On the balcony of the Saigon Saigon Bar, the rainy season has just finished making its point. Fat droplets dangle from the railings, and my chair is wet — so wet the waitress arches an eyebrow at my decision to sit outside.
But I’m determined to enjoy the view, now the daily 6pm downpour has conquered the humidity. And when she slips back into the room, taking my order for a Journalist Juice cocktail (sugary grapefruit and a slug of vodka) with her, I’m left to contemplate the skyline of a vast city — and the complete failure of my expectations.
I’m drinking on the ninth floor of the Caravelle Hotel — a retreat where reporters used to seek alcoholic inspiration as they filed bleak missives from Vietnam’s dreadful 1970s. And yet, as I absorb my surroundings, I start to question whether the books are wrong — whether the US, in fact, won its war of misguided intervention. Within the bar, music of a star-striped variety — Lady Gaga, Katy Perry — blares from the speakers. By the door, an advert promotes the hotel’s Club Vegas casino. And out in the dark, neon signs declare the skyscraper presence of some of the Western world’s biggest banking corporations.
This is not the scene I’d anticipated in a metropolis so steeped in communist lore — all giant red flags and staunch ideology — that it has the official name Ho Chi Minh City.
In fact, it’s a shock to discover the 21st century shining so brightly in a country that endured a 20th century of such horror — a hundred years of hell that began with Vietnam tied to the fence under French rule, witnessed Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and threw in an independence struggle as France clung to its colony in the Fifties.
Then came the final kick in the teeth. In 1954, pending elections that would never happen, Vietnam was split into two: the North, a pocket of communism under revolutionary rabble-rouser Ho Chi Minh; the South, an enclave propped up by US money as America sought to halt the spread of a politics it feared. The inevitable war was brutal — and the victory of the North in 1975 brought no cheer, as the reunified Vietnam was stamped under a far-left jackboot.
But every night has its dawn, and Vietnam’s was its economic reforms, Doi Moi — a precursor to the Soviet Union’s perestroika — loosening the economic ligature that had choked the populace to the brink of starvation. Since the mid-Nineties, the country has grown strong on a diet of aid, investment and tourism. And the future, once a worthless concept, looms large and potentially prosperous (while wrapping itself around a past that’s never far away in a nation appreciative of its traditions). It would be a push to describe it as an Asian Tiger. But Vietnam might well be an Asian Tomcat: proud, poised, ready to leap.
A new era
In a city that everyone still calls Saigon, youthful urbanites buzz along the boulevard of Dong Khoi Street in motorbike swarms. On Dong Du Street, a post-work crowd finds refreshment at trendy ZanZBar. And at Pho 24, a popular chain of noodle restaurants, locals gulp spicy sustenance. I focus on my bowl of pho bo — a classic beef broth — as a Vietnamese woman in her twenties berates her jobless boyfriend (in English) at having to pay his mobile bill for him. “I get on my scooter and work all day so you can talk on your phone,” she spits.
It’s a thrill to walk in this city as a new era flexes its muscles — an era that’s already apparent in the fashion shops of Diamond Plaza. It also glints in the Bitexco Financial Tower, a 583ft glass monolith — helipad jutting from its flank — that thinks it’s in Dubai. And when I wander to the water and gaze at the east bank of the Saigon River, I realise I’m staring at yesterday. A new financial district is being built here. In five years, the defunct warehouses will have vanished, and all will gleam with money.
Of course, history is here too: in the grandiosity of Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, a 19th-century cathedral of irrepressible Gallic flamboyance; in the War Remnants Museum, where the 1970s are relived in stark photos of burning villages and dying soldiers; in the Cu Chi Tunnels, 20 miles northwest of the city in the hamlet of Ben Dinh, where guerillas dug themselves into the ground, sheltering from B-52 bombs in a dense subterranean network.
But it’s to another Vietnamese maze that I travel next, forging south into the labyrinthine waterways of the Mekong Delta. The journey seems to involve epic miles of ensnarement in stalled traffic (though in reality, maybe no more than 15) on the Trung Luong Highway before the city finally cedes to the majesty of Southeast Asia’s most significant river.
Here, paddy fields stretch out, and Vietnam’s love of its ancestry is clear in the family tombs strewn about the landscape. Sons of the soil laid to rest in the pastures where they toiled. Fervently green, this is a realm of agriculture and irrigation, unaltered in centuries.
