it wasn’t possible to be in Vietnam for long without feeling a sense of sorrow for all that its people have been through. Hué’s most glorious historical building, its citadel, which was built during the reign of the Emperor Gia Long after the fashion of Beijing’s Imperial City, is but a shadow of the place it must once have been. The North Vietnamese Army used it as a base during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and its innermost sanctum, the Purple Forbidden City – where only the emperor and the royal family could live – was almost completely destroyed. Everywhere the walls are still marked by bullet holes. But as it is being slowly restored, one gets a glimpse of the splendour of the old imperial life and it’s worth a good, long wander. There are temples, the Royal Antiquities Museum, the Nguyen Tombs – vast imperial tombs on either side of the Song Huong, where seven emperors were laid to rest. Best of all perhaps is just absorbing the day-to-day life of the city. Eat in one of the many little places serving pho (noodle soup), which costs all of about $4 and is an instant lesson in how to take simple ingredients and add magic with an array of spices and herbs.
In Hôi An, a few hours’ drive further south, there is an unmissable chance to immerse yourself further in the culinary culture of the country. There, the wonderful Miss Vy, a self-assured, successful businesswoman, has a small chain of restaurants, and she also offers an accompanied trip to the market (highly recommended –it’s where I met the charming Rodríguez, his wife and four children), followed by a cookery lesson in The Market Restaurant. Miss Vy is a star and a wonderful paradigm for modern Vietnam. She remembers the hard times (“If you lost your food coupons, you didn’t eat”), but she saw that “the biggest capital in our family was the cooking skills we’d inherited”, from which she built a mini-culinary empire. She provides a bubbly commentary as she teaches us to make cabbage-leaf parcels of shrimp mousse in broth, barbecued chicken and lime leaves, a mango salad with prawns and crispy bánh xèo pancakes with pork, prawns and bean sprouts – all light, healthy and delicious, offering up lots of ideas to take back home.
Hôi An is also renowned for its tailors – I went into Thong Loi at 92 Phan Chu Trinh Street one afternoon and two days later they dropped off three pairs of impeccably copied trousers at my hotel down the coast. And it’s the perfect city for merely ambling or cycling around. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, with an enthralling Old Quarter to explore, filled with tiny boutiques – usually carved out of old historic houses – selling some surprisingly attractive wares. A two-hour drive away is the must-see My Son, which was once the centre of the ancient Champa kingdom that flourished for hundreds of years from around the second century AD. Although the temple ruins have nothing like the splendour of Angkor Wat, they are adorned with Hindu and Buddhist carvings and there is about them a curiously compelling aura. My Son is surrounded by hills covered with pristine woodland and gives one some idea of the complexity of the cultures that have gone into making modern Vietnam.
We also wanted to visit My Lai, scene of the most infamous of Vietnam war incidents. It is about three hours by car from Hôi An. We found it moving beyond words. The massacre has been meticulously mapped and beautifully memorialised. You should spend at least an hour or two wandering round – it is, of course, suffused with sadness, a vivid and sobering reminder of the terrible things that war does to both sides.
But to discover all these things, you need somewhere to stay, and today, the beautiful stretch of coast between Da Nang and Hôi An has several wonderfully sophisticated new hotels from which to choose. Fusion Maia focuses on wellness, although it doesn’t harp on about it. On every menu are healthy-eating options and included in the room rate are two spa or beauty treatments every single day, as well as lots of yoga, breathing, meditation and other life-enhancing classes from its Natural Living Programme. It has 87 villas, each with a pool of its own, and apart from being right on a glorious beach, it has another vast swimming pool, a gym and a fantastic spa, with about 80 different therapists.
Nearby, just a little further along the coast and overlooking the very same sea, is The Nam Hai. The 100 individual villas have a crisp and elegant style, with all the comforts even the pickiest could hope for (ask for one of the villas giving right onto the beach), and there are three beachfront swimming pools, as well as the sea to bask in. Its restaurants had some of the best food of our stay, offering fabulous breakfasts (resist the eggs and bacon and try the Vietnamese broths) and western as well as Vietnamese options at lunch and dinner. From both The Nam Hai and Fusion Maia, you can make excursions to My Son, Hôi An, My Lai and the nearby Tra Que village for its fantastic bánh xèo pancakes and its extraordinary organic garden.
Down south (we flew from Da Nang to Nha Trang), there has been much excitement over the arrival of the first Aman hotel in Vietnam – the Amanoi. Its 31 pavilions and five villas, all echoing the indigenous architecture, have brilliantly modern interiors and are strewn around the 103-acre estate, which sits in the Núi Chúa National Park, overlooking Vinh Hy Bay. Here, you leave your worldly troubles behind and check into a timeless, pampered, alternative universe, where you have little to do except gaze at the extraordinary views, pondering on which massage to have and whether you’ll eat at the restaurant down on the small beach or up in the main one with the spectacular cliff-top views. For the active, there is a quite splendid gym, yoga and Pilates, sailing, kayaking and snorkelling and tennis courts, on which I pressed the athletic Aaron (in charge of the gym and Pilates) into service as my practice partner. This is serious luxe at a serious price where you are unlikely to bump into any of modern-day Vietnam’s more challenging realities.
Along the same coast is the Mia Resort Nha Trang, which is carved out of an extraordinary hillside site. With 50 rooms, one newly launched five-bedroom villa, The Residence – all overlooking a small and charming beach – and a good little gym, it is excellent value ($230 per room per night, including a great breakfast in high season). It also has the great advantage of being within easy reach of Nha Trang, a very lively seaside resort, rather overrun with tourists but nevertheless pulsating with Vietnam’s daily life, where small restaurants offer extraordinary value for money and where the working fishing villages are well worth a visit.
The thing about luxury-resort hotels is that they are awfully bewitching. It takes an effort to peel oneself off the deckchair. Use them as very luxurious pit stops to relax between more energetic forays into the life of the cities, which is where the real interest lies. Plan carefully the time of year. I longed to be there in better weather, so that just once I could get the cossie on and plunge straight into the sea from all those lovely beachside villas. March to June would be the ideal time to go.
Vietnam is a deeply devout country that is much influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism. The vast majority of the inhabitants – Christians and Buddhists alike – practise some form of ancestor worship. They are a very gentle, forgiving people. A young South Vietnamese hotel receptionist’s take on the civil war was that “Uncle” Ho and the northerners had come down south to free them, bringing with them food, medicines and solicitude. Confucius and his saying “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses” seem ingrained in the national psyche. Most Vietnamese have real or folk memories of terrible times when they needed coupons for meagre rations, and so now that the good times are here, the gratitude is immense. All this – its complex history, its peoples, its scooter-filled cities, its great culinary traditions – makes Vietnam a beguiling place to visit.
But it’s not for everybody. At the airport, I met a couple who couldn’t wait to leave. The chaos, the traffic, the poverty, they said, had ground them down. But I can’t wait to go back. Next time around, I want to spend more time moseying about in the cities – in Hanoi, in particular – and after that there are the hill tribes to visit, the southern islands to explore. Vietnam can’t be encompassed in a fortnight. But in the meantime, as I plot and plan back home, I’ve got a serious bánh xèo addiction to attend to.