Experiencing extraordinary growth over the last two decades, Vietnam is buzzing with vigor and vitality. As fleshy hallmarks of capitalism adorn its communist backbone, the country is in a remarkable and unique moment in time. Status logos, Ho Chi Minh posters, red hammer and sickle flags, orange-clad Buddhist monks, and chic new restaurants and bars coexist seamlessly.
Our four-stop itinerary is perfect for first time travelers as well as those with more experience since it covers both the essential spots and off-the-beaten-track gems – along with the most current deals to glean the most value.
Kick off a holiday in Hanoi, where hours may be spent wandering labyrinthine streets and watching the world whirl by (cars, mopeds, and rickshaws number in the zillions) under a banyan tree at a street café. In the heart of the romantic French Quarter, stay at Hotel Metropole, the legendary and uncontested favorite port of call for diplomats, artists, writers, and celebrities since it opened its doors in 1901.
Next, cruise amongst the limestone islands of Halong Bay, one of the world’s most magnificent natural wonders. After another night at the Metropole, catch a quick flight to Hué, the beautiful former seat of the Nguyen dynasty throne straddling the Perfume River. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the imperial city holds some of the nation’s most culturally significant sites.
From there, drive or take the train to Da Nang along the nation’s spectacular coastline to the charming jewel-box village of Hoi An for an adventure that combines luxurious beach pampering and one of Vietnam’s most unique shopping experiences.
Hotel Metropole: A Room with a View (and a Bunker and an iPad)
Long after Graham Greene penned The Quiet American in his suite at The Metropole, or Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard played hide and seek as newlyweds, or Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward sparred over rounds of Singapore Slings, the legendary, historic Hanoi hotel built its guests a war bunker.
The underground safe house once had been part of popular lore. Joan Baez climbed into the bunker during the massive Christmas bombing raids of 1972. And in the darkness, with an electrical fan blowing, she sang songs and Jane Fonda made her infamous radio speech, warning Nixon that the Vietnamese people weren’t about to compromise and that “he would do well to read Vietnamese history, particularly their poetry.” But the knowledge and the fate of the bunker was lost, or forgotten.
The Viet Minh Army built the 430-Square Foot space at the start of what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. And while U.S. Air Force pilots dropped bombs over the city, many an American guest was safely tucked away. Some old-timers understood the slight bulge at one end of the swimming pool pointed to its whereabouts, but no one ever thought to go hunting for it. Until recently, when engineers tried to sink pilings for the new Bamboo Bar and instead confronted the bunker’s ceiling, a one-foot-thick mass of reinforced concrete.
So they kept digging and soon they were able to access the eerie (and no doubt a bit stinky) shelter, where they found a dusty wine bottle, a light bulb, air ducts, and graffiti. And now the historic vault has been pried open, General Manager Kai Speth is determined to put the dark relic to good use, “if only as a museum that shines a light on ways and means of Vietnamese resistance during the war.”
While uncovering their past, the 111-year-old hotel is stepping into the high-tech future. Perhaps always on the cutting edge – the hotel hosted Indochina’s first movie screening in 1916, after all – The Metropole just outfitted all its suites with iPads. More iPads are found in the Club Lounge and at the Concierge Desk for guests to look up tours and information online, and in Angelina, the hotel’s Italian restaurant, so that diners may browse wine lists for the perfect vintage. Other techie additions include top-of-the-line Beosound 8 iPod and iPad docking sound systems and free Wi-Fi in all the hotel’s 364 rooms and suites. Ideally placed in the heart of the French Quarter, Metropole is within walking distance to lovely Hoan Kiem Lake, the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, night markets, and Ngoc Son temple
Rates at Hotel Metropole start at $235/night. Look for specials on their website, such as five nights for the price of four and discounts on two-week advance bookings; www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi
Emeraude Cruise Offers a Discounted Package to Explore the Incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site
Cruising through Halong Bay, past its jagged limestone islands rising from the jade water like pinnacles of a dragon’s tail, is a moment you’ll never forget. One of the great natural wonders of the world, the UNESCO-recognized World Heritage bay is a place of mystical, unimaginable beauty. And throughout the day, as the light and mist change, the scenery unfolds like a movie – and you won’t want to miss one frame.
