An intoxicating mix of city and beach, Vietnam is a dream come true for holidaymakers seeking the best of both worlds
Words Fiona Brandhorst
Long haul thrill seekers are spoilt for choice when it comes to holidaying in Southeast Asia. But Vietnam is ramping up its offering of combined city and beach breaks designed to showcase its unique heritage. Ho Chi Minh City was renamed 40 years ago after its revolutionary leader but still affectionately called Saigon by locals. It is now accessible through a 12 hour non-stop flight with Vietnam Airlines, flying three times a week to the cosmopolitan metropolis.
My first stop is Saigon, a city of nine million people, six million of whom own a moped. Piled high with goods and chattels, riders and their pillion passengers make their journeys with ease. This provides endless photo opportunities. I’m glad to have the services of an experienced driver who works his way through the traffic. We head away from the city to the Mekong Delta, home to a further 18 million people, for my first night in this incredible country.
We arrive at the luxury Victoria Can Tho Resort, set in lush tropical gardens on the bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong. There’s time for a relaxing swim before retreating to my French colonial-style bedroom. Many of Vietnam’s hotels are excellent copies of original colonial architecture.
By seven the next morning, I’m aboard the Mekong Princess. It’s an elegant wooden cruiser where I eat breakfast and catch the bustle of the Cai Rang wholesale fruit and vegetable floating market. Vendors live on their wooden barges, moored in the centre of the river, and vie for business, each with a sample of their produce displayed on a long pole.
The Victoria Resort also offers overnight cruises on its romantic Song Xanh houseboats, moored at the secluded Le Longanier restaurant in the village of Cai Be. We stop for lunch to sample the local fried “elephant ear” fish.
Back in Saigon I check in to the sanctuary of the Park Hyatt Hotel. The suites feature the latest technology such as in-room iPads and Nespresso machines. My suite overlooks the lush gardens and pool. Before dinner in the hotel’s Square One restaurant, I enjoy a 90-minute full body massage in the hotel’s Xuan Spa.
The best way to discover Saigon is on foot or on the back of a Vespa scooter. Ruled by the French from 1887 to the mid-1950s, many of Saigon’s original colonial buildings remain. From the Notre Dame Cathedral to the imposing former Central Post Office building. History buffs will appreciate a tour of The Independence Palace, the former headquarters of the South Vietnam Government.
Le Loi street leads to the tourist shopping magnet of the famous Ben Thanh Market. The stalls are piled high with cheap souvenirs and clothing. The Vincom Shopping centre, however, is the place to head for luxury designer stores. The scale of Saigon’s urban sprawl can really be appreciated from the 49th floor Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower. It has stunning 360 degree, far reaching views. At night the EON Heli Bar up another three levels is one of Saigon’s most impressive cocktail venues.
For the final leg of my trip, I catch a 40-minute flight to Vietnam’s newest island retreat of Phu Quoc to stay at the boutique beach-side La Veranda Spa Resort. My spacious apartment-style suite with a private veranda features a huge four poster bed. Luckily I don’t spy any unwelcome midges during my stay.
The day starts with yoga on the terrace followed by a choice of holistic treatments at the Le Spa. It’s a world away from the clatter of Saigon. The most taxing decisions are whether to swim in the pool or be served dinner by the award-winning Pepper Tree restaurant. The nearby town of Duong Dong boasts a bustling night market and a host of bars and seafood restaurants. By day there are trips to the cooling Suoi Tranh waterfalls and traditional fishing village of Ham Ninh.
As I leave Vietnam I’m reminded of the beautiful Lotus flower, the country’s national emblem, symbolising commitment and optimism. Good qualities for a country set on welcoming more tourists to its shores.
SOUTH VIETNAM TOURS
Vietnam Airlines offer nonstop flights to Vietnam from Heathrow to Hanoi or Saigon. Bespoke travel experts Experience Travel Group offer seven-night holidays from £2,101 per adult. This includes two nights at the Park Hyatt Saigon, two nights at the Victoria Can Tho and three nights at La Veranda, Phu Quoc.