Yet appearances deceive. For the Delta is the powerhouse of the national economy; so fertile it produces three harvests a year. Its munificence ensures that where, 30 years ago, Vietnam could barely manage subsistence levels of production, today it’s locked in a battle with Thailand and India to be the biggest exporter of rice on the planet.
Listen, and you can hear the results. When I hop onto a bicycle and ride through orchards and farmsteads, the prevailing sound is not the thwack of tools but the squall of karaoke systems through windows. Tunes, pumped out by these home-entertainment must-haves, drift on the breeze — evidence of disposable incomes amid this fruitful Eden.
To the north
Next comes a change of direction, as I flit north up the swerving S-shape of Vietnam’s thin torso. Some 400 miles away, Hoi An slumbers in retirement, a whirring cog of a different age. Pitched on the estuary of the Thu Bon River, this small port experienced a 16th century of wealth and taste; trade winds propelling Chinese and Japanese merchants across the South China Sea and into its inviting harbour.
Their ghosts still haunt its lanes — in the low-slung homes that were crafted as fortunes were made. At the west end of Tran Phu — the main drag — the Japanese Covered Bridge reeks of fallen empires, all peeling paint and creaking wood. Adjacent, the Cantonese Assembly Hall follows suit; carved dragons glaring, the air thick and fragrant.
But modernity intrudes. Smoke swirls from incense coils, hanging like oversized insect repellents from the ceiling. Each is accompanied by a prayer, scrawled on card. Some ask for health, the safe birth of a child. But many are monetary: requesting a plump bank account or the success of a business.
And Hoi An is not short of successful businesses. Tran Phu is loaded with them: cosy eatery Tam Tam Jardin, with its flower-filled courtyard; Yellow River Restaurant, where fans stir the afternoon heat as I revive over a beer; Yaly Couture, where tailors stand by to create a suit of your choice, doling out portfolios where the designs are pages torn from magazines — Matthew McConaughey leering in smart-casual, George Clooney doing black-tie serious.
On occasional street corners, the old ways refuse to die. Soviet-style information posters display communist caricatures. They’re all here, full of hope: the young mother; the patriotic soldier; the dedicated worker; the wise grandfather; the gifted child. But where once their adoring gaze would have been fixed on a billboard-sized portrait of Ho Chi Minh, today they stare out at hoardings displaying the five-star hotels flourishing a short boat ride away.
For 20 miles they dot the golden shore, bastions of über-accommodation, supplying luxury to an area that, 15 years ago, knew little more than fishermen’s dwellings. Some, like the elegant Nam Hai, deliver a style of spa glamour usually linked to the Seychelles. Some are still in preparation; a Banyan Tree resort near the village of Lang Co is due for completion later this year. Others have swish and swing. Two golf courses — always a sign the dollar has marched into town — preen next to Highway 1.
In the midst of this, Da Nang is all deja vu. Part of its seafront is China Beach, a stretch of sand where American GIs relaxed in the time when Vietnam’s third biggest conurbation was a US air base. The hangars and runways of this firestorm period are still here (in the hands of the Vietnamese military), but the brothels and grimy bars are not. Even so, Da Nang knows an incoming tide when it sees it. Its new air terminal, where I land for this part of my trip, opened last December, in anticipation of the city’s new role as a fly-and-flop hotspot.
Nonetheless, this glorious slice of coast has not yet been lost behind cranes and hard hats. Da Nang Bay — palm-fringed and magnificent — might be an Asian take on Rio’s iconic setting. And Highway 1 — an asphalt ribbon on the edge of the surf — is an equal of its Californian namesake, swooping and soaring as it weaves a path to the top of Hai Van Pass at the north end of the Bay. Here, the beauty is besmirched by a forgotten US machine-gun post; its concrete slits still suspiciously eyeing this once-crucial road.
As we drive, my guide, Hoang Trong Nhan, dips into memory. Born in central Vietnam, he was five when the South fell, and he can recall his family fleeing down Highway 1 as the North advanced — even taking to a boat and escaping briefly to sea. “I can still remember the sounds of artillery and seeing casualties at the side of the road,” he muses.
And yet he is remarkably calm about this episode, and says the majority of Vietnamese feel the same way. The divisions of 40 years ago have healed.
“As a country, we’re 70% Buddhist,” Hoang explains. “We’re taught about forgiveness and tolerance from a young age. We look at tomorrow, not yesterday.”