Now, 34-cabin Emeraude, the most luxurious (and heartwarmingly nostalgic) way to explore the spectacular site is offering a rare discounted package. And the story behind the old-timey ship is as romantic as the ride itself. Thirteen years ago, during a trip to a Paris flea market, young French entrepreneur Eric Merlin spotted a postcard of a steamboat bearing the name “Emeraude” and dated 1919. And he became obsessed. Yearning to recreate the boat – and in turn, a bygone colonial-era of glamour, romance, and discovery – he commissioned boat builders to bring her back to life. In the meantime, he set out to find its original owner, a quest that took him from Paris to Halong Bay to Aix-en-Provence and back to Vietnam.
Armed with only a last name – Roque – he wrote a letter to each and every Roque in the country. There were 1,220 of them. Finally, the grandson of the Emeraude’s original owner Paul Roque replied, welcoming Merlin to his home where, lo and behold, in the middle of his apartment, was an antique model of the object of his obsession. Also in Roque’s possession were the boat’s original china and silverware along with a 100-year-old staff uniform.
Clearly, with this level of dedication and love, the ship’s craftsmanship, attention to detail, and service are all top-notch. And cruising in the Emeraude and its wood-paneled cabins and elegantly appointed dining areas, is like going back in time. Very much in modern times, however, are fun cooking and tai chi classes, sumptuous massages, and fine dining. Every day, expeditions leave to explore fantastical grottoes, caves, beaches, and floating villages.
Getting to Halong Bay from Hanoi is easy, too. Just jump into Emeraude’s swank Mercedes mini bus and relax as you pass through the Vietnam countryside for a very comfortable three-hour trip . . . and of course, they drop you back to Hanoi to continue your Vietnam adventure (for a fee).
The “Dragon’s Year Package for Cruise and Gourmet Aficionados” package starts at $433 and includes a one-night cruise for two, all on-board meals, round-trip transfer from Hanoi, welcome cocktail, plus two exclusive gourmet lunches at Hanoi’s premium fine dining venue, the Press Club. The offer is valid through December 2012. For more details, visit www.emeraude-cruises.com, call 011-84-4-3935-1888, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hué and La Résidence Hôtel & Spa: An Imperial City and Former Governor’s Art-Deco Mansion
From Hanoi, go south to beautiful Hué, an imperial city that reigned as the nation's capital under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) flies direct from Hanoi, multiple times daily. The flight is approximately one hour and one-way tickets run around $85 for economy or $105 for business class.
Encircled by green mountains and crisscrossed with rivers, the lovely and harmonious city is one of the most culturally significant sites in the country. Incredibly, despite intense bombing raids during the Vietnam War, most historic monuments and architecture survived, and recent and extensive restorations are returning the landmarks to their former glory. And like Halong Bay, Hué's complex of imperial tombs, pagodas, and palaces has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of the best ways to discover the city’s fascinating treasures is to take a boat down the Perfume River or to bicycle from site to site. At night, be sure to arrange an excursion to hear a Royal Court Music concert. Recognized by UNESCO as having important intangible value, the music is unique to the city and, thanks to recent preservation efforts, it’s been kept alive for generations to come.
The best base from which to explore happens to be the best hotel in town: La Résidence Hôtel & Spa, a magnificent Indochine-era residence along the banks of the Perfume River. With views of the historic Citadel, the three-story 1930 Art Deco masterpiece was built originally as the home of the French governor. Set in lush gardens, the hotel has 122 guest rooms and suites featuring elegant colonial period antiques, and some even have swoon-worthy claw-foot tubs. (Tip: Request a room or suite with a river view.)
In between cultural jaunts throughout the city, return to the hotel to relax within the sanctuary of this heavenly place – have a swim at the saltwater pool, take a treatment at the luxurious spa, or have a cocktail or a cigar in the nostalgic Agatha Christie-style lobby bar. The hotel also has one of the most sought out dining experiences, at its restaurant Le Parfum, which serves fresh seasonal Vietnamese fare, and off-site, offers cooking lessons and catered river cruises and Imperial dinners in the Citadel. The restaurant’s morning buffet breakfast is famous for its range and deliciousness. (Make sure you ask the chef to cook the local specialty Bun Hué noodles to order.)
