Vietnam has plenty to offer both within and outside its buzzing cities, as Ronan O'Connell discovers.
Humans have five senses. Right now, each one of mine is being stimulated in a pleasing manner. The sight before me is majestic, with the illuminated skyline of Ho Chi Minh City glowing in the night. The touch of a cold beer bottle is welcome in the sweltering tropical heat. The taste of freshly made shrimp and pork spring rolls is lingering pleasantly in my mouth. The smell of green lip mussels is wafting up from my plate, offering the promise of further culinary delight. All the while, the gentle sound of jazz music is soothing my soul as I sit having dinner at the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar of the historic Caravelle Hotel.
This bar barely has changed since 1959 when the Caravelle became the first large luxury hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
Back then, this tall, modern structure was out of place in an otherwise low-rise and old-fashioned city. Now every direction I look from this 10th-storey bar I see clusters of towering skyscrapers, many of which have been built only in the past decade. In that time, I have watched Vietnam zoom into the future at an astonishing pace. While in Perth, we’re used to any significant changes to the cityscape taking many years, here in Vietnam they occur in a matter of months.
This rampant modernisation has had many drawbacks. It is a highly complicated issue. But what it has done, from the perspective of an Australian tourist, is create Vietnamese cities which have a wonderful balance between the old and the new, the exotic and the recognisable. My experience of dining at the Caravelle was a distinctly Western one. It was luxurious and refreshing after an exhausting day spent exploring the timeworn and chaotic neighbourhood of Cholon, the fascinating Chinese district of Ho Chi Minh City.
This ability to pair foreign adventure with common comfort is one of the key advantages of Vietnam as tourism destination. At any moment, based on your mood, Vietnam can be as familiar or as alien as you want it to be. Not many places in the world strike this balance so well. In cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Hue or Hoi An, for example, you can leave the lobby of your chic new hotel and within minutes be surrounded by incense smoke as locals kneel in prayer in an ancient Confucian temple. You can finish a silver service meal at a Michellin-starred restaurant and then walk down a nearby alley for a sweet corn pudding served by a street vendor.
Now I’ve brought up the topic of food, it must be explored. Were I to try to describe in detail the standard of food in Vietnam, this article would become one long smear of adjectives. Whether eating juicy grilled pork from a mobile vendor in a park, spicy banh mi sandwiches from a hole-in-a-wall restaurant, or plump banh xeo shrimp crepes from an up-market venue, very rarely will you have a disappointing meal in Vietnam. You also won’t have to worry about heading home in possession of those dreaded holiday kilos — the food in Vietnamese is mostly fresh and healthy.
At first, you can’t quite believe that this is true, so good does the food taste. But this is the reality. It’s nice.
Vietnam, it must be said, has plenty to offer outside of its buzzing cities. Head south from Ho Chi Minh City and you find yourself amid the natural splendour of the Mekong Delta, blessed by dense forest, winding rivers and seemingly endless rice paddies. Head north and you can go inland to the pretty highlands around Dalat, or hug the coast and revel in the clean, beaches of Mui Ne and Nha Trang.
Further north, you can be swallowed up by the earth at reputedly the world’s largest caves at Hang Son Doong.
Continue in the same direction to Tam Coc, where boat tours take you floating through caves along a river, which is flanked by some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country. Or to the top of Vietnam, where hill tribes live in the villages of Sapa. Surely you’re convinced by now? Vietnam has it all.