For all this, Hué, three hours north, must surely test the most patient of Vietnamese. The former capital, where the Nguyen kings built their 19th-century palaces, was hit hard by the war. This was partly due to its proximity (40 miles) to the ‘DMZ’ — the three-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, which kept the feuding siblings apart (and which, despite its name, was a pocket of mines and explosives). Hué hosted some of the worst fighting of 1968’s notorious Tet Offensive, when the North launched a nationwide Viper strike, and seized the regal landmark of the Imperial City. When I explore this UNESCO-listed site, currently being restored, the bullet holes scarring its masonry are still obvious.
Nor are these lone wounds. As we drive along the Perfume River, Hoang gestures at bald patch in the lush jungle. Immediately, I realise what this is — a remnant of America’s chemical contribution to the Vietnam conflict. A potent herbicide, Agent Orange was supposed to strip leaves from branches and give troops a clear sight of their guerilla foe. But it also burned skin from limbs, as well as stripping public support from the US cause.
Yet even here, green shoots have sprung up. In the past 20 years, the empty spaces have been filled; not, admittedly, with the mahogany, teak and ebony that once thrived here, but with fast-growing pine
This sense of recovery plays out elsewhere in Hué. DMZ is no longer a byword for despair, but the name of a busy bar where backpackers refuel with burgers and beers. And Ancient Hué is a splash of sophistication — a restaurant, hidden in a ‘secret’ garden, where aromatic soups, fragrant with coriander, and rich seafood dominate a menu of upmarket Vietnamese fare.
I’m unsure, on the day I fly in, if Hanoi will be as receptive to change. The Vietnamese capital was the hub of the country’s communist upsurge — and in many ways, still is. On Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh keeps an eternal eye on his power base; his tomb glowing an appropriate red as dusk descends. The former leader is visible in more benign form in the alleys of the Old Quarter — his face, mild of expression, pinned to every shop front (an antidote to the frowning soldiers outside the Citadel military complex at the city’s heart).
But peer closely, and Hanoi is quietly embracing 2012. On Cau Go, in the Old Quarter, the well-named store Propaganda Gallery cocks a snook at the last century, selling the very posters that once disseminated government rhetoric. On the leafy avenue of Dien Bien Phu, teenagers play badminton; their courts chalked onto pavements. And on the porch of an electronics store on the similarly broad Trang Thi, a group of men — all presumably on first-name terms with the security guard — are spending their evening watching Hollywood blockbuster Thor on a gigantic flatscreen.
I unearth my own twilight haven — a seat at the bar in Marilyn Cafe, in the maw of the French Quarter. Here, the country’s various eras collide again: a local girl tapping at her smartphone; the splendour of St Joseph Cathedral opposite; the noisy whirl of motorbikes beyond. The following day will ferry me east to a timeless natural wonder — Halong Bay and its limestone karsts. But for now, as Hanoi basks in a hot Saturday night, Vietnam’s present is fine enough.
Vietnam Airlines has the only direct services from the UK, with flights from Gatwick to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur from Heathrow; Singapore Air via Singapore from Manchester and Heathrow; Air France via Paris from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Heathrow, Newcastle and Manchester.
www.vietnamairlines.com www.malaysiaairlines.com www.singaporeair.com www.airfrance.co.uk
Average flight time: 12h.
Vietnam Airlines has a range of daily domestic flights, serving the likes of Da Nang. Vietnam Railways runs the 1,072-mile line between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, stopping at most major towns en route. www.vr.com.vn
When to go
The tropical weather is unpredictable. November-March is the dry season, but April, May and October may be the best months for sunshine and refreshing rain showers.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens require a 30-day, single-trip visa. www.vietnamembassy.org.uk
Health: Check with our GP about hepatitis A, typhoid and tetanus injections.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND).
£1 = VND33,000.
International dial code: 00 84.
Time difference: GMT +7.
Caravelle Hotel: www.caravellehotel.com
Grand Hotel Saigon: www.grandhotel.vn
The Nam Hai: www.thenamhai.com
Hoi An Riverside Resort & Spa: www.hoianriverresort.com
Hotel Saigon Morin: www.morinhotel.com.vn
Demantoid Hotel: www.demantoidhotel.com
The Rough Guide to Vietnam, by Jan Dodd, Ron Emmons, Mark Lewis and Martin Zatko. RRP: £15.99.
How to do it
Wendy Wu Tours offers the 18-day Vietnam Highlights, covering Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hué, Hanoi and Halong Bay, from £2,790 as a group; from £3,690 as private trip (including flights). www.wendywutours.co.uk
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)