Rates at La Résidence Hôtel & Spa start at $153/night, including breakfast and taxes; www.la-residence-hue.com
A Heartbreakingly Quaint Town and the Luxury of the Nam Hai
From Hué, get ready for one of Vietnam's most breathtaking routes, past the gorgeous coastline and historic sites to the jewel box city of Hoi An. Either hire a private transfer, rent a car, or take a train to this perfectly preserved ancient merchant town, one of Southeast Asia’s busiest ports of commerce from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
As if sunken in amber, the village retains its historic pagoda architecture and atmosphere, buzzing vibrantly along the banks of the Thu Bon River where families gather on long shallow boats and across the quaint Japanese covered bridge, doused in lights, colors, and people on mopeds and bikes.
Among its many charms, Hoi An is famous for its tailors. You can get anything from coats and suits to dresses and shoes made here with good quality fabrics and decent to very good craftsmanship in lightning fast speeds. (How about a nice reversible silk jacket finished in an afternoon, for less than $20?)
As the crow flies, the distance from Hué to Hoi An is about 65 miles and a road trip should take about three hours, depending on the stops you make along the way. We recommended eschewing the tunnel and taking the long way through the Hai Van Pass, a mountain byway known for its romantic misty scenery caused by vapors rising from the Pacific. Or take the train for a memorable adventure that hugs the coastline. Several trains pass daily from Hué to Da Nang (the beach GIs famously called “China Beach”), which is less than 20 miles north of Hoi An. (Check the schedules at www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm)
Twenty minutes outside of Hoi An is the ultra fabulous, ultra luxury Nam Hai resort where villas are made to look and feel like royal pavilions made of gorgeous polished stone and dark varnished wood. French windows open onto shaded terraces where lounging on daybeds and pondering the lush gardens and sandy beach is a legitimate way to spend a day. On the other side of the villa is a lush garden that doubles as a large outdoor shower space. Inside, a raised platform in the center holds the large dreamy bed, and behind it, a sumptuous lacquered eggshell bath. It’s certainly easy to imagine the royal lifestyle here. Spread out over the beach, pool, and garden areas, there are 100 villas, differing in size from one to five bedrooms.
Beyond the sweet villa life, Nam Hai has captivating virtues. Three restaurants vary in menu and formality. The casual beach eatery serves pizzas, fresh salads, sushi, and sashimi, as well as regional dishes such as grouper in banana leaf with spicy paste and Hoi An-style steamed shrimp dumplings. Dinners at the main restaurant are formal and world-class. Blending traditional Indian with more contemporary cuisine, menus include red snapper with saffron and anis-carrot emulsion, fois gras “au torchon” with mango-Riesling relish and spiced brioche, and lamb vindaloo with spicy curry, red onion, and coconut milk.
Other facilities include three swimming pools; a sporting complex with tennis, badminton, and fitness center; a beautiful sandy beach; and a spa that sits in its own lotus-filled lagoon and offers massages (shiatsu, Thai, Swedish, Balinese, Hawaiian lomi lomi techniques) and treatments, from ultra-pampering body polishes to healing wraps using all natural ingredients and always starting with a soothing foot soak.
Standard rates at the hotel start at $650/night for a one-bedroom villa, but newlyweds are given the VIP treatment with the hotel’s special Honeymoon Package. Packed with extras, it includes daily buffet breakfast for two; roundtrip transfer; a private beach BBQ with one bottle of Dom Perignon and cake; one-hour Vietnamese massages for two; a “love bath” ceremony; a dedicated shopping butler to accompany you to Hoi An; and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages in the minibar. Package rates are $755/night for a one-bedroom villa; $905/night for a one-bedroom Beachfront Villa; and $1,105/night for a one-bedroom Pool Villa; available through December 20.
Pool Villa guests (either under the Honeymoon Package or not) receive even more benefits such as complimentary transfers to Hoi An and Da Nang; private butler service; daily afternoon tea in the villa; complimentary laundry service (except dry cleaning); complimentary in-room mini-bar offering drinks and snacks; and pre-dinner drinks and snacks served daily within the villa, along with daily buffet breakfasts for two. www.thenamhai.com